RUNNING ON EMPTY
Is History Bunk?
by Dan Docherty (Combat June 1993)
Well, Henry Ford thought so and looking at some of the articles and books that masquerade as martial arts history, he may well have been right. History is important for martial artists as it tells us where we have come from, and from this we can hopefully deduce where we are now and where we will be going in the future.
If we are to have history, we must have historians. As far as Tai Chi history is concerned, it is a case of too many cooks spoiling the broth. Some of the cooks such as Wu Tu-nan, have occasionally made real contributions while others have fulfilled their roles as party hacks by pushing the historical line that suits the Chinese Communist party or their own particular style. Many of the Western articles and books are written by people who do not even practice Tai Chi Chuan in any meaningful way and are almost invariably rehashings of the tendentious drivel that appears in earlier articles and books .
Going a step further, I often wonder whether martial arts magazine columnists are authorities on the martial arts because they write for martial arts magazines or write for martial arts magazines because they are authorities on the martial arts. Often the answer is all too obvious.
Many of us, despite what Aristotle has to say, are scarcely rational beings. In religious, political and martial history many people prefer a sanitised uncomplicated version of complex events and personalities rather than a critical analysis. In some cases this preference for a pleasing version of events can lead to extreme action against those who attempt to argue a different one.
Some years ago one respected American authority on Chinese martial arts was so offended by some of my opinions given in another magazine that he demanded his name be removed from the list of contributors and severed all further contact with the magazine. After his 30 odd years spent cultivating the Tao one would have expected a somewhat more reasoned and mature response from this sensitive soul.
But something weird has happened in modern times; we now have a deification of old masters. In the same way that Zhen Wu Shen, the True Martial God, became patriarch of certain cults during the Boxer rebellion, so many old dead masters are resurrected and their (alleged) opinions, deeds and abilities invoked to give credibility to the opinions, (alleged) deeds and abilities of modern practitioners.
Indeed that unholy trinity of Gichin Funakoshi, Cheng Man-ching and Bruce Lee have probably directly and indirectly sold as many books, articles, styles and teachers since their deaths as every other living martial artist.
Many martial arts instructors are proud and unbending people. They are temperamentally incapable of admitting that there is something in their art or its history or indeed in another art or its history of which they know nothing. Not only this, but they are incapable of accepting that another opinion may have some validity. If one of the unholy trinity, or a living saint such as Dan Inosanto or Hirokazu Kanazawa agrees or seems to agree with them, then that is an end to the matter.
When martial artists with this curious mind-set come to write history, it is indeed bunk. The great detective, Sherlock Holmes - "You know my methods, Watson.", once remarked to the good doctor that when one had eliminated the impossible, the solution lay in whatever remained, however improbable. Many of my martial arts colleagues, prefer to eliminate the possible and even the probable and are all too willing to accept the impossible and improbable.
In 1728, the Yong Zheng emperor issued an imperial prohibition on martial arts, condemning martial arts instructors as "drifters and idlers who refuse to work at their proper occupations," who gather with their disciples all day, leading to "gambling, drinking and brawls." Two hundred and sixty five years later, we look back on the same past as a golden age of great masters with high levels of ability and great virtue.
Maybe in years to come I and my fellow COMBAT contributors will also come to be considered saintly paragons of all the virtues. If only they knew...
Don't Rub It In
by Dan Docherty
Doctor Luce Condamine (who oftentimes reminds me of “Minnie the Minx” or is it “Minnie the Moocher”?) recently gave me a copy of the October 2004 issue 5 of the French martial arts magazine “Dragon” in which she was featured, teaching Tai Chi Chuan to children. There was also an interview of 79 year old Yang Zhen-duo, 4th generation master of Yang family Tai Chi Chuan and son of Yang Cheng-fu. Usually these old boys give fairly anodyne answers to sycophantic questions, or so I thought.
The final question and the answer it received were killers; what follows is my translation:-
‘DRAGON: “Your father, Yang Cheng-fu died at the age of 53. Under what circumstances?”
Yang Zhen-duo: “It followed an accident due to medication. My father found himself in South China in Canton. He was a big strong man. He weighed one hundred and thirty eight kilos (more than 300 pounds)! Because of the heat, he was perspiring profusely. This perspiration gave him a kind of eczema at the level of his genitalia. In Hong Kong this causes fungus on the feet; it is a well-known malady. His nephew proposed that he use the normal medication used for the feet, so he was given the product to put on his genitalia. The result was catastrophic. The product, which was in fact toxic, caused a swelling of his genitalia. He was urgently taken to Shanghai (a considerable distance), but medicine was not as developed as it is today and no-one was able to save him.”
As Luce pointed out, there is an element of the Oedipus complex about all this where sons want to “kill” their fathers and do unspeakable things with their mothers, but even if the story is true it shows that gross stupidity has existed in the Yang family for at least two generations; on the part of Yang Cheng-fu in believing that foot ointment is appropriate for rubbing onto the genitalia and on the part of his son, Yang Zhen-duo for relating his father’s ignominious end in a magazine interview. I hope my own son has something better to report when the time comes.
On another note I was asked a couple of good questions recently about forms. In Paris I was asked if the hand form I taught was of 108 movements. There are totally 119 techniques named in my teacher’s books. However, these names do not include techniques such as Extend Arms, Vanguard (Pioneer) Arms, Single & Double Hands Seize Legs, Break Arm Style, Separate Arms, Tiger Embraces Head, White Snake Spits out Tongue etc. These unmentioned techniques can be found within other techniques and constitute what is in effect an “inner form” and in many cases, including within my teacher’s own school most instructors never mind students are ignorant of the names though in some cases they might know the relevant applications of the movements. These names and applications were only taught to a dedicated few.
