Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Extreme Self Isolation Training

Below is an excerpt from a post that appeared at The Martial Way blog about the extreme self isolation training undergone by the legendary Mas Oyama. He was famous for this. The full post may be read here.

With everyone in most parts of the world in quarantine and self-isolation, people are looking for inspiration everywhere to train. Separated from the dojo many are lost, and looking to online classes, trainers, methods and inspiration. Feeling anxious by what is happening, and confused with what to do at home.
As Kyokushin students we should draw our inspiration from the founder, Sosai Mas Oyama, who didn’t do a few of weeks of self-isolation in his quest to develop Kyokushin. He did years!
In 1946, Masutatsu Oyama met Eiji Yoshikawa, the author of the novel Musashi, which was based on the life and exploits of Japan’s most famous Samurai, Miyamoto Musashi. 

Thanks to this book and the writer, Mas Oyama begins to understand the profound meanings of the Samurai Bushido Code, and ultimately shaped his own philosophy on martial arts.
Influenced by Nei-chu So, his friend and Sensei in Goju-ru, and the writing of Yoshikawa, Mas Oyama decided to withdraw from social life and live in solitude for a period of 3 years and dedicate his time completely to the intense training of body and mind, as Musashi did in his lifetime.
Oyama would travel to Minobu mountain, the same place where Musashi created Nito-ryu kenjitsu, in the Chiba Prefecture. Mas Oyama was only 23 years old at the time. In his opinion this would be the perfect place to start his severe training of body and mind that he had planned for himself. He set off, a student name Yashiro accompanied him, and assisted by a friend who provided them with the monthly food supplies, they went to the wilderness to train.

The relative solitude was strongly felt, and after 6 months, Yashiro secretly fled during the night. It became even harder for Oyama, who wanted more than ever to return to civilisation. So Nei Chu wrote to him that he should shave off an eyebrow in order to get rid of the urge. Surely he wouldn’t want anyone in public to see him that way! This and other more moving words convinced Oyama to continue, and he resolved to become the most powerful karate-ka in Japan.
After 14 months of training, his sponsor and friend sent a message to Oyama that he could no longer help him with his monthly food supplies. Due to this Oyama stoped his training and returned to civilization.

A few months later, in 1947, Mas Oyama participated in the Karate division of the “1st Japanese National Martial Arts Championships” after WWII and won. After this victory Oyama decided to dedicate the rest of his life to karate and again return to the wilderness for training.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Steal the Technique

At the Kogen Budo blog, Ellis Amdur discusses the traditional method of teaching a martial art: "Stealing the Technique." An excerpt is below. The full post may be read here.

Any modern sports science expert would cringe at the instructional methodology of classical traditions. The traditional method is often referred to as waza o nusumu (‘steal the technique’). It could also be termed, ‘learning by osmosis.’ An extreme example of this can be found in my recollection of account of a traditional Ainu midwife. She said that she attended births from the time she was a little girl. Her mother had her sit directly behind her throughout the entire birth. All she could see was her mother’s back. One day, when she was a teenager, without warning, her mother said, “You birth this one.” To repeat, she had never seen the birthing process itself, merely observed the movements of her mother’s back, shoulder and arms many hundreds of times. She stated that she simply reenacted those movements, which she had been doing in sympathy for most of her life as she observed her mother – the birth went smoothly and it was the beginning of the rest of her life.

Koryu bujutsu is primarily taught through kata. These are not, generally speaking, the one-person solo choreography that is so common in Chinese martial arts (they do exist in some Japanese arts, by the way; they are just not so common). Instead, these are almost exclusively two-person pattern drills, in which chains of lethal techniques are linked together, done in such a way that the multiple finishing blows are redirected (through management of space, timing or target) so that one’s reflexes are trained as if in a melee: fighting multiple opponents in a single engagement. Thus, although the drill is only among two persons, each exchange is, theoretically against a successive opponent.

The training partners are broken down into senior and junior practitioners, referred to by a number of different names, depending on the martial tradition. To use one set of terms: shitachi (‘doing sword’) and uchitachi (‘attacking sword’), the shitachi is usually the junior of the two practitioners, and (at least viewed) as the lesser in skill. The shitachi role in these two-person pattern drills is to learn how to kill using the techniques/weapons of the school. 

