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.

Somaticity within and beyond arts praxis: Inviting your witnessing

This is an illustration of how Mike Medaglia received my practice in the opening of The Somatic in Theatre and Performance Research Gathering.

When I first saw my illustrated self, I felt uncomfortable with how I seem ‘bigger’ and ‘higher’ than the group.

Figure I Illustration on the workshop Text and Somatic Logos by Christina Kapadocha. Corfu, 23.08.2018. ©Mike Medaglia.

Hierarchy, I thought, the exact opposite of what my work and this project aims at.   

I sensed though that my physicality and my expression (or, in one word, my soma) carry something completely different.

I felt my witnessing.  

Now I see me and feel the warmth of looking back at people and processes that still grow in me.

Now I see me growing and imagine the next steps.      

Introducing the project

The above illustration-text dialogue, to which I will return in the second part of this post, is part of the dynamic interactions between modes of practice-research documentation and my reflections on a four-day gathering project that took place from the 23rd to the 26th of August 2018 in Kato Garouna village in Corfu, Greece. It opens this discussion as the intended nature of this post is to allow a form of a present re-enactment of the project through the additional contribution of your own input. It also aims at setting the ground and inform the shaping of a longer reflexive article that will focus on a theme that became mostly present for me during and after the gathering. 

I would intentionally like not to name this theme here as I wish to test out if and how it may resonate with your own witnessing. To do so, I use the dynamic potentialities of this blog and more specifically the ‘Leave a Reply’ option in order to invite your witnessing on some visual documentation of the project. I explain how in the second part of this post. The chosen documentation does not aim at conveying the content of the explorations from which is drawn but some overall qualities that emerged from the nature of the project as a whole.  Before moving forward to details on how you are invited to offer your input, I wish to go through some information on the context of the gathering.[i]

The Somatic in Theatre and Performance Research Gathering was the first of a series of practice-research meetings that I hold as part of my ongoing research on somatically-inspired practices in the field of theatre and performing arts, beyond the relatively established dialogues between somatics and dance.[ii] My curiosity and investigations are part of a current burgeoning interest in the dynamic interrelations between somatic methodologies and contemporary research on embodiment in multiple fields, within and outside scholarly environments (see among others Shusterman 2012, Farnell 2012, Hockley 2014, Eddy 2016).

The gathering was simultaneously a series of workshops offered by nine contributors as well as a Practice-as-Research (PaR) project developed around two main questions: what can be somatic in arts praxis? What can be the difference between a body and a soma? Subsequently, as the title suggests, I am looking at why somatically-informed research in theatre-performance and beyond may be significant here and now.

I introduced these questions to the group in the welcome discussion. Without using any definition, apart from acknowledging that the word soma in Greek is used to identify primarily every living body, I invited contributors and participants to allow the two main questions to be present in their explorations throughout the activities. In this way, I wished to activate openness to what the practices would evoke for each individual, beyond what may be already familiar in various somatic discourses, within and beyond the so-called field of somatics.

I connected my intentions with three main qualities identified in Performance as Research (PaR) by Jonathan Heron and Baz Kershaw (2018), which I also find relevant to somatically-inspired methodologies: 1. the openness to the not-yet-knowing, 2. the significance of un-learning and 3. the importance of somatically-informed reflexivity (2018, pp. 46-47, 54-55). In resonance to these qualities I also explore various modes of documenting practice research in order to most productively reflect and disseminate the distinctive nature of each project.

For the specific gathering, I used video documentation (with simple means such as a portable video camera and smart phones), stills, written reflections (by both contributors and participants) and some sketches. Particularly in relation to sketching, I invited an additional side documentation by the illustrator and contributor Mike Medaglia, whose work is included in this post. I was very interested in Mike’s perception of the activities as his comic arts and design evolve around practising meditation and mindfulness through a combination of illustration and writing (Medaglia 2015, 2017). 

Apart from the opening image, which will reappear with a different focus later on, for the practice-oriented purposes of this post I also use a short video, two photos and one of my own sketches. Similarly to my intentions in the opening of the gathering, I wish to navigate your attention towards you own understandings of how the chosen documentation of the project might evoke for each one of you perceptions of somaticity and its possible significance within or even beyond artistic contexts. The only piece of information I would like to add here is that I explore the notion of somaticity, the literal translation of which is corporality (the state of being in or having a body), in order to expand upon perceptions of embodiment in the twenty-first century.

Based on the above, this post could primarily be of interest to practitioner-researchers, artists and advanced students in theatre arts and performance practices. The invitation, however, does not require any sort of expertise and it is open to every person that has access to the material of this blog and would be generous to offer their invaluable witnessing.

Introducing the invited witnessing

Witnessing in my work, as both notion and practice, is inspired by processes studied in Authentic Movement as part of my training with Linda Hartley.[iii] Briefly, witnessing in Authentic Movement and other somatic practices, suggests an individual’s integrated perception that is not confined in one’s cognitive understanding or interpretation. Instead, it aims at supporting an interrelational, multilayered and experiential reception that draws from one’s intersubjective experience by combining an individual’s senses, feelings and imagination. Therefore, it is usually navigated through the following structure, which I will further explain in the end of this section: I see…, I sense…, I feel…, I imagine….