Many unnamed techniques no longer exist for many Yang lineage practitioners – for example “Separate Hands” and “Drape Body” occur a number of times in Yang lineage long forms, which suggests that they are techniques of some importance. However, it seems that only my teacher’s lineage and that of Wu Jian-quan actually name them.
In Nottingham I was asked why we did not use the Chinese names for the techniques. During a class lasting 1-2 hours I normally want to cover some tui shou, some san shou and some weapons training as well as hand form and so we normally just drill the form. However, the old practice in the Far East was for the teacher to announce the name of each technique before or as it was being executed. There are a few problems here, the first being that many students, including Chinese are not aware of the cultural allusions in a number of names. For example, “Step Back to Beat The Tiger” is a reference to a story in the novel “The Water Margin”, while Seven Stars refers to “Ursa Major”. There are many similar cultural references in pushing hands drills, weapon forms, Nei Kung etc. Another problem is the sheer number of names to be recited - especially if we include “inner form” names. Finally, it is difficult enough to learn Tai Chi Chuan in your native tongue without having to also learn Chinese terms, as I know only too well, having spent 9 years on a Hong Kong rooftop doing this very thing.
Names are both a short cut in that they obviate the necessity for a detailed mention of all the physical movements involved in the performance of one technique and they also often shed some light on how to do the movements described. When conducting camps and seminars, I often use this method of naming techniques before or as they are executed. Many common translations of Chinese terms are inadequate or misleading as for example, “Parry and Punch”. The Chinese term “Ban Lan Chui” refers to an upper level defence with the palm, a lower level defence with the palm either or both followed by a punch or punches. Indeed many well known Chinese masters fail to make these two defences.
When reciting names whether in Chinese or English it is more than a little helpful to know what the movements included in the name are actually for. Masters of old, like those of today had their limitations and even made a few mistakes. So do remember that foot ointment is for the feet. Don’t rub it in.
Shaolin and Wudang
by Dan Docherty (Combat September/October 2000)
Part 1 Southern Shaolin
The dog and the stingray tasted real good and it was great to climb Wudang Mountain again in the company of three fellow Scots (Ronnie & Elspeth Robinson, and Ian Cameron) and two refined French ladies (Anya Meot and Pascale Deguen), but maybe the highpoint was your correspondent and said colleagues on the back of our motorcycles roaring up the drive of the Southern Shaolin Monastery rucksacks on the backs and holding on in fear and trepidation.
They said in some books it doesn’t exist, for example in his interesting book on Bubishi The Bible of Karate, Patrick McCarthy states that the temple’s exact location has not been discovered and that at the beginning of the Qing dynasty in the mid-17th century the secrets of vital points were indirectly passed on to the temple by the great scholar Huang Zong-xi and his son Bai-jia both of whom trained in Nei Jia Chuan under Wang Zheng-nan.
It’s there all right. Following the details given in one of my Chinese martial arts encyclopedias, we found it, situated on top of the small Dong Yue (Eastern Sacred) Hill just outside the city of Quanzhou, in Fujian province. Unlike the better known and older Northern Shaolin Temple at the foot of Songshan, which even when I visited in 1984 was already extremely commercialized, the Southern Shaolin Temple is a quiet place. Too many people write about Shaolin and Wudang, and how external arts are derived from Shaolin, while internal arts are from Wudang, but too few have actually been to either. So let me tell you what we found.
We got off the bikes and started to examine the main temple building, when a powerful looking young monk approached. I asked him if he practiced martial arts. He said he did and asked me if we would like to meet the monks. He took us to a nearby building which proved to be a training hall with various typical Southern Shaolin weapons. He told one of his colleagues to demonstrate a Guan Dao (halberd) form which was done with impressive skill.
At this point, the abbot arrived. He introduced himself as Shi Chang Ding. He told us that this was the temple we had seen was the only one in a proper state of repair and he showed us a map of the original temple layout saying that they were slowly renovating and rebuilding, but were dependent on donations. Abbot Shi added that there were around 17 monks at the temple receiving instruction in both traditional Southern Shaolin martial arts as well as Chan (Zen) Buddhism. He told us how the students came from all over China, but said that he did not insist that they were Buddhist before he started to teach them. He said that foreigners were welcome to come and train at the Temple and in fact a few had done so. He himself had been to Paris to give demonstrations.
Students followed a gruelling schedule of martial arts training, Chan meditation, cultural activities (calligraphy, study of Chinese philosophy and history etc., and doing chores) They trained most days for 6-8 hours.
We then went out into the courtyard where one of his pupils performed a Tiger Fork (kind of Chinese trident) set with grace and skill. I asked if we could see an empty hand form as we wanted to see the special characteristics of Southern Shaolin boxing. It was interesting to see how practical the movements seemed compared with much Northern Shaolin. He said that Southern Shaolin boxing included a number of styles such as Crane, Tiger, Nanchuan, Lohan and others, but that in general, in Southern Boxing there was a greater reliance on hands and arms and low kicks and there tended to be less in the way of jumps and high kicks. Indeed most karate practitioners would have found many of the movements in this form to be familiar, though perhaps more fluid.
We were impressed with the sincerity of the abbot and his monks. They are considerable martial artists yet also humble and devoted to their art and religion.
The Northern Shaolin Temple was made famous by the Indian monk, Da Mo (Bodhidharma) when he arrived from India probably some time in the mid-5th century AD. Construction of the Southern Shaolin Temple in Fujian is said to have started from 874-8 AD, during the Tang dynasty. It seems that there may have been other Shaolin temples including one in Guangdong and another in Hebei, but I’ve as yet been unable to find more material on these.
