Towards The Motors of Tradition: A Report from the Field for Kung Fu Tea

By Daniel Mroz, Ph.D., University of Ottawa, Canada

 

Prof. Daniel Mroz and Tsewong Rinpoche in Bhutan.  Source: Property of Daniel Mroz.
Prof. Daniel Mroz and Tsewong Rinpoche in Bhutan. Source: Property of Daniel Mroz.

****I am very happy to introduce the following research report by my friend and colleague, Prof. Daniel Mroz of the University of Ottawa.  He has recently returned from conducting some fieldwork abroad and has agreed to outline his current research agenda for us.  His extensive experience in the areas of dance and theater brings an important perspective to the discussion of the traditional Chinese martial arts which is occasionally neglected in our conversations in the west.  I cannot wait to see where this project ends up going.*****

Introduction

The school year of 2012-2013 was an academic leave year for me. During this time I worked on three new performances and taught master-classes in the United Kingdom and France. Traveling to Asia I was introduced to the rare Rigdzin Trulkhor system of Tibetan Yoga in Bhutan and studied traditional Chinese theatre at the National Academy of Chinese Theatre Arts in Beijing.

This sabbatical year laid the ground-work for a new research/creation project that I’ve named The Motors of Tradition. I hope to investigate the relationship between normative and creative knowledge in the transmission of physically-based art-forms and practices. 

I’m still formulating these ideas, so please bear with any inconsistencies, sloppy thinking or generalizations; these will hopefully clear up as the research questions become more precise. This article is a working out on paper of the sources and inspirations for my research activities for the next 5 years or so and everything I’m going to say should be read with this in mind. If readers have any questions, I can provide a scholarly ‘paper trail’ for everything I assert here but because of the informality of this venue I have not done so throughout.

 

Normative and Creative Knowledge

In the teaching of every cultural activity I’ve ever been involved in I’ve come across this basic confusion: while claiming to teach procedures that foster agency, independence and creativity, professionals unknowingly transmit a series of arbitrary norms and tacit conservative values that while fostering the health of the social institution surrounding the art-form they teach actually discourage creativity, curiosity and innovation.

There is great value in the reproduction of normative knowledge. The advantages of not having to reinvent the wheel for each new endeavour are clear. Nevertheless the apparent inability of the majority professional artists to differentiate between reproductive and creative activities is fascinating to me. Is it naiveté or hypocrisy? How do we parse reproductive knowledge? How do we go from ‘this is an effective way of turning a table-leg’ to ‘for reasons we don’t ever examine, all of our table-legs look the same no matter what kind of table they are attached to’?

Fire Puja Dancers in Bhutan.  Source: Property of Daniel Mroz.
Fire Puja Dancers in Bhutan. Source: Property of Daniel Mroz.

 

What is the Practitioners’ Experience?

In order to get a sense of the values behind individual artists’ choices I’m proposing to interview a large number of artists across a wide swath of disciplines. I will select this group of artists based on their clear relationship to a lineage of practice and on their demonstrated innovations in either or both their art-making and teaching. I’m making the assumption that artists who innovate aesthetically or pedagogically or both, do examine their situation and will have something interesting to say about both normative and creative knowledge. I’m going to ask them:

 

·   Do you see yourself as part of a tradition? How so or how not so?

·   How do you experience your relationship to artists you feel are your inspirations, ancestors, mentors or masters?

·   What is the ‘motor’ of your tradition; what element do you feel is absolutely essential for you to be able to transmit the results of your lifetime of artistry to an apprentice?

·   If your ‘motor’ is abstract, for example if you answered ‘curiosity’ or ‘discipline’ would you please also propose a more concrete, technical answer, for example ‘the art of Taijiquan depends on the exponent’s ability to hold one part of his body still while rotating another part in relationship to it’. If your answer was concrete, would you please consider an abstract or conceptual one as well.

 

Because of my interests and previous training and because of what I believe are inherent and perennial links between them, the physically-based art-forms and practices I am going to look at are martial, healing and performing arts from both traditional and contemporary sources.

