Star Wars. An authentically American religious experience.

Introduction: The only Star Wars post on WordPress this week not about Disney or Lukas.

Admit it, you have all done it.  At one point or another each of you has looked at your Sifu or Sensei and thought “Its like having my own personal Yoda!”  This epiphany will usually happen right after someone goes flying across a room and crashes into a wall.  Sometimes it occurs after a partially successful attempt to explain some critical principal that’s really impossible to grasp unless you have already figured it out for yourself first.

Some martial arts teachers hate this analogy and (understandably) feel that it cheapens their art.  But I have seen other individuals in the community that are really quite accepting and even encourage it.  As a matter of fact, I can’t count the number of times I have heard the “Use the Force, Luke” line used in Chi Sao.

From a student’s point of view, particularly if you are not deeply steeped in Asian philosophy and history, there really does seem to be something to this.  I remember the first time I really felt “in the zone” while doing Chi Sao.  I had just finished that rough transitional period between Siu Lim Tao and Chum Kiu (the first and second Wing Chun forms).  I was practicing two-handed sticking hands with someone from my class and I realized all of the sudden that everything was working.  It was effortless.  All of the punches were landing, the traps were actually effective, it was like the universe wanted me to hit this guy.  So I did.  Repeatedly.

I still remember that feeling and I try to get back to that place when things are going less well in my practice.  And if you think about “the universe” in terms of physics (geometry, angles, speeds and force) or psychology (emotion plays a much bigger role in Chi Sao than most people realize), it really did want me to hit him.  I myself have always been agnostic when it comes to the question of Qi, but I can absolutely understand the feeling of an all pervading energy field that unites all things, guides our actions and responds to our wills.  I suspect that no matter what their specific philosophical or religious beliefs, most other practicing martial artists understand this feeling as well.  No matter its ultimate origin, this is an experience that we actually encounter in very concrete terms.

That, my friends, is why the Star Wars analogy is never going away.  I think it is best to just make your peace with it and move on.  Remember, “Only a Sith deals in absolutes,” and Wing Chun has enough issues with Sith philosophy as it is.  That’s a topic for a different post.

Instead what I want to do today is to explore a little more deeply the links between the eastern (especially Japanese and Chinese) martial arts and the Star Wars mythology.  This is not simply an exercise in pure geekery.   I suspect that Star Wars actually helped to encourage the spread of the martial arts among young American teenagers (especially those who did not live on the east or west coast) in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  Without this critical demographic the martial arts boom of the 1980s would have looked pretty different.

More broadly Star Wars has been an important force in the globalization and enculturation of the martial arts.  It provided a powerful visual argument that traditional hand combat was compatible with both western notions of masculinity and a modern, materialistic and technologically driven world.  This was a critical discussion, and its conclusion was far from automatic.

In short, George Lukas inadvertently solved for the west one of the biggest problems plaguing the continued growth of the martial arts in China.  Whereas Jet Li’s “Shaolin Temple” (1983) continues to be historical and backward looking, Star Wars took the archetype of the monastic monk and projected it into a highly technological future.  It explicitly argued that personal spirituality and gnosis could benefit one in the increasingly alienating technological wonderland of late Western capitalism.

Lukas drew heavily off of world mythology and Japanese martial arts films (especially the Akira Kurosawa 1954 classic “The Seven Samurai.”) when making Star Wars.  The end result was that he introduced the American viewing public to five key ideas that would shape their subsequent engagement with, and expectations about, the martial arts.  These ideas and symbols were not presented in a pure form, but through the lens of enculturation, making them easier for the western public to identify and accept.  Hence the universal feeling that the Star Wars saga is exotic and yet familiar at the same time.

I am normally pretty careful about sourcing my pictures, but I have no ideas who actually own any of this stuff, so I am just posting it anyway.

Hand Combat as a Legitimate Measure of Masculinity: Star Wars and the Martial Arts.

Star Wars succeeds in part because of its ability to weave multiple narratives together.  However, the strands that dominated Episode IV in 1977 were the trials surrounding the coming of age of a young teenager from a rural area, far removed from the wealth, glamor, politics or excitement of “the core.”  Luke Skywalker is an easy character to identify with, even when most of us would rather claim that we do not.

When the story begins Luke is a mess of teenage anxieties and insecurities, incapable of controlling his own schedule let alone bringing about change in the galaxy.  His life course changes radically the moment that Obi-wan Kenobi puts a weapon in his hands.  But not just any weapon, a lightsaber.  This brilliant invention has captivated the imagination of generations precisely because it combines the drama and tradition of the Japanese Katana with the allure of technology verging on magic.  It is the ultimate tool of wish fulfillment, and its mere presence in the film makes the not so subtle argument that maturity comes through the pursuit of power.

