An Unexpected Invitation
A friend recently extended an invitation that I couldn’t refuse. A couple of weeks ago Chad Eisner (who some of you may remember from my various lightsaber projects) got in touch and let me know that his teacher, Ma Yue, was going to be visiting Ann Arbor Michigan for a few weeks of private training. Chad is a student of the Ma Shi Tongbei system, and that was obviously a great opportunity for him. But that was not all.
After talking things over, he and Ma Shifu decided to also organize a workshop in Duanbing, or “short weapons training.” Ma competed on the Beijing Sport University’s Duanbing (and Sanda) teams in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I believe that he was even the 1979 national champion in that event.
While separate from the more traditional Ma family system, Duanbing is something that he has taught recently, and he was eager to put together some sort of event. Given the short timelines it was decided to do a small, invitation only event. When I heard that my friend Daniel Mroz (a professor from the University of Ottawa) would also be attending, I knew that I had to make time to get out there.
Given the many ways that the subject intersected with my own research interests it was basically impossible for me to say no. In historical terms Duanbing was something that I first encountered during my research into the Republic and early Wushu periods. It was one of those smaller practices that always seemed to be fading in and out of popularity. That sort of variability is interesting, but I never thought I would have a chance to practice with someone who competed at its highest levels.
Still, Duanbing was not the only draw. Ma Yue is an inheritor of one of the Chinese martial arts’ most important and distinguished family traditions. His grandfather, Ma Fengtu was a critical figure in the Republic era martial arts scene. He not only assembled an important family tradition, but he helped to integrate combative aspects of the Chinese martial arts into the military. Later he would work with the Central Guoshu Institute. His father, Ma Xianda, was basically royalty within the Wushu world. He helped to craft the emerging Wushu structures that flowered during the PRC. Having a chance to meet and talk with Ma Yue was not an opportunity that any martial arts historian would want to pass up. That is how I found myself boarding a commuter plane at 5:30 in the morning, heading for Detroit, armed only with my fencing gear, lots of workout clothing and backpack full of empty notebooks.
As both a student of Chinese fencing and martial arts history, my efforts were richly rewarded. I have spent the last few days collating and reviewing all of the material that I brought home. The haul included hours of interviews, hundreds of photos, lots of video and at least thirty pages of carefully typed fieldnotes. I suspect that it will take me weeks to intellectually unpack all of this, and a good deal longer to fully digest it and formulate the necessary follow-up questions. Indeed, the most difficult part of a research trip like this, especially when opening up a new area of research, is getting a sense of what in all of this information will be most interesting or significant to the broadest number of people in the field.
Luckily, a blog is a great place to work through that last question. I suspect that over the next month or so readers will see a number of posts where I try to grapple with various practices, questions and ideas that came up over the course of this trip. Hopefully this process will give me, as the researcher, some clarity as to what is really hiding in this mass of media and field notes. And many of the individual topics that I am attempting to parse out will also be interesting to readers of Kung Fu Tea. After all, the Ma family is one of the great dynasties of the Chinese martial arts in the 20th century. Yet their contributions to the development of modern Wushu aren’t well understood by most practitioners in the West.
These posts will likely touch on a number of related topics including biography, history, the process of professionalization within the Chinese martial arts and, of course, the development of Duanbing. Before I do any of that, some basic context might be helpful. As such, the following post will sketch, in broad strokes, how this expedition unfolded. It then concludes with some thoughts on both the importance of these topics, and inevitable limitations that one faces when doing this sort of empirical research.
A Busy Weekend
After chatting with Chad and Daniel, I decided that the best strategy for getting the most out of the Duanbing workshop was to show up a day early. Chad and Ma were planning on spending a few weeks reviewing various parts of the Ma Shi Tongbei system during twice daily (morning and afternoon) training sessions. After looking at my schedule I decided to join them early on Friday morning, both as an opportunity to introduce myself to Ma Shifu, and to see the more traditional side of his practice before moving on to the combat sports focused part of the weekend.
