A Tricky Step
Darth Nihilus* was grinning as he stripped off his fencing helmet and strode over to the open section of floor where I, and one of his more senior students, had been working on Shii-cho, the first of the seven classical forms of lightsaber combat. He had agreed to review my form after class, but wanted to get in a few rounds of sparring first. His smile suggested that he was happy with his performance.
While the lightsaber is unique to the mythology of the Star Wars universe, any martial artist would be quick to recognize Shii-cho as a variant of the “taolu” or “kata” that are the backbone of so many traditional Asian martial arts. The resemblance is more than coincidence. Shii-cho itself was created as a simplification of a much more dynamic taolu for the long, double handed, jian sometimes seen in Wushu competitions.
This complex mashup of Star Wars and the traditional Chinese martial arts was evident in the details of our training space. The Central Lightsaber Academy meets in the same gym where Darth Nihilus runs his regular kung fu classes. The neutral browns and blues of the room betray its former life as a retail space, as does its slightly cavernous feel. The faux wooden panels on the walls, originally designed to accommodate retail shelving, have been seamlessly repurposed for a more martial mission.
Now the walls are filled with training gear (including racks of weapons and no fewer than three wooden dummies), as well as an abundance of photographs. Large images of Dan Inosanto, Bruce Lee and Ip Man share space with many smaller snapshots chronicling the history of the Central Martial Arts Academy in its various incarnations. These icons look out over a training space that is well equipped, but also showing the wear of a sizable student body. They come, Monday through Saturday, seeking instruction in wing chun, JKD and kali. Many comment on the comfortable and welcoming feeling of the space.
What visitors might find more jarring are the subtle intrusions of a far-away galaxy into this otherwise familiar scene. These are most visible on Saturday afternoons when over a dozen students can be seen wielding blue, green, purple and red lightsabers. Nor would you fail to notice a soundtrack from one of the Star Wars movies being played on a loop in the background.
A closer look reveals that a number of students (led by Nihilus) have formulated their own versions of Jedi or Sith training robes for the class. Others prefer vintage Star Wars t-shifts. And a few (myself included) stick with the branded t-shifts that so many kung fu schools use as their basic uniform. Choices in clothing and replica lightsabers can suggest what a particular student seeks from the class.
After giving me the signal I begin the first of the seven classic forms. Shii-cho’s movement pattern is simple. The swordsmen advances along a straight line in the first section of the form, turns and moves back along the same territory in the second, then reverses direction one more time before starting the third and final chapter. The movements begin almost as a typology of different angled cuts and thrusts with a number of complementary blocks and guards. These are strung together in more complex combinations as the form progresses.
Darth Nihilus vocally notes his approval as I finish the first and second section of the form. After the third he hesitates. “Ok, that is a lot better than last week, and I think you are 90% of the way there. Let’s go back and look at your footwork and blade movement in one section.”
My heart sank. Of course I knew exactly what section he was referring to. At one point chapter three features a complex combination of attacks as the student drives forward. I had been practicing this all week. It begins with a broad slash coming over the left shoulder, followed with a lateral, circular, sweep of the blade around the head and ends with a decisive downward “angle seven” cut. In itself this combination of cuts is not particularly complicated.
Nor is the footwork. The sequence starts with a left side full step. This is followed by a right side crossing step (which shifts the hips to the right), a left side half step (absorbing one’s forward momentum and bringing the hips back square) and finally a right side full step as the blade cuts straight down along the center line.
The complication arises when you attempt to put it all together. It is not simply a matter of coordinating the hands with the feet. Properly executed this particular combination has its own cadence, different from anything else in the form. Only a few students in the class have actually mastered it to Darth Nihilus’ satisfaction, and it is a source of frustration for the rest. This situation persists despite the fact that a large percentage of students practice their forms daily.
As other students in the room noticed that we were about tackle the third chapter of Shii-cho all eyes shifted to our floor space. After a few quick attempts at clarification and some enthusiastic advice from onlookers, Darth Nihilus ignited his own saber and took the floor, indicating to the senior student that he too should pay attention to what was about to be said.