Most Chinese martial arts historians believe it was the Southern Shaolin Temple which was burned to the ground sometime during the reign of the great Qing dynasty Emperor Kang Xi (1662-1723) supposedly because rebel supporters of the Ming dynasty (which the Manchus had overthrown to establish their “foreign” Qing dynasty) were operating from the temple. However, some say this burning occurred during the reign of the Yong Zheng Emperor and it is interesting to note that he issued a general prohibition against boxing in 1728.
This burning led to the story of the “Five Elders”, five monks who escaped from the burning temple. Though some say these five braves came from the Northern Shaolin Temple at Songshan or the one in Hebei. This is also not the derivation of the famous system of Five Ancestors, which is, however, from Fujian and so must have been influenced by Southern Shaolin. One of the elders was called Wu Mei and is said to have taught martial arts to a girl called Yong Chun (Eternal Spring) which name is better known in its Cantonese form of Wing Chun. Strangely on the way to the Shaolin Temple in Fujian there is a town of this name also which is supposed to be famous for White Crane Boxing.
So as with most things in Chinese martial arts history, the more you investigate, the more you are left with unanswered and perhaps unanswerable questions. In Part 2 of this article we’ll take a look at Wudang Mountain.
For those interested in training in genuine Chinese martial arts with these warrior monks, I recommend you go to Quanzhou, get on board a motorcycle and go see the abbot. They won’t waste your time and you won’t waste your money.
Chinese Philosophy and Tai Chi Chuan
by Dan Docherty (Combat September 1996)
The Beginning - Chinese Cosmology
Before looking at the Tai Chi symbol and Yin Yang theory it is helpful to examine Chinese concepts of the Universe. The basic Chinese cosmology traced from c.1000 BC and developed by succeeding philosophers and schools of philosophy is as follows:-
cannot be spoken of and has no name - Wu (Lao Tzu Ch. 1)
Something and nothing mutually gave birth to one another (Lao Tzu Ch. 2)
so we have Wu Chi yet Tai Chi; Wu Wei (not to act against Nature) is Tao and from it came
Hun Tun (Chaos) which is also Tai Chi (Supreme Ultimate Pole),
a potentiality containing form, Qi (energy / vapour) and substance.
Tai Yi (Supreme Change)
took place and produced
Tai Chu (Supreme Starting)
of form and shape which caused
Tai Shi (Supreme Beginning)
of Qi (breath/energy) and then
Tai Su (Supreme Emptiness)
which brought the formation of substance and was the origin of
Liang Yi (the two symbols)
known as Yin (passive, female) and Yang (active, male), the interaction of which produced
Wu Xing (Five Elements)
of Fire, Water, Wood, Earth and Metal
which produced the Ten Thousand Things, including
which is composed of Yin and Yang.
Yin governs the seven emotions which on death descend to earth to become a Gui or demon; Yang governs the internal alchemy of Qi, Jing and Shen which on death ascend to heaven to become a spirit or immortal.
Much of the theory and terminology of Tai Chi Chuan is derived from these concepts and terms and those who formed and developed the art would have been well-versed in them. <p
The original symbol for the concept of Tai Chi seems to have been a simple circle. This is logical as once we have a circle there is an inside and an outside; what is enclosed and what is not; what is circular and what is not; we have Yin and Yang. The inspiration for the circle may have come from the sun or moon. Over the years what was the symbol for Liang Yi (Two Forms - i.e. Yin & Yang) replaced the simple circle and became known as the Tai Chi symbol.</p
Chou Dun-yi (1017-73) was the most outstanding representative of the Tai Chi Diagram Sect, one of three Taoist sects which trace their origin from the great 10th century philosopher Chen Duan from Hua Shan. We can see from the Diagram that Zhou was concerned with Five Element theory as well as Yin Yang theory.
The Diagram is effectively a simplified version of the Chinese system of cosmogony which we looked at earlier. Starting from the top we have, "Wu Chi yet Tai Chi". Tao and Tai Chi must come from that which is not - Wu Chi, but if there is Wu Chi then there must also paradoxically be Tai Chi. We can see the concept of Wu Chi (No Pole/Ultimate) as being a Taoist one and the concept of Tai Chi (Supreme Pole/ Ultimate) as being Confucian. The Confucians sought order in the universe, in society and in the individual so the idea of a fixed point such as the Pole Star as a sort of centre from which order in the universe stemmed was very attractive The Taoists were more concerned with harmonious change so the idea that there was no one fixed pole, Wu Chi, but instead constant change made perfect sense. The statement Wu Chi yet Tai Chi reconciles these different approaches.
Below the empty Tai Chi circle we have the concentric half Yin half Yang circles in which the Yang manifests itself in motion which when it reaches its limit is followed by Yin which is manifest in stillness; in turn when stillness has reached its limit there is a return to movement. In this way, movement and stillness, Yin and Yang in turn each mutually becomes the source of the other. This is precisely what happens in Tai Chi form, in pushing hands and in self defence.
The interaction of Yin and Yang produces the Five Elements of Metal, Wood, Water, Fire and Earth.
Water is largely Yin so is on the right, while Fire is largely Yang so is on the left. Wood produces Fire so is also on the left, while Metal produces Water (in the form of condensation) so is also on the right. Earth is of mixed nature so is fixed in the centre. The crossed lines above Fire and Water show Yin generating Yang and vice versa.