This is a proposition that both Yoda and the Emperor would agree on.  Both of these individuals are in a hurry to see Luke put off his youth and assume the “mantle of leadership.”  Of course how they understand “power” and its relationship to the Force varies immensely.  This clash of ideologies creates the overarching structure of the Star Wars narrative.  Luke knows nothing of this yet.  Nevertheless, the story cannot start until the moment that he reaches out and accepts his father’s lightsaber, and the destiny that is tied to it.

Of course there is also an anxiety producing aspect to this symbol.  The sword only represents power if you know how to use it, and it is very clear that Luke knew very little of anything at the beginning of our story.  This becomes painfully evident when he meets Han Solo, his erstwhile companion in arms.  Han has years of  tough guy experience, backed up by a spaceship (which resembles nothing more than a 1970s muscle car), a loyal wingman and a gun strapped to his leg.  Han monopolizes all of the traditional markers of masculinity.  It is only through a process of “self-cultivation” that Luke will achieve the same status, and to do that he must master the ancient mystical fighting arts and the religion of the Jedi.

While the “hero’s quest” may be a universal human linguistic and psychological pattern, the particular variant of it that Lukas used is not.  Rather this is one of those elements that he picked up from his martial arts movies.  And it was only in the martial arts movies in the first place because these stories are widespread in the popular mythology of Japan and China.  All sorts of martial arts schools have similar narratives (e.g., Yim Wing Chun), and so Luke Skywalker becomes an important intermediary figure.


Qi and “The Force” in modern Western and Eastern Thought.

Qi is important to a number of Asian martial arts, and not only ones from China.  Akido, a modern Japanese art, has more to say about the mystical connection linking all things than just about any other martial art I am aware of.  Taiji Quan, the most popular Chinese martial art, also emphasizes the creation, transformation and movement of Qi.

Further, by the time that most Americans actually got firsthand access to China and Chinese teachers (late 1980’s early 1990’s), changes in Chinese popular culture and medicine had led to an explosion of interest in Qigong and the “internal” aspect of the martial arts.  In many ways the Chinese martial arts that one might have encountered in Shanghai in 1991 were very different from what you might have seen in the same city in 1921.

Americans generally do not do well with mysticism and fuzzy explanations.  As more than one Chinese master has stated with a note of exasperation, when you tell an American student to turn and face their opponent they will immediately ask how many degrees they need to turn from their present position.  Should they turn 45 degrees or 50?  This is not how most Chinese teachers approach the issue.  In fact, for them it is not an issue at all.  You just turn until you are safe, until you have fulfilled the reasons you started to move in the first place.  But westerners like precision.  We like measurement, and science and rational explanations.

It is probably a good thing that Lukas described the Force to most of us before we ever enrolled in our first Kung Fu class.  Of course Qi is not “the Force,” and continually confusing the two is a great way to give your Qigong teacher an aneurism.  However, the teachings of Yoda and Obi-wan helped to convince a lot of American teenagers, who were not otherwise predisposed to be spiritual seekers, that there could be other ways of looking at and experiencing the universe.  That is invaluable when you are trying to explain “kidney breathing” to a group of IT professionals with college degrees in the computer sciences.

There is a huge amount you could say on Qi and the Force, but I have three more ideas to get through so I will save most of that for a heated discussion at the local watering hole.  What I will say is that Lukas’ treatment of the Force was critical in that it placed these mystical forces and the quest for personal gnosis in a far distant future, a future that was quite clearly dominated by science, technology and massive feats of engineering.  I think this move on his part made sense because he never really tried to explain it.  Instead he just showed the coexistence of technology and mysticism through powerful symbols (again, the lightsaber).

These symbols speak to the human mind on a deep level and I think they forever changed the discussion of spirituality and technology in the modern world.  In China many traditional masters face severe pressure because of the perception that serious hand combat is a relic from the past.  It is viewed as something that has no place in the modern world.  I find it fascinating that martial artists in the west have many fewer problems with those same perceptions.

Clearly Lukas was drawing on other trends that were already underway in his portrayal of the Force and its related fighting arts.  Nevertheless, he brought these ideas and images to the masses in a way that was both inspiring and powerful.  He made an argument that not only technological excellence, but true spiritual gnosis, was something that humanity might be moving towards.

When watching Star Wars with your younger nieces and nephews its best not to go into too much detail about “who shot who” first…..

The World of “Rivers and Lakes.”  Re-enchanting Mos Eisley.

Many of the problems facing Americans from the late 1970s to the present are monsters of our own creation.  The progressive modernization of the economy and the social system has grown the economy as a whole, but it has also had unintended consequences.  Some of these have been increasing disparities in wealth distribution, increases in crime, a steady problem with substance abuse and the dissolution of traditional communities.

