The longer one stays involved in martial arts, the more obvious it becomes that certain arts / lines / groups have a serious case of “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. The phenomenon I’m referring to is where a comprehensive, usable fighting art gets degraded as it passes through the generations, until all that is left is an empty dance, a husk masquerading as a martial art.
In the description that follows I will deliberately avoid mentioning specific arts, as my intention is not to start a flame war. What I want to discuss in this blog post is a general trend in the world of CMA.
Generally what we see in Chinese martial arts (CMA) and possibly Japanese MA (JMA) as well – although I don’t have enough experience with JMA to make that call – is that during the heyday of the art, which for a lot of CMA was the late Qing dynasty, the art was practical, comprehensive (including conditioning, applications, sparring, neigong, etc), and training was with a view to actually using the art. This applies to several famous CMA that we can think of, such as taiji, xingyi, bagua, baji, etc.
Then, with the passage with time, various historical and personal factors conspired to dilute the art:
- Withholding the Art:
Certainly in the older generation of teachers it was not uncommon for teachers to withhold certain key aspects of the art such as neigong. In extreme cases, this meant that that material may be lost from that line altogether. Controversial examples would be the 24 neigong set in Wu style taiji, or the 72 kicks set in Jiang Rongqiao bagua.
- Selective Teaching / Favouritism:
Historically, for most TCMA in most places in China, the majority of the real teaching did not take place in formal classes but in small gatherings in parks or at the teacher’s house, or even one-on-one. The result of this is that it is / was common for teachers to be very selective about what materials were taught to certain students. In the xingyi that I practice I know for sure that there are portions of the art that are held very close to the chest and are not demonstrated in public, and I’m sure this is the same for my friends studying other traditional CMA.
- Cultural Revolution:
The damage wrought by the Cultural Revolution to CMA in China cannot be overestimated. Many famous taiji masters, such as Wang Peisheng, Yang Chengfu’s disciple Cui Yishi, Chen Xiaowang’s father Chen Zhaoxu etc were all struggled against. On the xingyi side masters like Zhu Guofu, Zheng Huaixian (Sun style), and Liu Molin (famous Hebei style master in Shanghai) were all targets of public struggle sessions. The word in Shanghai kungfu circles is that in the end Liu Molin could not stand the beatings and denunciations and committed suicide by jumping in the Huangpu river. Even if masters survived the Cultural Revolution, in most cases they were not allowed to teach and in certain examples were not even allowed to practice their arts. For example it is said that red guards were posted outside the house of Zheng Jun, the son of the famous Zhaobao taiji master Zheng Wuqing, to stop him from practicing!
- Chinese Political Environment
Even after the Cultural Revolution had passed and China started opening up, the Chinese government viewed the practice of real martial arts as at best a waste of time and at worst a threat to its control over its people. The teaching of fighting techniques in public was frowned upon, and even ostensibly less violent forms of practice such as stand-up wrestling received no government support.
- Commercialization of the Art / McDojo-isation
Separate to the trend of development of TCMA in China, other trends in the West also helped to further the dilution of the arts. Unlike China, the main way TCMA has spread in the West is through commercial schools (dojo / wuguan). This has the advantage that the art (hopefully) is taught in a more public, systematic way, but also has the associated downside that it can lead to creating a large pool of people who have only obtained a superficial understanding of the art, to the point where they may not have even learned the choreography of the main forms properly. If these people then go on to teach, the results can be imagined.
What is left at the end of this process is just a dance or form of calisthenics, fine for general exercise but devoid of any real martial substance, and not leading to any real fighting ability.
If you (like me) are studying TCMA not just for health but also with the genuine intention of at least being able to use what you have learnt, then you need to ask yourself:
- Do I know the usage of these moves that I’m learning?
- Can I actually use these moves under pressure?
- In the system that I am learning, is there a systematic step-by-step training method that leads from training applications to controlled sparring to semi-realistic fighting conditions?
If the answers to all of those questions are yes, congratulations! You are on the right track🙂