Mantis Sketches by VXD.  Source: Wikimedia.
Mantis Sketches by VXD. Source: Wikimedia.

Introduction: Becoming Invulnerable in Southern Mantis Kung Fu

The traditional Chinese martial arts are rich in animal symbolism.  Tigers, dragons, cranes, snakes and monkeys are common fixtures in the legends and folklore of these systems.  Some styles are imitative in nature, while others invoke animal powers in more abstract and psychological ways.  Nor is this a recent innovation.  Animal symbolism has been a feature of both Chinese martial and medical practices since the Bronze Age.  There is even a bit of a literature on this subject.  See for instance Ma Lianzhen’s 2010 article “From Ape Worship in Ancient China to Animal Imitation in Modern Competition Wushu” in the Journal of Chinese Martial Studies (Issue 2, 20-28).

Interpreting these stories, and tracing the ways in which they are borrowed, evolve and change can be a challenge.  Rarely is there a single correct reading.  Still, these legends hint at some of the issues that concerned martial artists in the late Qing dynasty, as well as illustrating the avenues by which this type of folklore was transmitted.

Recently I resolved to do a little research on the motif of the “crane fighting the snake.” This image appears in a variety of arts stretched from Northern China to the islands of Indonesia.  While there is an abundance of historically interesting sources, I felt that this project was lacking something.  Why would martial artists of diverse geographic, linguistic and social backgrounds go to such lengths of spread these specific stories?  Why did the same motifs appear so often?  Were these stories simply a marker of cultural legitimacy, or did they convey something more to their intended audience?

The question is even more puzzling when one considers that a number of the southern Chinese schools that seem to have been most eager to adopt this motif do not really have much “imitative content.”  Wing Chun has traditionally drawn on the image of the crane, possibly borrowed from Fujianese White Crane Boxing.  After the introduction of the Taiji legend of the “crane fighting a snake” to Guangdong Province in the early 20th century, the Wing Chun community quickly absorbed this new story into its ethos as well.

Yet compared to their more northern neighbors Wing Chun players do not spend much time “imitating,” or even consciously invoking, the crane.  That would be contradictory to the philosophical basis of the art.  So what does it mean to “become like a crane” in this context?  How can we understand this as either a training strategy or a cultural process?

As luck would have it D. S. Farrer has recently advanced his own framework for thinking about these very issues.  This chapter, “Becoming-animal in the Chinese Martial Arts” (in Living Beings: Perspectives on Interspecies Engagements by Penelope Dransart (ed.) Bloomsbury 2013) provides us with exactly the tools that we need to start thinking about these questions in a more constructive way.

Farrer is no stranger to martial arts studies.  In 2007 he earned his doctorate from the National University of Singapore.  His research fits naturally within the emerging field of performance ethnography, and he currently teaches at the University of Guam where he is an associate professor.

In 2009 he released Shadows of the Prophet: Martial Arts and Sufi Mysticism (Springer).  In 2011 he coedited the volume Martial Arts as Embodied Knowledge: Asian Traditions in a Transnational World (SUNY Press) with John Whalen-Bridge.  Students of Chinese martial studies will find his own chapter “Coffee-Shop Gods: Chinese Martial Arts of the Singapore Diaspora” (which I have discussed here) to be particularly valuable.

In the current article Farrer draws on his extensive experience within the Southern Mantis (Chow Gar) clan to delve more deeply into the relationship between the Chinese martial arts and their seemingly totemic animals.  Again, this is interesting precisely because Southern Mantis is not generally considered to be an “imitative” style, such as “drunken boxing” or any of the various schools of Monkey Kung Fu.

Instead he argues that martial artists seek to push the boundaries of the normal human body by engaging in a process of “becoming-animal” through their ascetic and mystical practices.  Here “animals” are understood not as static objects but as verbs.  They are agents of change and transformation.  The process of “becoming” that he outlines mirrors some aspects of shamanistic practice.

