Monday, June 25, 2007

Tag Team Blogging: The Great Wall As Metaphor

New Feature: Tag Team Blogging
(Dojo Rat and Formosa Neijia Co-Blog)

The Great Wall As Metaphor:
Chinese Attitudes And The Martial Arts

When people in the West think of China, there is probably no better cultural icon that comes to mind than "The Great Wall". Magnificent and monolithic in scale, the wall snakes it's way across China's northern frontier. The necessity of protection and pride of construction is reflected in inscriptions that remain in this ancient structure, which was begun as early as 221 B.C.

I began thinking about this when reading the May 21, 2007 issue of "The New Yorker" magazine. In his excellent article "Walking The Wall", Peter Hessler describes his journey meeting some of the top researchers of The Great Wall. Here's a paragraph that describes details of how the Empire attempted to keep the Mongol raiders out:

" Consruction generally took place in the spring, when the weather was good but Mongol raiders weren't active. Energy in the Mongol world was fat on the horses – So Spring was not a good season for raiding – Summer was too hot, they didn't like the heat; they didn't like the insects. The Mongol bowstrings were made of hide, and with the humidity they supposedly went flat- this is described in the Ming texts. Most raids took place in the Fall."

Hessler describes how he walked with a backpack for over two days on the Wall without seeing another person. If you can get a copy, this article it is a great read.
What struck me is that Hessler states that "There isn't a scholar at any university in the world who specializes in The Great Wall." –He means even in China!
So here we have this huge cultural icon, The Great Wall, and not one university in China has a research staff documenting it. According to the article, there are a handful of Chinese hobbyists studying it, and some of the most detailed research is carried out by Westerners!
What I see here is a possible parallel to attitudes that we have seen in some aspects of the martial arts. The Great Wall often represents an insular and defensive society, one that keeps its secrets and plans for the long run. Martial arts in Asian culture appear to have the same qualities. Techniques were kept secret within family systems, and training of westerners was restricted to the basics only. This attitude has long since changed, at least on the surface. But just like the notion that some of the best researchers on The Great Wall are westerners, the martial arts (in my opinion) underwent changes when it was introduced to the west. I believe westerners like to take things apart, tinker with them and re-tool them. Look at how Ed Parker revolutionized Kenpo Karate, a style that was already a synthesis of Japanese and Chinese systems.
While preparing for this article, I thought it best to check in with someone who knows both cultures. That would be Dave over at Formosa Neijia. Dave is living and training in Taiwan, and I would like to turn this over to him so he can tell me if I am really off base or close to the mark. So with all due respect to Chinese culture, and hoping to avoid appearing ethnocentric, let's see what Dave has to say---

Dave from Formosa Neijia:
Well, non-original and inbred thinking in academia isn't exactly new, either East or West. Looking at Chinese intellectual history, independent thinking wasn't exactly highly valued and was even considered subversive at times. And yet, some people broke the mold. The concept of plagiarism also simply didn't exist in China culture until recently. Having edited academic journals for a living here in Taiwan, I can tell you that it's an open secret that much of Taiwan "scholarship" is filled with plagiarism. But hey, you can't plagiarize what hasn't been written, can you? So if no studied the Great Wall, then no one after would be likely to do it either since there was nothing to plagiarize. Weird, eh?
Western scholarship looks down on plagiarism, but it's just as inbred. In writing Ph.D's for social science and humanities (the only fields I know about), original research isn't as valued as showing you have a good grasp of already extent literature. So, again, if someone didn't already study it, you are frowned on for wanting to write about it.
Martial arts wise, I think using the Great Wall as a metaphor does work to some extent, but it wasn't always this way. Looking at the past, I always hold up praying mantis as a great style that was synthesized from 25 other great styles of the time. That took a lot of doing and shows some very creative thinking outside of convention. Whoever really put mantis together had to be an individual willing to upset some rice bowls.
Miyamoto Musashi is another great example. When I lived in Japan, I asked my iaido teacher about Musashi, who was a hero of mine. My teacher told me that most Japanese loathed him because Musashi stood for everything that was not Japanese -- independent thinking would be my guess. And yet, Musashi simply didn't care what they thought, which ironically is WHY we remember him and not those millions of sheep around him.
Having said that, I do see in recent times a great reluctance by traditional CMA guys (in the East or West) to break with recent conventions by testing themselves against others and adopting new training methods. IMO the reason is that we are once again at a crossroad for TMA's -- they will either adapt or take yet another big hit. The reason for the change this time is MMA and BJJ.
I've said many times that if you really want combat training or to learn just to use your art in general, you have MANY more opportunities to do that in the US than you do in China or Taiwan. We're just 20 years behind here. Look at all the MMA/BJJ schools in the States. They are everywhere. Almost all of them have "open mat" sessions where ANY style can go in and roll/spar with their guys. Can you even imagine a traditional CMA school doing that?
I'm really disappointed in traditionalists lately. I see them slipping further and further away from reality and more into fantasy. So many traditionalists are retreating into their stupid orange robes and using their fantasy weapons. People still talk about what great fighters IMA guys were in the past rather than build skills today. Rather than cross-train in things they obviously don't have, they use ridiculous styles like "dog boxing" as so-called examples of groundfighting in CMA. Funny how no actually TRAINS that crap. It's really pathetic.
So if you're looking at traditional CMAs, then yeah, the Great Wall is a good metaphor for what is happening right now in some areas.
And yes, there is a WHOLE LOT more sparring in the US as compared to Taiwan. I know of ONE traditional school in all of Taipei that does consistent sparring -- the Tang Shou Dao school that I talked about before. Heck, even Shaolin-do in the States spars in almost every school. Again, it's just pathetic. There's simply no excuse for it.
But these traditional guys are just getting ignored by others who are more forward thinking. That's as it should be. Sanda/sanshou is great and I hope it becomes more popular. MMA/BJJ is slowly taking root here and in China as the next generation once again gets tired of the secrets and BS from the traditionalists, just like their grandfathers did around 1911. Funny how that's happening again.
So there is hope yet, but the West is leading the way in the fighting area.


Hand2Hand said...

Great entry. I mean, this is really, really, really a great blog entry, especially the last graph.

I'm all in favor of cross-training in martial arts and finding your own way. I don't believe anyone should be a slave to an instructor, an art or an organization.

Say what you want about the whole MMA movement. I thank God for them because they've made people have to re-examine what they're getting from their martial arts training.

If you're not getting workable self-defense skills from your martial art, you might as well be taking aerobics.

Dojo Rat said...

Thanks H2H, always good to hear from you. I think it's Dave's 2 cents that made it fun and interesting.
Remember now, there is the "Art" in Martial Arts! Otherwise, why would anybody practice a sword form anymore?
We'll see if this tag team blog thing catches on!

Hand2Hand said...

I think there's a lot to be gained from weapons training, even for the modern martial artist. Strength, agility, reflexes, and yes, the artistic and cultural aspects.

But from a practical standpoint, I find that my training in the Filipino tribal arts has improved my empty hand work immensely. Consider this - a stick will generally travel faster and hit harder than a human hand.

So all those years of doing siniwalis(partner work) in the FTA, I don't get unglued when I see a fist or foot coming at me.

But I do like the tag-team concept, especially hearing from Dave at Formosa Neijia. I always appreciated the fact that you practice and support the internal arts.

Dave said...

Glad you guys liked it. It was fun to write up the posts this way. I want to thank John here at Dojorat for the opportunity.

Formosa Neijia