Religion, Violence and the Asian Martial Arts
Tel Aviv University – Department of East Asian Studies Conference, November 23, 2015.
Today’s post will introduce readers to some of the recent developments in the global field of Martial Arts Studies. This comes in the form of a conference report, submitted by Abi Moriya, on a recent gathering held at Tel Aviv University titled “Religion, Violence and the Asian Martial Arts” on November 23rd of 2015. Sponsored by the Department of East Asian Studies this one day conference featured some very well-known writers who will already be familiar to readers of Kung Fu Tea, as well as the work of a number of younger, up and coming, scholars.
The following report focuses most if its attention on the keynote addresses. While all of the topics are important I suspect that many readers will be most interested in the results of Prof. Zhou Weiliang’s research into the history and possible whereabouts of the “Southern Shaolin Temple.” Still, after reading through the conference program I admit that I am looking forward to seeing a number of these papers in print.
Increasingly we are seeing more gatherings dedicated to Martial Arts Studies and related topics around the globe. If you find yourself in attendance at one of these conferences please consider submitting a report of your own so that other readers can keep up with this ever evolving conversation.
Lastly, there is a news item that needs to be discussed before going on. The schedule has just been published for the upcoming conference titled “Gender Issues in Theory and Practice.” This event, sponsored by the Martial Arts Studies Research Network, will be held at the University of Brighton on February 5th, 2016. Attendance is free, but they need you to register anyway. Click here to see the list of papers and to find the registration details. Hopefully we will be able to get some reports from this event as well!
Conference Report: Religion, Violence and the Asian Martial Arts
The topic of this conference is timeless, yet it is also very relevant to the present situation in Europe and the Middle East. What is a photograph of a terrorist from the Islamic State, who decapitated one of his victims, doing in a lecture about Guan Yu? Israel, like other countries, is facing at this moment a wave of violence. Recently much of this has taken the form of knife and blade attacks. If we try to analyze the situation we will soon face its religious and ideological components. But still, trying to successfully weave together the numerous threads of the headlines is not an easy task.
As with most academic lectures, the chosen language of presentations at this conference was English. The exception was Prof. Zhou Weiliang who spoke in Chinese. I believe that most of the participants in this event had some familiarity with Asian culture. Nevertheless, translating ideas that are deeply rooted in one culture to another language is not that easy.
We try to describe our region, to formulate its rules and our thoughts through imperfect language. This is also a common challenge in the martial arts. Many times we describe in words feelings and movements only to discover the gap between words and deeds.
Popular Chinese terms, which may be understood by every educated Chinese person, have found their way to the western world through a different prism, sometimes trying to remain loyal to older translations. That reminds me of a saying of Bruce Kumar Frantzis: “When Taiji Quan terms were first translated to English there wasn’t a good Taiji Quan teacher who knew English well and vice versa…”
The first session of the conference had three distinguished guests, all well known to the CMA community, who gave short (20 minutes) lectures:
Professor Barend ter Haar – Oxford University
Professor Meir Shahar – Tel Aviv University
Professor Zhou Weiliang 周伟良 – Zhengzhou University
Since I was asked to give a Xingyi Quan demonstration at the opening of the conference, I had plenty of time to watch the whole event from the audience’s point of view.
Lecture 1: Prof. Barend ter Haar: “Guan Yu: Violent and Moral Deity.”
As far as I know, China never had a single organized pantheon of gods, so there is no universal “God of War” who is common to all the Chinese, like Mars in ancient Roman religion and myth, or Ares in ancient Greece. Guan Yu 關羽is a god of war who is associated with Confucianism while Zhen Wu is linked to the Daoist tradition, etc.
In his lecture, professor ter Haar discussed briefly Guan Yu’s life. He claimed that he was an “unsuccessful historical figure” who was eventually decapitated. So, how did such a figure became worshiped and highly popular in Chinese culture?
