Moving the Centre

The theme of ‘balance’ for the November GLAM Blog Club made me think outside the GLAM box. I’ve been studying tai chi (taiji, taijiquan) with some Xingyiquan and Baguazhang

6 years ago

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The theme of ‘balance’ for the November GLAM Blog Club made me think outside the GLAM box. I’ve been studying tai chi (taiji, taijiquan) with some Xingyiquan and Baguazhang thrown in for almost three years now. Prior to this I studied fencing for two years, but before that I haven’t trained in any form of martial art. I do remember as a teenager begging to learn a martial art. My main motivation was that I wanted some form of mental discipline, physical activity, and self-defence. Looking back I’ve always been a nerd, most kids would have wanted to just throw people around when I was arguing health benefits and discipline. Sadly my father forbade any form of ‘fighting’ to be practiced and instead I took up roller hockey (go figure). At this point you’re probably wondering what do my martial arts dreams have to do with balance, well one of the most notable changes I’ve found since starting is that my balance has never been better. I told you I was thinking outside the box here.

This does all relate back to GLAM themes though. Through my journey into the internal arts (neijia) I’ve found myself studying a form of tai chi developed by Master Chen Pan-Ling. Born in Henan province in 1892, Master Chen Pan-Ling learnt Shaolin Boxing around age seven. He then went on to study the internal arts under some of the greatest masters in their forms. He learnt Xingyiquan from Li Tsun-Yi and Liu Tsai-Chen; Baguazhang from Tung Lien-Chi and Cheng Hai-Ting; and Taijiquan from Wu Jian-Quan, Yang Shao-Hou, Ji Zu-Xiu and Xu Yu-Sheng. In 1927-28 Master Chen Pan-Ling also travelled to the Chen Jia Gou Village to study Chen style Taijiquan. In addition to all this he was the leading civil engineer in pre-war China and one of the main coaches of the Chinese demonstration team at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.

GLAM Martial Artist

Appealing to my GLAM sensibilities, Master Chen Pan-Ling was something of a GLAM martial artist. To set the scene, in 1928 the Kuomintang government of the Republic of China established the Central Guoshu Institute, located in the capital of Nanjing, for the propagation of Chinese martial arts (Guoshu or Kuoshu meaning ‘national art’). Caught between two wars, the Chinese Civil War and World War II (1927-49), the Kuomintang government worried about the rapid extinction of Chinese culture due to the Japanese invasion. They appointed Master Chen Pan-Ling as chair of the committee that met in Chunjing. Due to his scientific sensibilities and extensive martial arts knowledge, he began to catalogue the five major systems of tai chi (Yang, Chen, the two Wu systems and Hao) active at the time.

Master Chen Pan-Ling is acknowledged as the creator of a ‘synthetic system’ created from combining all five forms of tai chi. He managed to re-combine the various styles back into a single 99 form to help preserve the core elements of each style. The same principles were also applied to Xingyiquan and Baguazhang, along with various weapon styles. He even created a form of mountaintop boxing. In the middle of wartime atrocities under Japanese occupation, Master Chen Pan-Ling managed to preserve his culture and create a new form that would survive the occupation and the following cultural reforms brought about by the ruling Communist Party post war.

Not the First

In my research for this very brief history of Master Chen Pan-Ling, I found out that he wasn’t the first GLAM martial artist. Tang Hao (also Tang Fan Sheng) a lawyer and martial artist he was born in 1887 and also went on to work with the Central Guoshu Institute as an editor. In 1941 he was living in occupied Shanghai and was avoiding arrest for anti-Japanese activities. He was a prolific writer of the history of Chinese martial arts, who looked at origin myths and folklore surrounding them. Kung Fu Tea has a much fuller biography of him that is an interesting read.