The uchitachi, usually the senior, has the responsibility of utilizing his/her knowledge of how to kill, to challenge the shitachi to the peak of his or her capabilities. The uchitachi is not a practice dummy – rather, s/he is also training killing tactics, but is expected to hold himself/herself apart at the same time, to gauge what the shitachi needs to learn. (And instruction, which could include a counter-technique, a blow to the body, wrist or head could be a remarkably harsh lesson). At advanced levels, kata can be ‘broken,’ or overlaid with other kata so that one approaches ‘live training’ from a variety of angles. It is not true that the essence of classical Japanese martial arts was always a rote reenactment of pattern drills, with no element of chance or danger within the practice, even though that is what the vast majority of classical traditions have defaulted to in this present age.

Nitta Suzuyo, the 18th generation headmistress of Toda-ha Buko-ryu, practiced for a number of years, not only with her teacher, Kobayashi Seio, but also with several seniors. She only practiced the shitachi side of the school’s kata, learning the complete curriculum. 

After Kobayashi sensei was felled by a stroke, Nitta sensei became the next headmistress and was now responsible for teaching, her seniors being regarded by Kobayashi sensei as not being suitable to the role. Nitta sensei now had to take on the uchitachi role with all her students, even though she had never practiced it. However, she was so attuned to Kobayashi sensei that by her own account, she knew exactly what to do at every moment of the kata as she had been mirroring her teacher, and on an unconscious level, not only ‘mapping’ what Kobayashi sensei was doing, but learning an exquisite sensitivity of response to everything she did. It was as if her consciousness was in the kata itself – rather than just within her own body, it permeated the ‘shared body’ of the two of them while practicing.

It is very likely that this type of learning is dependent on mirror neurons, nerve cells in the brain that fire when acting oneself as well as when observing another person’s actions (the reader will note from the linked article that this is a very complex scientific issue, and we are more at the level of discussing a number of plausible theories, rather than any definitive data).  It is believed that this is how babies learn the incredibly complex information of how to function within their bodies like humans in such a short time, their nervous system firing in sympathy with that of their parents and siblings as they move and act. Mirror neurons do not atrophy as we age, but for most of us, we tend to learn though other means: conscious copying, intellectualization, analysis, etc., so that we are not as easily imprinted as a baby. 

There is a particular ‘unbarriered’ intimacy between parent/sibling and baby, whereas the autonomy we acquire to achieve maturity and individuation gets in the way of a pure response. One is ‘infected’ by one’s caregivers – I’ve seen my son do a gesture that I got from my father and he from his mother. All without any verbal instruction; it’s a particular touch of a finger on and around the nose when being contemplative – the only reason I am aware of this is my father saw me do it and told me his mother did it too. She died before I was born.

The paradox is that we usually conflate intimacy (unbarriered communication) with love. Yet, there can be a profound intimacy among people who hate each other, or are otherwise in an adversarial relationship. Intimacy can be created through a shared cause, through loyalty to something (including a tradition one studies) and there is a particular intimacy that can occur in power differentiated relationships, if the ‘beta’ in the relationship is not over-invested in protecting himself/herself from the alpha. The Japanese term for the latter is nyunanshin, a kind of pliable willingness to be influenced.

When we examine how one learns in a classical art, we usually imagine this process – where the instructor gives little to no verbal explanation and just requires the repeated enactment of a kata (pattern) – to be a slow and gradual. Thus, the metaphor I use of learning by osmosis is a good one. Bit-by-bit, the knowledge seeps into you, bypassing intellectualization and self-observation. One learns like a baby learns to maneuver food into her mouth with chopsticks or a spoon – only slower. And this is borne out in the interminable length of time it takes people to learn a classical art (and honestly, most do not learn it fully – there is far more mediocrity than mastery).

Monday, March 23, 2020

Book Review: In the Presence of Cheng Man Ching

One of the original NYC students of Cheng Man Ching, and a well known martial artist in the NY area, Bill Phillips, recently wrote In the Presence of Cheng Man Ching: My Life and Lessons with the Master of Five Excellences published by Floating World Press.

I love these kinds of books, especially those that have to do with the early days of Cheng Man Ching in New York, because my own taijiquan teacher was one of Mr. Phillips' classmates.

