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.


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.

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.

A New York State of Mind: The Accumulated Baggage of my Meisner Technique

I have found that the histories of trainings are incredibly important, sometimes more significant than the results that they are trying to achieve in the performer.  From 2002-2004 I trained in the Meisner Technique of acting under Michael Saccente in Auckland, New Zealand.  Michael is a New Yorker by birth and culture and underwent the full Neighborhood Playhouse training with Sanford Meisner.  When he found himself in New Zealand, Michael began training professional actors in the technique.  These classes provoked the spontaneity and impulsive behaviour that I was looking for in my performance work at the time.

However, just as in the case of Meisner’s teaching, the personality and behaviour of Michael was vital in the way the training was transmitted to us.  His small stature was more than compensated for by his loud, machine gun repartee and his neurotic, wound-up rants at anything that got under his skin.  His character wouldn’t have been out of place in a David Mamet play, and as I began to reflect on the classes, I realized that our acting was picking up Michael’s particular New York state of mind (and expression) at the same time as we were learning to read each other’s behaviour and Repeat.

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The Dress

When thinking about the history of training exercises, I was led to reflect on how the nature of teaching through ‘generations’ of training can create a distance from the original intention of a practitioners work. In this musing about Stanislavski, I am offering a provocation about ownership and integrity. 

The Dress by Jamie Wheeler

In the UK, we sometimes call them ‘hand-me-downs’ – those outgrown items of clothing from an older sibling or cousin that are bequeathed to us when they have outlived their original use. Off they go to serve another age group. 

They are passed from generation to generation and can be adapted, taken in, trimmed, repaired and recoloured. Often what starts life as a loose shift dress intended to be practical and light becomes a stiff and starched shirt dress whose form should not be altered and whose collar is crisp and sharp. I wonder if all these changes might one day make the dress unwearable or unrecognisable?

The handwritten name label, once just a suggestion, is written over in indelible marker, attributed forever to an owner long since dead. They had moved on in later life, wearing different clothes, trying out new styles but everyone seems to remember this piece the most.

This piece is spoken about with great authority by people who didn’t actually see them wearing the dress. They knew someone who knew someone who tried the dress on and this makes them feel that the dress somehow belongs to them. They can speak about the dress. Are we sure we know who the dress belonged to?

When it’s back on its hanger and safely tucked away in the wardrobe amongst the other pieces, we can peek inside and ask ‘Whose memory are we honouring if we slip it on?’

The Dress - Jamie Wheeler

Does History Matter?

If I am training myself or undergoing training, does the history that underpins the exercises that I do matter to me or have any meaningful impact on the efficacy of the training? Training typically takes place ‘in the moment’ and the immediate experience of the exercises is often what seems to matter the most. But what about the background to those exercises, their provenance and ‘heritage’? Can exercises come with baggage – either ideological, gendered, colonial or otherwise? And if so, how do we as trainers and trainees address that baggage and deal with it?

The Practice Diaries Exchange

Originating from ‘Answer the Question’ in the Theatre, Dance and Performance Training journal, this new section, The Practice Diaries Exchange, offers a chance for all people who have experience or are interested in performing arts training, including practitioners, artists, researchers, students and readers to (re)think about, explore, and discuss issues related to practice/training. It aims to emphasise the significance of long-term training and practicing processes in the performing arts.

In order to enable people to have a common ground to share and exchange varied training experiences, The Practice Diaries Exchange focuses on topics related to concepts of “practice” in diverse backgrounds and contexts. The Exchange, will periodically raise particular themes such as: What is training? What is a practice or practicing? What does training/practicing mean to you? What is the most difficult in training/practicing? How do you face difficulties in practices? These discussions may expand into a myriad of creative questions that could begin artistic explorations or small practice-as-research projects. For instance, what would you want to ask or tell “Practice” if “Practice” was a person capable of responding to you? Similarly, how might “Practice” teach?

While the Exchange will hopefully provide useful discussion, answering a question does not imply the end of a discussion but rather marks the beginning of a new exploration in training/practice. The approach of practice as research tends to see research not only as a way to arrive at answers but also as a way to explore, a pathway to future enquiry. Practitioners may never find an answer that is forever right for some questions. They have to persist in questioning themselves so their training will continue. In other words, because there are always hidden aspects of meaning to uncover that differ from stage to stage of training, practitioners can never see the end of their practice, regardless of how long they have been practicing.

The Practice Diaries Exchange aims to serve as a global, interactive, and open space for knowledge exchange, exploration, and discussion in a fashion more akin to a forum than a one-way question-and-answer session. Blog readers are encouraged to suggest and present questions on this webpage. Similarly, all readers are welcome to respond to the questions in a range of ways which may not necessarily be in the form of an answer, but might take the form of thoughts, ideas, arguments, or even other questions that expand from the original one. Beyond being an open forum, invited guests will be asked to respond to specific themes so that readers can also learn valuable embodied knowledge from experienced practitioners.

Because we regard training/practice as a long-term, ongoing learning process, all readers from diverse cultural backgrounds, training approaches, fields, experiences, and training stages are equally valuable on this platform for knowledge exchange. Emerging artists and performing arts students are encouraged to use the questions proposed here in the Exchange as exercises or provocations for one’s own artistic research methodology, and to share their findings or arguments rather than try to arrive at “correct” answers. By means of inviting dialogue amongst varied artistic areas, training methods, cultural contexts and perspectives, and practice phases, we can expect that the ensuing multi-layered constructive debates and rethinking will lead to broader conceptualizations of training/practice as research. The Practice Diaries Exchange, with its emphasis on sharing embodied knowledge, holds the ethical premise of respecting the rich knowledge of masters, yet at the same time maintains equality by recognising that anyone could potentially be our teacher.

Every two months, The Practice Exchange Diaries will pose a question to initiate a discussion session. Prior to posting the question for each two-month period, the TDPT blog News Page will post a call to solicit proposals for the question to be discussed in the next session. A proposal could include a short description to expand on the question.

In addition to articles, contributors are encouraged to present their findings to merge various methods including text, speech, sounds, pictures, videos, actions, and other forms of documentation specific to their practice-as-research projects to illustrate innovative methods of training. Because the projects will be displayed on a website, please carefully consider how your ideas might be presented in ways that are suitable to displaying online.

To submit a proposal for a question or a response to a posed question to The Practice Diaries Exchange, please contact the section’s editor I-Ying Wu at [email protected]