In later phases the project will include master-classes with senior artists, the creation of original performances, extensive video documentation, the publication of scholarly articles and eventually a new book.

 

Inspiration

At the centre of this research is my obsession with the relationship between martial, theatrical, healing (i.e. yogic and ritual) movement. In its current form it began in 2009 when I went to visit with Dr. Michael Saso in Los Angeles. Dr. Saso is one of the few scholars of religious studies who is also a Daoist and Buddhist initiate. At one point during our conversations Dr. Saso was explaining the Chinese Luo Shu diagram – a ‘magic square’ that is widely used in Daoist ritual, feng shui, Astrology and of course, martial arts and theatre – and I asked him if one could imagine Chinese martial arts, Daoist ritual and Chinese theatre and dance as taking place ‘within the same mandala’. Dr. Saso’s response was ‘Taiji, Daojiao and the stage are one system; and you can quote me’. So I think my interest – or at least my current articulation of it – began there.

 

Kernel

My previous training and research and especially my recent studies in Bhutan and China lead me to believe that martial movement exists everywhere in north Asian culture in what I would argue is an undifferentiated state. It is not ‘for’ anything in the absolute, single usage way Western ‘modernist’ thought would prefer to find, rather it is a generic, polyvalent, open or ‘empty’ structure that is given meanings by its context.

 

Chinese Martial Studies: Inter- and Trans-disciplinary

Modern thinking – and by this I mean our way of thinking that has its roots in 19th century industrial efficiency and pragmatism – definitively differentiates such fields as religion, medicine, theatre and martial arts. This is not a practice developed by the cultural milieu in which these arts were invented and evolved. But educated Asians themselves were trying to copy European military, industrial and intellectual models in the 19th century and those values have also been reproduced in contemporary cosmopolitan and Communist education as well, so many ways of viewing martial arts that are actually derived from Prussian or Marxist management systems are mistakenly thought to be native to China or other parts of Asia.

Martial arts are clearly vital to any discussion of theatre, religion, medicine, civilian defense, military drill and indeed to the whole Rujia or Confucian system of wu and wen that underpins Chinese culture – and vice versa. Thus I see a very clear relationship between my general research ideas outlined above as well as the fieldwork described below and Chinese martial studies.

 

Preparing for the Fire Puja.  Bhutan.  Source: Property of Daniel Mroz.
Preparing for the Fire Puja. Bhutan. Source: Property of Daniel Mroz.

Trulkhor in Bhutan

My recent trip to Bhutan to study a Himalayan Buddhist yogic practice named the Rigdzin Trulkhor has left me deeply curious. This series of movements dates from the mid 1700s and bears very little resemblance to Indian hatha yoga that is so popular in the West. Trulkhor clearly uses martial, ritual and dance/theatre movements. It is intended as an auxiliary training for Tummo (Tibetan) or Candali (Sanskrit) which is the practice of generating internal heat.

There appear to be two broad categories of activity in Himalayan Buddhist practice (and indeed in the Daoist traditions I’ve been introduced to). The first is simply to remain in what is referred to as the natural state. The natural state resists conceptual description but according to tradition its can be communicated by metaphor, by physical action and by direct mind-to-mind communication. As these three kinds of transmission can be hard to find there are a virtually endless number of practices that are believed to make it more likely that one will enter into and remain in the natural state. Thus if remaining in the natural state is primary, Tummo is a secondary practice to achieve that state and Trulkhor is an auxiliary practice that supports Tummo.

(There is an alternate point of view on all this that suggests that as we are already in the natural state, the various yogic practices are simply an expression of how much we realize we are in the natural state and as such, they are not outcome-directed but rather process-oriented. This is perhaps a larger issue than I can deal with here!)