It is a beautifully produced book, with many pictures from Mr. Phillips' and his associate's private collections that have not previously been published.

He recalls a time that martial arts in general were not widely known and internal Chinese martial arts specifically was only a legend. He studied first judo and jujutsu, then karate (eventually achieving a 7th dan), then finally began to study Taijiquan.

I loved the stories about those days. Cheng Man Ching was very much a traditional Chinese gentleman who was determined to bring the fruits of Chinese high culture to a real mixed bag of American students; pretty much divided between martial artists and hippies.

When talking about Cheng Man Ching's days in New York, names that are frequently mentioned are Stan Israel and Lou Klinesmith. We've heard the names, but know very little about the men. Mr. Phillips was close to both of them and we get a real sense of who they were are human beings and as martial artists.

One of the things that I appreciate the most about this book is the authors' generosity in clearly passing along some of the lessons he has learned both in his tutelage under Cheng Man Ching and from decades of martial arts practice and teaching.

I truly enjoyed this book and I think that you will as well.

Friday, March 20, 2020

The 48 Laws of Power, #32: Play to People's Fantasies

One of my favorite books on strategy is The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene and Joost Elffers.  Where The Art of War, by Sun Tzu is written as an overview of the whole topic of strategy, seeking to provide an overall understanding of the subject; and The 36 Strategies tries to impart the knack of strategic thinking through 36 maxims related to well known Chinese folk stories, Mr. Greene focuses on how we influence and manipulate one another, ie "power".

Mr. Greene draws from both Eastern and Western history and literature as his source material. Sun Tzu and Machiavelli as cited as much as wonderful stories of famous con men. 

Each of the 48 Laws carries many examples, along with counter examples where it is appropriate that they be noted, and even reversals.

It is a very thorough study of the subject and the hardback version is beautifully produced.

One of the things I admire about Greene is that he not only studied strategy, he applied what he learned to his own situation and prospered.

Today we have #32: Play to People's Fantasies.

The truth is often avoided because it is ugly and unpleasant. Never appeal to truth and reality unless you are prepared for the anger that comes from disenchantment. Life is so harsh and distressing that people who can manufacture romance or conjure up fantasy are like oases in the desert: Everyone flocks to them. There is great power in tapping into the fantasies of the masses.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Having a Solo Practice

In Buddhist practice, there is am emphasis on the sangha, the community, the group in which one practices. There are many reasons for this as you can well imagine. I think it’s the same with martial arts practice.

There are times however, when we must practice on our own; perhaps even in a hostile environment. This is especially true given out current situation with the Corona Virus. A solo practice requires a special kind of discipline.

Below is an excerpt from Hardcore Zen, where the author of the blog (well known author/Zen priest Brad Warner) addresses a letter he received on this topic by relating some of his own experiences.

The full post may be read here. Enjoy.

I got an email and it went something like this:

“I spent the last little while practicing with a sangha at a fairly large Zen temple, but recently I’ve had to move several hours away to help run my family’s farm in a rural area. What is your advice about practicing with minimal support or potentially planting a sangha where one doesn’t already exist.” 

Practicing with minimal support? I’ve done plenty of that. I’ve even practiced while living with someone who was openly antagonistic to Zen. Basically, you just keep on keeping’ on, as the hippies used to say.

Here’s my story, if you want to know. 

When I first started doing zazen, I was living in Kent, Ohio with a born-again Christian. Don’t ask. It’s embarrassing.

Anyway, she did not like the fact that I was involved in such devilish voodoo as Buddhism. 

And she especially did not like that I practiced it each and every morning and night. 

She rarely went as far as interrupting my zazen. But I had to make my zazen fit into her schedule. 

Which mostly meant doing it when she wasn’t around or when she was asleep. Or else she’d “accidentally” make noise or otherwise bother my practice.

How did I keep going? Y’know… it’s hard to say. I had a strong feeling that this practice was something I needed in my life. The conviction was so powerful it sometimes makes me wonder if there really is such a thing as reincarnation. Cuz it was almost as if I’d done zazen in a past life and I knew I needed to do it in this one too.

Not that I necessarily believe that explanation. But there wasn’t anything in my background prior to discovering zazen that would have made me particularly predisposed to getting into it that deeply.

