T’ai Chi Ch’uan is not a by-product, as it were, of any other art-dance form; it is not derived from ancient Chinese commemorative dance [ritual], folk, or classical Chinese theatre dance [opera], and does not resemble them in dynamics, rhythm, or structure. T’ai Chi Ch’uan is a complete entity, composed to answer the needs to which it is directed. Total in concept, it is a synthesis of form and function. With the elements of structure and movement so consummately composed, it is an art in the deepest sense of the word. Aesthetically, it can be compared to a composition by Bach or a Shakespearean sonnet. However T’ai Chi Ch’uan is not art directed outward to an audience. It is an art-in-action for the doer; the observer, moved by its beauty, can only surmise its content. The experience of the form in process of change makes it an art for the self.
Sophia Delza. 1963. T’ai Chi Ch’uan: Body and Mind in Harmony, 4
An Unlikely Discovery
A chance encounter in a used bookstore recently inspired me to think a bit more deeply about the process by which the Chinese martial arts found a place in American popular culture during the 1960s. Or more precisely, the process by which one very specific vision of these fighting systems succeeded while others, representing different sets of social values, receded into relative obscurity. While scanning the shelves I came across a copy of Sophia Delza’s first book, T’ai Chi Ch’uan: Body and Mind in Harmony (1961). I initially read her introduction to Taijiquan while researching a longer biographical essay on her life and career that I posted here on Kung Fu Tea a few years ago. (Incidentally, if you are wondering who Delza is, you might want to check out that link before going on.)
Upon flipping the book open I was pleasantly surprised to discover two things. First, it was an original first edition (my working copy was a later reprint.) Second, it was both inscribed and signed by the author, whose handwriting was every bit as artistic as one might expect.
In all honestly the inscription is a little hard to make out. But it appears that in 1963 she signed a copy of the book for a certain Dr. Abisch “With great affection and warm memories for our common experiences in China (and here!)” One suspects that there is probably a fascinating, and sad, story behind their friendship. Local obituaries reveal that a Dr. David Abisch died in a small town near Ithaca in 1990. Born to a Jewish family in Austria in 1905, he received his MD from the University of Berlin in 1930. Abisch practiced medicine in Germany for the next nine years until the rise of the Nazi regime forced him to flee to Shanghai.
Unfortunately China was far from stable during the middle decades of the 20th century. I have yet to find much information on his career in China, but it appears that Dr. Abisch continued to practice medicine until he was once again forced to become a refugee following the rise of the CCP. In 1951 Abisch arrived in Brooklyn NY where he remained as he completed his American medical residency. After that he moved to the small village of Newfield (just south of Ithaca and Cornell University), where he lived until his death in 1990.
The inscription informs us that Delza and Abisch met in Shanghai. This is not surprising when we recall what first brought her to the city. Following the end of WWII the US government sent her husband to Germany to work on refugee resettlement. In 1948 he was transferred to Shanghai to work on the same issues there. It was during this time that Delza, already well known as a performer in America, began to study both traditional Chinese opera and Wu style Taijiquan with the famous Master Ma Yueling. Apparently she stayed in contact with Abisch after they both returned to New York City.
I eagerly purchased the book and spent a couple of days trying to piece together its story. Delza is such a critical (if often overlooked) figure in the history of the Chinese martial arts that it is exciting to come into contact with an artifact of her life. It was so exciting that I decided to sit down and reread her book.
A Lonely Art
At first I intended to only review her introductory chapter. But I found myself being drawn into her conceptual discussions and even the detailed discussion of the Wu style form. Not being a Taijiquan practitioner, I usually skip this sort of material. My interest is more in how Delza presented the Chinese martial arts an early Western audience rather than the actual details of what she taught. But this time something about the text wouldn’t let me go.
Perhaps it was the still lingering details of Dr. Abisch’s precarious life-story. Or maybe it was the realization that Delza herself had spent years living in mostly destroyed foreign countries at the end of WWII. Yet upon rereading this text I was gripped by a feeling of profound loneliness.
That actually came as something of a surprise. One can experience many emotions while practicing Wing Chun, but in my experience crippling isolation isn’t one of them. That art is profoundly social. As I have stated before, Wing Chun really only exists as a conceptual conversation between two individuals, one of whom seeks to hit the other. Even when practicing with the dummy, one still imagines an opponent.
Obviously Wing Chun and Taijiquan are different arts and some variation on this point is to be expected. Wing Chun has its basic forms, but it is sticky hands (chi sao) that really constitutes the core of the modern (post-Ip Man) approach to the art. In contrast, the solo forms seem to rest at the heart of Taijiquan’s instructional culture. Within that system it is probably easier to spend hours at a time in perfect isolation, absorbed totally in the experience of your own bodily sensations.