After an uneventful drive from the airport I arrived at a local Starbucks to find my two friends (and fellow researchers) fortifying themselves for the day’s adventure. Daniel Mroz is a theater and performance professor at the University of Ottawa and a long-time Martial Arts Studies researcher. Readers may recall that he was a keynote speaker at one of our recent conferences. As a dedicated student of Wudang Jian, he was eager to try Duanbing for himself. Chad Eisner, while a dedicated student of the TCMA, will be most familiar to readers of this blog as the creator of the Terra Prime Light Armory, an open source lightsaber combat group that I have written about extensively in my own research. Both Daniel and Chad got to know each other through their involvement with the Martial Arts Studies community, and with a few nudges from me.
No sooner did I arrive than the warnings started. Both of my friends had been training with Ma for a few days and the strenuous workouts were starting to take a toll. But what else would one expect from a teacher whose coaching background was rooted back in the “good old days” of Beijing Sports University? In fact, Ma was admitted into the first class after the program reopened at the end of the Cultural Revolution. This was a fact that he took great pride in.
Properly terrified, we set off for a basketball court in a local health club (dominated by an unused climbing wall) where the private, twice daily, training sessions were being held. Meeting Ma actually turned out to be quite a relief. His spoken English was very clear and reflected his long period of residence in the United Kingdom. While capable of leading his students through rigorous workouts, he impressed me as a very genial, gregarious and even considerate individual. Which is not to say that I didn’t find myself getting sorer after each day I spent in Michigan. But his training sessions were always a rewarding experiences.
Almost all of the first day was spent on a combination of basic warmup drills (some similar to what one might see on a Sanda team) and instruction in the building blocks of the Ma Shi Tongbei system. This later material was difficult for me to wrap my head around as it is not an art that I have ever practiced before, and I was entering into the middle of a conversation between Ma Shifu and Chad that was already well underway. Still, I felt like it was a valuable experience as actually learning the intricacies of the system (in a single weekend) was never my goal as a researcher. I was much more interested in how Ma approached the complex process of both instructing a new disciple and establishing a North American branch of this organization. Some of the discussions that surrounded these topics seemed just as critical for understanding his vision of the Chinese martial arts as the technical instruction through which it was physically expressed.
I got to better understand Ma’s outlook on the martial arts, and the general misunderstandings of Wushu that he detects in the West, as we talked over dinner. This same conversation continued after we retreated to Chad’s house. But by about 10 pm it was clear that our fatigue from the day’s workout (and collective jetlag) was calling a halt to the festivities. Sadly, however, I was not able to get to bed after returning to the hotel room. Instead Daniel and I debriefed, looked over our photos and scribbled reminders, and began the long process of assembling the day’s fieldnotes.
The next morning found me slowly stretching to gauge just how sore I was from the day before. After deciding I was in pretty good shape, Daniel and I met up and headed out for the same coffee shop we had visited the day before. Fully refueled we left to meet Chad who was, much to my surprise, making lightsaber blades.
It seems that before I arrived, he and Ma Shifu had been looking at the various sword analogs that the game of Duanbing could be played with. My understanding was that we would be using the floppy-tipped foam boffers that one sees in so many European Duanbing demonstrations. Ma, however, is eager to see the sport modernized and wanted to explore different sorts of weapons and protective gear. After comparing boffers, some nylon bladed jian, and a couple of metal wasters (favored by more historically minded fencers) he decided the sorts of mid-weight polycarbonate tubes used to make lightsabers blades actually felt like the best tools in his hands.
As near as I can tell Ma Shifu didn’t have much interest in Star Wars as an intellectual property. Rather, the polycarbonate blades seemed to solve a variety of more practical problems for him. They react more realistically than the soft boffers that one often sees in the sport, but they didn’t require the heavy armor that goes along with metal training swords, or even some of the nylon blades. And while thrusting with polycarbonate is not a great idea, Duanbing players have traditionally worn some padding, gloves and a fencing mask. Finally, given that the sport always has a “red” and “blue” player, he loved that each individual could be given a different color blade. This would make the game easier for spectators to follow, and easier to score. So, much to everyone’s surprise, it was decided that the workshop would be conducted with polycarbonate blades, on an experimental basis. When Daniel and I arrived we found Chad quickly making a batch of new blades so that everyone could be properly equipped once the workshop started.
After a quick lunch, in which we collectively reviewed possible interview questions, we left to retrieve Ma from his hotel and head to the workshop venue. Chad had booked a nicely appointed yoga room at the same sports complex where we trained the day before. As the students began to assemble it was clear that some of the people who had been invited were primarily interested in the Ma Shi Tongbei system, while others were students of different sword arts who wanted to explore the Duanbing rule set.