“Ok, try to think of it like this. As you go through the opening movements of section 3 you are basically moving the same way you did in chapter 2. But when you reach this point, the rhythm changes.” He paused right at the cusp of the first cut in the combination for dramatic emphasis.
“As I go forward from here it has got to be like I am following a musical beat. That is what is going to coordinate my hands and feet. And if you do not figure out how to do that here you are going to have trouble when you get to some of the more advanced forms, like Soresu.”
At this point Nihilus broke with Shii-cho (form one) and demonstrated a single segment from Soresu (form three). It required him to execute a number steps and turns as he spun his lightsaber around him in a plum blossom pattern. If section three of Shii-cho was puzzling, this was like watching a dance. But that was exactly his point.
“Once I get to this position I can’t stop. If you stop or hesitate you fall out of time and then you can’t do it. You just feel the music and keep moving on the beat. It’s the same thing with Shii-cho.” He then resumed his performance of the first form.
“Your feet are basically fine, but when I do it this time I want to you watch the tip of my saber. Note how it never stops moving. It maintains a steady and continuous motion. So keep your motions smooth as you move through space.”
Which is easier said than done. While the blade tip moves smoothly the rhythm of the steps is distinctly broken. Searching for a name to characterize this segment almost all of the students at the CLA have taken to calling it the “stutter step.” For many of us it will take a lot more practice and correction before we intuitively “feel this beat.”
The Music of the Martial Arts
Over the next week I tried to integrate Darth Nihilus’ coaching into my daily practice. Yet even more interesting was how he conveyed this advice.
I have been doing field work with the Central Lightsaber Academy for about half a year. Almost all of the students have, at some point, struggled with this specific sequence of movements. Nihilus has demonstrated and coached individuals through the form countless times, but something about his technique in this section is not legible to the class. They see what he does, but they do not know how to make sense of it.
The study of the Asian martial arts is full of these sorts of puzzles. It’s the challenge of mastering a different system of movement that keeps many students coming back week after week. Yet prior to that day I had never heard Darth Nihilus use music as a metaphor to explain the timing of movement in Shii-cho.
I suspect that he came up with this particular explanation as a result of our collective inability to make sense of what we were seeing on that particular day. Yet his words were also tinged with an air of revelation, as though he were revealing a deep truth about the martial arts that he did not want to bring into a normal class. These were frequented by beginners, most of whom had no prior experience in the martial arts. As Nihilius noted, many of these sequences came from types of wushu training that some people might find intimidating. Yet they were now part of our lightsaber method. While Darth Nihilus focuses his teaching on wing chun during the week, he has studied a number of other Chinese arts. The depth of his experience in this realm has proved handy when it comes to thinking about the lightsaber.
Yet his ability to “feel” the rhythm of a sequence of movements probably comes from someplace else. Before becoming a full time martial arts instructor he was a professional musician who spent decades performing and touring. When not playing with lightsabers or wooden dummies he can be found with a guitar.
This explains his heightened musical sensibilities. One is reminded of the ancient stories of Spartan hoplites that turned to dance as an aspect of their military training.
Still, if Darth Nihilius is capable of identifying an underlying rhythm that ties these movements together, why do they remain such a paradox to his students? Is it simply that we are less martially experienced or musically inclined? Or is there something else going on? What role does culture play in making certain movement patterns legible, even when most outward signs of that culture have been subsumed into something else?
While considering these questions I had the good fortune to reread a 2010 article titled “Rhythm Skills Development in the Chinese Martial Arts” by Colin P. McGuire (International Journal of Sports and Society, Vol. 1). This is a relatively short paper and I highly recommend readers (especially those interested in lion dance) take a look at it.
I like this piece for a couple of reasons. First, it speaks directly to some of the issues that have come up in my current field work with regards to the process of skills development, albeit in a very different environment. This portability speaks to the general utility of McGuire’s approach.
Secondly, I have noticed a recent uptick of papers exploring the nexus of ethnomusicology and martial arts studies. McGuire credits the early work of Greg Downey (2002,“Listening to Capoeira: Phenomenology, Embodiment, and the Materiality of Music.” Ethnomusicology, Vol. 46, No. 3 (Autumn): 487-509) in opening a space for this conversation. Obviously students of Capoeira will have a special interest in the musical aspect of their art, as will many who study the fighting systems of South East Asia.
