Around 1900 there was an uprising in China
called the Boxer Rebellion. A large group of Chinese peasants set out
to kill all Chinese Christians and expel foreigners from the country. They used traditional weapons
and set fire to several cities. The Boxers performed a ritual that invoked
certain gods of the theater to possess them in battle.
They believed these rituals made them bullet proof.
As a result, eight major Western countries plus Japan, invaded.
In the process these foreign soldiers looted the imperial palace; many Chinese are still
angry about this. At the time, the Chinese were so humiliated
that they set out to obliterate their own martial, religious, and theatrical traditions.
But martial artists fought back against this movement by insisting that they could and
would completely separate martial arts from its theatrical and religious origins.
Thus the purified form of martial arts most people practice today was created. However,
without the original theatrical and religious context, martials arts can not be fully appreciated
or understood. This martial art is called Chen style taijiquan,
it is the oldest style of Tai Chi. But what else is it? what purposes did it originally
serve? Notice that this movement is very specific
and exacting? Was it a form of theater? Did it have a religious function?
This movement mimes grinding the elixir of immortality and then drinking it.
This is mime for a butterfly, it is used extensively in Chinese opera traditions to mean waking
from a dream. The ancient Daoist Zhuangzi dreamt he was
a butterfly and the butterfly dreamt he was zhuangzi who was dreaming that he was a butterfly
and when he awoke he couldn’t be sure if he was, in fact, Zhuangzi or a butterfly.
In China, India and Japan, there are three types of mime, illusion mime like the type
used in the West, mudras which are magical symbols made with the hands, and image-mime
which is a form of sign language to people familiar with the culture.
For instance his movement in Kathak, North Indian Classical Dance, means “opening the
heart in all directions like a lotus flower.” This movement in taijiquan is the same, it
could mean “opening the dantian in all directions,” but it looks like tying up the pants.
This movement is actually called lazy about tying one’s coat, and it looks like tying
a belt. It is also a lot like the God Krisha putting away his flute and tying his belt
in Indian Dance. So what is all this mime doing in a martial
art? As it turns out, the taijiquan form tells
a specific story, but it is much more than that.
It is a type of theater called “feng” or a canonization ritual. These canonization
rituals were common forms of theatrical operas like the stories of the Monkey King, the Outlaws
of the Marsh, and the Three Kingdoms adventure. They were performed at festivals both as entertainment
and to organize militias. And they were done before a battle to invoke the power of gods,
demons & immortals, to fight up in the sky, running alongside the combatants, or actually
possessing individual soldiers. After battle these canonization rituals were
used to enshrine the battlefield-dead, so that they would not become homeless ghosts–because
homeless ghosts were considered the cause of all future violence.
The taijiquan form begins with a movement used in Chinese opera to “start the music”
(much like a western conductor with a baton). Then light and sound come into being out of
huntun represented by water moving in ten directions at once. Huntun means “totally
undifferentiated chaos” —it is represented on the bottom of Daoist vestments because
it is how Daoist rituals begin. The next movement is called Play the Pipa.
A pipa is a musical instrument that makes the sounds pi and pa.
It is also the sound of bones breaking, the equivalent of the word “crack” in English.
And it is the name for the scapular bone. The first type of writing used in China was
done on sheep’s scapula. A question would be asked of the Heavens—written on the bone,
and then it would be cracked with a hot poker, and the answer would be read in the cracks,
and then written down. Thus the pipa would be pipa-ed.
Later the name for a female shaman was pipa-diviner, putting together all four meanings of the
word. In Daoist ritual, this is the invocation of
the ancient female shaman, who exists before civilization and the gods.
Next we have land rising up out of the huntun waters.
Turning into Dayu, or “Yu the great,” Yu means ancestor, he is the ancestor of Chinese
civilization who unifies the nine kingdoms, represented by the magic square, and he stops
the floods. He is half-man and half-bear, because he married a bear. He is the male
ancestor of all shaman and the original exorcist. Because he is half-bear, he drags his leg
and then stamps his foot to dispel yin-spirits. Bianhua (sudden transformation)—he becomes
Xuanwu, the mysterious warrior… mixing the elixir of immortality and drinking
it. As we explained, this is image-mime of a butterfly,
it is a sign language for the standard theatrical expression, “Waking from a dream.”