According to ter Haar he was deified because he came to be associated with an admired quality: loyalty, and more specifically his loyalty to Cao Cao曹操; a warlord and the penultimate Chancellor of the Eastern Han who rose to great power in the final years of the dynasty. Ter Haar then made a great leap to the present, showing a decapitation by the Islamic State, and declaring that “This is how Guan Yu’s death would look today.” The audience was asked to turn their heads in case the modern version was too much to watch…
The second section of the lecture focused on Guan Yu’s figure in different temples and its evolving iconography: including his red face, unique beard and iconic weapon. My interest in this part did not last long as the Guan Dao 關刀 (yanyuedao 偃月刀) was not the focus of the discussion.
The third part of the lecture described a street performance by a local theatre company in Taiwan, which included Guan Yu’s figure. Ter Haar also discussed Daoist practices which are predominant in Guan Yu worship. Many temples dedicated to Guan Yu, including the Emperor Guan Temple in Xiezhou County, show heavy Daoist influence. Every year, on the 24th day of the sixth month on the lunar calendar (legendary birthday of Guan), a street parade in the honor of Guan Yu was held.
I was expecting that all these disparate strands of information would somehow be woven together into a single argument, but alas…. During a conversation with a doctoral student of the Department of East Asian Studies, I learned that this is how Professor ter Haar prefers to “slice the apple,” by chopping it into many sections.
Lecture 2: Prof. Meir Shahar: “Martial Gods and Divine Armies.”
My acquaintance with Professor Shahar goes many years back. He reviewed my own book, and kindly invited me to his CMA history course at the TLV University as a guest lecturer and for demonstrations.
Professor Shahar is currently focusing on the history of Chinese gods, especially Nezha. He has written a book awaiting publication titled the “Oedipal God: The Chinese Nezha and his Indian Origins.”
Many books have been written about symbolism in Chinese culture (1), but it is always a pleasure to discover some new facts. In his lecture, Shahar described divined armies who have a protective roll in Chinese culture and are worshiped by the common people. Most of the pictures he showed were taken during his trips to Taiwan.
One of the most interesting subjects in the lecture was the symbolism of different objects and their meaning. Five bamboo sticks in the grounds which surround the village represent these same divine armies. At times the direction they face correlates to the five elements.
The next picture was of a priest who carried a special prayer. Afterwards the townspeople marched around the village and entered into a collective trance. This allowed them to stab, puncture, and hit themselves in various ways. At that point I was amazed to see that along the parade route what Shahar described as “Mini Golf Carts.” Each of these carts contained various weapons, needles, whips, etc., which were selected and used by the people in trance.
The last part of the lecture was an explanation of the temple’s structure. Under the table at the front there is a statue of a tiger, named simply the “Black Tiger.” This is symbolic of the lower divine god. The statue on top of the table is usually of a martial god, such as the Diamond God (Jingangshou pusa 金剛手菩薩), which represent the middle divine god.
Lecture 3: Professor Zhou Weiliang “The Heaven and Earth Society and the Southern Shaolin Monastery”; Tiandihui Yu Nan Shaolin Si天地會與南少林寺.
Perhaps because my written Chinese is not fluent, I was not exposed to much of Professor Zhou’s writing prior to the conference. Some of his publications (2) were mentioned in Meir Shahar’s book (3), others in Stanley Henning’s article , who wrote:
“Professor Zhou left no stone unturned in his efforts, and has covered all aspects of the Chinese martial arts – historical, technical, and socio-cultural – in amazing detail. His writings, of which I have just mentioned a few, are essential reading for gaining an understanding of the full scope of activity that makes up the term “traditional Chinese martial arts.” Professor Zhou is, without question, one of China’s top martial studies scholars.”(4)
I had the opportunity to have lunch with Prof. Zhou and found him to be “not very Chinese.” Mr. Zhou is a great interlocutor, expressive and straight forward. Not the “beating around the bush” type of guy. I felt very comfortable talking with him. I found that he practices different martial arts, and that he had even made an appointment with one of the university’s doctoral students to practice Tan Tui 彈腿.