One can certainly gain a sense of this from other work’s on Taijiquan. Given that they both studied with the same community in Shanghai, it is interesting to compare Delza’s writings with Adam Frank’s Taijiquan and the Search for the Little Old Chinese Man (Palgrame 2006). There is certainly a sense of isolation in parts of Frank’s ethnography, mostly as he discusses his exploration of the cityscape. Yet his descriptions of Taijiquan itself is full of intense interactions with a variety of teachers, friends and classmates.
Delza certainly enjoyed these things as well. She was not a hermit, either during her time in China or the US. During the 1950s and 1960 she gave demonstrations, performed Taijiquan on television (probably for the first time in North America) and started no fewer than three classes in the NYC area. She was surrounded with both dance and Taiji students.
And yet all of these social facts quickly fade from her writings on her art. As an anthropologist Frank was focused on the process of identity formation within communities. Its not surprising that he focused on groups. Yet Delza’s background in dance seems to have led her in an very different direction. In her writing we see a foreshadowing of the current interest in “embodied knowledge” which dominates so much of the current martial arts studies discussion.
Realizing that she is speaking to an audience who probably has no familiarity with her subject, Delza is forced to explain Taijiquan (and the Chinese martial arts) in the most basic possible terms. Yet rather than starting with their history or sociology (perhaps the most common approaches to these subjects in the 20th century) she begins by explaining what goals motivate the practice of Taiji. This is then followed by an extensive discussion in which basic concepts are explored almost exclusively in terms of how they should feel when performed. Her work is notably tactile.
The goal of Delza’s Taijiquan seems to be nothing less than the resolution of the mind/body duality that undergirds so much of western life. This is to be accomplished with the mindful performance of certain movements designed to elicit specific bodily sensations. At times Delza’s practice seems to be a vehicle for the exploration of a vast internal country.
Two moves are necessary to maintain this approach. While Delza acknowledges that Taijiquan can be taught as a more practical form of self defense, and that advanced practitioners in Shanghai practice push-hands (what she calls “joint hand operations”) she excludes all further discussions of these subjects (along with the mysteries of Qi) from her text as being topics unsuitable for novice readers. This effectively narrows the scope of Taijiquan practice to the solo sets.
Secondly, Delza is quite careful to draw a clear distinction between Taijiquan and other (non martial) traditional physical practices that one encounters in Chinese society. This tendency towards negative definition can be seen in the quote at the front of this essay. Delza repeatedly drew on her experience as a dancer and student of Chinese opera to argue that Taiji was not related to, and could not be seen as derived from, the performance arts.
This assertion requires some consideration. In point of fact the traditional martial arts have been used as a form of public performance throughout Chinese history. One only needed to celebrate New Years or go to a local temple festival to see elaborate martial displays. Further, martial arts often found their way onto the opera stage (and from there onto film). This was where most people in China appear to have gotten their introduction to these fighting systems. Given Delza’s interest in all of these subjects I think that we can safely assume that she knew all of this.
What really stands out in the introductory quotation are the questions of audience and intention. Delza notes in a few places that while a spectator may watch the performance of Taijiquan, it is basically impossible for the uninitiated to guess what the practitioner is experiencing. If the point of Taijiquan is to create certain physical sensations which encourage a process of personal transformations, the only valid audience for the art is the performer. Meaning is conveyed through the practice of the form, but only reflexively.
There may be another factor that drives this inward turn. Rather than simply exploring embodied experience in the abstract (perhaps in response to Spinoza/Ben Spatz’s question of “what can a body do?”), Delza seems to be concerned with the problem of psychological anxiety. This is a problem to which her discussion of the art always returns. Yes, the practice of Taijiquan can promote health in the abstract, but the driving need that she perceives is for a practice that promotes “a calming sense of well being.” The demons she fights appear to be internal and emotional in nature.
A Different Vision of the Chinese Martial Arts
Such an approach to the Asian martial arts would probably come as a bit of a surprise to most American students of these systems during the 1960s and 1970s. One only had to look at the covers of Black Belt magazine (the publication of record for the martial arts community) to get a sense of the enemies that plagued the imaginations of its readers. By in large they were the sorts of problems that could be kicked in the face. Perhaps a more charitable reading of the situation would be that a feeling of personal insecurity motivated many martial artists during the post-war period.