Farrer draws from Eliade’s seminal 1974 volume Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy.  His thoughts on the subject of “becoming” are heavily informed by the writings of Deleuze and Guattari (2002).  This leads him to the somewhat controversial conclusion that the “traditional Chinese martial arts are embodied Daoist practices, with tangki, Buddhist and Confucian influences, passed down from the ancestral masters and brought to life in the practice of current and future generations” (Farrer 2013, 146).

I myself am hesitant to totally agree with this statement if only because the Chinese martial arts have been many things to many people.  In my own review of the subject I have come to suspect that popular ideas about Confucianism have probably played much more of a role in the formation of the southern styles than most people realize.  Still, by the end of his chapter I found myself agreeing that this may be an accurate characterization of the quest to transcend that which is” merely human” within the Southern Mantis system.  After going back and reviewing Eliade and few other sources on Shamanism, it does not take a great deal of imagination to see many of the parallels in mental and physical training that Farrer described.

Of course that makes one wonder how widely spread this pattern actually is.  As Eliade himself pointed out in the opening pages of his 1974 work, Shamanism is a minority player in the religious landscapes of many of the societies in which it is found.  It is a technical art drawn on by those with specific problems at an appropriate moment of crisis.   Most of the time it coexists with other much larger religious and spiritual systems of practice.

As I have thought about Farrer’s argument I have found myself wondering if there might not be a similar process at work in the world of the traditional martial arts.  Do the various styles represent or attach themselves to different aspects of society?  Are the students who voluntarily seek out this type of training and community in East London and Mongkok basically the same sorts of individuals who might seek a Shaman in other settings?  In their personal struggles, do they perceive a “sickness of the soul?”  Is this what drives them to “become-animal” in an attempt to restore a sense of balance and security in their own lives?

Again, it is very interesting to see this sort of a conversation unfolding around the beliefs and practices of Chow Gar students.  This is not a branch of the martial arts that is generally thought of as being overly “internal” or “new age” in its cultural orientation.  Rather Southern Mantis boxers are among the most dedicated proponents of “real world self-defense” that one is likely to find in the Chinese martial arts.  It is fascinating to realize that these issues of “being” and “becoming” can exist not just in the more occult aspects of the “internal arts” (where most of us would look for them), but even in the most “practical” areas of the Chinese hand combat community.

If one can see the Shamanistic impulse here it might be worth taking another look at the question more generally.  Further, students of the southern Chinese martial arts will appreciate this chapter for its clear and concise summary of the Chow Gar sect, including its history, training methods and goals.  When read together with the works of Daniel Amos [1983, Marginality and the hero’s art: Martial artists in Hong Kong and Guangzhou (Canton) [Dissertation]; 1997 “A Hong Kong Southern Praying Mantis Cult.” Journal of Asian Martial Arts 6(4): 31-61; 1999. “Spirit Boxers in Hong Kong: Two Observers, Native and Foreign.”  Journal of Asian Martial Arts. 8 (4)  pp.8-27] readers can begin to construct a much more accurate view of this area of Chinese martial culture.

A Mantis in China.  Engraving by William Daniell, 1808.
A Mantis in China. Engraving by William Daniell, 1808.

Becoming-animal in Southern Mantis

Farrer’s chapter advances in a number of moves.  He starts off by introducing his places of study, the poor and often violent neighborhoods of Mongkok (Hong Kong) and East London.  He asserts that the narratives of violence, war, displacement, inequality and poverty that mark both of these neighborhoods provides rich soil for the seeds of the Southern Mantis system to take root.  Possibly because of space limitations Farrer does not delve deeper into these socio-economic considerations, but I suspect that readers would be wise to consider the question.  Specifically, are the “mechanisms of becoming” that are advanced in the rest of the article universal?  Or is there actually something about this environment that leads students to seek the types of transformation that Southern Mantis can offer?  And if this is the case, what does it imply about the ability of these arts to prosper in the broader global system?

Farrer then moves on to a number of more theoretical issues, some having to do with the growth of “performance ethnography” as a research methodology.  Others are more philosophical concerns about the nature of “becoming” and “agency.”  I suspect that the success of his project validates Farrer’s stance on these issues.  Still, from the perspective of Chinese martial studies, I think that it is really the methodology questions that we should be paying close attention to.

