Femininity and the Martial Arts

From my book “Standing on Iron Mountain”

Order it here: Standing on Iron Mountain

The male aspect of Martial Arts is generally overplayed as great masculine heroeos go about their movie plots saving everyone and defeating the bad guys. However if we are to truly study the arts then we must look to the Taoist principal of yin/yang as an underlying part of everything we study, thus without the feminine we can have no masculine aspect. Now because this is Deep Water and skimming the surface of any subject is frowned upon we should take a look at the yin/yang theory found in the Taiji diagram before looking at the feminine side of the Martial practices. 

The Taiji diagram (太極) referred to generally in the West (mistakenly) as the Yin and Yang diagram is familiar to us all and its concept of polar opposites defining one another is also something most martial artists have studied or start to take for granted as ‘obvious’. However if we first look at the definition of what the characters Tai Ji mean we can start to delve into the meaning more deeply. Tai can be defined as 1) highest; grandest and/or 2)more or most senior. While the second character Ji is translated as meaning 1) the utmost point; extremity 2) pole (as in polar) 3) utmost 4) extreme of the highest degree. So in essence the meaning of 太極 is different than what is generally assumed in the west, instead it becomes the great moment or point of transformation from yin to yang or vice versa. So the study of Taiji (the martial art or the philosophical concept) becomes the great study of these points of transformation in the aspects and relationships of all things. So the transformation is continuous and simultaneous and can and does take place in a single things various aspects. There can be no yin without yang as they define and transform into one another. Just as there is no masculine without feminine in a single person. The key to this study is the understanding of balance between the two being the most sought after way of becoming a whole person (or martial artist). So if we look at the cultural context of Martial Arts evolving in China (as is the case for most Asian arts) then the integration of the yin/yang theory is a foundation principal and must be understood to achieve balance in our practice. 

Once we really start to try and understand how definition of yin/yang in our practice becomes important then we can start to seek out a balance between the two. There are few martial arts students that have not had a Master tell them to relax, even when they thought they were already in a relaxed and ready state. This is due to the principal misunderstandings of what martial ability stems from. Most in modern day look at harder, faster, stronger bodies as the only way to martial ability and yet older, weaker softer practitioners are the ones to be the most feared, the elder teachers are the ones demonstrating an understanding or balance of masculine and feminine, soft and hard in the body and movement and become the highest practitioners of their chosen arts. This attitude is easily seen in todays martial arts students as they bring more and more tightness, stiffness and rigidity to their bodies in an effort to become ‘better’. Throwing themselves farther from yin/yang balance than they were than when they began training! Of course fitness, strength and so on are important parts of the martial artists path, but when these things are sought after at the expense of softness and relaxation into the tissue then it is an easy thing to overcompensate with. This is most obvious today in the bigger bulkier students of the martial arts confusing strength with power; power comes from good training, correct thinking and is waterlike and unstoppable, not hard, brittle and easily broken.

If you look into the poetry of Martial Arts you will find all kinds of feminine imagery from small birds flying through the branches of the forest to the wind blowing leaves on the forest floor. Soft, subtle, gentle, feminine imagery; in fact one generally finds this type of poetry more often through study of the names of movements than overly masculine names and images. These poetic phrases contain many aspects of the arts being passed down from ancient times and encoded in them, among other things, is the topic of yin/yang balance. If you are to dive down like a swallow skimming the still water of a pond should your shoulders be rigid? Your abdomen clenched? Your biceps bulging? Of course not. Look at some of the most reputedly violent styles in the world, things like the Shamanic Xinyiliuhe, Xingyiquan or Erhuquan (Hungry Tiger Boxing), their poetry leans heavily on the side of the feminine. Swallow skims the water, Leopard Climbs the Branch, Empty the Basket of Flowers, Beauty looks in a Mirror, Butterfly bores the Bush. No mention of ripping and tearing, Breaking or Killing, but of course each of these movements I am mentioning are meant for such things. Their secret is in their adaptability and softness, their yin aspects. Anyone can think themselves into being too hard and rigid and thinking strength is the answer to any situation, but subtlety and intelligence always wins out in the end. Look at all the high school Jocks that are working for the Nerds they beat up in School?

