Tuesday, July 29, 2014

What is a Martial Art?

I have some tracking software on this blog that allows me to understand which posts bring the most traffic.  I've been surprised to see that a few posts that I made years ago totally swamp all the others in popularity.  Those are the ones about how I got involved in Daoism in the first place.  And of those, the discussion focuses repeatedly on the Taoist Tai Chi Society (TTCS) and Moy Lin Shin.

I suppose that this makes sense, given that the TTCS is a huge organization with affiliated schools and temples all over the world.  But in the on-going discussion that takes place in the comments section I've noticed that a lot of the back-and-forth comes about claims that I have made about the taichiquan form that is taught through that school.  The latest one got very involved in a complex discussion about another form called "lok hup":
It turns out the 108 moves was Mr Moy's way of preparing students to learn the zhu ji liuhebafa set of Liang Zipeng. The foundation exercises the TTCS practices are meant to be like Mr Peng's Three Treasures of Southern Yiquan: the danyu, toryu, and zhan zhuang. They all help build strength in the dantian and reinforce energy currents in the body. These are the "qigong elements" added into the 108 moves that people are always going on about.
You should see some of these advanced practitioners do lok hup ba fa though. It's obvious how that was Mr Moy's passion, and the simplified Yang 108 was the "internal arts 101" class... 
Many of my readers will no doubt find the terms mentioned "danyu", "toryu", "zhuan zhuang" and "lok hup ba fa" mystifying.  The first two are specific types of exercises, the third is a class of exercises, and the last is an internal "form".  Here's a YouTube of someone doing "Lok Hup":

That is to say, first of all, is this stuff a martial art?  And if it isn't, is it of any value?  And if it is of some value, are the results worth the effort?

Well, let's look at "Lok Hup".  Like a lot of things, finding the right spelling can make a big difference in learning about something.  Here's a Wikipedia article that talks about it, but it uses the phrase "Liuhebafa" instead of Lok Hup.  It has some interesting links at the end, including this one from a school that teaches Liuhebafa.

Like with most issues, I find that it is useful to try and clarify our language in order to improve our thinking about it.  So what's a martial art?

Well, the first answer would be that it is a form of self defence.  OK, but it is more specific than that.  The first clarifying question to ask is whether or not soldiers are taught martial arts, and I would suggest that they are not.

Martial arts came about not as something that ordinary folks could learn, but rather as a specialized skill that aristocrats learned in order to give them an edge when dealing with the "great unwashed".  Poor people were often a lot stronger than the wealthy, simply because they'd spent a lifetime in toil instead of leisure.  In contrast, because of that leisure and wealth, the rich had the opportunity to hire teachers to train them in specialized fighting techniques and the time to practice what they were taught.  This meant that when an aristocrat (or Buddhist monk or Daoist cleric) was attacked by ruffians, that the fight was sometimes very far from fair.

Take a look at the following scene from the film "Rob Roy".  Western, classically-trained actors are usually taught fencing as part of their training, which is why this scene is so realistic.  The guys really do know what they are doing.  This means that this scene is a little more realistic than many of the Asian martial arts movies.

Besides the issue of training opportunities, there is also the issue of weapons.  Martial arts are artificial constructs created by social limits being placed on what weapons are available.   Fencing with a rapier only makes sense when the opponent doesn't have any armour or a projectile weapon.  That means that they only became common after armour was made obsolete by black powder guns and stayed only until repeating pistols made them useless.  A rapier is worthless against a gangster who can buy a cheap automatic pistol, but very useful against an 18th century thief who probably cannot afford anything more lethal than an oak club or a dagger---especially if you are trained and he is using brute force. A musket with a bayonet would also be very good against ruffians, but would be a hassle to lug around to the whorehouse and gambling den, so a rapier and pistol it is.  There is always a chance that an aristocratic opponent might be wearing some type of armour under his clothing, but it would be useless against a pistol and would slow him down to make him an easier target to hit for that crucial single shot that muzzle-loading pistols allowed. (Plus it would be damned uncomfortable to wear and probably easy to spot anyway.)