Then, after dealing with that for a while, I moved to Chicago. While I was in Chicago, I was terribly shy. I found it really, really hard to make friends. I did find a couple of Zen places in town. But when I went to them, the shyness and social anxiety flared up big time. I didn’t talk to anyone and I put out a spiky sort of vibe that was effective in keeping other people from talking to me. 

The result was that I didn’t go to those sanghas very often. Not enough to feel like I was part of them in any way. Which meant most of my zazen practice was done at home alone.

And remember, kids, there was no such thing as the Internet in those days. I couldn’t just read a Buddhist blog or watch YouTube videos of Zen teachers and feel some support that way. I don’t even think there were even any Buddhist magazines then. If there were, I didn’t know about them. Your average newsstand in the 80’s was not likely to carry Buddhist magazines next to its copies of Playboy and Sports Illustrated.

After Chicago, I moved into the infamous Clubhouse in Akron, Ohio. That was a punk rock house where a bunch of people in bands who didn’t have much money to spend pooled their cash to share a broken down house that no respectable person would want to live in. 

Those guys weren’t antagonistic to my practice. But try sitting zazen with a band rehearsing in the basement, all their amps turned up to eleven. Or with parties going on. Or with the daily temptation to just hang out and get high with everybody and watch Green Acres and Hogan’s Heroes reruns. It takes a certain amount of discipline. But if I can do it, anyone can.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Daito Ryu Isn’t Aikdo

Below is an excerpt an interview with Roy Goldberg, from the Aikido Journal. Mr Goldberg is one of the highest ranking teachers of Daito Ryu in the US. The full interview may be read here. Enjoy.

Roy Goldberg is one of the highest-ranked Daito-ryu Aiki Jujutsu practitioners outside of Japan and the senior student of Hayao Kiyama Shihan, the President and Chief Instructor of North American Daito Ryu Aiki Jujutsu Kodo Kai (NADRAKK). Goldberg Sensei was awarded the rank of 7th dan and certified with the “Kyoju Dairi” teaching license by Inoue Yusuke, the Kodokai Menkyo Kaiden. In June 2016 the Hombu Dojo presented him with the prestigious Hi Ogi, the third scroll in the transmission of Daito Ryu Kodo Kai. He is the first and only non-Japanese person to receive this honor from the Hombu Dojo in Kitami, Japan. In March 2017, Goldberg Sensei officially separated from Kodo Kai in Japan and now heads an independent branch of Daito-ryu. He leads a number of study groups throughout the US and abroad and teaches seminars around the world.

Aikido Journal (Josh Gold): Can you tell us a bit about your martial arts background?
Roy Goldberg: I grew up in the Bronx in the 1950s. It was kind of a tough neighborhood for a short, Jewish, asthmatic kid. I wasn’t a good student, but I always had to be moving and was always good at sports. I did baseball and played paddle ball obsessively. My dad taught me to box, mostly by knocking my block off. In college I started wrestling and pound-for-pound I was really strong. I wrestled off different weight classes to challenge myself. And many times I was wrestling individuals who started years before me, and even though I was stronger, what they had was technique. That was really the beginning of starting to understand how important technique is. Eventually I got into Columbia University — I think my parents just badgered them into letting me in — and when I started to take anatomy it all just clicked. Not that I didn’t struggle, but the body just made sense to me and I found I had a good memory if it was something I was passionate about. And that served me well as a physical therapist.

