The rise and fall of a martial art
by Joanna Zorya
In the last article "How Taiji lost its Quan" I listed a number of different theories pertaining to how Taijiquan fell from being a respected martial art, to being seen as some kind of alternative or complementary therapy. In this article, I examine the subject from another perspective. This article will deal with the idea that ALL martial arts suffer the fate of being watered down as a result of increased popularity. This being the case, I would argue that the so-called "internal" styles, and in particular Taijiquan (T'ai Chi Ch'uan) must surely be the most extreme example.
Within any martial tradition there are a number of facets - some are specifically martial while others can only be described as cultural. Firstly, we should be aware of the specific warfare conditions that spawned the art, or in other words, the art's geographic and historical background. Such matters can give us insights into how the art developed, who practiced it, what kind of people the art was designed to fight, and what kind of battlefield the art fought on.
But then there are the social, philosophical, political and religious beliefs that formed the mindset of the original martial artist or martial arts community. How relevant are those cultural aspects to a martial artist in the here and now?
Martial styles emerge from the battlefield, but as the arts move into civilian life and attract more and more non-military devotees, they slide away from their combative origins and their practitioners inevitably begin to emphasise, to greater and greater degrees, all of those other factors at the expense of the martial techniques themselves. Often it will be claimed that these non-martial factors are somehow integral to the arts - they are not. Many ideas are simply discredited or out-dated. Others are not so much integral to the fighting arts themselves, but simply highlight the cultural language of the nation where the arts originated. All are useful only in as much as they relate to combat.
Here are two examples:
1) Qi is only another way of describing sound body mechanics and yet it has taken on a whole mythology pertaining to magical abilities and irrelevant esoteria, simply because the concept has been utterly distorted by people (chiefly Westerners) who did not understand its relevance. Martial arts are not magic. Nor are they the same thing as medicine, just as a soldier is not a doctor. That said, both will probably have some idea of anatomy and the location of vital organs.
2) Yin yang (taiji) theory is another area of great misconception. Within new-age "internal arts" circles, the idea is frequently related to essentialistic notions of gender and even to sexual practices. Such ideas have nothing whatsoever to do with the arts' combative origins and merely reflect how decadent an art can become when it is in its degenerative phase. By this stage, an "art" shares absolutely nothing with the original martial style but a name.
Contrary to popular belief, taiji theory is far from specific to the art of Taijiquan or to the philosophy or religions of Daoism. The idea is found throughout Chinese culture. Sun Zi applied taiji concepts to martial strategy some 2300 years ago and Chinese martial artists have been drawing upon his theories ever since, regardless of whether they were primarily Daoist, Confucian, Legalist, Buddhist, Muslim or Communist in their world view.
Within Chinese martial and civilian culture alike, people have been influenced by a plethora of different cultural ideas. But rather than necessarily being tied to any specific ethos, then as now, people have been able to draw from whatever is useful within their cultural arsenal and never more so than in times of war. During peacetime, it is often these cultural ideas that become seized upon and distorted beyond recognition by the increasing number of "hangers on" that the arts invariably attract.
The following diagram is based on a diagram I came across in Bob Orlando's book "Martial Arts America." I felt that it might be useful to expand on Bob's original idea in order to relate it specifically to the so-called "internal arts," and with particular regard to Taijiquan / T'ai Chi Ch'uan. (Special thanks to Bob for approving this article.)
War and Peace
During wartime, fighting arts are born. The process generally begins with a collection of disparate combat techniques. Over time this will evolve into systemised combat training. While the focus of training remains firmly fixed on martial efficacy, the art can go from strength to strength, being further refined and expanded upon in order to deal with a greater variety of combative situations. Training methods will also be developed and refined over time. Practitioners of the art may become famous for winning significant battles and the art will probably attract attention, glory and devotees.
An art may gradually become more versatile, and non-fatal applications and variations may emerge along with a deeper knowledge of the kinetic principles involved in the style. Adaptations might introduce methods of restraint and arrest, thereby increasing its value to civilian security forces such as policemen and security guards. The art may also begin to be valued as a good all-round health and fitness regimen, developing strength, endurance, agility, flexibility and confidence in the process of teaching a broad range of martial skills. All of these developments can be thought to occur during the time when the art is still in its ascendancy - on its way to becoming a popular martial art for soldiers, police forces and civilians alike. This phase is seen on the left half of the diagram, which I have labelled the "Martial" side.
However, in line with Yin Yang theory, it is precisely when an art reaches its highest height, that its inevitable decline begins. The decline I am referring to is not a decline in the art's popularity - oh no - the art's widespread popularity is probably only just beginning. The decline I am talking about is in the art's usefulness as a martial art, or in other words, a decline in standards.
As time goes on, an increasing number of practitioners will appear who are more interested in practising the art as a leisure activity or health maintenance programme. This is the martial art as we generally get to know it within civilian life and to begin with, the art will have a lot to offer the civilian practitioner. Students will probably be able to learn an array of martial techniques, able to suit a variety of different hostile encounters from the very dangerous to the irritating but essentially non-threatening. Such arts will teach us how to hold ourselves in such a way that we are less likely to be targeted by bullies or opportunists in daily life, as we cease to be perceived as vulnerable targets. Our confidence builds, along with our martial skills, and this will generally show in our bearing and demeanour. But there is a down-side.
