The Democratisation (and Praxis) of Martial Arts in New China
By Shifu Adrian Chan-Wyles
Since 1949 and the over-throw of nationalism and feudalism, China has embarked upon a path of radical modernisation guided by the political ideology of Marxist-Leninism as interpreted by Mao Zedong. Since that time, Chinese society has rapidly modernised, with illiteracy all but being eradicated, education standards rising throughout society, and wealth being generated across the nation. Of course, this has required in its initial stages, a rapid industrialisation process, which has led to China being at the fore-front of technological and scientific innovation in the world. Part of this early changing of attitudes, particularly during the 1950’s, saw the otherwise ‘elitist’ attitudes and quite often ‘illogical’ (and superstitious) processes inherent in the various martial arts schools, come under scrutiny and examination by the new regime. It was decided that as traditional Chinese martial arts possessed two distinct practical purposes – i.e. self-defence and longevity through health – that the old system of clannish exclusivity (i.e. ‘nepotism’) and bureaucratic obscuration should be abandoned, in favour of opening martial arts practice to the general Chinese population. Prior to this time, it was the common practice for martial arts styles to be jealously guarded within various families, or practiced only by the rich or influential (such as government officials, or members of the nobility).
This ‘opening up’ of the martial arts was stage one of the democratisation process, with stage two consisting of the movements and forms of the existing styles being brought into line with modern logical assessment and interpretation. An example of this process can be seen with the Beijing Short-Form of Taijiquan – designed to retain and convey all the positive aspects of that art, but within an easily learnable and user friendly format. Stage three of the democratisation process involved the educating of the general public to understand that they should practice these ‘new’ forms of Chinese martial arts as a means to keep fit, healthy and strong. This ‘preventative’ approach propagated by the Communist Party of China (CPC), as revolutionary as it may have been, was in practice fully in accordance with the premise of traditional Chinese medicine. Whereas the arduous nature of the old styles ensured that only a very few students (of high moral character and unusual physical ability) were allowed access into the martial arts schools, the new styles were premised on the principle of ‘health for all’, and not necessarily on producing effective fighters. As martial arts practice became popular and spread throughout China, obviously, the majority of practitioners were not trained fighters, but practised to maintain their health, with perhaps a small number seeking-out instruction beyond the surface level of their art.
The old martial arts continued to be practised more or less out of sight for decades within society, but openly formed the premise of the self-defence programme of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) – which has many distinct aspects – with a particular emphasis upon various types of Long Fist technique. Within the Chinese military and police, for instance, there was a practical reason to retain the emphasis upon martial efficacy, but this does not mean that these ‘old’ arts were ‘unhealthy’, far from it. The Shaolin Temple at Henan, for instance, despite being destroyed in 1928 by the military forces of the then incumbent Nationalist regime, continued to practice a martial system that fully embraced both self-defence and medical care, as did the martial tradition of Wudang, etc. In fact, the Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine states that an individual’s health is dependent upon the ‘shapes’ and ‘movements’ performed each day by the body, as such exercises enhance the blood and qi energy flow both into and out of the inner organs – thus keeping the body fit and healthy. This idea served as the basis of the CPC reforms with regards to martial arts practice, with the movements of the styles being modified to ‘balance’ both sides of the body, and emphasise equally kicking and punching, as well as harmonising low stances with high stances, etc. Forms were re-arranged into logical structures that were easier to learn, remember and teach, with this process being speeded-up by not placing an emphasis upon martial ability. This fact did not mean that the martial ability was ‘deliberately’ cleansed from the arts themselves, but merely that this particular aspect of training was not made prominent at the initial stages of training.
The problem with many Western narratives that pertain to truthfully ‘interpret’ China, her culture, and her history, is that they exclude any Chinese input from that process. Undoubtedly, centuries old Eurocentric attitudes of racism are part of this problem, whilst political bias is another. Combine these two aspects, and China is viewed from the West (both implicitly and explicitly) as an inferior country, populated by an inferior ethnicity, which is guided by an inferior political ideology (i.e. ‘Socialism’), that arose because of a centuries old ‘inferior’ feudalistic (and non-Christian) culture. These highly misleading and false attitudes serve as a kind of interpretive currency within Western discourse, which is a priori assumed to be ‘true’ and beyond criticism and question. In fact, this Eurocentric bias is conditioned to react aggressively to any and all questioning of its operating parameters. This racially bias and unscientific analysis of China, is viewed as being the height of Western cognitive thought, and believed to be both ‘logical’ and ‘scientific’, in other words, the exact ‘inverse’ of what it actually is. On the whole, this flawed approach is not seriously questioned, exposed or rejected within Western academia, simply because it currently serves the anti-China policies pursued by Western governments. Demeaning China, and presenting its people and politics as despotic or deficient is designed to prevent genuine understanding and sympathy developing amongst the ordinary people living in the West.
Routine anti-China racism in the West is only part of a broader anti-Asia racism emanating from the US, but which is prevalent throughout Europe. As such, it serves the cultural filter through which Mainland China is viewed by Western observers, both through its mainstream media, and social media. Although there are many examples that could be called upon to demonstrate this reality, the recent fight between a MMA practitioner and a Taijiquan master in Chengdu (on the 27th of April, 2017), serves to demonstrate this flawed analysis in operation. This upsurge of anti-China sentiment has been premised entirely upon ignorance and prejudice – reducing the real racism in operation to a fight between two Chinese men – one of which is interpreted as representing ‘Western’ mixed martial arts. The MMA as developed in the West, is premised upon a modification of Western Boxing, integrated with various aspects of Asian martial arts. As a professional sport, its founding ethos is premised solely upon using violence to make money. In this regard, a number of Western commentators that follow and support Western Boxing, have pointed-out how even at world level, MMA skill is rarely as developed as its Western Boxing counter-part. Furthermore, MMA, as a technique, is not officially used in the training programmes of world militaries, simply because a soldier in a combat zone would not voluntarily give-up his or her weapon and roll on the floor with a single opponent, as this would put their life, as well as the lives of their colleagues at risk. Therefore, Western MMA is a sport designed to be performed through a definite set of rules that by their very definition, ‘limit’ the nature of the combat sport.