Capturing Intangible Cultural Heritage

Researching both Master Chen Pan-Ling and Tang Hao, I became interested in how capturing a significant part of China’s intangible cultural heritage has continued today. Many masters who worked with the Kuomintang government during the Chinese Civil War fled China after the Communists gained control. Master Chen Pan-Ling ended up in Taiwan where he continued to train and teach. My own teacher (sifu) Dan Djurdjevic has trained with Master Chen Pan-Ling’s son, Chen Yun Ching, who still resides in Taiwan today. Traditionally, passing down styles from master to student has been the best method for capturing this significant intangible cultural heritage. The act of which can cause splits and new styles to appear, often blending techniques or creating entirely new forms.

In the modern world we can record video of masters and capture their forms exactly. Sadly not much footage remains of Master Chen Pan-Ling, however you can purchase DVDs of Master Chen Yun Ching performing all of his father’s techniques and study them. My teacher Dan Djurdjevic, who is an inner-door student of Master Chen Yun Ching’s, has taken to recording the forms and practical applications on his YouTube channel with plans to create DVD copies for longevity and distribution. While video is good (and much better than sketches or photographs in martial art textbooks), I looked further ahead to see what, if any, advances had taken place.

Martial Arts Archive

As it happens, there is a project out of Hong Kong that is using motion capture to record various martial art styles, techniques, and practical applications. This project is exciting to me as a student, as it allows you to capture not only forms but weight distribution, and minor movements made by the masters. My own learning journey has grown from simply learning the moves and forms, to figuring out how my body should move, where my hands and feet should be, and more importantly how my weight is distributed. These are all things that are hard to learn from textbooks and YouTube videos. They often need a physical teacher to correct you. I can imagine loading up a VR program of a master that corrects your movements, much like a Dance Dance Revolution style game.

Amongst the excitement of motion capture martial arts was hidden a sad fact. It seems that many styles of martial arts are dying in Hong Kong due to a lack of students. Long gone are the days where you can live off of teaching martial arts full time and it seems many students are wooed by more modern MMA styles as opposed to traditional fighting arts. This is where I started looking at the global spread of Chinese martial arts and their adoption by non-Chinese practitioners. Sharing these skills and techniques globally can help ensure their form lives on, a type of global redundancy if you will. However this leads to a question of ‘is it cultural appropriation for a person not of Chinese decent to study and teach Chinese martial arts?’

Cultural Appropriation

If you read various message boards and listen to the many (many) white men echoing each other in comments or Redit threads, the answer is a resounding no (rolls eyes emoji). When I looked at my own teacher and other students of Master Chen Yun Ching, you can find several Americans, Japanese, and Australian’s teaching Master Chen Pan-Ling’s techniques across the globe.

An interesting PhD thesis entitled ‘Invented tradition and translated practices: the career of Tai Chi in China and the West’ by Gehao Zhang looks at how tai chi has come across from China to the UK. They states:

“As we will see, in fact, they have added, deleted, adopted and distorted practices derived from their Chinese (or English) masters in a continuous process of translation based on an imagined construction of Chineseness.”

It’s an interesting read about what people add to give their tai chi more ‘authenticity’ i.e. Chineseness. Zhang did find an amusing gem in their research around the music played during tai chi classes:

“One Tai Chi practitioner I met nominated Oliver Shanti’s Tai Chi as his favourite which was somewhat ironic since this track is familiar to Chinese listeners as the theme music for a popular 1990s Taiwan erotic TV drama.” p. 240.

I did come across several journal articles that looked at the question about cultural appropriation and martial arts. One stated:

"First “discovered” by Anglo-Americans following the Second World War, karate has undergone a series of changes in the way in which it is presented and taught in the United States and Australia"

Which not only adds to my cultural appropriation issues, but now gives a distinct colonial feel to them as well. A feeling that comes across when looking at Chinese martial arts in American culture, specifically Hollywood. Ed Parker was one of the first major Hollywood stars of karate, opening the first "Americanized" karate school in 1954 (he also trained Elvis Presley). What that school looked like I’m unsure of, but one can presume he kept quite a few 'Asian artefacts' around. We can see how his style was presented on television in the I Love Lucy show in 1963. (Dan Djurdjevic has a great blog post on Ed’s techniques that I highly recommend reading)

If we skip ahead a few years, you can see how Bruce Lee, legendary student of Ip Man, is portrayed as Kato in the Green Hornet (1967).