The summer before I got to college I was a lifeguard and one of the head lifeguards introduced me to Shinan Antonio Pereira at the Tremont dojo who did Miyama ryu jujutsu, which was a lot of judo, some hard jujutsu, and some aikido, but all modified to be for the street. These were a bunch of very rough guys in the south Bronx who were not playing. They were trying to kill each other. After getting dan rank, we worked with real knives in the dark, that sort of thing. Pereira originally trained in Japan with both Kotani Yasuyuki, the famous 10th dan Kodokan judoka, as well as with O’Sensei. I believe Ueshiba even gave Pereira a teaching license in aikido. So, I thought I should try aikido.
So I went to NY Aikikai to train with Yamada Sensei and his senior students. I discovered that some of my jujutsu was difficult to apply on really good aikido people, which was extremely frustrating. They had technique I didn’t understand and much better structure. Since I trained early in the morning, I didn’t get a lot of mat time with Yamada Sensei, and the classes were small. Sometimes as few as 2-3 people. The instructors were extremely knowledgeable and I learned a lot about movement. I mostly trained with Harvey Konigsberg, Steve Pimsler, and Hakeem Luqman a lot; he really understood my jujutsu background, so we got quite close (I think he is in Morocco now). To this day Konigsberg has some of the best aikido I have ever seen. He’s just like water. His irimi nage is just completely in your face.
Thinking back on it, I unfortunately think I was sort of a dick back then. I was so confident in my jujutsu, and I was young and challenging. Too cocky. During my shodan exam, part of the test was to do freestyle randori with 4-5 people, but in my morning class we never really had enough people to practice that, so when the ukes came at me in the test I reacted with jujutsu, not aikido. I went a little too hard, and Yamada Sensei stepped in and stopped the test. He was definitely a bit annoyed with me. In retrospect, I really appreciate what they gave me and regret that I wasn’t a more respectful student. Since then I have come to train with a lot of aikido people that I have really enjoyed meeting and working with.
Around that time was when I started doing Daito-ryu with Kiyama Shihan. I did several seminars with Yonezawa Sensei, who was really the first to introduce Kodokai-style Daito-ryu to the United States, and Kiyama was his uke. I was just blown away. When I felt Kiyama’s technique it was like nothing I had ever felt before. And I just couldn’t explain it. Kiyama invited me to train with him, and I became obsessed. He was and is one of the most naturally gifted martial artists I’ve ever seen.
“So I went to NY Aikikai to train with Yamada Sensei and his senior students. I discovered that some of my jujutsu was difficult to apply on really good aikido people, which was extremely frustrating. They had technique I didn’t understand and much better structure.”
I started regularly traveling back and forth to California to train at his house and following him to Japan. I turned my life upside down to go train with this guy because I knew he was the real deal. And to this day, I still regularly travel out to California to visit with him. He’s like a second father to me. And even though I officially left Kodo Kai, we are still very close.
That’s partly why today I don’t have a lot of patience for people who can’t make the effort to go to a seminar that’s a couple of hours from their house. My students travel because that’s the only way you are going to get this. If you have access to a good teacher, like my friend Dan Harden, or Howie Popkin (who started Daito-ryu with me, but ultimately trained very closely under Okamoto Sensei of Roppokai), or somebody like that, then you do what it takes to get there and train with that person. Because you aren’t getting this by sitting at home and commenting on Facebook.
Traveling the world teaching Daito-ryu, what do you see as some of the most common misconceptions about the art?
I think in some areas Daito-ryu has the reputation as just hard aikido. Like it’s the caveman version of aikido or something. I actually heard someone say once, “If there isn’t pain, it isn’t Daito-ryu.” And that’s just nonsense. It’s true that Daito-ryu has a large number of brutally painful pins and immobilizations, but real Daito-ryu has a softness that is nearly unmatched. It can be brutal if it needs to be, but that isn’t the goal.
A lot of people have started to use aiki like it’s a buzzword, or think they can take a single Daito-ryu technique and throw it in their bag of tricks. But it isn’t a cafeteria — you can’t pick and choose. You have to get the whole meal. That’s why the whole “sharing secrets” thing doesn’t bother me — it isn’t about a technique or a trick.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Book Review: Principle-Driven Skill Development

How do you improve your martial arts training? As a teacher, how do you keep your students engaged and foster their development?

The “traditional” way is to tell the students to train harder, and make more repetitions to somehow internalize the hidden lessons these practices have to teach.

Is there a better way?

Russ Smith, the chief instructor at the Burinkan Dojo, where he primarily teaches Goju-ryu Karate, has examined these questions and has come up with an answer in his new book, Principle-Driven Skill Development, published by Tambuli Media.

The traditional idea of training harder resonates with the theory of 10,000 hours of practice which has been largely misinterpreted by many after being brought to public attention by Malcolm Gladwell in his book, Outliers.

When the public became aware of the 10,000-hour theory, people in all sorts of activities thought that if they simply increased the time of their practice sessions, accumulate their 10,000 hours and master their subject. Bam!