Farrer introduces us to the substance of his argument by pointing out that the western and Chinese ontologies differ in important ways.  While both postulate a number of realms, in the eastern systems these spheres, while distinct, impinge upon one another more directly.  It is possible for the soul to transmigrate between them at death.  Yet it is also possible for a practitioner to absorb the energy of the heavens, or a lake or a tree through the proper breathing exercises.  These energies (qi) can then be transformed and used for other means. (And as Eliade would remind us, the Shaman is quintessentially a master of the internal fire).  Thus in some important ways the ontology of the Chinese universe is more permeable than how we generally think of it in the west.  This in turn opens interesting possibilities for the understanding and transcending the self.

The unstated assumption seems to be that human suffering and insecurity is a result of our limited understanding of ourselves and our connection (in macro/microcosmic terms) with the universe.  The very real stresses of life in the sorts of places where Southern Mantis thrives brings these issues to the front.  During strenuous ascetic training students are introduced to a technology that allows them to transcend themselves and “become-animal” in an almost shamanistic sense.

Experiencing life as the animal allows students to gain a better understanding of the real nature of the universe and their connection to it.  This in turn reveals hidden potentials within the student that arises only when the body, soul and intent are unified.  These “dark powers” range in nature from increased speed and visual acuity to the ability to sense an opponent’s presence and emotions at a distance.

Yet like all shamanistic journeys, this process is not without its dangers. Students engaged in breathing practices to cultivate their inner powers may become susceptible to culture bound syndromes such as “Qi deviation.”  And there are other, much more concrete, pitfalls that can ensnare students in the training halls.   Thus the transformation from human to animal never happens in isolation.  It is overseen by a master who acts as an almost enzymatic catalyst, regulating the speed of the transformation through the pace of his training.  Likewise Southern Mantis relies extensively on sensitivity drills and various types of “two-person” exercises.  While meditation is often conducted early in the morning at sunrise, the process of “becoming-animal” seems to be a socially mediated one.  Of course we should not be surprised by this as many of the problems that might drive a student to this training are also essentially social in nature.

Two Narratives: One Story of Becoming

I suspect that most casual readers of this article will find themselves drawn to the material on pages 148-151.  This section starts off with a discussion of Farrer’s background in Southern Mantis and how he came to select it as a research subject for performance ethnography.  His own background in the art began in 1988.  After eight years of training he found himself forced to spar with another senior student from his school in a contest that would see only one of them attaining a grade promotion that they both desired.  Even more paradoxically both the winner and the loser of the fight were ultimately asked to leave the school that they had dedicated so much time and effort to.

Farrer’s narrative provides a moment of high drama that we do not normally see in accounts of martial arts training.  But it is what comes next that is really fascinating.  After introducing his own experience with the art he transitions into a description of its creation myths and legends.

This story also features two students in the mythic southern Shaolin temple.  One is a bully and the other (Chow Ah Naam, the temple’s cook) struggles to overcome him.  In both this case and the preceding one meditation, breathing exercises and careful observation are the key to the heroes’ eventual victory.  And once again, the victor must go out into the world, taking up the life of an itinerant martial artist.

It would take us too far afield to provide a close reading and a focused comparison of both the modern and the mythic accounts.  Yet readers might want to do exactly that.  The structural parallels in the two stories are striking.

Throughout his article Farrer argues that becoming-animal, as an embodied process, goes beyond “mere” mythology and symbolism.  That may certainly be the case.  Yet it is still fascinating to observe the degree to which these myths and symbols appear to be structuring the lived experience of the southern Chinese martial arts so many years later, and on the other side of the globe.  One wonders to what degree these myths provide a model for “transformation” that contextualizes and provides a sense of order to the messy business of embodied being?

Readers will also appreciate Farrer’s clear and concise discussion of martial training within the Chow Gar sect.  This sort of very basic description of training environments and routines is badly needed within the field of Chinese martial studies.  My only complaint is that I would have liked to see more of it.