One of my favourate television shows from this era is The Avengers. Not only did it star strong female protagonists but each were shown using some form of martial art, from karate to judo.

Forgotten Women

As an aside, speaking of women and Chinese martial arts it is interesting to note that women were the first to bring tai chi to both America and the United Kingdom. In 1949, Gerda Geddes and Sophia Delza, both dancers, were enthralled by tai chi practitioners in Shanghai and brought the form back to their respective countries. However they both seem to have been forgotten once men ‘discovered’ martial arts and associated the art forms with violence and masculinity.

Every year I host a Kicksgiving event where I prioritise women in marital art films. This year I selected Above the Law (Righting Wrongs) (1986) staring American martial artist Cynthia Rothrock, the year before was The Crane Fighter (1979) staring Ling Chia, and the year before that was Come Drink With Me (1966) with Cheng Pei-pei. All three films are excellent and I highly recommend them for any wuxia film fans.

Traditional Owners

The GLAM professional in me is grateful that Chinese martial arts are being persevered and passed down to the next generations. Be it via traditional master-student relationships or 3D motion capture databases, capturing and preserving this amazing intangible cultural heritage for future generations is important. Like with all cultural heritage collections though we need to put them in the hands of the traditional owners and allow them to control their usage and display.

As a white man, I am in no way able to answer this main question of cultural appropriation. I belive though it is more how the art is presented in the Western world. Westerners adding things like music, clothing, and rituals to the form in an effort to embody 'Chineseness', definitely crosses a line into cultural appropriation.

With all new technology, the ability and willingness to misuse abounds, and presents clear ethical concerns. Imagine a virtual 3D database of Chinese martial arts in the hands of white Hollywood producers. With no cultural oversight they could use 3D renderings of any forms without giving acknowledgement to the culture and people they belong to. This is clearly already an issue as you can see from the video examples above. Whitewashing in Hollywood is something that continues to occur, especially when it comes to Asian cultures. In the world of global open access this becomes both beneficial and detrimental to cultural heritage.

The ability to instantly share cultural heritage across the globe ensures that it can be preserved and accessed for generations to come, but often this comes with a loss of control by the cultural groups they belong to. Finding the right balance between access and oversight is something GLAMs need to constantly be aware of in all of our collections. This is something that can only be done in direct and equal partnership with the traditional owners of these collections. This is compounded when collections are direct results of colonisation, and appropriation. Closer to home, Nathan Sentance has amazing articles about de-coloinsation of GLAM and should be required reading for anyone in the profession.

So Many Threads

From following a thread of what I have come to recognise as one of my GLAM heroes (never meet your heroes, btw) I feel that I have created more questions than I have answers. This blog post doesn't even begin to cover all the questions around modern collecting of intangible cultural heritage, cultural appropriation, or even basic recognition of women in history. What I do know is that there is balance in life and GLAM, and like my martial arts journey there are mistakes, learnings, and successes. By learning from our mistakes, and continuing to try and grow we can become better, maybe not right away but eventually. I learn tai chi to be challenged in life, and the same goes for my GLAM practices. Balancing learning, failures, and successes is how we grow as both people and a profession. Hopefully we can collectively become better and be proud of our profession.

This post got away from me as I discovered it was more than just a story about tai chi. If you've read this far thank you and I hope you managed to get something out of it. I'll leave you with a quote that I find accurately portrays all three internal arts and helps me focus when I'm training in each one.

"Xingyiquan fortifies the center, Baguazhang moves the center, and Taijiquan dissolves the center." - Clear's Internal Combat Arts

Edward Shaddow

Published 6 years ago