The Five Elements can operate in either a generative or in a destructive cycle. For example in the generative cycle:- Metal produces Water; Water produces Wood; Wood produces Fire; Fire produces Earth; Earth produces Metal. This is in accord with Nature and can also be represented by the clockwise rotating Tai Chi symbol. In the destructive cycle:- Metal destroys Wood; Wood destroys Earth; Earth destroys Water; Water destroys Fire; Fire destroys Metal. This is contrary to Nature and can be represented by the anti-clockwise rotating Tai Chi symbol.
Using Yin Yang theory each Element is stronger than two of the other Elements and weaker than the other two. Furthermore, each Element individually also has Yin and Yang aspects. Thus Metal could be shiny or rusty. Water could be a puddle or a vast river.
The small circle below the the Five Elements and joined to them by four lines again represents Wu Chi where they unite.
The first large circle below the Five Elements represents on the left the Tao of Heaven, which perfects maleness; on the right it represents the Tao of Earth, which perfects femaleness. The two Qi of maleness and femaleness interact and complement one another, bringing them back to the one Tai Chi (Supreme Pole).
The final circle represents the birth of the ten thousand things caused by the interaction of the male and female principles and their return to the one Tai Chi (Supreme Pole). Three thousand years after these concepts and terms first appeared we are still putting them into practice in Tai Chi Chuan yet how many Tai Chi practitioners realize that such concepts even exist never mind that they should be putting them into practice.
by Dan Docherty (Combat May 2001)
I was talking with Xin Ran recently about Yuan Fen, which means the appointed lot by which people are brought together, or a predestined relationship. By itself, Yuan cause/connection/ relationship, while Fen is a share/duty or to divide/distinguish, so I guess you can have both either or neither at any one time with any person/ persons and thing/ things. I guess it’s as crucial a factor between teacher and student in the Chinese martial arts as between man and woman and all the other permutations. Karma is similar, essentially causes which produce effects in another stage, time and / or place of existence.
I’ve recently been reading “The Life of Marpa The Translator” (Shambhala 1999 ISBN 156-957-112-0) translated from the Tibetan work written in the early 16th century by the so-called “mad yogin”, Tsang Nyon Heruka. Marpa was an 11th century Tibetan farmer, scholar and teacher who travelled three times to India to study Buddhist teachings. The characters of Tsang and Marpa are very different from the stereotype Buddhist sage.
For example one of Marpa’s disciples says to him, “You said that if one does not enjoy meat, liquor and women, it is a disservice to oneself. It appears to us that this is no different than what we do.” Marpa replies, “Though I enjoy sense pleasures, I have these confidences I am not fettered by them.” And later, “While enjoying sense pleasures, I meditate on the deity…”
In fact he did not resemble outwardly a spiritual person; he didn’t wear the robes of a monk or yogin; he didn’t seem to spend a lot of time meditating or in retreat. He sang,
“Although everyone attains enlightenment by meditating,
If one becomes enlightened without effort in meditation, that is it.”
His master wrote of seven yogas, consisting of, eating food, wearing clothes, sleeping, walking, talking, bathing and making offerings. We all do most of these, but how many of us actually think about what we are doing?
In these arts as with Chinese martial arts, a student who wishes to be trained in practice which can lead to enlightenment must first make a personal connection with an authentic teacher (guru) of a lineage, who has had a true transmission of such practice from his own teacher and thus has the ability and understanding to teach his own students in turn. Again, as with Chinese martial arts, the so-called inner art or teachings are rarely written down but are mainly an oral transmission one-on-one. An authentic teacher will not only know these oral teachings, but will have put them into practice.
So what makes an authentic teacher? It is said, “No guru, no teachings, no path”. Another of Marpa’s gurus (this term literally means heavy/weighty one and therefore refers to an enlightened master, though its English meaning is less specific) says to him of gurus:-
“If you recognize him as a sword,
You will cut the bonds of fixation
If you recognize him as a wheel,
You will recognize the truth of not dwelling in extremes.”
There is in fact a formal ceremony, known as “sprinkling over” through which a guru leads the disciple into the sacred world. The disciple binds himself irrevocably to this world by taking a vow to commit himself to his guru and to his personal deity. This bears some similarity to the Bai Shi ceremony of initiation in Chinese martial arts where the would-be disciple bows before an image of the founder and in front of his master, indicating his acceptance of certain conditions and his commitment to his style and to his master.
Obstacles are encountered on the path which, when overcome, can heighten realization. A story in the book illustrates this. As Marpa was to become the lineage holder in Tibet, Naropa, one of his main teachers, tested him by asking if he would prostrate himself in front of his guru or his personal deity. Marpa chose the deity, forgetting that it was his personal connection to his guru that was most important. The power of this incident caused Marpa to be overwhelmed by sickness, which in turn flushed away those things which had obscured his karma.
The idea of a personal deity according to the character of a disciple is interesting. Marpa also says,”I have to give each son-disciple the appropriate special transmission and activity.” It is not so simple for the would be disciple, one of Marpa’s gurus remarks about one of Marpa’s friends, “He and I have no karmic connection.” In other words the friend could never become his disciple.
The same thing is true in Chinese martial arts. In Ba Gua Zhang for example it is well known that the complexity of the system led Dong Hai huan to teach his disciples in different ways according to their characters and body type. In Tai Chi Chuan, Yang Lu-chan’s disciples Ling Shan, Wan Chun and and Quan You were famous respectively for striking power, strength and for footwork and skill in evasion.
On Marpa’s final trip to India, he found that his teacher had become a wanderer “to enter the action” and encounter the world directly. In this way it took Marpa more than 8 months of trials and tribulations to find his guru. In the same way, Chang San-Feng, the so-called “Filthy Taoist” and founder of Tai Chi Chuan was not someone who stayed in one place. When I recently climbed Hengshan, the Southern Sacred Mountain, in Hunan province, I bought a book in a temple there which mentioned Chang as having moved to Hengshan from Wudang mountain, owing to being disturbed constantly by pilgrims and visitors.