As practice, witnessing could be applied in multiple dynamic situations and contexts that aim at shifting focus on one’s embodied perception. For instance, in Authentic Movement, somatically-inspired witnessing contains the verbal and/or physical interaction between movers and witnesses primarily towards therapeutic potentialities. In my work, it aims at heightening each actor-mover’s present perception during improvisations and mutual explorations as well as allowing a sensitive verbal interaction between actors while avoiding a possible sense of judgement.

During the gathering, the specific mode of witnessing was used by Fabiano Culora in the second workshop of the first day of the activities. Working on his Orientation Score as embodied and relational practice for interdisciplinary performers, Culora divided the room into performing and non-performing space. Based on this clarification the participants were also invited to become either performers or active spectators and they were offered the structure indicated above in order to navigate their verbal input. In the following video (39 seconds) you could observe the interaction between a moment in performers’ improvisation and an offered witnessing by an active spectator.

From Fabiano Culora’s workshop on Orientation Score. Corfu, 23.08.2018.

Returning to Figure I and the text in italics in the opening of this post, you could notice that I use the exact same practice but in a more flexible and free form. Through my direct experience of the project, I also combine my past and present witnessing of the same illustration. I would like now to invite each one of you to attune to your own present experiences while witnessing the images below.   

Figure II Moment from Konstantinos Thomaidis’ workshop on Physiovocal Composition. Corfu, 24.08.2018. Photo by Maria Fotiou.
Figure III Moment from performative reflections as part of Lisa Woynarski’s workshop on Ecological Landscapes. Corfu, 26.08.2018. Photo by Maria Fotiou.
Figure IV Detail from Mike Medaglia’s illustration during Christina Kapadocha’s workshop. ©Mike Medaglia.
Figure V A drawing by Christina Kapadocha made during the last workshop of the project.

If you wish to offer your witnessing, you could choose one of the following options or allow a more flexible combination between the suggested modes: a. write a theme that comes up for you as you receive the images b. offer your responses in any sort of mode you would like to. Feel free to play around with words and possibly your own audio-visual material c. use the following verbs in first person and present tense for the opening of your sentences and complete them drawing from your own experience. The questions below could be of help. You may also refer to my own witnessing on the first illustration or the active spectator’s feedback in the video.  

I see…: could you focus on what specifically draws your visual attention? 

I sense…: could you expand your attention to the rest of your senses and any possible physical responses?

I feel…: would any feeling come up for you?

I imagine…: how does this trigger your imagination?

You could offer your witnessing on the content of each picture, the ones or the one that draws most your attention using the blog’s ‘Leave a Reply’ feature at the bottom of this page. Feel free to combine your input with attention to practice-research documentation, if this is part of your interests.

Many thanks for your time and invaluable contribution!

Figure VI On the introduction to the gathering. Corfu, 23.08.2018. ©Mike Medaglia.

LIST OF WORKS

Eddy, M., 2009. A Brief History of Somatic Practices and Dance: Historical Development of the Field of Somatic Education and its Relationship to Dance. Journal of Dance and Somatic Practices, 1 (1), 5–27.

Eddy, M., 2016. Mindful Movement: The Evolution of the Somatic Arts and Conscious Action. Wilmington: Intellect.

Farnell, B., 2012. Dynamic Embodiment for Social Theory: ‘I Move Therefore I Am’. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.

Heron, J., and Kershaw, B., 2018. On PAR: a dialogue about performance-as-research. In: A. Arlander et al, eds. Performance as Research: knowledge, methods, impact. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 43–61.

Hockley, L., 2014. Somatic Cinema. Abington, Oxon: Routledge.

Kapadocha, C., 2016. Being an actor / becoming a trainer: the embodied logos of intersubjective experience in a somatic acting process. Thesis (Ph.D). Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, University of London.

Kapadocha, C., 2017. The development of Somatic Acting Process in UK-based actor training. Journal of Dance & Somatic Practices, 9 (2), 21321.

Kapadocha, C., 2018. Towards witnessed thirdness in actor training and performance. Theatre, Dance and Performance Training, 9 (2), 203–216.

Medaglia, M., 2015. One Year Wiser: 365 Illustrated Meditations, London: SelfMadeHero.

Medaglia, M., 2017. One Year Wiser: An Illustrated Guide to Mindfulness, London: SelfMadeHero.

Shusterman, R., 2012. Thinking through the Body: Essays in Somaesthetics, Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press.

[i] For details on the programme of the activities, the content of the workshops and the contributors to the project, you can access a PDF document using the following link https://www.academia.edu/37063916/The_Somatic_in_Theatre_and_Performance_Research_Gathering

[ii] On these traditions see among others Eddy 2009, 2016. 

[iii] For more information on witnessing in somatic practices and the influence upon my work, see Kapadocha 2016: 66-70, 2017: 217-218, 2018: 206-208