There are 21 short sections in the Rigdzin Trulkhor. A breathing preparation and the first five exercises are intended for daily practice. The remaining practices are reserved for training during meditation retreats. The Rigdzin Trulkhor is tightly controlled by ritual protocols. There are specific clothes to be worn during practice, dietary adjustments and other limitations. These are all quite strict and inconvenient supporting the injunction that it be practiced on retreat when such austerity is more readily embraced. It is also a practice that is to be kept secret; demonstrations to non-initiates are forbidden or at least energetically discouraged. Curious readers can find examples similar to the preliminary exercises by searching for ‘Tibetan Yoga’ on Youtube. Some of the Yantra Yoga taught by the students of Chögyal Namkhai Norbu resembles the initial Rigdzin Trulkhor movements, as do some of the Tsa Lung exercises taught by Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche. However I know of no public archive of the later movements. It is of course these later movements that I find so intriguing because they contain so much movement that is martial and theatrical.

The martial and theatrical movement content is why I’m considering the Trulkhor in my study in the first place. It represents the undifferentiated use of martial movement I’ve posited above. As I mentioned, this ‘Tibetan Yoga’ does not look much like contemporary Indian hatha yoga, which is derived from 19th century British military calisthenics and Indian wrestling exercises yet usually presented as being far older and more systematic than it actually is. The Trulkhor does however look like Indian dance (most of which is apparently about the same age as hatha yoga, so ‘hmm?’ here too…) and various Chinese practices that are now referred to as qigong. In my personal experience, the Ermei Dapeng Gong taught by Liang Shou Yu, the Huashan Qi Fa Gong, Yi Jin Jing and Shiba Lohan Gong taught by Ken Cohen, the Xi Zang Mizong Lama Pai Gong practiced by Charles Daniel and the Kurikara Tanren developed by John Evans are all clearly in the same family as the Rigdzin Trulkhor. I only wish I knew more about Indian dance to be able to spot the relationships there. But at first glance, I would characterize the Trulkhor as wei gong, ‘hard’ qigong characterized by powerful movements, breath retentions and athletic difficulty.

These similarities lead me to consider ‘the Chinese connection’. In his The Origins of Yoga and Tantra scholar Geoffrey Samuel has posited a Chinese source to the Indian conception of the subtle body, with its various chakras and nadis and to many of the theories and diagnostic practices found in Ayurvedic medicine, pulse diagnosis being the major one. Michael Saso and Lucjan Shila have both expressed similar ideas based on their personal experiences, suggesting Chinese origins for Vajrayana in general and Dzogchen in particular, so I think systemic comparisons of Chinese and Himalayan practices will yield some interesting ideas.

I’m also considering Trulkhor because I think it highlights issues related to transmission. Trulkhor is rare and probably dying out due to one athletic element, called a bep in Tibetan, that involves leaping into the air from a standing position and landing seated on the ground in the lotus position with the breath held in. Its exhausting – there are probably 90 or so in the sequence – and can be very painful or even dangerous if you land with your heel pressed into your genitals or with the tip of your spine in the wrong spot. The purpose of the bep is to drive the subtle energies of the body into the central channel of the subtle body. There are procedures with similar intentions in various kinds of qigong, but Trulkhor stands out for the violence of its approach.

Tsewong Rinpoche told us he was teaching us because most of his classmates who had also learned the system were either dead or had forgotten it. Unwilling to simply admit that, the larger community of Lamas had apparently gotten used to declaring these procedures, that are supposed to be quite central, to be rare, secret and advanced.

The reason I feel Lamas forget such practices is that Himalayan Buddhism is overall a physically static practice with a huge ritual, devotional and social component. The practices that seem to have generated the founding insights of the tradition and which require one on one teaching, discipline and isolated individual practice have been subordinated to group activities and devotional rituals. I’m not sure how far to get into this area, as my observations are likely contentious, but to me it is very clear that what most people are doing when they practice Vajrayana Buddhism is very different from what the canonical texts and oral transmissions tell us the people who founded the traditions did themselves! So I think there is a clear situation here that can be articulated in terms of the differences between creative and normative knowledge.

Prof. Yan teaching Kunju.  Source: Property of Daniel Mroz.
Prof. Yan teaching Kunju. Source: Property of Daniel Mroz.