Nowadays there are very few people practicing any martial art who can be said to have any karmic connection with their students or wih their teachers. Most teachers have to a greater or lesser extent become supermarkets and most students are simply shoppers. Few are dedicated and prepared to make the sacrifices necessary to learn or to teach a complete art.
My master told me his uncle was found of Taoism and after learning Immortal Family Baduanjin Qi Gong from an itinerant Taoist, told him that he wanted to be a Taoist too. The itinerant Taoist told the uncle that it was very easy, and all he had to follow him. The uncle was full of questions, “Where to? For how long? Not now because I can’t leave my family and my business at the moment.” The karmic connection ended right there with the Qi Gong transmission.
by Dan Docherty
As a martial artist, I derive much pleasure and food for thought from reading books on both history and philosophy, particularly Chinese history and philosophy.
Although people talk of Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism as though they are three totally independent entities each has elements of the others. For example when I visited the Taoist temples and monasteries on Wudang Mountain, in addition to a plethora of Tai Chi and Pa Kua symbols, I found statues of Buddhist deities as well as swastikas, while the rigid Confucian codes of conduct of the Taoist monks were inscribed on stone pillars protruding from the backs of giant stone tortoises.
The term Zhong Yong is often referred to in English as the Doctrine of the Mean and is also the name of a Confucian philosophical tract, but I prefer to translate it as the Doctrine of Centrality (Zhong) and Constancy (Yong). By this I mean that one is focused and emotionally detached and behaves appropriately in a particular set of circumstances according to one's nature and code. This may require minimal effort or action on the one hand or on the other, an extreme amount of effort or action. In fact many of the admonitions of the Zhong Yong are as difficult to follow as those of the Good Book.
Set against this is the dictum of the great Irish wit and aesthete, Oscar Wilde's dictum "nothing succeeds like excess". Yet in a way there isn't a conflict of ideas here. One of the most telling quotations from the Zhong Yong is:-
If others do it once and can achieve it,
I will do it 100 times
If others do it 10 times and can achieve it,
I will do it 1000 times
In other words in order to achieve Zhong Yong constant and repeated effort is required. In a way also, Zhong Yong is the answer to more than 90% of the questions asked in martial arts classes. When students ask me how big their movements should be, I tell them, "not too big, not too small" - Zhong Yong. When they ask how fast they should practice the sword, I tell them, "not too fast, not too slow". When they ask how many back bends to do, I tell them, "not more than 360". When they ask how much punching they should do with the small weights we use in Tai Chi Chuan, I tell them, "not more than 20 minutes". When they ask me what I'd like to drink, I tell them, "Bushmills 1608".
Externally someone's level of Zhong Yong is evidenced by their behaviour, internally by their integrity. As martial artists we can judge the former in the technique and spirit of an individual, both of which are forged by repetitive training.
However, On a visit to Crete in 1994 I spent most of my time knocking around with a bunch of archaelogists from University College Dublin led by the indomitable Dr. Alan Peatfield, known to his students as Doctor Death.
Every evening the good doctor had arranged a set menu at one of the local taverna. Unfortunately he had not reckoned with my gargantuan appetites and had to order extra souvlaki and retsina every evening,. After a few days of placing extra orders, the owner came out to see whether the recipient was really just one person, so he came out to rap with us.
He said that once upon a time a stranger went into a taverna and ordered 99 souvlaki. The astounded taverna owner said, "99 souvlaki ! Why not go all the way and order 100 ?" The stranger replied, "Who can eat 100 souvlaki ?"
The point is that there are both limits and targets, with time and effort we can expand those limits and hit those targets. One of my heroes is Mr. Wong Seung-yau, a small, tubby, Tai Chi practitioner in his sixties in Hong Kong. Mr. Wong is not a fighter, his Tai Chi isn't even particularly good, but he is still my hero.
A few years ago when I was in Hong Kong preparing to give a Tai Chi seminar in Australia with my teacher, I noticed that every lunch time Mr. Wong would come up to the rooftop training area and practice the sabre form over and over again. I said to him that I didn't understand why he needed to practice the sabre so much when he'd been doing Tai Chi for more than 30 years.
He said that like me, he would be demonstrating at a forthcoming Tai Chi banquet and dare not lose face in front of the younger people there by not having the energy necessary to demonstrate the sabre at the correct speed so that for the last 2 weeks he had been practicing the sabre form 20 times in an hour every day.
Mr. Wong knows Zhong Yong. Mr. Wong is a true martial hero. Mr. Wong did a good demo on the night. But I don't know if Mr. Wong could eat 99 souvlaki, never mind 100.
by Dan Docherty (Combat August 2003)
In my country there is a great regard for history and tradition. The annual Tai Chi Caledonia event is set in the "Braveheart Country" of Stirling, over-shadowed by the neo-Gothic Wallace Monument. At the 7th Caledonia, Bruce Frantzis remarked to me how taken he was by the beauty of this splendid edifice erected in memory of one of our great tragic heroes. I told him we also have the battle-axe of our great king, Robert the Bruce. In the year 1314, before the climactic battle at Bannockburn began, the English champion, Henry de Bohun, charged him with his lance only for Bruce to kill de Bohun with one blow of his battle-axe. We still have the axe, only the haft has been changed four times and the head twice. That is tradition.
In 2001, I went with Pamela Teubig from Bremen, Claire Sheehy from Dublin and Torben Rif from Denmark to revisit Wudang Mountain and the Northern Shaolin Temple at Songshan.
