Chinese martial arts; a historical outline .. more ROUGH CUTS

11 Sep

Paragraphs, pages and even chapters change daily during the edit process, but here’s some more “rough cuts”…..

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Relevant to our study, we must also understand how these confusions were created due to outsiders with little understanding of the practices they were observing applying their own external labels. Relatively disinterested Qing officials found it convenient to label all heterodox religious sects part of the White Lotus movement. Thus, the Eight Trigrams Sect was labelled White Lotus, and if they practiced “Armor of Golden Bell” then it too must be a White Lotus teaching. Liu Shiduan’s group practiced and even called themselves “Armor of Golden Bell”; which in this convoluted train of pseudo-logic purportedly linked them to the White Lotus?

So how then did the public at the time and generations of subsequent historians and political scientists establish a link between the Spirit Boxers and the White Lotus? The relationship was certainly not due to practice of the “Armor of Golden Bell.” The Spirit Boxer’s brand of invulnerability practice was based not in orthodox martial arts but rather mass spirit possession rituals. (Esherick 55 and Cohen 17) Rather, Liu Shiduan’s group, which was linked to the White Lotus tenuously based upon the “Armor of Golden Bell,” and the Spirt Boxers are linked by the “Big Sword Society” banner. Of course, we have established that neither group actually called themselves “Big Sword Society,” it was a label applied to them by outside observers. It would be almost humorous had it not important consequences.

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Finally, both Joseph Esherick and Paul Cohen note fundamental problems in trying to link the Spirit Boxers / Yi He Quan to the White Lotus Sect. First, mass spirit possession, a defining characteristic of the Spirit Boxers, is conspicuously absent from the White Lotus Sect tradition. (Cohen 30). Second, mention of the “Eternal Venerable Mother,” a figure central to White Lotus sect tradition, is absent from Spirit Boxer traditions. (Esherick 221, Cohen 30). The “Eternal Venerable Mother” was a syncretic pseudo-Buddhist figure that offered salvation to White Lotus followers, if they were under the direction of the appropriate leadership. The Spirit Boxers offered supernatural powers via possession by the spirits of popular figures from history, fiction and the Chinese opera, and the technique was so easy it could be learned by anyone, especially poor uneducated peasant youth.

If by this point in this study the reader has not already begun questioning these things, let me more explicitly state my point. In the general absence of reliable, authoritative documents regarding specific traditions produced by the participants themselves, we must always question whether the things we have come to believe originated with the practitioners or were the product of external forces. Are we confusing peasant superstition, Chinese opera performance or street performance tricks with authentic martial arts practice?

One Shandong master promised that the techniques [of invulnerability] could be learned in a day; another said seven or eight days; a third more rigorous teacher claimed 103 days but still noted that it was “much easier than the Armor of the Golden Bell.”
(Esherick 294)

Do many believe that martial arts are a health and spiritual activity because that is how the educated elites, who by virtue of their literacy had a virtual monopoly on documenting them for most of our history, were interested in and viewed them? Perhaps today, many can believe that the association of religion with martial arts has had many positive benefits for both health and spiritual development. Yet, in the aftermath of the Boxer Uprising, it may have seemed to have been the worst thing to happen to the martial arts.

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