An exploration of the content of any one of these issues basically confirms this theory. Occasionally William C. C. Hu might explore the finer points of Chinese history as it related to the martial arts. Yet the vast majority of articles focused on winning techniques for judo matches and effective self-defense strategies. One need not bother “reading between the lines” as the discussions are right there in text. Readers experienced a type of fear that was both immediate and focused on physical and social threats of violence.
To the extent that the public was at all interested in the Chinese martial arts in the early 1960s, it was that they were seen as the forefather of Japanese Karate. This was the decade of the great Karate vs. Judo debate in which advocates of the former style argued that its “more realistic” approach to violence made it the superior martial art. Many of these early Black Belt articles on the Chinese martial arts, while also steeped in Orientalism, present a notable contrast to Delza’s understanding of Taijiquan.
Unfortunately there are not that many other English language books on the Chinese martial arts from this period to which we can compare hers in order to establish some sort of discursive benchmark. Released in 1964 Robert W. Smith’s edited (and highly problematic) Secrets of Shaolin Temple Boxing (Tuttle) is one of the few reference points that we have. In truth this slim work deserves a critical blogpost of its own.
A (highly selective) translation of an untitled collected manuscript tradition, it covers a number of different subjects from basic exercises, to martial ethics to self-defense techniques. Some of this material was meant for solo practice, while other sections discussed more practical matters. Yet in the context of the current discussion this work is interesting in that all of its discussions point towards the existence of a broader “martial world” rather than dwelling on the abstract individual experience (or transformative power) of the martial art. In short, like many manuals, this one accepted the existence of an often perilous martial realm and gave one the tools to succeed within this fundamentally social setting.
Nor is this outward focus restricted to the Shaolin school. Delza provides a brief historical appendix at the end of her book. In a note at its conclusion she briefly lists a number of the works that she had translated when doing her research. These included several Republic era Taijiquan manuals by authors like Ma Yueling (her teacher) and Chu Minyi (an important politician and tireless promoter of Taijiquan).
While reviewing these works it becomes clear that Delza structured the second half of her volume to reflect the format favored by these earlier authors. Note that she follows the convention of the period by ending her discussion of the solo form with republished sections of the Taiji Classics. Of course there are some notable differences as well. Delza’s basic explanations are much more detailed than her Chinese sources, and she often touches on the feeling that a given movement should produce, rather than simply describing what is to be done.
The real difference between Delza and her Repubic era predecessors comes down to the question of intent. At first blush it would seem that she is simply repeating the rhetoric on health that dominates Taiji sources from the 1920s-1930s. Yet those discussions are framed as part of the larger political question of how best to strengthen the Chinese nation and fend off foreign colonialism. An individual’s strength and well-being is only valuable so far as it promotes the collective goals of national modernization and collective security in the face of the imperialist threat.
In comparison, Delza’s text is notably apolitical. No communities beyond the individual, atomized, practitioner are ever mentioned. The need for improved health is taken as a given that requires no justification. It is never rationalized as a pathway to economic growth or security. Rather, the fundamental struggle is against a sense of personal anxiety and unease which afflicts Delza’s readers even though she cannot name its source.
Modern and Post-Materialist Values in Martial Arts
It would be incorrect to say that Delza’s efforts were a failure. Her classes attracted a following in New York City, and she was acknowledged as a regional pioneer of the Chinese martial arts. But it was not her vision of the Chinese martial arts that sparked the public imagination. That task would fall to the more kinetic Bruce Lee and his stories of violently defending oneself against both personal and community exploitation.
Yet trends have continued to change. Black Belt’s overly dramatic covers from the 1970s are now more likely to elicit a chuckle than any real enthusiasm to “Learn the Deadly Secrets of Mantis Kung Fu!” Indeed, when you look at much of what is currently happening in the “mindfulness industry”, or the movement to promote Taijiquan as a health practice, its hard not to see Delza as something of a prophet, ignored in her own time. How might we better understand this process of cyclic change?
The political scientist Ronald Inglehart would probably suggest that if Delza seemed to be a generation or two ahead of her time, she was. Her project failed to thrive not because her views on the Chinese martial arts were wrong in some abstract sense. They accurately reflected what most Taijiquan practitioners in Shanghai actually believed. Rather, they were out of step with the social values that characterized American society in the 1950s and 1960s.
Over the course of several books Inglehart has examined the ways in which our environment shapes our political and social values. His basic insights can be summed up in two statements, the “scarcity hypothesis” and the “socialization hypothesis.” Together they generate a model for understanding how generational change can occur at the social level which may be of some interest to students of martial arts studies.
