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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
argument will require some explanation.
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.
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.
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.
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.
practice and training
Canada, I have taught meihuaquan
as a martial art and somatic training approach to
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.
this goal has
been hampered by the lack of
the sociocultural background.
They have trouble immersing themselves
in the work and persevering because they
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.