The workshop started off with about an hour of basic skills practice. This began with fencing footwork. Ma Shifu, who was leading the workout from the front of the class, noted that just as Sanda needed to learn from Western boxing to modernize, Duanbing, while a distinctly Chinese practice, needed to learn from fencing. The footwork was followed with basic cuts to the wrist, head and lead leg, and appropriate parries for each movement. Lunging thrusts were thrown in for good measure. As in saber fencing, one could score with either a thrust or a cut.
Ma Shifu noted that when he was on the Duanbing Team at Beijing Sports University, most workouts lasted three hours and it was not uncommon to spend an hour on basic exercises. Indeed, he recalled spending an hour at a time on nothing but footwork drills on certain particularly memorable days.
Students were then paired with partners and instructed to apply each of these attacks and defenses in a “semi-contact” environment. This was the period in which students were able to get the most detailed feedback about their performance. After half an hour of watching pairs of students advance and retreat in orderly rows Ma approached Chad and said “Ok, let’s see if they can apply what they have learned.”
Because we would be thrusting, students put on more armor than one would normally see in a lightsaber class. This included chest protectors and even a few gorgets, in addition to the always mandatory fencing masks, elbow pads and lacrosse or HEMA gloves. Some students brought their own gear, but most used loaners that were stored on site.
Ma began by reviewing the basic rules and structure of a Duanbing match. This included the proper way of bowing, the sorts of commands that a referee would give to start (or stop) a fight and a description of the arena. That last point turned out to be a bit tricky. Duanbing is typically played in a circle with a 9-meter radius. Both fighters thus have lots of room to maneuver. Our yoga studio, while quite nice, was laid out as a long and narrow space. So certain allowances had to be made when defining the “field of battle.”
Typically, a Duanbing match is played to five points with the referee separating fighters between successful strikes and calling points. The sport has no “right of way” and points are scored on a first come, first serve basis. Doubles are not counted, and a referee can discount incidental contact or strikes that are muddled or ineffectual.
In an effort to get as many people through their first round of action as quickly as possible, Ma had everyone in the workshop fight a warm-up match to three points. Then he announced that we would be playing “King of the Hill” (the winner of a match must stay in the ring and take on each successive challenger until they finally lose). This seems to have been one of his standard training games and it added a real test of endurance for anyone fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to find themselves in the ring for three or more matches.
As a spectator I found the average Duanbing match easy to follow. Things moved along at a good pace and there was a distinctly playful quality to rhythm and execution of techniques that made the matches very interesting. I personally have never been a huge fan of the Olympics. In fact, I may have been drawn to the martial arts precisely because I never cared for many of the more traditional athletic pursuits. As such I have never been able to work up too much angst as to whether or not Wushu should be an Olympic sport.
Still, if one were to suggest a single aspect of the Chinese martial arts for the Olympics, you could do much worse than Duanbing. The basic logic of a sword fight is universally accessible, yet these matches are easier to follow (and tactically quite different from) Western Olympic fencing. The hybrid nature of the sport, combining elements of both Chinese and Western fencing, would make it fairly accessible to sportsmen in a number of countries, yet there are many possible styles of play. And, if we are totally honest, all sorts of weapons arts are booming in popularity right now.
When I agreed to come to the workshop it was really with the hopes of learning something about Wushu’s (and Guoshu’s) past. But the longer I played the game the more I felt like I might be looking at an element of its future. Ma’s enthusiasm for experimenting with new types of blades, protective gear, and means of making the game accessible to an audience began to make sense. While not commonly practiced, Duanbing seems to have more potential to speak across cultural lines in a competitive situation than Taolu (at least for those of us who do not already study the Chinse martial arts.)
What had been a good workshop started to feel like the beginning of an exciting journey.
Once we had all been reduced to a state of utter exhaustion Ma called for a 10-minute break. This was a great time to strip out of our gear and begin to field some of the interview questions that we had come up with earlier. The conversation started off with technical discussions of training at Beijing Sports University, but it quickly drifted towards tales of his grandfather’s exploits as a military officer and martial artist. All of this helped to situate the evolution of things like Duanbing, emerging as practical training exercises in the Republic period and evolving into fast paced combat sports in the 1950s.