We climbed the Sky Pillar Peak and visited the major temples as I have done with others so many times before. We did manage to visit a shrine on Jade Void Cliff, which has only recently been opened to the public for the first time It was quite a hike to get there too involving crossing a swaying rope bridge and scampering over what was not quite a trail. The shrine itself was evidently in active use as a place of worship and had a more genuine feel to it than some of the restored temples further up the mountain.
After some days on the mountain we went down to Wudang town passing by some of the numerous Wudang Quan martial arts schools teaching traditional Wudang Quan. None of these existed when I first visited the mountain in 1984, so the tradition is not long. Based on what I have seen on this and previous visits, what is being practiced is a mixture of modern wushu and kickboxing. That said, since the students train full time, all day and everyday they have some good athletes. Wudang town does have a saving grace, which is the small museum in what used to be a temple. Inside there is a painting in four sections from the late Qing dynasty showing the temples shrines and mountain in all their glory. What is more interesting is that the most important area on the painting is now many fathoms deep, in the middle of a reservoir constructed by the comrades in the 1950s and thus changing the whole focus of the mountain.
After this, we went to Zhengzhou and then by bus to the Shaolin Temple at Songshan. I had read in a French current affairs magazine about riots in the vicinity of the temple over land rights and I inquired about this amongst the townfolk. What I was told basically corroborated what I had read. A new abbot had moved into the temple and in collaboration with the local authorities had announced that the temple was a place of peace and contemplation, that traditionally all the land around the temple belonged to the Shaolin Temple. So all the land that had been occupied for generations by the townfolk, all the restaurants, shops and houses were bulldozed into the ground and taken by the Temple to lease out to 10 wushu schools, situated in the same road as the temple, which paid also for the right to use the name "Shaolin Temple". Hence the riots. Townfolk spoke to me of their hatred of the monks of how they had beaten them with fists and sticks and stoned them until the cops and the soldiers were called in "to re-establish the rule of law".
It is necessary to buy a ticket to enter the road of the 10 wushu schools and as in other theme parks the ticket gets clipped as you visit the other attractions such as the cinema and museum (both new), the temple graveyard and Boddidharma¹s cave, which is on a hill behind the temple.
The 10 wushu schools have a total enrolment in excess of 10000 students, each shaven-headed and dressed in the uniform peculiar to his school. As for the method of training and instruction, they train in platoons, the coaches (I use the term advisedly) blow whistles and shout orders; the platoons march, halt, horse-stance, punch, kick or somersault. The method of training in the wuguan (martial arts schools) on Wudang Mountain is almost identical and of course one is as traditional as the other.
There are plenty of shops and restaurants in the road all operated by or paying a fee to the temple and selling swords and other items at a considerably higher price than you would pay outside; all for the magic term "Shaolin Temple" written on them.
When I visited the Shaolin Temple in 1984, there were no monks there and no shops inside; it was a ruin, but renovations had just started. Now it has become a temple not to Buddha, but to the dollar. So now when people tell you they have trained in the Shaolin Temple or on Wudang Mountain you will perhaps understand the reality.
Bruce Frantzis did not know that Wu Jian-chuan trained inter alia with Song Shu-ming, he did not know that the Yang family in Yongnian practice the Wu Yu-xiang long form.
As for the monument to William Wallace in Stirling, as I told Bruce, the city fathers built it in 1867, nearly 600 years after Wallace's death (he was captured by the English and hung drawn and quartered in London in 1305). It is as meaningful and genuine as that battle-axe. It is not just the Chinese who can submerge history and tradition in a reservoir.
Martial Codes, Martial Rules, Martial Ways
by Dan Docherty (Combat August/September/December 2004)
Last week, across the table in a tapas bar, the Confucian hierarchical code, as applied to society in general and martial arts in particular, was vehemently condemned by a Basque student of Asian studies who had lived in Japan. She said that everyone should be free and open like the Taoists.
I turned 50 recently and various interactions which then occurred made me reassess certain aspects of my personal and professional life. It is a truism that Tai Chi Chuan is a Taoist martial art, but it is also heavily influenced in the best and worst way mainly (but not only) by Confucianism.
Society is run by codes, religious, moral and legal. As a boy I went to Church eight times a week and tried to follow that straitjacket of a code; I couldn’t do it perfectly and in the end I rejected it. As a police inspector I was expected to follow and enforce both the law and disciplinary regulations; I couldn’t do it perfectly and again I rejected it. My teacher used the ancient martial practice of Bai Shi in his school although at times he himself was unable or unwilling to follow it and I have found the same to my own cost and yet I am also unable to reject it.
The paradox is that while the code of Bai Shi emphasises that Tai Chi Chuan comes from Taoism, you may consider that its emphasis on respect for the teachers and more senior members of the school and on correct behaviour are straight from Confucianism as is the ritual ceremony of initiation. In fact similar but often more complex codes and rituals can be found in many Taoist sects.
Before getting down to martial codes, rules and ways, I’d like to look at the philosophical and cultural morass out of which they came.
Taoism & Confucianism
Taoism is thought of as being the opposite of Confucianism and is talked of as if it were a coherent school of thought. “Tao” is often translated as “The Way” yet Chinese is ambiguous and “Ways” is more apt because there were many different schools of Taoism. Some were really religious sects mainly concerned with prayer and worship; others practiced Internal or External Alchemy; others again concentrated on meditation or martial arts. Many of these sects were strictly regulated and on Wudang Mountain you can still read regulations for their conduct on some of the stone stele erected on the backs of giant stone tortoises from the Ming dynasty. There was even a Taoist prison for recalcitrant priests now turned into a Wu Shu school.