Yet McGuire reminds us that the traditional Chinese martial arts were often performed to musical accompaniment. Solo forms work is sometimes accompanied by drums, gongs and cymbals in southern Chinese traditional village festivals. These same instruments can also be found in the company of lion dancers at the Lunar new year, weddings and store openings.
What role has music played in the development of the southern Chinese martial arts? Is its presence simply a cultural marker, a nostalgic remembrance of an earlier time? Or, for the kung fu schools that sponsor lion dance teams, does the musical training of students have an impact on their combative abilities? Is it manifest in either the performance of taolu routines or patterns of attack and defense in kickboxing?
With a background in musicology and extensive experience in the Chinese martial arts McGuire is well positioned to investigate these questions. Drawing on the theoretical literature of his field he introduces his subject matter in a way that is easily accessible for an interdisciplinary audience. His writing examines both instruction and performance within TCMA schools, and demonstrates the utility of his approach for other students of martial arts studies.
Particularly important is the brief discussion of Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of “habitus” (introduced in the Logic of Practice). Wacquant and others have sought to anchor their understanding of embodied martial practice within this theoretical framework. Yet as McGuire notes, this strategy has some shortcomings when considering the TCMA.
While Bourdieu envisioned a deeply embedded, subconscious, group of behaviors, Chinese martial artists often short circuit this process via rigorous self-examination and an emphasis on conceptual analysis. What might have been truly subconscious in Wacquant’s boxing gym is more often named and reified in a Chinese martial arts studio. Nor, as Bowman has argued, is it always clear that the average martial arts hobbyist really dedicates enough time and effort to fully “rewire” their habitus.
At the CLA I am sure that the “habitus” that most students embody is that of your typical office worker, sales person or college student. While a number of students have gained a fair degree of competence in the use of the lightsaber, none seem to embody the habitus of a “Jedi” (whatever that would be). One rather suspects that the average amateur martial artists, practicing a few hours a week, falls closer to this end of the spectrum than Wacquant’s highly dedicated boxers, some of whom harbored professional aspirations.
Nevertheless, McGuire concluded that the concept of the habitus is not without value in understanding skills acquisition within the Chinese martial arts. While the central concepts of kung fu practice are often reified and examined, the same cannot be said of the sorts of rhythms and phrasing that make up traditional Chinese martial music. The inhabitants of Toronto’s Chinatown have often grown-up with these musical tradition and may accept them on a subconscious level.
Musical understanding is also something that can be both experienced and transmitted through the body. McGuire argues that the idea of habitus may have a great deal of utility in exploring the link between performance based practices such as lion or dragon dancing, and their subsequent connection to the traditional martial arts.
To more fully explore these ideas McGuire examines the various ways that rhythm manifests itself in the percussive music that accompanies a lion dance as well as the cadences of attack and defense that are seen in sanda (Chinese kickboxing). In both cases he focuses on the concept of “following” and “leading” as a way of theorizing how the internalization of rhythmic structures makes the actions of another individual legible. In the case of lion dancing these two modes facilitate complex cooperation between the drummer, head and tail dancer, and the other musicians. When applied to fighting the same basic pattern recognition skills allow one to anticipate and counter an opponent’s movements, thereby stifling their intentions.
Conclusion: Finding your Rhythm
The general outlines of this process seem pretty universal. It is not hard to discover specific rhythms in the footwork, combinations and drills of western boxing. McGuire notes that Japanese Kendo players have been observed to follow very complex rhythmic patterns in their onslaughts. And one suspects that most American martial artists are now familiar with Bruce Lee’s idea of the broken rhythm.
Yet in actual application the details of any one of these examples tend to be culturally bounded. In the technical section of his paper McGuire, following Boyu Zhang, notes that the concept of “the metre” (a constantly repeating cycle of strong and weak beats) which structures modern western songs simply does not apply to many types of traditional percussive Chinese music including those seen within lion dancing. This is probably one of the reasons why most Westerners find this type of music bewildering when first exposed to it. It does not seem to progress in the way that one expects a song should.