But to understand the usefulness of femininity we still have to look deeper into the idea of yin/yang reversal. The highest levels of martial arts are defined by softness and an attitude of harmonization with the opponent. In my training I have had the great privilege to train under many great teachers and all of them when discussing the levels of progression in the martial arts point to a transformation from a solid dense matter to a light airy ethereal matter as their metaphor. We start martial arts as very rigid solid earthy people with very dense masculine qualities, lets call this level Ice level, brittle and rigid. From here we learn to integrate our minds into our tissue more and more and we start to have a better understanding of how our bodies can work as a unit to create force and whole body movement. This slightly more relaxed level we will call tendons and muscle level. When we integrate even more fully and the muscular trains from origin to extremity of a movement are unified we reach a new more integrated level, we will call this Jing Level. (Jing being translated here as the whole of the tissue of the body save the organs, all the muscle, fascia and connective tissue working together for a common goal). Once the body is connected and we have a real understanding of our tissue we can be said to have released a great deal of the rigidity in our bodies at rest and in movement. It is here that you see the Martial Artist who has flow and poise, power and stability without always ‘driving with the brakes on.’ 

The integration of the mind further into the tissue, originating the movement of the body more deeply in the core and allowing the muscularity at the extreme ends of a movement to release shows a higher understanding of movement and power. This study and release of the unnecessary muscularity in movements shows a deeper connection and relationship between the thought and the tissue, to use classical language we will call this qi level (Qi being translated here as relationships between different things, not a mystical energy coursing through the body.) This is an intermediate stage of development and becomes a more flowing and released and soft type of movement and practice. The need to create and feel force in the limbs begins to drop away and and the force is generated from the legs and becomes directed by the core and expressed through relaxed and soft hands, more ethereal and more feminine, this we will call water level. Advanced Martial Arts moves from this ‘water’ level into more and more ethereal ways of movement and thought, steam or clouds becomes the metaphor here for a body that is well trained but no longer holding onto its own power for the practitioner to feel themselves. Any power you feel through your body is power the opponent is not receiving. So the higher the practitioner goes into skill the more they let go, the more and more receptive they become. Where once hardness reigned softness becomes the norm, no longer are they smashing through opponents but instead contracting and accepting the attacks, allowing them to come closer and fall into the appropriate methods. Those traits that martial artists tend to start out with not thinking are a part of fighting arts become the most important and powerful ways of thought and movement. Without this understanding most people get stuck needing to feel their power, their strength, need to show others their skill and this in turn puts a ceiling on their development. It is a far greater challenge to allow the opponent to come in any way they like and receive and accept their attack appropriately than it is to fight them. It is this mentality that people find difficult if not impossible to integrate into their minds. This training of the mind is a paradigm shift from what is considered normal in martial arts and completes the yin yang reversal from masculine to feminine and results in high skills.

However do not be fooled into thinking that this transformation happens to everyone who puts in the time. There are more than the majority of martial artists who attain a level where they are certain they ‘got it’ and stop pushing forward. I see the first of these big issues most of the time around when a person attains a rank of Black Belt or a beginner instructor level, I have actually heard people say they were ‘done’ their martial style with this mindset and began to rest on their laurels instead of beginning the real training. Only by inquiring deeply can we find the higher and higher forms of our own martial skills, they will not happen by themselves. As an attempt to present this idea and how it relates to the feminine side of the martial arts I would like to go to the style of Zui Quan AKA Drunken Boxing for examples. 

The Drunken style I teach is of Northern Origin and as most traditional Drunken systems out there it references the Eight Immortals of Taoist legend as archetypal ways to think and act when training or fighting. Each of the Immortals are associated with a different type of thought, method of fighting, weaponry and internal training (neigong). The Eight Immortals are:

Lu Dong Bin 呂洞賓– The leader of the group, the man of perfection and refinement of thought and action. His thought method is restraint, his fighting method is exact and lethal when needed, his weapon is the Sword (Jian). 

Cao Guo Jiu 曹國舅 – The reformed police officer, justice incarnate. His thought method is punishment and binding, his fighting is characterized by rough solid blows strong, sober and punishing.

Lan Cai He 藍采和– The Child Immortal, the savant mind, a little insane. His thought method is fearlessness through playfulness, his fighting is characterized by reckless abandon and reversal of momentum. 

Han Xian Zi 韓湘子 – The Flute player, the beautiful and handsome man, slightly effeminate and dancelike. His thought method is showing his skills, his fighting is characerized by joint locking and showing off, his weapon of course is the flute. 

Zhong Li Quan 鐘離權– The old soldier, the grizzled old veteran, his thought method is wading forward, his fighting is characterized by Shuai Jiao (throwing) his opponents down, he is the weapons master and uses the soldering weapons of old. 