Xiju, Gongfu and the Great Reform

Xiju is the general name for ‘traditional Chinese theatre practices’ used to refer to theatre that is highly stylized, requires specialized training and tells historical or mythological stories. There are different sub-styles, such as Jingju, or ‘Peking Opera’ and Kunju, an older genre from which Jingju was developed and Yueju, or ‘Cantonese Opera’.

On my return from Bhutan I spent two weeks observing the classes and student performances at the Zhong Guo Xiju Xue Yuan, the National Academy of Chinese Theatre Arts in Beijing. My friend and colleague Professor Lu Suosen had visited Ottawa on two occasions to share his art and I was delighted to be able to see him in his own teaching environment.

Watching Xiju training I had the dreadful feeling that I’d been trying to reinvent the wheel. My work for the last 20 years has been to integrate the Chinese martial arts and qigong into the cosmopolitan approach to actor training and directing called The Great Reform.

The Wielka Reforma or The Great Reform is a term coined between the two world wars by Polish director Leon Schiller for the cluster of artists working in Eastern Europe who contributed to the development of theatrical modernism and in particular to the theatre of the director. The fruits of this period were mostly lost to Western Europe and North America due to fascism, communism, the Second World War and the Cold War. 

While the aesthetics of the Great Reform have diversified considerably over the course of the 20th century, they are principally characterized by the requirement that a theatrical performance be meaningful due to the credibility of the actions of the performers within a metaphorical staging designed by the director. This necessitates training actors who are more than the mere ‘talking heads’ that the normative approach to actor training in North America produces.

Watching Xiju training, from the basics or jibengong, to the fighting classes, to singing and character repertoire practice I really got the sense of a complete and powerful actor training system that leaves no stone unturned. I cannot think of a contemporary training approach that is more complete: Xiju training far surpasses the physical work of techniques like Meyerhold’s Biomechanics, Tadashi Suzuki’s training or Decroux’s Corporeal Mime, the popular Linklater and Fitzmaurice approaches to voice and contains all of the subtle nuance of acting impulses found in Stanislavsky’s work. The body and voice are trained as a whole and both measurable skill and ephemeral charisma are cultivated successfully.

What I did find though, is much as it is a ‘perfect’ system its artists do not quite know what to do with it. The number of people in the PRC who can appreciate the nuances of a traditional performance is dwindling and given the ravages that Communism and the Cultural Revolution inflicted on the art, the number of people who can give a truly traditional performance is also very limited. The whole education of Chinese students who wish to study Xiju is state subsidized in order to preserve the tradition that the state clearly believes will die out without extensive support. In 1996 my friend and colleague Denis Salter interviewed a contemporary Chinese theatre artist named Mou Sen about his work; Mou characterized traditional Chinese theatre as having become a ‘an artificial and superficial cultural experience’, which is quite tragic.

When I asked him about his artistic goals, Prof. Lu had a very clear list of modifications to training he’d like to make as well as a list of repertory plays he’d like to develop in the spirit of restoring them to something approaching their original versions.

Prof. Lu working with a student from Finland.  Source: Property of Daniel Mroz.
Prof. Lu working with a student from Finland. Source: Property of Daniel Mroz.

To tarry a moment on Prof. Lu’s teaching, I was particularly taken with his ability to parse pedagogical issues from a position of systemic mastery. First of all, he was very clear about body types. The ideal student of Chinese physical culture is short and light with a long back and short arms and legs. People who deviate from this basic structure will have to make modifications in order to ‘fake’ their way into the arts and they may get correct seeming results while remaining ignorant of the actual movements required by tradition! This resonated with something my Taiji master Chen Zhonghua once mentioned about the differences between various kinds of bodies. He laughingly told a group of us, all Caucasians who were about to enter a forms competition in China, that we had long, ungainly ‘horse bodies’ and not the ideal nimble ‘monkey bodies’ of Chinese students, so even when we were moving effectively, we’d still look odd to Chinese eyes. He wasn’t saying exactly the same thing as Prof. Lu, but both comments have made me wonder about whether the heavy, lumbering Western ‘masters’ of Taijiquan are really accessing some exquisite ‘internal’ coordination rather than simply outweighing and out-shoving their students and opponents!