What Mr. Smith came around to is applying the ideas of deliberate practice to karate instruction.

Using his own Goju-ryu as an example, in his book he delivers a blue print for imparting instruction and conducting practice for the more rapid and satisfying progress of his students.

Smith begins with a clear, unambiguous vocabulary, where a given word or term is not used to describe many different things; or many different terms or words are used to describe one thing – a source of confusion for students.

He then very clearly breaks down what he feels are the core principles, strategies, tactics and preferences for his Goju-ryu style.

Beginning with the most basic elements upon which the others are built, Smith goes on to show how through many appropriate drills, that his students can come to truly understand that element. The drills aren’t the gold; they are only tools to be picked up, used or set aside depending on how well they work for that specific student.

Smith reaches out to the ancestor arts of Goju-ryu, such as Five Ancestors, Pak Mei and White Crane, to add depth and a greater dimension to his drills.

Learning a physical technique is pretty simple. Much more difficult is understanding. Understanding is the key. With understanding the student can see how each element fits into the whole and increasingly become self-correcting.

Smith is then able to circle back to the foci of traditional instruction, basics and kata, to demonstrate how these elements are alive in these practices. Basics and kata now become more relevant to the student and something much, much more than they physical exercise they represent. From the understanding acquired, the student is then more easily able to apply what he has learned to free practice, kumite.

Mr. Smith believes that this approach can be applied to the instruction and practice of any martial art. The original paper on deliberate practice bears him out.

Mr Smith gives us a practical case study and application of the theory of deliberate practice in martial arts. I have benefited from his book in my own practice of taijiquan. I think that you will too.

Sunday, March 08, 2020

The Individual Stamp on Martial Arts Schools

Have you ever noticed that even within the same organization, individual martial arts schools are always a little different? How could they not be, with different teachers, students, locations, etc.

Below is an excerpt from an article that appeared at Kung Fu Tea that explores this question. The full post may be read here.

Fragmentation and Unification

Recently I had a chance to catch up with one of my old Kung Fu training brothers. We had a great time training at the same Wing Chun studio.  That was years ago.  Then I left Salt Lake City for Western New York and, a few years later, our Sifu relocated to the mid-Atlantic region.  What had been an anchor for both of our identities, the place that we trained five night a week for years on end, was once again nothing more than an empty warehouse unit in a struggling industrial mall.  Neither of us have given up on our art, though we have both had trouble finding a new “home.”

Which is odd when you think about it.  The Chinese martial arts (Taijiquan excluded) don’t have the same sort of market presence as Taekwondo or BJJ.  Still, if you do run into a Kung Fu school, there is a pretty decent chance that one of the instructors there will offer Wing Chun classes.  It is easy to visit lots of WC schools as you travel around the country, which I have always found valuable as a researcher.

I pointed this out, but my friend remained unconvinced.  “Yeah, but there is always something wrong.”  Catching himself he added, “I mean different. There is always something different about them.  None of them feel like our school.”  This is certainly true.  How could they?

Difference takes many forms.  Wing Chun has as many competing lineages as any similarly sized martial art that I have ever encountered.  They all have their unique take of the basic unarmed forms, creation myths, tactical philosophy and sometimes even the basic goals of the art.  But I knew from my own experience that this wasn’t really what my friend meant.  Even within the same lineage (in our case Ip Ching) different instructors had their own teaching methods and interests. Every school seems to develop its own small rituals of greeting, departing, and classroom management.  One might visit a school that is very friendly, but it still doesn’t feel “like home.”  It is difficult to simply jump into a new school, especially when there is the subtle expectation that in adopting a new home you would also be expected to repudiate the old one.

This conversation lingered in my mind long after it ended.  I found myself wondering why I was so sensitive to differences within WC environments, and whether the highly idiosyncratic nature of the Chinese martial arts was working against their success.  How many other displaced martial artists are there who were as likely to simply leave training all together as to succeed in finding a new home?

It is not all that difficult to trace the sources of fragmentation, in either practice or identity, within the traditional Asian martial arts.  In Northern China every small farming village seemed to have its own boxing ground which would recruit its own instructor. Rarely did hard working peasants have a chance to train extensively in the surrounding region or an incentive to do so.  One might tell a similar story in Southern China but with clan or guild hall backed martial arts institutions, slowly morphing into the roof-top schools of the Post-WWII period that we are all so familiar with.