Zhang Guo Lao 張果老 – The eldest immortal, the old man. He was never human instead an entity that took human form and is the teacher of the other immortals. His thought method is humility and teaching, his fighting is never on display instead only what the old man needs to do, nothing to show off. 

Li Tie Guai 李鐵拐(Iron Crutch Li) – The crippled Immortal, the Alcoholic, the Drunkard, his thought method is firey and filled with willpower, his fighting method is wild and uncontrolled, a frenzy, his weapon is the staff. 

But the Eighth Immortal is the one I want to discuss here, She is the only Female in the group and is the the Lady He Xian Gu (何仙姑). Now of course she falls into the same method of categorization as the others but her actual purpose as a member of the group is what we are most concerned with here. Lady He is the one Immortal who “Sets the pattern of the bagua” according to classical sources, which means it is she who organizes the group and indeed the bagua itself which is representative of the very nature of reality. She is the mother and wife and is the one who keeps everything organized. For the Drunken Boxer who is at the level of working with the archetypes of the immortals she is one of the hardest to understand because she is representative of the entire style itself. Soft when needed, hard when necessary, flowing and rigid both, it is she who makes the overall decision which immortal comes out to play. She is the drunken fighter themselves and is their skills being used appropriately, when they are needed, not being forced nor being used unnecessarily, it is she who is the true ruler among them. The use of the immortal minds as various methods of fighting is set up by circumstance and ruled by the power of harmonization of them all with one another and the situation. Without a real understanding of oneself and the subtle powerful nature of Lady He there can be no mastery of the style. She represents all that is feminine in martial arts and to use another archetypal hierarchy she is at once the Maiden, full of hope and cheerful. The Mother, fiercely loyal and filled with love and the Crone wise enough to see what is best for all involved and not interested in the credit for the act. When the Crone mindset was explained to me it was said that “The Crone is the one who will drown the extra puppy to save the mother and all its young.” She makes hard decisions and acts without remorse. All the while she is keeping the entire system running, the weight of it all on her shoulders and still able to show gentleness and compassion. 

In order to become something more than an everyday ‘black belt’ martial artist we have to push forward into territory that is awkward and unusual from the norm and what we think of as ‘the way’. Becoming more and more balanced means we have to understand and approach a more feminine aspect of ourselves and to combat in general. The best martial artists embody this aspect in their art and themselves. Moving beyond their original uninformed ideas of what martial arts are, which is a profoundly difficult task. To truly master something we must understand it from all sides and what starts as a dense, earthly, extremely masculine things must go through its own reversal as does all things. The people who work towards this goal become something more than ordinary and the proud and ego filled younger martial artists fall like autumn leaves at their hands and the reason always has to do with more trust, more softness and more acceptance in their hearts. Internally it is easy to see the cultivation of these traits and how they will help to balance the very masculine young martial artist and turn him into a Master. Even the fiercest tigers are still cats.

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One thought on “Femininity and the Martial Arts

  1. Thanks for this fascinating piece! I’m a Tai Chi practitioner and have somewhat of an academic background in gender theory, and an activist background in trans* politics. I find reading Daoist ideas and readings of gender like this fascinating, and have been relating a lot of this body knowledge from Tai Chi to my own ideas of gender performativity. The I Ching translation I have translates masculine to “the creative” and feminine to “the yielding” — I like that interpretation too, in both my Tai Chi practice and work life.

    For example, many modern activist movements are, to me, old yang: angry, masculine movements that lack a solid base, a root: as a result there’s a lot of hot air and little progress, it feels exactly like the drunk boxer throwing a wild punch. On the other hand some groups are the reverse: too passive, not enough ambition, too much deference. I think practising Push Hands always shows me where I am weak: often when I’m feeling yielding in real life, I get told I’m not giving enough resistance for example. The body balance I learn in tai chi seems to perfectly reflect my broader social feelings and sense of self at any given time.

    I’ve also been thinking a lot about why we do martial arts at all. I’m pretty sure I’ll never be a master (well, maybe in another decade, and that’s fine), but I think my Kung Fu is really working towards a world where fighting isn’t needed: fighting for equality and a fairer world. My time and energy go into that: Tai Chi, although I take it pretty seriously, I know is never going to be something I master at the highest level. In many ways I see this as the same though: we always talk about how the best way to fight is not to fight; but how to do this isn’t the topic of Tai Chi (or other) lessons generally. I wonder if a real feminine/yin power is exactly this though: balancing body skill and personal attainment over giving back and broader social involvement.

    Anyway thanks again for the piece, really interesting.

    Like

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