As the art ceases to be practiced exclusively by military personnel or solely in "life or death" or even overtly dangerous situations, there will be a gradual watering down of the art. When an increasing number of civilians and non-martial artists are attracted to the art, the balance becomes tipped away from martial usage and towards the other perceived benefits. I have labelled this phase the "Civil" half of a martial art's life. When a martial art becomes a mass-market product and decides to try and compete with other mass-market products, more and more benefits will be offered for less and less commitment to hard work. This goes against the whole Kung Fu (Gongfu) principle of "great skill developed over time through hard work."
During this time, an increasing amount of emphasis will become placed on the more commercially attractive aspects of the art at the expense of the fighting techniques that made the art famous in the first place. Realistic combat training may be replaced with less dangerous sporting contests, with prizes on offer for the winners. Rigourous training methods will be phased out in favour of showy display forms. At this stage, actually being a credible martial artist starts to play second fiddle to the task of just trying to look like one. After all, why buy an expensive Rolex watch, when you can buy a copy for a fraction of the price?
Particularly here in the West, this is also the time when the so-called "cultural aspects" become increasingly promoted and the martial artist is guided towards the romantic "Oriental," the decorative, the mystical and the spiritual. At best, this cultural information can be interesting and informative, although it will also eat into your martial practice time. If you signed up for a course at a boxing gym, would you expect to be taught about the cultural heritage of Western boxing and the Christian roots of the society from which it sprang? I think not.
All too often, the cultural information that Westerners are fed about Eastern arts is irrelevant and even wildly inaccurate. It is alarmingly common for an art's history to be re-written during this phase of its life and credit will cease to go to the soldiers or generals who developed the art in favour of more intellectually acceptable alleged originators such as monks and mystics. The role of qi / ki (a.k.a "life force" or "internal energy") becomes blown out of all proportion here, simply because it sounds exotic and mysterious. Unfortunately, being mystified by it won't help you use it. When someone throws a punch, you divert it and borrow some of its momentum to add to your own counter-strike. It's a neat trick, but it's far from magic. Borrowing energy? Big deal - it's a way of redirecting momentum by use of body mechanics. That will be £200 please.
The Heart of the Matter
Whether you are a soldier, a policeman, an accountant, a school teacher, a shopkeeper or a shopper, what matters most in all martial training is efficacy. Furthermore, when you are dealing with a matter of survival or protection, you cannot afford to get bogged down in irrelevant, exotic window dressing. You should make use of all of the scientific, philosophical, technological and intellectual developments at your disposal. You can be sure that this is what was happening at the genesis of your fighting art, when lives still depended on your getting it right.
You should endeavour to make your art as understandable as possible, to yourself and others, in plain and rational terms. Too many people like to bamboozle and mystify with clouds of incense smoke and bagua mirrors. You should use culturally relevant language - simply so that the concepts can be as clear and accessible as possible. Do not adhere to out-dated or unnecessary ideas, habits or terminology out of misplaced loyalty. Any martial artist worth their salt should be glad of all the conceptual breakthroughs at their disposal. After all, their life or someone else's still could depend on it.
Pomp and Ceremony
It is apparent that many people, if they are left to their own devices, are inclined to become physically and morally decadent. If this happens, then any martial arts they practice will inevitably go the same way. One thing we can learn from nature is that necessity is the mother of invention. I would add that complacency may well be the mother of degeneration. I point this out because the "internal arts" mainstream, now so full of pomp, ceremony and pretentiousness, does not typically attract the kinds of people who feel particularly at threat in their daily lives. If such people consider themselves martial artists at all, most will only be playing at it in silk suits, with fluttering fans, because they won't feel any great need to be able to fight tooth and claw to protect all that they hold dear. They pay their taxes so that policemen will do that job for them.
This is when an art is in great danger of being choked to death. To deny a martial art its genuine martial origins is a green light for the art to become inundated with people who might wish to re-create it in their own image.
To Hurt or to Heal?
T'ai Chi has by far the biggest profile among the so-called "internal arts," allegedly being the most widely practiced "martial art" in the world today. However, popular T'ai Chi is also the worst offender in terms of how far it has had to stray from its martial origins in order to earn that title. How many of its practitioners even see themselves as martial artists?
It is frequently claimed that "T'ai Chi" can be practiced as a method of "energetic healing" or counselling, as a path to spiritual enlightenment or even as some kind of decadent "Pamper Treat." Perhaps it should be noted that the word "pamper" means to "spoil" or "overindulge." When a martial art is allegedly used to heal (or even pamper!) instead of hurt, it is hard to imagine how it could stray any further from its original purpose.
Frankly, "T'ai Chi" has slid so far from its origins that its practitioners often don't even bother to keep their emphasis on cultural and spiritual embellishments accurate. Qigong and T'ai Chi are now often taught as fully interchangeable arts and freely mixed with Indian and Tibetan Yoga or Tantra, with Japanese Reiki, with Reichian psychoanalysis, or even with Western occultism.