In his paper he focused on the question: “Is there a southern Shaolin monastery?”
The first part of the lecture described rebellious societies in Fujian province, especially the Heaven and Earth Society (Tiandihui a.k.a Hongmen 洪門) and their connections to the martial arts, since some of the founders came from that province. The Hongmen grouping is today more or less synonymous with the whole Tiandihui concept, although the title “Hongmen” is also claimed by some criminal groups.
The second part of his paper turned to a survey of three different monasteries in Fujian. All of these claim to have direct roots going back to the shaolin monastery in Henan, and call themselves the “Southern Shaolin Monastery.” Professor Zhou showed pictures and gave a short description of the three. His conclusion was sharp and clear: Even though there were some archeological discoveries at one of the monasteries, none of them is a “real Shaolin.”
At the conclusion of his lecture I asked him about the Fujian White Crane systems practiced in Taiwan. Specifically, does the fact that some of these groups use Buddhist terminology indicate any connection to the Shaolin Monastery? Professor Zhou’s replied that there is no such connection and, worse yet, some styles may use false names in order to claim a superior link to Shaolin.
I will speak more briefly about the second session of the conference. I guess that the way to become a professor is to spend endless hours standing in front of an audience. That was very clear in contrast to the first session starting with things like the flow of speech and ending with the body language and apparent inability to sit comfortably at the lecturers table. My heart and empathy goes out to the doctoral students of the second session, who all gave their best effort. Yet all in all, papers read directly from the page are not very interesting to me.
The material itself, such as a written document by A’de 阿德, which was provided to Professor Shahar, and from him to a doctoral student, has true value and deserves its own discussion. Professor Zhou saved the day in this case by noting that this document should not actually read fluently, but is instead a poetic verse which describes different styles, weapons and deities of the Shaolin temple.
To conclude this short review, I am sure that this conference has been another brick in the construction of the edifice of Martial Arts Studies both in Israel and abroad. This field, populated by both academic and independent researchers, is infinite, so it is no wonder that some prefer to focus their research on specific subjects. My personal hope is this experience and knowledge will influence my own point of view in my work at the School for Coaches and Instructors, Wingate Institute, where our team trains and educate the future generations of martial arts teachers.
About the Author: Abi Moriya is a professional teacher and researcher whose involvement in the CMA and FMA spans more than three decades. In addition, Abi Moriya is a teacher of Qigong, Shiatsu and TCM, and a senior member of the Martial Arts faculty at the Nat Holman School for Coaches and Instructors, Wingate Institute, Israel.
Lightened Tiger, Darkened Dragon: Chinese Martial Arts; A Cultural View. TLV: Madaf Publication, 2015 (Hebrew).
Krav Maga: Teaching With Doubt! Co-author with Dr. Guy Mor. TLV: Self publication, 2015 (English).
1) Williams, C.A.S. Chinese Symbolism and Art Motifs: A Comprehensive Handbook on Symbolism in Chinese Art through the Ages. NY: Dover |Publications, 1976.
2) Zhou Weiliang. “Ming-Qing shiqi Shaolin wushu de lishi liubian” (The historical evolution of the Shaolin martial arts during the Ming-Qing period). In Shaolin gongfu wenji (q.v.)
Zhou Weiliang. Zhongguo wushu shi中国武术史 (History of Chinese Martial Arts). Beijing: Gaodeng jiaoyu Chubanshe, 2003.
3) Shahar, Meir. The Shaolin Monastery: History, Religion, and the Chinese Martial Arts. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2008.
4) Henning, Stanley E. “Professor Zhou weiliang: Leaving No Stone Unturned. In China’s New Wave of Martial Studies Scholars”. Journal of Asian Martial Arts, Vol. 15 No. 2, 2006, pp.15-18.