Xīn nián kuài lè 新年快乐 : Happy New Year
Gōng xǐ fā cái 恭喜发财 : Congratulations and get rich.
Most of the time when I write about things in Chinese culture and how they affect our thinking it is meant to slowly change the thinking of Chinese martial artists. The adage “Do not seek to be like the masters of old, seek what they sought” is more than a truism, it is essential to breaking through the many glass ceilings over skill levels.
So, my writing about Chinese Lunar New Year, traditions, philosophy in my mind has the underpinning of trying to help people make a paradigm shift in the way they look at the world and in turn their martial arts, usually in a bright sided view of training.
But not today.
While the elder mode of thought prevalent throughout the Chinese arts is more than necessary to understand it is also a deviously slippery slope. People were trying to understand the reality they lived in and that resulted in amazing breakthroughs like the lunar calendar through observation of the heavens. But it also resulted in a lot of mystical thinking that even in todays world seems to be a part of the package of training Chinese martial arts. It is difficult to see where the line is between magical thinking and reality since the language itself and exercises and explanations are often passed from generation to generation without much thought given to them and how they will affect the next generation of students. How else can I see discussions on Facebook groups about how this or that art is primarily about building life energy or other esoterics? Martial Arts were designed for killing people, other benefits were generally accidental or were added later through extra training.
Baguazhang for example, I see a lot about how it’s primarily a meditation method – No. Dong learned a method of meditation that involved circle walking and during said meditation had a moment of understanding that allowed him to take his martial arts to a new place. A new place martially and new regarding the transmission of those skills. He taught masters, not beginners, because the idea was to change and bolster their already present skills. Philosophical advancement does have an ability to run parallel to martial training, but it certainly doesn’t have to. I know in my own life I have met very dangerous Chinese Martial Artists who are not even close to being good people let alone enlightened beings, but are exceptional martial artists. This shows that skill does not equal compassion.
Honestly who do you think those people we owe for passing on their skills were? Ruffians, fighters, bandits, outlaws… martial artists in China were the low rung of society, not nobles like in Japan. They would hang out in tea houses and brothels and the community would put up with them because if the bandits came over the hill you needed them. If you were travelling to another town or city you needed bodyguards. They were killers and many times our heroes were hired killers. Generals in the army protected their country (hired killers), body guard companies would give safe passage (hired killers), etc. etc. People are quick to revel in the feats of masters of the past and their challenge matches but give little thought to what their lives looked like to even end up involved in all that violence.
Even in fiction we can see the way martial artists were viewed. In the story of Wu Song killing the tiger, for instance, in the Water Margin (Outlaws of the Marsh). Wu Song sees a warning signpost that he should not drink wine and enter the mountain path, it is dangerous. So, he drinks fourteen cups of wine and then stumbles onto the dark path, defying the warning. He ended up fighting and killing a tiger yes, because he was a drunken renegade scoffing at the laws of the land. Not exactly the Yoda like stereotype we are used to as presented to us in modern day.
Xinyiliuhe is another example and was/is the art of the Chinese Muslim people the Hui. It was to protect them from their enemies of which there were (are) many. They kept it close to their hearts and as such it never got defanged by modern ‘sword dancing’ because to do that could have meant the demise of their loved ones. Killers because they had to be.
The world was once a different place. Life was brutal, violent and short. When it comes right down to the reality of it, martial artists were not worrying about ghosts and curses and hopping vampires as much as they were not getting stabbed on the road or beaten in a challenge match and losing their school and all the students. They wanted to gain every advantage they could to keep themselves and their families safe, make a living and have a long life. If that meant developing internal power so they could kill another human being more easily so be it. If that meant developing weapons that were hidden and concealable they would. Blinding powders, poisons, hidden sleeve darts, back arrows and the like are not the realm of gentle practice in the park but survival.
Since everything is balance, EVERYTHING, then removing the lethality, the brutal realism, from our training and thinking is unbalanced. It defangs our arts and removes reasons for certain types of training. Yin/Yang is a spectrum and the more widely you can see, looking at either end from compassion and peacefulness to terrible violence the more you can explore your art. The more compassion and pacifism becomes a choice instead of simply an idea. The higher your ceiling of attainable skill becomes since you do not shy away from the brutal dark side of these arts and your potential to understand why that side needs to be tempered increases your own level of compassion.