The role of history in motivating meihuaquan martial arts as a somatic method for performers

On the Practice Exchange Diaries, professor Mark Evans raised a questions for discussion which I hopefully have paraphrased accurately: does the history of a training method affect efficacy? Might the associated history be of benefit or a hindrance?

This question has caused me to reflect on my own practice and teaching of martial arts-related training methods to performing artists.

Abstract

My basic argument: teaching and learning meihuaquan methods for performers is hampered by the perception of exercise and somatic methods as market products for consumption. The neo-liberal economic logic has transformed much of social and cultural environment into “profane” for-profit commodities that are devoid of notions of “the sacred”. Consumers of products purchase and discard training/somatic practices as they would with market commodities as they lack a deep or “sacred” sense of connection with the practice. To address this issue and increase the effectiveness of training of meihuaquan methods, it may be helpful to try to construct a sense of embeddedness for practitioners so they can understand the practice’s connection to the past and future through the socio-cultural context in which the practice arose.

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I am a practitioner of meihuaquan (plum flower boxing), a form of Chinese martial arts, commonly found in villages across the North China Plain. After training in meihuaquan for several years in major urban centres in China, I began to shift my academic attention to study the meihuaquan groups that are active in rural communities in north China. MA and PhD ethnographic field research demonstrated how participation in meihuaquan activities assist in the construction of social trust, social cohesion, the creation of civil society and public sphere. Interviews with village-based practitioners demonstrate that the history of meihuaquan is very important to practitioners: historical context inspires them to train and infuses them with a sense of responsibility to pass the art to the next generation.

The social organization and practice approaches of meihuaquan is characterized by certain features. I will elaborate on this some other time. Suffice to say that meihuaquan is comprised of two primary aspects: a wu (武) martial field/aspect concerned with martial arts training methods, and a wen (文) civil field/aspect that functions as a syncretic folk religious system characterized by distinct initiation rites, cosmological beliefs, and rituals that are drawn from Chinese philosophical and religious approaches of Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism.

Contemplating the current Practice Diary Exchange question recently led me to insights regarding the use of wen and wu as an organizational structure in meihuaquan. Many people, myself included, have trouble understanding the significance of the use of wen and wu as organizational components in Chinese cultural practices such as martial arts, music, opera, and dance. What do these ancient concepts entail and how are they relevant to practice in contemporary society? In response to such questions, it appears that the implications of this binary structure are broad reaching. The concepts reflect two fundamental conditions of society- peace and its opposite condition of disorder and their interrelationship. I argue that within meihuaquan, wu (Martial) and wen (Civil) as an organizational structure, serves to embed meihuaquan practitioners within a system that connects the individual spatially with the present, and temporally both back into the past and forward into the future.

Elaborating this argument will require some explanation.

Wu martial arts training, by nature of martial arts being a body-based practice, it is situated in the temporal plane of the present. meihuaquan training requires practitioners to first learn a basic choreographed routine, known as the Frame which is composed of alternating sets of static postures interspersed with moving-footwork. The static postures are accompanied by specific breathing methods to release the body, focus the mind, and forget the self in order to approach a state wherein one’s body seemingly merges into the environment.

The moving-footwork shifts the individual through space so that they will practice along the directional lines of the “Four Doors”, which includes all four cardinal directions (north, south, east, west), and the “Eight Directions”, which includes the inter-cardinal lines. By engaging with directions and space in a meditative mind-body state, practitioners develop a nuanced awareness of the body, its location in space, and relationship to the surrounding environment.

This heightened sense of space and place thus allows the practitioner to have a body-based realization of the Four Doors and Eight Directions as cosmological precepts in traditional thought that serve as metaphors for the expansive physical realm that we dwell within.

Wen civil field practices, to a large degree, involve beliefs and rituals that aim to connect practitioners with ancestral spirits and protector deities. The worship of ancestral masters and prayers for their intercession in contemporaneous and future events enables practitioners to transcend the temporal limitations of the physical world and to connect with the past, influence events in the present, and future as well. Stories about past masters and their high moral standards are commonly employed by meihuaquan teachers to encourage the next generation. Storytelling is an effective method for connecting past masters and events with both the present and the future in order to present a vision of “how things should be”.

In short, this article attempts to show that meihuaquan practitioners are embedded in the present through wu martial training which connects them to space, and to a wide diaspora of meihuaquan practitioners in villages across the north. Simultaneously, practitioners are linked through story-telling back through time to prior generations of masters whose lives are made relevant to the present, and play a crucial role in the unfolding of future events. In these ways, wu and wen help construct deep connections between practitioners and their sense of belonging to a tradition that transcends place and time, that connects practitioners who lived centuries ago with present-day practitioners: these factors encourage dedication to meihuaquan cultural practices and greatly strengthen the practitioner’s raison d’être for training and transmitting the practices to the younger generations.

Relating to practice and training

In Canada, I have taught meihuaquan as a martial art and somatic training approach to help artists extend their bodymind beyond the physical extent of the body in order to enhance stage presence, physicality, mental and spiritual focus, dexterity and relaxed strength.

However, this goal has been hampered by the lack of embeddedness in the sociocultural background. They have trouble immersing themselves in the work and persevering because they lack a sense of historical and socio-cultural connection to the practice necessary to to perceive the tradition as “sacred” rather than as yet another market commodity that can be put aside when one tires of it.

When training in China, I experienced meihuaquan in various different communities of practitioners. In urban areas where it was taught strictly as a martial art, practitioners were able to relate to their practice through a shared Chinese world view that incorporated concepts from traditional philosophy and understandings of health and fitness. Storytelling events revealed meihuaquan long history and emphasis on ethical behaviour. In rural areas where I trained during PhD fieldwork, meihuaquan took on even deeper connections as the majority of people in a village belonged to meihuaquan as a religious sect and saw it as a cornerstone of their social and spiritual existence. It was quite obvious practitioners are embedded in a social environment that connects them to the past, and into the future.

While this can be created to some degree in the practice and teaching of meihuaquan in Canada, the practice will necessarily morph and change so that it fits into the sociocultural context of modern life.

How will I help practitioners perceive meihuaquan as a personal “sacred” training regime rather than as a commodity? I’ve been pondering this for quite some time. I will try emphasizing storytelling and explanations of the sociocultural significance of the practice. Stronger connections between students and imbuing them with a sense of comradarie and connection to the past will also help. By connecting students with space, embedding them in it, and then showing the connections with the past and into the future will help them see their training as a liminal ritual that transcends the profane and moves into the sacred. Only by seeing one’s tradition as transcending the neoliberal economic trend of encroaching commodification will it acquire a self-sustaining life of its own.

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