Though non-religious Confucianism is concerned with correct behaviour and emphasised righteousness, benevolence and filial piety and also emphasised the appropriate performance of rites. One of the great ironies of history is that Confucius was a failure in his professional life as a would-be advisor to one of the rulers of his day. He is what is known as an “Inner Sage”, a man who, though unknown in his life, lived on through his teachings. Today you can go as I did to his hometown of Qufu in Shandong where successive emperors erected mansions and shrines to honour him and where for centuries lived his descendants who were given Imperial positions to honour the unsuccessful sage. They became custodians yet prisoners of his memory and in a later section of this article I will tell you a similar story about Tai Chi Chuan.
One of the more important branches of Confucianism is that of the Legalists of which Hsun Tzu (3rd century BC) was the most famous thinker. He hated the corruption of the government of his times and rulers who relied on magic, omens and incantations rather than correct behaviour. It was a time when scholars were of low repute and people had been confused by the Taoists and the Dialecticians.
The Dialecticians heavily influenced Chan (Zen) Buddhism and said things like “A white horse is not a horse.” The Legalists attacked this approach using the words of Confucius, “Let the ruler be ruler, the subject subject; let the father be father, the son son.” Interestingly Lao Tzu said, “Beautiful words are not true, true words are not beautiful.” So sometimes the divide between the different camps was more apparent than real.
Paradoxically it is possible (though not easy) to be both Taoist and Confucian. These philosophical works are amongst the most sophisticated in world literature and were never meant for the “man on the Clapham omnibus”, but were written by the literati for the literati. Stereotypically the Confucian scholar was solemn and pompous, prosaic and dull, moralistic, but blessed with common sense. The scholar gentleman in his public persona was a sober, respectable, conscientious bureaucrat and family man.
The Taoist wanderer or recluse was by contrast a carefree spirit, escaping from respectability and conventional duties, a person full of wit and paradox, mystical and poetic. This was often the same scholar gentleman in his private persona, away from the demands of society and intoxicated by wine or nature.
My master’s uncle, Cheng Wing-kwong was fascinated with Qi Gong as well as Tai Chi Chuan and taught a system which included some sexual exercises which he had learned from a wandering Taoist. He said to this man that he too wanted to be a Taoist so the man told him, “OK, come with me.” He replied, “Where are we going? What about my family and my business?” And was told he had already failed in his ambition.
Taoism provided the inspiration for much of the poetry and mysticism in Chinese society as well as having radical effects on martial arts and Qigong. However, Taoism was also appropriated by some to search elixirs of immortality and served as an excuse for superstition and occult practices this in turn led to the formation of religious cults with organisation and rites borrowed from Confucianism and Buddhism.
Often stories are related how in former times students were tested by the master and this does have religious parallels. In Chan Buddhist temples pilgrims would be left to cool their heels in the entrance court to see if they were serious and even after this they would only be admitted for a period of probation and only after this was he allowed to meditate with the others. Even then the diet and physical regimen is tough. Chinese call this endurance of hardship “eating bitterness” and believe it helps to build the character. This is not to say that sentient pleasures are to be avoided but the primary sentient pleasure is good health, hence the Taoist emphasis on both Internal and External Alchemy.
Many of the “rules” on how to do Tai Chi Chuan are found in the Tai Chi Classics and much of this theory comes from Chinese philosophy. For example, in the "Tai Chi Chuan Lun". The term Lun is found in Lun Yu - the Analects of Confucius - discourses of the master on how to conduct oneself - within a moral and social context. The Tai Chi Chuan Lun likewise instructs us how to conduct ourselves within a physical and more particularly a martial context.
In a traditional Chinese martial arts school in the Far East new disciples were and are expected to know and to earn their place in the hierarchy particularly after ritual initiation and conduct is tacitly agreed to follow the Confucian concepts of righteousness, benevolence and filial piety. Not surprisingly the Great Helmsman and friends did not regard this type of “feudalism” with enthusiasm though they expected to have it exhibited towards them.
In the Tai Chi Chuan Ching, the term "Ching" will be familiar to those who are interested in Chinese philosophy. It appears in the titles of works such as, "I Ching", "Tao Te Ching" and many others. It is often translated as "Book" or Classic but I prefer “Canon”.
The derivation of the word Canon is from a Greek term meaning measuring line or standard. Its primary meaning is a code or regulation made by ecclesiastical authority. The use of this term in the title points to the strong philosophical and cosmological element in this particular essay. The first few lines in particular are drawn almost word for word from Neo Confucian philosopher Zhou Dun-yi's “Tai Chi Tu Shuo” (Diagrammatical Explanation of The Supreme Pole (Tai Chi)).
The philosophers, Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu, both talk of the concept of Wu Wei and Lao Tzu even says, “Wei Wu Wei”, “Act without acting”. This is often wrongly interpreted as doing nothing. Alan Watts gives an excellent explanation of the concept; it is like being in a boat on a river and wanting to go upstream. One very arduous solution is to attempt to row against the current; the Wu Wei solution is to put up a sail and to use the wind. The idea is not to do nothing, but to harmonise and avoid conflict with the elements that are present. So:-
“Freely contract and extend, open and close and listen.
To go through the gate and be led along the path oral instruction is necessary.
Kung Fu (effort) is unceasing. Cultivate the method yourself.”
Another important school of philosophy contemporary with Confucius was that of Mohism. They held to the doctrine of universal love rather than the Confucian idea of filial duty towards elders and superiors. At the same time they were practical and recommended doing nothing unless it brought some kind of personal benefit, though not necessarily a financial one. This was why though against aggressive warfare, they trained in military skills so that they could not only defend themselves, but also come to the rescue of a weak state attacked by a strong one. This approach is not greatly different from the Tai Chi Chuan theory, “Opponent doesn’t move, I don’t move; opponent starts to move I have already moved.” They might sound like New Agers, but Mo Tzu said, “Truth and falsehood don’t depend on the ear and eye, but require the exercise of the intellect.” So it is with martial arts.