His first point (to simplify greatly) notes that money really can buy happiness, but only up to a certain point. For most of our history humans everywhere lived well below that threshold. As a result they tended to value the provision of basic goods necessary for survival, stability and security rather than more abstract ideals such as “self-fulfillment” or “social justice.”
The period of modern economic industrialization is significant as, for the first time in history, a majority of a country’s citizens might cross this threshold and move beyond concerns with basic security. This process can be observed through large cross-sectional public opinion surveys, which inspired much of Inglehar’s work with the World Values Survey (WVS) project. His findings demonstrate that beyond a certain point each additional dollar of income ceases to be a reliable predictor of “life satisfaction.” But it should be stressed that this only happens after a certain level of material security was been achieved.
This threshold is culturally constructed and so it tends to differ from society to society. But in general, the citizens of rich Western nations increasingly find that “post-materialist values” (such as political participation, social belonging, a clean environment and a relaxed lifestyle) are the keys to a greater sense of well being. It all makes a certain amount of intuitive sense. First we want the stuff that money can buy, and then we start to yearn for those things that cannot really be purchased.
Yet the relationship between economic scarcity and an individual’s social values is far from smooth. We live in a world with material constraints, but they do not determine everything about us. Identity must also be socially constructed and reinforced. In practice this suggests that members of the same age cohort will often share broadly similar values for sociological reasons. Further, once an individual matures their values tend to become stable, and are less responsive to short term swings in material wealth. Thus state policy often moves stochastically as the process of generational replacements brings new sets of citizens into the political arena.
The generation of martial arts practitioners that dominated the 1950s and early 1960s were overwhelming the same individuals who had come of age during (or immediately after) WWII. As children these people had experienced the economic privations of the Great Depression. As young adults they experienced the existential uncertainty of war. It is no surprise that society during the 1950s and 1960s would then be dominated by a set of materialist values. Policies that promoted economic growth and physical security, at both the national and personal levels, were favored.
Sophia Delza clearly didn’t share these instrumentalist values. The daughter of a wealthy New York City family, she enjoyed a privileged upbringing. This included trips to Europe, a college education and the freedom to dedicate herself to dance. While her chosen career in the arts, and then her husband’s overseas political postings, exposed her to the world of economic struggle and insecurity, those things were experienced only after her adult identity had formed. Delza thus seems to have approached the great modern struggle of the 20th century with what was actually a set of post-materialist values.
Clearly some other individuals in New York shared her views and adopted her approach to the martial arts. Yet I find myself wondering what Dr. Abisch, made a refugee both by WWII and then the Cold War, would have thought of this? The battle for self-realization and emotional contentment that she saw in Taijiquan may have seemed pointless to the veterans of the Pacific Campaign. The vision of the Chinese martial arts that prevailed in post-war American popular culture was the one that you could find on the cover of Black Belt.
The gears of generational change are, however, relentless. The problem of wealth inequality not withstanding, standards of living are vastly higher now than they were during the 1930s and 1940. It is thus no surprise that the post-materialist values that Inglehart identified have come to dominate social debates. We can even see evidence of this shift in the martial arts marketplace.
MMA is practiced not because most people fear for their safety while walking down the street. Rather they desire the opportunity for dynamic self-creation and enjoyment that this popular combat sport offers. The types of communities that emerge out these gyms and training camps are very different from what one might have seen in the world of professional boxing during the 1960. Likewise, the rise of the mindfulness industry suggests that the nameless anxiety that so haunted Delza has become a much broader social phenomenon. And while an interest in self-defense has never disappeared, increasingly its the desire to “get in shape” and “find a family” that draws students to the more traditional training halls.
While not without his critics, I suspect that Inglehart’s basic insights can help to explain of these observations. Better yet, his concepts (paired with the observations in the WVS database) might also be able to help us explain and predict the timing of these events in different countries. For instance, a number of observers have noted that the shift in values that accompanied the liberalization of the economy in mainland China during the early 1990s undercut the popularity of the traditional martial arts while allowing new, more commercial, practices such as BJJ and MMA to thrive. And yet Taijiquan remains popular with China’s professional elites as they search for new ways to deal with anxieties of modern life? Inglehart’s model may allow us to further interrogate the nuances of these seemingly contradictory trends.
It is clear that we are currently seeing major transformations within the traditional Chinese martial arts community. Perhaps we are just starting to catch up with Delza. Her work reminds us that the these systems have never been just one thing. The martial arts are always full of possibilities. But we must better understand our own social values before we can predict what comes next.
If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read: Imagining the Chinese Martial Arts without Bruce Lee: Sophia Delza, an American Taiji Quan Pioneer.