Nowadays martial arts are pretty much worthless for most people.  We have very safe streets and very efficient police forces.  And anyone who is out to commit violence has ready access to really powerful weapons.  This means that the only really intelligent reaction in any but the rarest of instances is simply to run and hide, period.  If you believe that you absolutely must have some sort of self-defence system, then the logical thing to do is get a gun, a concealed carry permit and put your energy into learning how to shoot safely and efficiently.

The decline in the value of martial arts has meant that most of the European ones have died out.  Rapier fencing has survived as both a sport and as training for actors, but that is just about it.  In the East, however, because of the association between religion and martial arts, they have survived as methodologies for physical and spiritual cultivation.  I was, for example, taught taijiquan by a Daoist as part of a larger institution that included meditation classes and ritual worship at a Temple.   This connection has been formalized in "history" that suggests that Shaolin Kungfu was "invented" by the same Buddhist Monk who "invented" Zen.   Similarly, Daoist hermit Chang San Feng is supposed to have "invented" taijiquan.  (This is all nonsense, of course.)

In Japan a similar process was at work where people created the "do" (think "dao") way of understanding martial systems.  So "bushido" is "the way of the warrior", "Akido" is "the way of qi", "karatedo" is "the way of the empty hand", and so on.  The emphasis morphed from being specifically about fighting and surviving, and became that of learning to live a specific type of life.

This is all very well.  Indeed, I've pretty much built my life around this sort of thing.  But there are several real problems that can arise from this way of doing things.  First of all, young men have a genetic predisposition towards brawling.  (Think of young rams banging their heads together.)  The leaders of these schools have a strong incentive to completely remove sparring from the school, or, to formalize it to the point where it bears no resemblance at all to an actual fight.  Secondly, because the only reason why someone comes to a school in the first place is to learn something from the teacher, there is a tendency to artificially build-up the teacher to the point where they become just a tad short of Jesus Christ in the awesomeness department. The value of sparring is that it very quickly separates truth from bullshit.  And if your teacher is a real human being instead of a demi-god, you have a tendency to test what he has to say instead of just accepting it as a revelation from above.

Without this process of "truth testing", we can end up with this sort of situation developing:

I'm not about to make a decision one way or the other about what is going on the head of this Sensei.  It might be that he is a venal twerp who wants to either extract money from his students.  It might also be that at one time he decided that in order to make the rent and keep the kids around so he could teach them a little common sense, he decided to start making stuff up about qi.  It might also be that he was a very good teacher that ended up with a lot of very naive students treating him like a hero from a comic book and it went to his head.  Lots of different paths could lead to the place where he finds himself in this video.

What seems obvious to me, however, is that both he and his students are involved in a collective delusion about his supposed powers.

Again, it is possible to see how this could come about.  You cannot teach martial arts without a certain degree of play acting.  If you put people into a ring and try to get them doing stuff "for real" from the get go you are going to end up with broken bones, smashed teeth, concussions and lawsuits.  For example, this means that when you are learning joint locks you don't put maximum pressure on the limb and the other guy doesn't fight, he just passively flows into the throw.  The hope is that once you learn how it is supposed to work and do it so many times that it comes naturally, you will be able to use it in a real fight.  The problem is, however, that unless you actually try it out for real against someone who really is resisting, you never really know if it is for real or just baloney.

In the above, I'm assuming that someone is actually trying to do the martial art as primarily a martial art and only secondarily as a "dao".  But where someone can really go down the rabbit hole is when they give up on the self-defence elements altogether and start doing it for spiritual and health reasons.  This is because once you change the ultimate goal of the practice to that you remove any ability at all---even in theory---to check for self-delusion.  Any form of exercise will help people up a certain extent, but beyond that people can convince themselves that all sorts of things are happening in their body.  You can tell if someone is able to push other people around with their qi, by having some outsider actively resist and see if he still gets tossed.  But how do you argue with someone about what they are actually feeling in their bodies?  Or what sort of deep philosophical insight they are gaining from the practice?

Ultimately all we can do is look at their bodies.  Did the qi cure their cancer?  Or did they just feel good for a few months and die anyway?  Do they seem to be wiser and more insightful than everyone else?  Or do they do just as dumb and screwed-up things as everyone else?  At that point we are forcing martial arts to submit to the same sort of analysis as everything else in society.  To my mind, that means that we fall back on the old stand byes of scepticism:  logic and evidence.  

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