Something about the fragmentation of traditional Chinese social organization seems to map easily onto the isolating distances that define the potential (and limitations) of any sort of training in America.  I am still in frequent contact with my Sifu, and regard him as such.  But how often can we really train?  Within this continental landscape, where individuals are often displaced by work or economic happenstance, maintaining the unique identity of a martial arts community becomes a battle against entropy.  Why do we hold so tightly to those prior identities and social roles?

The Art and the State

There may be no simple solution to the challenges of geography, but a number of organizations and groups have attempted to find solutions to the question of one’s “home.”  Almost universally they have come in the form of standardization. That word immediately conjures images of a McDonalds and Starbucks on every corner.  These businesses carefully curate their menus and dining experience not to maximize the quality of the food, or to take advantage of the local setting. Rather, they want every burger, or every cup of coffee, to taste exactly as you were expecting when you walked in. No exotic local ingredients or blends are necessary as the goal is to satisfy one’s expectations of what is an appropriate cup of coffee, not the best one imaginable.  It is easy to criticize this sort of project.

Yet we should acknowledge that these sorts of businesses thrive for a reason.  People may claim to desire quality, but what they actually need is to have their expectations met.  We are all willing to pay for that sense of what is familiar and situationally appropriate.

The martial arts world is no stranger to similar franchise models. Traditional Chinese martial arts schools have resisted this mode of organization better than other sectors of the community.  Or more likely, they have not proven themselves to be profitable enough to attract its gaze.   But we are all familiar with the “McDojo’s” that dot the suburban landscape.

What we may not realize is that this phenomenon is not particularly recent. Nor does it have as much to do with American consumerism as one might guess. The Jingwu Association, which probably did more to shape the development of the modern Chinese martial arts than any other private organization, was a firm believer in the power of branding.  Created by a group of Chinese businessmen and friends in the 1910s (and dominating China’s martial arts landscape through the early 1920s) this organization sought to strengthen both the martial arts and the Chinese nation by creating a standardized martial arts curriculum that could be practiced by individuals anywhere in the country.  This was comprised of curated bits of a number of (mostly Northern) arts which could be practiced by solo students arranged in long symmetric lines while being led by a single instructor.

Matching uniforms were also a big thing.  In some part of China, new Jingwu branches were the very first commercial schools, open to all members of the public, to be opened.  It would not be overstating the situation to say that Jingwu modernized the martial arts, and in large part they did that through their own system of franchised-esque expansion.

The unifying, modernizing and nationalizing mission of the Central Guoshu Institute was, in many ways, a natural continuation of the path that the Jingwu Association pioneered.  Yet both groups were firmly rooted in a species of early 20th century nationalism that sought to use physical culture to weld diverse communities into a nation that would serve the needs of the state.  Whether on the playing fields of Eton or the training halls of Shanghai, physical culture was to be the school of the “body politic.”

The same movement towards standardization within the martial arts was evident (indeed, had been pioneered) in Japan.  The modern sports of kendo and judo are a product of similar discourses and reform movements.  Chinese modernizers within the arena of physical culture followed their development with great interest.

What was created was in many ways remarkable.  Certainly, dojos differ, and instructors have always been a diverse lot. Yet the cacophony of competing fencing schools and training methodologies that had dominated the Tokugawa period largely gave way to a single national sport (kendo) which was played in largely identical ways across the country.  One might feel out of place traveling to a new city for business. Yet entering the local Butokukai you would find something familiar, a metaphorical home.  Jingwu schools across China’s diverse landscape, and even through the South East Asian diaspora, functioned in a similar way.

That was exactly the point.  If a diverse group of communities are to be welded together into a singular modern “nation” they must be given a shared place where they can imagine (to use benedict Anderson’s famous turn of phrase) and better yet physically experience (say, through standardized martial arts training), what it means to be a member of the Chinese or Japanese nation.  The creation of this shared space, full of students executing the same shared lessons, succeeded because it created social roles that could be experienced, built upon and combined into new identities.