Did the West ‘invent’ the concept of ‘mixed martial arts’? The answer is ‘no’. Traditional Chinese martial arts, from at least the time of the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BCE), and certainly before, were certainly being used on the battlefield, and as folk rituals in religious worship. The battlefield arts were comprised of an ‘armed’ and an ‘unarmed’ aspect, making use of many different weapons, horses, technology and terrain. As fighting on the battlefield was a brutal experience – the Chinese martial arts that developed were equally brutal in technical content. This is the basis of ‘mixed martial arts’ training within a Chinese historical context, which is far older than its Western-counter. The fighting aspects of traditional Chinese martial arts are not for health, quite the opposite, they exist to inflict the maximum amount of damage upon an enemy in the quickest time possible, with the least amount of effort involved. This type of training also prepares the body of the practitioner to sustain a violent attack and survive either unscathed, or with the minimum amount of injury possible. Eye-striking, ear ripping, throat punching, groin kicking and bone-breaking form the basis of these traditional Chinese martial arts – which explains why masters only taught a small number of individuals in the past that they could trust not to ‘misuse’ these abilities in peace-time. Within modern China, these martial arts still exist, with varying interpretations from shallow to deep. Training for health both preserves the arts, and retains peace within society, whilst training for the self-defence aspects, keeps that particular (and ‘special’) knowledge alive. Masters in China today practice a two-tier system, whereby large numbers of people are introduced to an art which they practice for some time, before a small number of talented individuals are taken to one-side and offered ‘advanced’ training in the more combative elements.
The 20 second fight between Xu Xiaodong (of Beijing), and Master Wei Lei of (Chengdu) demonstrated a number of logical conclusions:
1) Two poorly, or incompletely trained martial artists will have a ‘confused’ interaction with no martial or moral merit, or positive educational outcome.
2) The ‘mixed martial arts’ of Xu Xiaodong is technically deficient – meaning that by his very wide stance (exposing his groin) he has no real knowledge of genuine traditional Chinese martial arts (which favours swift groin kicking as a norm). His guard was wide-open exposing all his vulnerable points such eyes, throat and diaphragm. Although a brief encounter, it would appear that he only uses brute force, and can only punch with his right arm. Therefore, not only does he not possess any genuine knowledge of the ‘internal’, also appears to lack any real knowledge of the ‘external’.
3) Master Wei Lei appeared to have no ‘root’, which is usually a prerequisite skill of Taijiquan training – even if only training for health. He raised his hands high – which automatically exposed his entire body, and encouraged his opponent to rush at him. Whilst despite easily landing a ‘touch’ to Xu Xiaodong’s sternum, this blow appeared to be ineffectual (although rumours after the fight suggest Xu Xiaodong has withdrawn from public life due to ‘internal’ damage suffered in the fight). Whilst on the ground, Master Wei Lei made no attempt to cover his head with his arms (or for that matter, to cover his groin).
4) Master Wei Lei claims his smooth-soled shoes slipped on the training mat as he tried to ‘root’ and generate power – but it is my understanding that he routinely trained at that martial arts hall and should probably be at least aware of the different types of flooring, as well as the effects of various designs of footwear.
5) Xu Xiaodong has embraced a shallow and brutish martial sport that has its roots in the West. This may be suitable for the West, but it is out of historical and cultural context within China (either feudal or Communist). Furthermore, Xu Xiaodong was going to host a ‘global’ news conference announcing the ‘death’ of traditional Chinese martial arts, in conjunction with an unnamed Western MMA platform – but this was cancelled at the last moment – when Xu Xiaodong withdrew due to a mystery ‘illness’. These events followed his ‘questioning’ by Chengdu police – and eventually released.
6) Master Wei Lei immediately went on record stating that although he did not know how to use Taijiquan for ‘fighting’, he felt honour-bound to step-in and take the place of a 68 year old Taijiquan master, that the 39 year old Xu Xiaodong had previously challenged. In this motivation, at least, there is an element of nobility. Whereas Xu Xiaodong premises his life upon ‘hurting’ others to prove limited egotistical points, Master Wei Lei uses his Taijiquan skills to help others cope with long-term illnesses and diseases. In this regard, Master Wei Lei’s example is useful to society, Xu Xiaodong’s example only encourages mindless violence.
7) The Western response to this incident has seen a mixture of reactions, from indifference to outright racist. That element of the MMA community that interprets its technique as superior, has used this fight as a cultural ‘marker’, viewing Xu Xiaodong as representing the triumphant West, and Master Wei Lei as representing a defeated China – the fact that both participants are ethnically ‘Chinese’ seems to be lost on these people.
8) Now that Xu Xiaodong has achieved both national and international notoriety, the fact that he has made Chinese martial culture look bad on the world stage has attracted a number of serious ‘challenges’ in China, from individuals considered very dangerous traditional Chinese martial arts practitioners. To date, Xu Xiaodong, now in hiding, has refused to acknowledge or accept any of these challenges.
©opyright: Adrian Chan-Wyles (ShiDaDao) 2017.