Obviously that is not possible within a short chapter.  Still, it is clear that there is enough material here for a longer, book length, ethnographic study.  I would be particularly interested in a more focused comparison of the structure of the schools and training that the author experiences in Hong Kong vs. London.  This seems like a wonderful opportunity to explore issues of “place,” “identity” and “becoming” as they relate to the traditional martial arts in a global environment.

It would also give the author more opportunity to address some of the central questions about culture as it relates to the process of “becoming-animal.”  The brief discussion in the article seems to treat this process as basically identical for students in both Hong Kong and London.  Yet is this really the case?  Given that the entire argument starts off by examining the different ontologies of these two cultures it would seem unlikely.  Does one first need to “become-Chinese” before you can effectively “become-animal?”

Or perhaps the process of becoming is more universal than that.  Maybe it is driven by psychological factors as much as cultural meaning?  Again, this is an important issue to flesh out when considering the meaning of martial practice in a global setting.

And what about Hakka culture?  Is it significant that this very strong discourse about “becoming” arises in a Hakka art rather than a Cantonese one?  Again, these are the sorts of questions that could be tackled in a more detailed treatment of the subject.

Readers should also carefully consider the discussion of Ip Shui that appears near the conclusion of this chapter.  While an interesting character, Farrer’s treatment of his career moves into some interesting theoretical territory when he discusses his supposed ability to retract his testicles into his body.  This ability was developed as an aspect of Ip Shui’s traditional “hard qigong” training.

Farrer notes that this represents another type of being, specifically “becoming female” or “transvestite.”  Women play a complex role in the mythology of the Southern Chinese martial arts.  As a symbolic representation of a natural or uncreated state, martial heroines seem to be imbued with a certain sense of invulnerability.  After all, one cannot destroy structures that do not exist, and yin does not project a solid front.

A number of arts play with this idea on a philosophical level, so it is interesting to see it enacted as a process of “becoming” rather than just as a strategy of “movement” or “structure.”  This specific example might be a good place to start when considering how transformation in the Chow Gar sect resembles or differs from what is seen in other regional arts or lineages.

Mantis by Watanabe Shotei (1851-1918).  Source: Wikimedia.
Mantis by Watanabe Shotei (1851-1918). Source: Wikimedia.

Conclusion: Awakening the Animal in Southern Chinese Kung Fu

 Farrer’s chapter makes valuable contributions to multiple areas of our understanding of the traditional Chinese martial arts.  I highly recommend it to anyone interested in anthropological approaches to martial studies.  One of the most important of these might stem from his adoption of performance ethnography as a research tool.  By immersing himself in actual training he was able to both grasp and convey that the “animals” of the Chinese martial arts are more than two-dimensional symbols or objects.  They are not simply borrowed or passed along, as one would expect if they were solely a literary creation.  Rather these “animals” exist as embodied energies.  In a very real sense they are adjectives and verbs rather than nouns.

Performance ethnography also gives him a platform from which he can engage with other Chinese martial and performance traditions.  Throughout his article he criticizes the more “imitative” traditions which, in his view, fail to engage in a real psychological process of “becoming” and in so doing once again reduce the animals to mere “things.”

In his study of Chow Gar, Farrer has provided us with a model of how to think about the appearance and significance of animals in many aspects of the Chinese martial arts.  In practice “becoming-animal” is the key to understanding one’s true relationship with the universe and hidden potential.  The widespread applicability of these experiences bolsters his earlier claim that the Chinese martial arts are essentially “Daoist” in nature.  While I would like to see a lot more comparative data on this question, I think that Farrer has given us a valuable starting point.

At the very least he has enriched our understanding of the relationship between the mythology and folklore that surrounds most Chinese martial styles and its actual impact on practicing students.  Perhaps when early 20th century martial artists borrowed these stories and animal motifs they were not just seeking to enrich the prestige of their arts, but they were knowingly augmenting their substance as well.  Adding a novel story might be less important than opening a new pathway of transformation and becoming.


If you enjoyed this article you might also like:  Ming Tales of Female Warriors: Searching for the Origins of Yim Wing Chun and Ng Moy.