The last half hour of the day was dedicated to more traditional pursuits. Chad began to distribute waxwood sticks (all with a notable taper). Ma then demonstrated basic training exercises from his family system meant to familiarize students with the transition from one sort of grip and attacking technique to another. The pedagogical technique here was to demonstrate a sequence of movements and allow the students to attempt to replicate it with varying degrees of success. The workshop ended a little before 5:00.
Heads swimming with new information, one group of students said their goodbyes as they prepared to return to their families. Meanwhile, another group got ready to take Ma out to a celebratory dinner capping off a successful opening to the workshop. Daniel had a great chance to talk with Ma at this dinner, while I concentrated on getting to know some of the other participants in the workshop. Afterwards, everyone headed back to their hotels and it was once again time to sort out the day’s fieldnotes.
Sunday was, in some ways, quite similar to Saturday. As such we don’t need to linger on the details. The morning workout began with a new warmup. It was built around a number of the basic movements from Ma Shi Tongbei, and I don’t mind admitting that as a Wing Chun guy I found some of the more complex sequences of arm and shoulder whipping movements to be utterly baffling.
This was followed by a fencing warmup, which reviewed the basic steps, attacks and parries taught the day before. We then moved on to the semi-contact exercises and the class received the first actual compliments that I had heard from Ma in the course of the weekend. He claimed to see improvement in our understanding of the basic body structures. After donning protective gear, we redid the same exercises but now with the intention of landing our blows.
Most of the second day, however, was spent on a basketball court which had been reserved so that our matches could happen in a properly sized space. We again fought a number of warm-up matches and then played king of the hill. Daniel and some of the other students got permission to fight a few rounds using the nylon training Jian to test how they would affect the pace and nature of play.
Again, as both a participant and observer one could feel a certain sense of excitement overcoming the bone aching exhaustion. I didn’t so much feel that I was participating in a workshop as I was involved in a process of exploration. Evidentially, Ma felt the same thing. After a particularly good match he asked Daniel to help him find a helmet and gloves. He wanted to play.
This was a very big deal. While Ma has taught Duanbing for years, he stated at the time that he had not actually competed in a match (even privately) for years. While amateurs in the West view the Chinese martial arts as a form of recreation, for him Duanbing and Sanda were very much work. They were a professional responsibility, and his championships in these areas were the result of years of grueling, often unpleasant, labor. It was clear that Duanbing had not been a simple and “fun” activity in his life for many years. But in watching us play something changed, and Ma Shifu found himself setting aside the role of coach and looking to take up the sword as a participant again.
This happened near the end of the second day of training and, ironically, I was one of the few people still wearing my gear at that point. As such I walked out to meet him in the middle of the competition ring. Fencing with Ma Shifu was an incredible experience. In the course of a two-minute match, Ma scored points using both his right and left hand, demonstrated incredibly evasive footwork and his strikes hinted at truly impressive wrist strength. It was a stark reminder of the gulf that separates any physical activity done at the amateur versus the professional level. But his laugh and smile as the fencing helmet came off at the end of the match was relatable to anyone.
After another dinner we retired to Chad’s house and began the formal interview that Ma had agreed to earlier in the trip. The entire discussion took about two hours. Questions focused on his grandfather, his dad, and then his own career. Obviously, many personal narrative elements transcend these generations, but I also sought to use the family’s long study of the sword as a theme tying the various elements of the discussion. Exhausted, but satisfied in a job well done, we said our goodbyes. I headed back to the hotel for one last round of fieldnotes, all too aware that I would have to be up by 5:00 am the next day for my return flight home.
Of course, this only a small part of a much larger story, selectively told to accentuate some themes and suppress others. Fieldwork, or any sort of empirical study, appears to tell a reader what “actually happened.” And yet that is never strictly the case. Indeed, it cannot be done. I made the previous account of my workshop experience intentionally long and seemingly detailed. I wanted you, the reader, to feel like you were there. And nothing conveys that sense of overwhelming detail quite life five pages of text.