Suddenly, waking from a dream in which Xuanwu taught him secret martial arts techniques,
Immortal Zhang Sanfeng, living on mount Wudang, expands his dantian in all directions, and
puts on his pants. He puts on his hat, which, in temples dedicated
to him was actually a big gong people would ring, allowing Zhang Sanfeng to demonstrate
his playful yet non-reactive nature. Then he strokes his silver beard, which was
the shape of a halberd blade and glistened infinitely in all directions.
And he ties up his belt, The name of this movement is “ Lazy about tying up his coat.”
Ather name for Zhang Sanfeng is Zhang Lata, which means sloppy or lazy. He steps outside, this movement is used in
Chinese opera for an immortal or god entering the stage. And what does he see?
A snake… And a crane…
fighting…neither one can catch the other one. [pause] Suddenly Zhang Sanfeng remembers his dream
and the martial art he learned from Xuanwu. The foundation principle of taijiquan is that
we never meet force with force, we always counter-balance it instead.
This secret technique is shown by the movement Single Whip (danbian), which is a nautical
term referring to a pole with a whipping on one end, or a rope with a hook for picking
baskets out of a boat. It is like a counter-balance scale. Zhang Sanfeng was then called to the capital
by the Emperor, and on the way one-by-one he met One Hundred Bandits…all of whom he
defeated. [pause] Daoist priests, called Daoshi, do visualizations
during ritual movement, beginning with hundun, bringing the world into being, followed by
civilization and then the creation of the gods. Each god has a list of attributes which
are infinite. In this case the first is Xuanwu, the mysterious
warrior, whose skin is as infinitely deep and dark as the night sky, and whose armor
gleams infinitely out in all directions. He is mimed making the elixir of immortality,
but this process of ritual visualization with movement is in fact how jindan, the golden
elixir of immortality is made. Whether done standing or sitting, the felt body is first
emptied of all intent and then replaced by visualizations. The felt body is thus replaced
by an active imagination. In this theatrical-ritual form, the body remains empty of intent during
the movement which is driven by the spatial imagination. This particular perception-action
ordering, resolves predetermined fates and returns us to simplicity and spontaniety.
This religious technique was used for training actors and, in fact, is how taijiquan movement
works. The god Xuanwu functions as an intermediary
for approaching the Dao, the nameless totality of everything and nothing. Xuan Wu is a military
figure known for extraordinary discipline. In ritual visualization this type of god suddenly
transforms into a more feminine god often Laozi or Laojun, the source of the Daodejing,
Daoism’s most sacred text. He is surrounded by rainbows. In the taijiquan ritual Zhang
Sanfeng plays the soft feminine role. Zhang Sanfeng lives on mount Wudang shrouded
in mist and rainbows. His teacher is the god Xuan Wu. Zhang Sanfeng was an everyman’s immortal,
he is a languid figure, dirty, sloppy and laid back, but he does NOT smell. In fact
he would scrape off his skin and make it into medicine pellets to cure sick people. He was
ubiquitous before the 20th century, appearing in spirit writing trances as often as modern
people use twitter and facebook. In some daoist rituals, Zhang Sanfeng came
to replace Xuan Wu as a martial guardian. That’s probably what this canonization ritual
called Taijiquan was originally invented to do. The rest of the form is likely Zhang fighting
and canonizing other gods and immortals. This idea of using martial arts training to
convert unruly people or demons into righteous warriors is in fact the meaning of the Chinese
word kungfu or gongfu. In all the main works of martial arts literature
and all the plays which have been made into movies like the Monkey King stories, the 108
Outlaws of the Marsh, and Three Kingdoms epic, the overarching plot is that unruly demonic
characters become righteous immortals, gods, and heroes, through the practice of kungfu. This dark path to enlightenment is not that
hard to comprehend: Violence changes us, it can transform our identities in both positive
and negative ways. Hopefully making us better people. Stronger, more independent, more thoughtful,
more willing to help others, and empowered as leaders. The everyday comic nature of Taijiquan is
a great way to keep this vision of humanity alive in our daily lives.