Places in the local community that used to have real social meaning and value, the Moose Hall, the bowling alley, the malt shop or the church, are increasingly abandoned.  Changes in technology and the economy have led directly to the weakening of social bonds and trust in both the government and society.  Increasingly the urban landscape has become a bleak place where it was impossible to find meaningful social interaction.

Enter the world of “Rivers and Lakes.”  This phrase is a shorthand adopted from traditional Chinese novels that describes the realm of wandering bandits, heroes, smugglers and itinerant preachers that made up the constantly shifting margins of Chinese economic and social life.  Rather than being an actual place, the Rivers and Lakes are more of a state of mind, or an alternate way of looking at life and social values.  It is a different dimension whose entrances can be anywhere, found behind shabby storefronts or in a forgotten back alley.  Nor has the world of Rivers and Lakes ever actually disappeared.  Still today the realm of Chinese organized crime and petty tough guys has its own values, codes of behavior and even specialized language.  It is simultaneously everywhere and nowhere.

It’s a lot like the Rebellion actually.  After all, where exactly does Obi-wan go when he needs to find a pilot?  Or for that matter, why is Princes Leah hanging out with Han Solo, a noted smuggler.  What do you think the Hutt are smuggling in the first place?  Drugs, guns and people, pretty much the same stuff as today.  Notice that these sorts of middling ethical concerns rarely come in in Star Wars.  Why?  Well the Rebellion is just one more inhabitant of the world of Rivers and Lakes.  So the next time you see an academy trained imperial officer yell “rebel scum,” remember his real emphasis is probably on the last element.

To the extent that you become seriously involved with actual fighting arts in China, either by studying there or through history, you are likely to run into quite a few crossovers between the world of martial artists and the realm of Rivers and Lakes.  Sometimes even very important Chinese martial artists have been asked to make hard ethical choices, and it is not always clear that they chose the path that most of their subsequent American students would have wished.

One of the things holding back the spread of the traditional martial arts in Southern China is the widespread perception these groups are linked to youth delinquency and crime.  Sadly this has often been the case.  Remember all of those great stories you have heard about good old day of “challenge fights” in Hong Kong?  Does anyone actually think that this behavior was legal, let alone a good idea?  The police, government, and vast majority of the residents of Hong Kong didn’t think it was legal either.  No one made an exception for Wong Sheung Leung or Bruce Lee because they were “martial artists.”  In the eyes of the authorities they were just delinquents and petty criminals.  Dare I say, rebel scum?

This realization is sometimes hard for western students to accept.  After all, it was the Japanese who introduced us to the martial arts, and in Japan they are socially accepted and even lauded as a critical part of the national culture.  The situation is China is more complex.  At certain points in time the government has attempted to use the martial arts to advance its own agenda, but the martial arts as a separate social sphere has usually been associated with poverty and crime.  It is literally the sort of thing that middle class people have warned their kids to avoid.  A quick spin around Mos Eisely helps American students to wrap their head around this reality, and then go on to discover all of the intrinsic beauty that the Chinese arts have to offer.

The Destruction of the Shaolin Temple-A Myth for the Modern World.

We all need mythic stories.  These fables are deeply grounded in psychology and culture.  They provide a framework in which the mind can step out of its everyday existence and play with new identities and states of being.  Sometimes this play is so powerful it becomes transformative.  We are forever altered by the symbols that we encounter.  This is why changes of social status (birth, graduation, marriage, acceptance into a fraternity) are usually accompanied by both stories and rituals.  The goal is to change, on a fundamental level, how an individual is comfortable interacting with society.  Anthropologists call these powerful encounters with mythic symbols “rites of passage.”

One of the problems that America faced in the post WWII period was that rapid economic and social change was leading to a loss of many of our most important myths and symbols.  Some of these disappeared altogether, others lost their “fictive power.”  But there is always hope.  The human mind creates and seeks meaning the same way a fish breathes in water.  It just cannot help itself.  And so as the process of globalization was just starting to ramp up in the late 1970s and the early 1980s, we discovered a bunch of new and powerful myths.

Regardless of age or background, we all know the story.  An idyllic temple, removed from society, yet open to all seekers, where ageless wisdom has been passed from teacher to student for over a thousand years.  The exploits of its cleric-warriors are the stuff of legend, and through their bravery, peace reigns in the realm.  Then, due to the jealousy of a scheming politician, and the treachery of one of its own, the temple is destroyed.  The monks and novices slaughtered, the few survivors scattered and forced into hiding.  The golden age of harmony fails and a new empire asserts its iron grip over the people.