When I asked him about the jibengong for voice, Prof. Lu showed me a very modest glissando exercise. I asked him if that was it and he said that of course there was also the practice of songs and speeches from repertoire. I pressed him further, suggesting that there was no way this modest amount of technique could account for his own vocal ability or that of the students I was watching. He smilingly explained that Jingju was a system and that practicing all of the physical elements tacitly prepared the body for voice work and that kicking, leaping and rolling were all part of foundational voice training! Later that day, while explaining about how the voice was placed in the body, Lu effortlessly sang what I believe was Verdi in credible Bel Canto style, explaining what he believed were the similarities and differences between the Chinese and European approaches.

Lu was also very clear about which aspects of training were incremental and thus able to be broken down into component elements, and what elements were discrete wholes, requiring as a prerequisite a high level of strength, agility and perception. Coaching a very difficult fall in a fight choreography he explained to his student that this particular fall had to be seen once and then simply copied, as it was too hard to train wrong over and over: ‘if you can’t do it now, you will be able to next week; don’t do it wrong over and over, return to your foundation training and wait,’ he advised. He expressed similar opinions about another student’s inability to do a ‘no-hands’ cartwheel. I found it refreshing that he was so confident in his advice. I find in North America we are quite neurotic about making every aspect of learning incremental and safe…

Lu’s colleague Wan Xiao Yan was no less impressive. When I asked Wan, a master performer of Kunju Theatre how she created such clear and compelling acting impulses, she explained that she always initiated the small movements of her acting impulses from her heart and proceeded to demonstrate the basic positions of chest, front, centre and back along with the expressive variations she could create with her eyes and her breath. Her exact words in Chinese were poetic: the heart should initiate all small emotional impulses because the Shui or ‘water’ of blood in the heart becomes the Feng or ‘wind’ of thoughts in the mind.

(‘Wind and water’ or Fengshui is the Chinese term for geomancy, the art of placing buildings auspiciously in the landscape. Fengshui is an expression of Yinyang: the heavy and visible water contrasts with the light and invisible wind, creating a complementary binary that determines character of a given geographical area.)

Lu had also composed a short solo performance featuring the character of Sun Wukong, the Monkey King. Many of his foreign students had asked to learn this role, which is important in Chinese theatre but the traditional repertoire requires several performers and does not break into shorter fragments easily. Lu’s 20-minute virtuoso piece cleverly incorporates the jibengong for the acrobatics and staff manipulation as well as introducing character and voice elements. Interestingly, Lu explained to one foreign student that her work was of sufficient quality that she might compete in a province-wide ‘Monkey King Competition’, where different interpretations of the role were judged against one another. I really wish I’d be able to attend such an event, which would have been delightfully surreal. However, the existence of such competitions brings me to my next point.

All the attempts I have seen of using this traditional technique to create contemporary work appear naive and forced. From the fundamental aesthetic choices to the details of light and sound, there is a distinctly immature feel to the work that is baffling when considering the mastery of PRC cinema artists, for example. There are also lots of precedents for integrating traditional approaches into contemporary performances in related cultures: working with such masters as Adam Hsu and Xiong Wei, Taiwanese choreographer Lin Hwai Min has adopted gongfu into his choreographies. There are also excellent examples from South Asia of traditional dance/theatre techniques being used in contemporary ways in the work of Akram Khan and Chandralekha Prabhudas Patel, to mention two of the most well known ones.

So in a way I feel faced with the same interesting situation I saw in Bhutan. Chinese theatre has a powerful and effective training method. In the PRC however it is being propagated by a social consensus created by public policy. Given the lack of traditional audiences and the inability of artists to create contemporary work it appears that the tradition is currently only being transmitted as a series of norms, rather than as a vehicle for creativity.