In competition fighting, I always tried to follow the rules, except once. When fighting an old opponent from the Chikechuan school in Kuala Lumpur, I deliberately kicked him in the groin. He had done the same thing to me at the beginning of the first round, but despite my protests, the referee did nothing so I felt justified. Four years previously in Singapore, I was hurt after my first fight so I deliberately punched my next Shaolin opponent in the face with a twisting action to cut him with considerable success as the fight was stopped, his face cut above and below both eyes. Which action was the worse?
“Be meticulous and keep the Xin (mind) on enquiring into the art.”
One of the interesting things about Tai Chi Chuan is that the “rules” are not solely concerned with fighting. The Tai Chi Chuan Classics are full of Internal Alchemy references, for example, in the Song of The 13 Tactics, it says,
“Let us enquire into what acts as the rule for the body (in all this):-
The Yi (intent) and the Qi are the rulers;
The bones and the flesh are the officials.
Think and enquire where does the final purpose lie?
It lies in seeking longevity and keeping a youthful appearance.”
In other words a purely physical approach is quite inappropriate and yet much Tai Chi Chuan is of this type. I believe that this is largely due to the years of the Bamboo Curtain when China was cut off from the outside world and “feudal” ideas were vilified. It was a mad world where traffic lights signalled red for go and green for stop. Where the corpulent Great Helmsman was surrounded by an army of adoring peasant concubines while the peasants starved in their fields as the country made the “Great Leap Forward”. It was a country where Shifu (Cantonese Sifu ) or teaching fathers could only be addressed as Jiao Lian meaning coach or trainer. The Tai Chi Chuan Classics were consigned to the dustbin of martial arts history and chop-suey hybrid forms were created which had to be done in a precise way (which oftentimes - and most often in competition, conflicted with principles of said Classics),
These forms continue to this day, being changed a little every year or two by a committee and so those who practice them need to relearn. Now the Chinese are preparing for the Beijing Olympics in 2008. There were more than 10,000 full-time students in ten Wushu schools at the Shaolin Temple when I visited a few years ago, Wushu schools cover the 72 peaks of Wudang Mountain like a rash and yet none existed there 20 years ago, though now it is possible to use the term Shifu and to undergo Bai Shi (ritual initiation as a disciple),
What all these people are doing is almost entirely a physical martial art or Wushu. – the therapeutic, the cultural, the internal alchemy approach are noteworthy only for their absence.
It is interesting to compare martial art forms and the Taoist and Zen approach to painting. The idea in painting is not to paint an exact copy of the subject but to convey its essence though not necessarily by simplification –except at the beginning but by subtlety.
It can be said that form is image and application reality or that the form is an aesthetic manifestation of (Nei – Internal) Kung – strength or skill acquired by meritorious effort. In Tai Chi Chuan (and many other styles) the idea is rarely to do the technique exactly as it would be applied. Not only this, but in many schools there are permitted variations, which may be of different degrees of technical and gymnastic difficulty. Often problems occur when applications are shown so we have pictures of famous teachers such as Yang Cheng-fu showing ridiculous applications, which exactly mirror the form movements. Then these pictures are taken at face value and people wonder why the applications don’t work. Many techniques in my own lineage are applied with the reverse movements to those in the form – one of the reasons why we have reverse form.
I was recently giving a workshop at Tai Chi Caledonia with my Tai Chi brother, Ian Cameron, and we were asked what was the rationale behind the differences in our technique. Ian said that what he was trying to do was to pare down the technique, to aim for simplicity. My own approach is to try to practice as many skills as possibly in each technique as time is so precious. We would be poor teachers if we did everything the same.
As well as formal rules and codes there are private ones, which of course get broken too. When I first started to assist my old karate master instructing beginners I did what I had seen Japanese instructors do and swept to the ground anyone who made a mistake. It was only after I had trained with another Japanese that I stopped doing this, he taught martial arts with a smile, which seemed a fine way to go about it. In the years since then I have tried only to hurt students who themselves had hurt others. I have not always succeeded in this goal; there are not a few instructors of considerable experience and expertise who routinely abuse their students.
It is a great irony that the greatest sinners are often religious leaders; the greatest law-breakers are often lawgivers. It is a Taoistic truism that if there were no laws there would be no criminals, but how then to control unacceptable behaviour? It goes beyond this too.
We don’t even agree on the rules regarding the use of language. In Tai Chi Chuan today, for some, a kick is a kick, while for others a kick is a transfer of “energy” through the leg. On a physical level some people know what they are doing and are consciously or not applying correct principles while others have no idea what their movements mean but wave their arms, believing that their “Tai Chi Chuan” is as good, or better than any other. The same people believe that photos of the famous Yang Cheng-fu showing ridiculous applications or of Cheng Man-ching standing erect are realistic and indeed the only authentic way of doing Tai Chi Chuan.. They are in prisond and museums of their own construction.
There is a Taoist story of a man who wishes to cross a ditch during a deluge and using a fallen stele of the local god to bridge the divide, walks over to the other side. Another man arrives and finding the fallen stele covered with muddy footprints, cleans it and reverently restores it to its rightful place. In the Taoist pantheon another god asks the local god, “And so you will punish the first man and reward the second one?” The local god replies, “I can do nothing to the first man because he does not believe in me. I will punish the second one.”
Belief in codes, rules and ways is a dangerous thing; almost as dangerous as telling the truth.