The Cursive Martial Arts

Sometimes it’s like I am teaching something and suddenly feel like I am listening to myself talk more so than speaking to others, explaining the concept back to me as much as I am to them. It’s kind of a strange and surreal feeling but I have learned to trust it because it means that I am finding something from my training and making an effort to really understand it. I know it might sound weird, it sounds weird to me but it is these moments that really allow me to work through issues in my training and move forward, I mean after all training is like rowing a boat upstream, your either moving forward or backward.

The wonderful and strange thing about last night was while I was teaching xinyi and then bagua class I got on the subject of language as a metaphor. Nothing unusual really as both Jason and I use the idea of vocabulary regularly to describe training but this was not about words themselves, instead it was about the process of learning to write. As children we learn first how to make the shapes on paper that resemble the letters of the alphabet. Slowly and carefully we draw the lines that make the picture representative of a sound our teachers are showing us. Eventually those tiny pictures become letters to us and we begin learning to print and spell different words. But what I spoke about last night was about about learning to write cursive in the English language.

Cursive writing is not only beautiful to look at when mastered but has a flow and cadence and softness to it from the connections from one letter to another. Of course at first we are messy and inefficient as using it (especially nowadays as it is dissapearing) but over time we start to see the connections between the letters as a place of beauty and flow. The spaces between the sounds, between the shapes.

The letters in printing have a definite beginning and end and when we are learning it is important to understand those parts and the shape in between. All its parts in balance and clean enough to read. But that is not yet our own handwriting style or an expression of our own personality, martially this is a beginner level of training. Clean and readable but not yet connected nor an expression of the player doing it. At an intermediate level we find cursive handwriting (not only in English either, in the Chinese language there is not only cursive style writing but many styles of it) but although there is now a connection between the letters of each word it is still just as our teachers taught us and still not a reflection of ourselves in the writing or movement. But this stage is not to be overlooked, it is important to spend time learning to connect from one thing to another and in martial arts as it is in writing we must follow an example to keep the movements or writing legible.

High level calligraphers in both English and Chinese express themselves through their writing. Sometimes a single character in Chinese can be so beautiful as to bring one to tears as it embodies the soul of the writer and the character itself so completely that it in itself becomes art. In English cursive writing I will liken this to ones signature. There is a very different method when one writes their name in print, cursive and signing their name. When a person signs their name there is an expression of who they are found in the writing, a feeling about them and their self when you read it. I know as a child many of us worked on our signatures in school when we were taught that we should have one that was difficult to replicate for when we were signing important documents as adults. I remember myself sitting and writing my name over and over trying to get a feeling for it and as I grew up and gained agency my signature began to reflect who I am.

In martial arts we must learn to sign our names. Not only print and legibly communicate through our movements but connect those movements and fill the spaces ‘in between’ the letters with skill. Eventually we must break away from the example of our teachers and learn our own signature, for we are not trying to be like the masters of old, we should be seeking what they sought. Our martial arts should become flowing, connected and a real expression of ourselves. We should not be carbon copies of our teachers and nor should we judge others on this. Someone who does not yet have a signature has not grown up enough to need one, has not gained enough agency in themselves to express who they are. We are not our teachers though we should trust and follow their examples closely. But there is a time when we must grow up. By pushing ever forward and working towards the elusive goal of understanding and skill in our arts, very few who become great can write a single character that moves our souls. The tragedy is that we as students tend to think that what we are seeing is what noth only they but their Masters and ancestors looked and moved like. Rarely giving them the credit for learning to write so beautifully and in a style their own.

I say do not judge people as they try to express themselves through their martial arts, they should be working to do so. If you can learn to emulate your teacher, you can learn to find yourself in your art. If you are a teacher help your students learn to print and write and express themselves. Do not try to keep them in grade school writing reports forever, help and support them to write their thesis and sign their name.

Neil Ripski

Oct 29, 2015

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