Fieldwork Impressions

I realize my impressions may sound quite negative. In the case of Trulkhor I believe an important and interesting technique is being lost due to cultural emphasis elsewhere. In the case of Xiju, while I feel it is being preserved, a lack of systemic innovation is limiting its relevance. Despite these feelings, I am deeply inspired by both Trulkhor and Xiju as practices. I feel that despite the social situations surrounding them, they have much to offer and that the people who transmit them likewise will have interesting responses to the questions I’ve posed above.

 

Prof. Lu teaching Shuang Dao.  Source: Property of Daniel Mroz.
Prof. Lu teaching Shuang Dao. Source: Property of Daniel Mroz.

Concluding Comments

I think it is important to point out that the fieldwork preceded my general formulation of this research project: the two situations of Trulkhor and Xiju have led me to constellate my larger research agenda and design which I can’t explain here, because its not finished yet!

To conclude though, I’d like to emphasize two themes of inquiry:

1.Martial, healing and performance movement was very likely undifferentiated historically. It may be very fruitful to consider it as undifferentiated for contemporary research[1].

2.Artistic techniques that are supposed to facilitate creativity usually actually reinforce normative habit and do the opposite of what their exponents claim. What is the relationship between normative and creative knowledge in the transmission of martial, healing and performance movement?


[1] The following, with small adaptation, could be describing the relationship between theatre, Daoist ritual and martial arts in China: “Religion, magic and medicine are so completely intertwined in Mesopotamia that separating them is frustrating and perhaps futile work… (Sumerian incantations) demonstrate an intimate connection between the religious, the magical, and the esthetic so complete that any attempt to pull one away from the other will distort the whole” Kramer, S.N. & Maier, J. R. in Myths of Enki, the Crafty God. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press 1989.

9 Comments Add yours

    1. Daniel Mroz says:

      Dr. Shila many thanks for stopping by and for adding this link. I learned your “Eight Hands of the Deer and Crane” from Ken Cohen in the 1990s, so I must also add my thanks for those. In the article above I mention a series of interviews I am conducting. I would be honoured if you would agree to participate. Having studied Kalarippayattu in India I have all sorts of questions about the “Humkara” branch of the tree you describe in your article.

      With appreciation,

      Daniel

    2. David Daniel says:

      I enjoyed the heck out of this. Good work, Daniel. Did you see any full ice submersions in Bhutan? How cold were the temperatures they managed in their practices?

      1. Daniel Mroz says:

        David, great to hear from you; looking forward to catching up in person. I didn’t see any full ice submersions, nor did I even hear of any. However, I did learn something along those lines. One of the people I was training with brought a big, cold, wet towel into the training room one day. He was joking a bit about it, asking if anyone wanted to try it. I volunteered and put it on. We were training in very little clothing and the room we were in was about 6-8 Celsius at the best of times. Instead of freezing, I actually felt like I was warming up as I sat there and did the various breathing exercises with the towel wrapped around me. It made me wonder if the accounts of Repas (Tummo practitioners) drying wet towels as a test of their achievements might not have been assumptions made by witnesses about a very effective training method – chilling the surface of the body seems to create heat deeper within!

        All the best,

        Daniel

      2. robert pittman says:

        makes sense to me…

      3. robert pittman says:

        still debating Xmas visit…had to bite the bullet and get a new mac so financially I am back down to where I started…it will be worth it doubtless in the future…my old one was about five years old and incompatible with new dvd burners and it’s own burner quit…so there was no real option… I am also needing to contact Dr Saso about his schedule in the spring…anyhow we should catch up on skype or phone when you can… ap

    3. David Daniel says:

      Dear Daniel, It would be really good to see you again. It’s always easier in person. Your experience sounds fantastic, and I’m really happy for you. I would imagine in Canada, you will have optimum conditions for practice. The conductivity of water, as you already figured out from the towel, makes things colder quick. My outdoor training last winter was internally rewarding. The temperatures only get down to -4 Celsius, but that was adequate. Ice water, ice baths, mountain rivers..best to talk about in person, 0-3 Celsius water doesn’t leave much room for error.

  1. allen pittman says:

    excellent overview Daniel—look Forward to further discussion…

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