Of course, the names and setting of this story vary immensely depending on who is doing the telling.  The average American today would without hesitation identify the temple’s traitor as the rage filled Anakin Skywalker.  That this story can so easily transcend cultural and linguistic barriers speaks to the power and simplicity of its archetypal images.  The golden age, the “Hero’s Quest,” the loss of a father figure are all themes that reoccur throughout world mythology, and they are powerfully concentrated in this one story.

We yearn to know the ancient secrets of harmony and inner-peace.  It is comforting to place them both spiritually and intellectually within an almost accessible tradition.  Most tellingly, if we do not have them now it is all too easy to claim that these things have been “stolen” from us, rather than to contemplate that we ourselves may have turned our backs on them.

Hundreds of years before George Lucas wrote this story into the background mythology of his epic space opera, novelists, story-tellers, puppeteers and actors throughout southern China discovered an equally insatiable audience for stories of the destruction of the equally mythic Shaolin Temple.  Nor were these audiences, both literate and unlettered, to be disappointed.

These stories are widely told throughout the Chinese martial arts community.  They are especially ubiquitous in the martial arts of Guangdong province where the myth of the burning of the Shaolin temple is shared by all of the Hung Mun styles, including Wing Chun.  When discussing the mythic history of my art I can just see my students faces light up when we get to the burning of the temple and the escape of the Elders.  This is a story that they know and love.  They have been hearing it since they were children, and they are predisposed to take Wing Chun much more seriously now that they have discovered the “real thing.”

Its like this guy spent a lot of a time at a training hall or something…..

Star Wars and the search for the “Little old Chinese Man.”

The relationship between a student and a Sifu is uniquely complex and powerful.  On the one hand a Sifu’s job is to teach a set of technical skills.  These might focus on self-defense, or possibly Qi cultivation, but at the end of the day this is a technology that the student is expected to master through diligent study and practice.

On the other hand, each and every one of us seeks mentorship.  Most of the time we do this subconsciously, but the impulse is no less powerful for being hidden.  Given the nature of what we do, you have to place a lot of trust in a Sifu.  In turn you hope that he will open the door to a realm that has been previously hidden from you.  Because martial arts teachers function as threshold guardians they inevitably get drawn into the myth complex of the “Heroes Quest.”  People end up expecting them to be mentors, or even gurus, because that is the role that the teacher plays in these mythic stories.

This is where caution is necessary.  Not all martial arts teachers are comfortable playing the role of mentor or spiritual guru.  And even if they are, are they really qualified to do it?  I suspect that after decades of “pastoral” experience a lot of traditional teachers get pretty good at this.  But I have heard some real horror stories.  Never confuse emotional or physical abuse for “eating bitter” and “traditional training.”  This is definitely one of those areas where you need to “Follow your feelings, Luke.”

On the surface this quest for a “personal Yoda” might seem like just another exercise in western orientalism.  Nevertheless, the really interesting thing is that this is pretty huge in China as well, particularly in the Taiji Quan community.  Adam D. Frank titled his insightful ethnography “Search for the Little Old Chinese Man” for a reason.  Not only was he looking for the origins of this symbol and belief that such a person is the ideal martial arts teacher, but most of his Chinese informants living in Shanghai were engaged in an identical, and much less metaphorical, search themselves.  They too were looking for “a little old Taiji master” to guide them on their pathway of personal transformation.

I like Yoda, but I am also aware that he is a collection of our stereotypes and preconceived notions of what the ideal martial arts master would be.  The critical thing to grasp, however, is that Yoda is a product of the globalization of the Chinese martial arts.  These views and stereotypes were perfected in the martial arts novels and radio plays of China in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s long before they were ever exported to the US.  They have since been adopted into the American popular imagination with little thought or criticism.

Yoda introduced these key images to the American public right as the Chinese martial arts were becoming really accessible.  He became a lens through which we could view real individuals like T. T. Liang or Ip Man and decide that their irascible, at times prickly characters, should not be a deterrent to accepting them as teachers.  In fact, they were exactly the qualities that made them desirable role models.

Conclusion: Star Wars, Globalization and the Chinese Martial Arts.

The Star Wars mythology has had an important impact on the enculturation and the adoption of the martial arts in the west.  This effect is probably the easiest to see in the resurgence of interest in medieval fencing, but I believe that it also shows up in a variety of other areas as well.  In particular, Lukas’ familiarity with Asian film and world mythology allowed him to import to America a number of symbols from the Chinese world of Rivers and Lakes (often via Japanese retellings).  The fact that American middle class teenagers were already conversant in these images eased their transition to a more formal study of the Chinese martial arts.

The Star Wars mythology is a powerful example of the effects of globalization on the martial arts.  Ideas do not neatly flow west to east.  Rather, the adoption of certain eastern ideas and symbols by western audiences paved the way for the creation of a powerful hybridized social movements that is now seen on both sides of the Pacific.