Seeming Fair and Feeling Foul
There is another huge down-side to martial arts being practiced for non-martial purposes, which could perhaps be seen as another sign of the old Taiji (Yin-Yang) symbol in action. From my experience of a number of different martial styles, most martial artists are pretty decent and honourable people. They have a sense of martial morality (Wu de in Chinese - meaning "martial virtue.") But to have a sense of martial morality, you first have to see yourself as a martial artist.
Martial artists know full well that martial arts can be used to hurt, but more importantly, they know that they can be used to take control of violent situations and prevent unnecessary hurt from taking place. Martial artists often have a very clear sense of developing precise control of their ability to injure, repel or subdue and maintain a calm head while doing it. They may also have a strong sense of responsibility to protect their families. Again, I can only speak from my own experience, but I have found martial arts classes to be benevolent places where people have fun sharing their common interest in developing martial skills to protect themselves and others.
However, this has not been my experience of so-called "internal arts" circles. There, masked aggression, bitterness, smugness and fear may often run riot, despite the fact that most of them seem to pride themselves on how pacifistic they are, as they share their hatred of all things martial, masculine or mainstream. Aspirations focus on some fictional fey ideal of serene pseudo-Oriental civility. Some will tell you that fighting arts are fascistic; others will actively plot to paganise the adult education circuit. "Sharing energy" and champagne in a "nurturing space" might seem like a harmless way to spend the summer solstice to some, but I consider it an affront to martial culture. I doubt very much if Chen Fake could have slain the leader of the Red Spear gang armed only with a pole, if he'd spent all his time greeting the sun in tie-dye trousers and guzzling wine.
Beneath that genteel exterior, the T'ai Chi "player" often sees herself as above and beyond the coarseness, crudeness and naivety of the "hopelessly blinkered Judeo-Christian Western mindset." While on her unending quest for enlightenment, she might manage to sound liberal, broad-minded and "deeply caring," underneath she is often just an egocentric bigot waiting for the next free ride to Nirvana. Some will be enterprising enough to charge you hundreds of pounds for their qigong "cancer cure," while others will do it purely for the joy of subverting conventional medicine. The "T'ai Chi and Qigong" practitioner might sound benevolent on paper, she may even contain her contempt for lesser mortals fairly well, but get to know her and you may just realise that despite seeming fair, she feels surprisingly foul.
Look at it this way, if someone were to suddenly leap out of the darkness and try to knock you to the ground so they could steal your purse, who would seem more benevolent to you then - the martial arts teacher that showed you how to perform an effective eye jab, or the qigong guru who taught you how to open your "energy gates"? Think about it.
If pressed, some T'ai Chi teachers will tell you that the martial applications will come later - much, much later. But wait and watch and you will almost always learn that that time never comes. I know for a fact that most T'ai Chi teachers do not know a single application. How many years are you prepared to waste on false promises? If you enrolled on a pottery course and never got to make a pot, I think most people would call that a scam.
It is in this time of crisis within T'ai Chi's lifespan that the true T'ai Chi martial artists become visible to the point of conspicuousness. Unfortunately it is not possible to simply turn the clock back to restore the martial credentials of "T'ai Chi," because it has fallen too far. If we try to do so - to drag the art back in an anti-clockwise direction, we will not only have an uphill struggle, but we will find ourselves constantly battling against the flow of new-age traffic. We can not have any kind of meaningful dialogue or debate with those who do not even see themselves as martial artists. We need to stage a revolution - to overthrow the gatekeepers of the art as it exists today and utterly destroy all current public conceptions. Rather than trying to turn the clock back, we must completely dismantle it and rebuild it from scratch with an entirely new face.
We should take only what is truly useful from Taijiquan's martial arsenal. In the process of re-evaluating and rebuilding the art, we need to ensure that our combat techniques and training methods can withstand rational scrutiny and are relevant to 21st Century self-defence. The few die-hard martial purists that have continued to practice the art traditionally have already done this to varying degrees, so some work has already been done. But let us no longer imagine that we can rub shoulders with those who despise martial arts and martial artists. The next war in the history of the "internal arts" must be waged within the "internal arts" community itself. We must smash the unscrupulous marketing machine of the charlatans, gurus and self-styled therapists who are making a financial killing from plundering our martial tradition. How hard can that be?
The Internal Enemy
Other martial artists beware, don't let the fate that has befallen Taiji afflict your art too. Turn back while there is still time! The death knell for any martial art is to become labelled an "internal art." Avoid such accusations like the plague, before your martial community becomes flooded by hordes of wannabe buddhas, have-a-go Gandalfs, sexual svengalis and self-styled "drunken daoists." There is no surer way of condemning a good honest martial art to destruction at the hands of the enemy within. Anyone for a spot of Kundalini Karate, Tantric Taekwondo, Neurolinguistic Ninjutsu, Krav Maga for Kouples or Angelic Magick Aikido? Don't laugh - your art could be next.