When describing the sorts of rhythm used in lion dancing McGuire instead turns to the idea of “phrases.” He defines these as sequences of distinct rhythms that are progressively linked together in significant or meaningful ways. Note that this is quite different from the idea of a fundamentally repetitive metre.
It may be this distinction that underlies the class’ problem with the third chapter of Shii-cho. While one might view lightsaber combat as an American or Western martial art, many of the individual forms that are practiced were borrowed, in whole or part, from other Asian fencing systems. Shii-cho itself has its roots in wushu performance, an area where rhythmic ability is important.
The first and second sections of this form have their own rhythms, ones that seem more accessible to western students. Yet when this structure breaks in the third chapter, students find it hard to grasp the sudden change in pulse and timing. The perception of “entrainment” that McGuire describes in his paper fails, and students default to what they are more comfortable with.
Unfortunately this does not just disrupt the aesthetic quality of their movement. It also short circuits the martial effectiveness of their attacks. When a different rhythm is imposed on this sequence, the movements take on either a defensive or confused character.
Darth Nihilus sits at an interesting position vis a vis the cross-cultural communication of these movement patterns. As a professional musician he probably has a greater sensitivity to “musical” nuances than many martial artists. And given the depth of his experience in the Chinese martial arts, he has already been exposed to instances where culturally specific rhythmic patterns structure movement.
His experience in both of these areas has opened a pathway for cross-cultural translation in a realm that most martial artists never consciously consider. A new generation of initiates is being introduced to the traditional Chinese rhythms of blade work through their instruction in the seven classic forms of Lightsaber combat.
Other scholars have noted that deep cultural knowledge of certain sorts of music, or even common childhood games, can be a critical factor in determining one’s ability to effectively acquire skills in a specific fighting system. Thomas Green found that distinct rhythmic patterns conveyed in both popular music and urban street games form an important element in some African-American vernacular martial arts. Without this specific cultural familiarity it can be very difficult to excel in arts like Jail House Rock or the 52 Hand Blocks (2014, “White Men Don’t Flow: Embodied Aesthetics of the Fifty-Two Hand Block” in Fighting Scholars, pp. 125-140.) This would seem to further support McGuire’s contention that there is an element of habitus embedded within our recognition of these musical patterns that structures our experience of a fighting system on a deep level.
We should also be careful not to generalize too broadly, or to “essentialize” what might be regional patterns into markers of national identity. One of my initial challenges when starting lightsaber training is that the sorts of timing and movement patterns used are reminiscent of the northern Chinese martial arts. Much of this is quite different from Wing Chun, which developed in the Pearl River Delta region. Yet even within a region (say, Southern China) there will be a wide degree of variation.
As I read McQuire’s essay I felt some slight pangs of “lion dance envy.” These performance traditions are a critical part of Southern Chinese martial culture, but they are not something that I have any first-hand experience with. Ip Man discouraged his students from becoming involved with lion dancing during the Hong Kong period for a variety of reasons. As a result many of the modern Wing Chun lineages coming out of Hong Kong still have nothing to do with the practice.
This does not mean that our art is without culturally determined types of rhythm. The mook yan jong makes a distinctive “clacking” sound when struck, and the elaborate patterns of strikes in each chapter of the wooden dummy form have their own tempo, timing and rhythm. After a while the sound of the dummy literally becomes “music to the ears” of wing chun practitioners. The unique nature of the dummy also ensures that there is a close connection between the martial effectiveness of one’s attacks and your ability to grasp and replicate these percussive patterns.
The cultural nature of these traditions renders them invisible to many of the individuals that draw upon them in their daily martial practice. It may take conscious effort on our part to bring questions of rhythm and aesthetics to the fore and discover the ways in which they are linked the martial strategies of our systems. Yet doing so will improve both our practical and academic understanding of these fighting arts. That is why I will keep practicing my Shii-cho. Sometimes the hyper-real functions as a doorway to the historical.
*Following standard ethnographic protocol, the names of both specific people and places discussed in this essay have been replaced with pseudonyms to protect the confidentially of those who have generously assisted me with this research.
Are you interested in Star Wars and the Martial Arts? If so click here for some of my Rogue One predictions.