Similar projects were underway throughout society.  It is the intersection of many such institutions, foreclosing older and alternate ways of understanding the self, by which “the nation” grows.  And yet what happened in East Asia’s martial arts schools was critical as it not only wrapped an “invented tradition” in a shared flag, but actually walked students through the process of being thrust into a new and strange social role, transforming that into a legible social identity, and then allowing these new institutions to shape what behavior would be considered appropriate for a person of this status.  The martial arts schools of the 20thcentury not only indoctrinated individuals into new identities, but they prepared them to become active participants in a process of social reconstruction that was unfolding all around them. Dennis Gainty has even argued that this process (possibly inadvertently) granted martial artists a sense of agency and the tools necessary to negotiate their own vision of Japanese (and Chinese) modernity with the developmental state.

Yet we must return to the flag that I noted in the previous paragraph. My old Wing Chun school in Salt Lake City lacked any overt trappings of nationalism.  It’s only declaration of identity was a giant neon “Kung Fu” sign (which had once graced the front of a previous location) hanging from the rafters.  Few of the other Wing Chun schools I have visited display a Chinese, or American, flag. Yet our disciplinary preference for traditional Chinese memorial walls over flags actually seems to mark us as outliers in the traditional martial arts community.

Chinese flags seem to be much more common in Wushu schools.  And I don’t think I have ever entered a Taekwondo school (at least in the US) that did not prominently display both a South Korean and American flag at the front of the school.  Individual Japanese citizens are often wary of displaying their national flag in public as this often is associated with the far right.  As such, it is not surprising that Japanese schools have had a more mixed relationship with the flag.  Yet I noted that American students of the Budo arts often have no qualms about displaying the colors of the rising sun.  If asked they would likely answer that it just seems like the “appropriate” thing to do.

In this way the standardization of the traditional martial arts is actually quite different from the sorts of global fast-food and coffee brands I noted above.  Critical theorists have no difficulty in identifying them with a sort of pernicious American neo-imperialism. I have often wondered whether the same writers would judge Tim Horton’s as harshly as Starbucks.  But within this specific context such critiques may be overblown. When entering the Tim Horton’s in my hometown there are no immediate markers that I am taking part in a Canadian commercial project.  Of the many tasty items that are offered, Canadian nationalism doesn’t seem to be anywhere on their racks.  Much the same could probably be said of deli cases at any Starbucks.  The goal of these establishments is to maximize their profits rather than to evangelize a national cause.  Their reach aspires to be truly global in a way that one never really sees within a traditional martial arts school.

I suspect that our Wing Chun school lacked Chinese flags as few of the schools in Hong Kong in the 1960s-1980s (the era that gave rise to American Wing Chun) were so appointed.  When we discussed Wing Chun it was always as an exclusively Southern Chinese practice, even though by the late 1990s

I suspect that more people in Germany were probably practicing the art than Hong Kong proper.  Our warehouse school in Salt Lake was imagined as a microcosm of the apartment and warehouse schools in Hong Kong which it emulated.  They defined the social roles to be found within such a school, as well as outlining the curriculum and basic teaching methods. We sought to follow them in ways that fit with our North American location.  Thus “appropriateness” must sometimes be negotiated.

I have only had the chance to visit South Korea once, but I suspect Korean flags dominate American Taekwondo schools not because of any sense of acquired nationalism on the part of the Western students (many of whom are children). Rather, Korean schools prominently display flags and have long connected the practice of their art to an awareness of Korean nationalism.  American Taekwondo schools (and Wushu academies, and Capoeira groups, and Krav Maga classes) basically follow these perceived rule of appropriateness.

Some schools care more about the transmission of cultural values than others. But in general you would be hard pressed to guess which is which simply from the presence (or absence) of a flag. Rather, the flag serves as a constant reminder that so many of the modern arts are products of 20thcentury nationalism and identity formation. When I enter a Starbucks I have stepped into a global marketplace, and it may not be immediately evident whether I am in North America, Europe or Asia.

That is a feature of the experience, not a bug. This is a brand that aspires to universalism.  But there is no doubt that when entering most traditional martial arts schools I am setting foot within a sort of cultural embassy, a place designed to reflect and transmit social roles and identities that were crafted elsewhere.  While the modern combat sports may seek to escape this sort of particularism, it remains deeply ingrained in a wide variety of traditional practices.