Adapt to Survive

Kungfu stage show by a local performance team

As I mentioned in my 5th International Wudang Taichi Tournament post, traditional martial arts are undergoing a period of change. Well, more accurately, they are constantly changing, not only from generation to generation or year to year, but from moment to moment. I will not try to define traditional martial arts, because to do so would be to limit and diminish them. But I can talk about the faces the art presents, the way it adapts to narrow niches in order to survive in the material world. Survival means that the narrow but popular and materially viable niche thrives and sustains the art so that a new generation can be trained in the deeper traditions.

From the stories our Master has told us, kungfu schools here in Wudang a few decades ago resembled nothing so much as street gangs. I speculate, but it seems the art was still reeling from a loss of relevance. Individuals were still trying to exist as they had when fighting was the daily test of the art. But in truth modern combat, in warfare and elsewhere, had no place for them. Still speculating, but I think the turf fighting between kungfu schools that our Master has spoken of was evidence of Wudang kungfu’s displacement. While a few individuals kept the spirit of the art, its true face was lost behind an outdated mask. Kungfu schools attracted few students and slowly dwindled away.  After all, why send your child to a school if the only future it offers is violence and eventual imprisonment?

More recently, traditional kungfu has adapted by taking on new appearances. It caters to entertainment, tourism, sports, and health. Each of these outlets are, as I said of the Taichi tournament, narrow but necessary expressions of kungfu. Movies and TV keep the art alive in the popular imagination, though they twist the image so as to be more attractive. Performing for tourists and teaching them for a few days at a time brings in a little much-needed money, and wins the support of political and economic leaders who also profit from the tourists. Making a sport out of the art provides an publicly acceptable competitive outlet, the same thing the old street gang kungfu schools failed to do. Kungfu also appeals to those who search for a well-rounded health practice, though this too is only a small facet of the larger practice.

But if the art only exists in these outlets, it is lost. No one of them (or even all of them together) encompasses the breadth and depth of the traditional teachings. Nonetheless, we who want to preserve the old ways must accept both the necessity of these outlets and the responsibility of maintaining the integrity of our practice. And hope that someday the world will once again value this hidden treasure.

5th International Wudang Tai Chi Tournament

Last week was an unusual week for our school. A Taichi and Kungfu forms competition was held here in Wudangshan. Our Master encouraged us to participate, on the grounds that it would be a valuable learning experience. And it was.

First, we learned what it means to prepare for competition. The week before the opening ceremony was jammed with extra practices. Master and the other coaches made time in their own schedules to go over the competitors’ forms with microscopic attention to detail. In regular training, it is okay to feel your way through a form and make mistakes. For competition practice, the bar was set far higher, and it was cool to see people rise to the challenge. Hand technique had to be precise. Stances had to be both low and stable. Body technique had to be powerful and expressive. Eye technique had to be fierce and spirited. Everybody improved a lot. We got a sense of how we might someday prepare our own students for something like this.

It was also spectacular to watch Master teach. One can see him teach basics any day of the week. However, when he is pushing a talented student toward perfection, he becomes truly stunning. He is my master and I am constantly amazed by him, but I have never been more in awe of his skill as a martial artist and a teacher than I was when he was helping my classmates hone their forms.

Second, we learned about what competition is like and how it fits into our lives as traditional martial arts practitioners. Traditional martial arts is still difficult for me to encompass in a succinct definition, but it is nothing if not broad. Forms competition like this narrows our art. Set aside are defensive applications, internal health, mental calm and focus, and all the other parts of our training. A competition like this one is about performance, about showing the art. Judging is faulty and subjective, athleticism and flashiness usurp the place of practicality and discipline, and points and competitiveness replace the humble pursuit of  personal growth. These are truths of modern martial arts competition. But as martial arts evolves to survive in the modern world, it is avenues like this that keep it alive. Those of us who want to preserve our traditions must accept this, and shoulder the responsibility of ensuring that though the outlets for our art may be narrow, our practice always reflects kungfu’s original breadth.

That said, the representatives from our school did very well in the tournament. Almost everyone got a medal, and most people got two or three. I hope that we made our Master proud. Personally I was most proud of the way our school demonstrated our brotherhood across the lines of nationality. International competitions like this one are praised by their promoters as being great meeting places for east and west, but the stark contrast of Chinese culture inevitably creates a line dividing that which is Chinese from that which is not. Nowhere in the competition did I see people cross that line so freely as did the competitors from our school. We are brothers and sisters first. Passports only count after that.