Well, maybe nothing except 30 pages. My personal fieldnotes from this trip are actually six times as long as the account that I have provided you here. And even then, I doubt that they capture even 10 percent of everything that Ma said and did. Obviously, the videos we recorded, the photos we took, and the interviews that we collected help to fill some of the gaps. But this is the funny thing about empirical works. It is actually the gaps, or the omissions, that make all of that description accessible to the reader. I have no doubt that I could have generated 200 pages of notes about a two-day workshop. But would I have ever been able to read them again? Would I have been able to locate the most relevant bit of information in all of that detail?
The answer is certainly not. As one philosopher and social scientist after another have pointed out (my favorite being J.Z. Smith), the more information we pack into a map the harder it is to use. Indeed, the less likely it is that we will even bring it with us.
New York City used to produce wonderfully detailed maps of its subway system. They included every twist and turn, and even labeled the major landmark buildings that one could not see from underground. Now you only find them in vintage art shops. As practical tools they were a disaster. Individuals became mentally lost in all of the accuracy, and subsequently got physically lost in the subway.
The city’s current subway maps have been simplified to the point of abstraction. But they give you exactly the information you need. Which line do you need to get on, and how many stops will it be? That is really all you need to know to master a subway system. Both the old maps and the new are simplifications, empirical models of a more complex world. But it is the complexity that we exclude that makes a tool useful, or a story interesting.
The problem, simply put, is choice. On my expedition I found myself forced to choose between getting enough sleep or taking the time necessary to socialize, conduct interviews and write up fieldnotes. I was forced to make a decision. Did I travel to Michigan primarily as a martial artist looking to maximize my performance in an intensive workshop? Or did I come as a student of Martial Arts Studies trying to understand the various ways in which the Chinese martial arts build community and represent their values on the global stage. Sitting, exhausted, in my hotel room I realized there was an inevitable trade-off between sleep I needed and study I had come to do. Given my goals, I had to ask which of those things was the most useful.
We face similar dilemmas when starting to organize our empirical study. A deductive research strategy would suggest that we actually outline a complete theory (either an interpretive or a causal story) before colleting any data. Knowing exactly what we are trying to determine (our dependent variable) and what might impact that (our independent variables), it’s pretty easy to determine exactly what two pieces of information should go into the notebook. Tightly constructed theories tend to be the easiest to test and they require relatively skinny case-studies. In the social sciences we might even reduce these observations to the level of single measurements compiled into statistical datasets.
This sort of analytical clarity notwithstanding, at the end of the day highly deductive studies do have limitations. They tend to use empirical observation instrumentally rather than really attempting to explore what is out there in the world. After all, our actual object of interest in a case like this is our theoretical story, something that was probably formulated long before we got on the plane to start the fieldwork. Theoretical parsimony always comes at the cost of a certain amount of descriptive exploration.
Inductive research, which begins with a deep dive into the world, would seem to solve this particular issue. It allows us to focus on the exploration of a martial system or practice before trying to fit it into a larger historical or social pattern. Yet, as we have already seen, even the “thickest description” is forced to decide what sorts of occurrences should be included in one’s fieldnotes as data, and what is just random social noise. There is never room (or time enough) for everything. Almost inevitably we have a theory in our head which, even if we are not conscious of it, helps us to decide what is “important.” This makes it difficult to escape our own habitual frames of reference and see even new practices (like Duanbing) with fresh eyes.
Finding that perfect balance between data and theory is a challenge. But sometimes we get lucky. Occasionally our observations will suggest an interpretive framework that might help us to see events from a different perspective.
This last research trip provided just such an occurrence. Ma Yue is of the opinion that when evaluating something’s place within the Chinese martial arts there are four essential categories that one needs to consider. First is the question of history. Does this thing (a practice or teacher) link back to a traditional family teaching, or is it a disconnected modern practice (like Duanbing)? Second, does it serve the interests of the community, and if so what sector (police, health, education, local wushu societies, etc…)? Third, does it have a place in the official, or institutional, aspects of wushu apparatus. And fourth, does the activity have an observable competitive aspect?
In the abstract such a matrix allows Ma to mentally classify the different sorts of practices that one comes across in the incredibly diverse world that is the Chinese martial arts. Yet each of these categories also suggests something about the values that structure his understanding of the Chinese martial arts. For instance, Ma understands a “true master” as being someone who can make a contribution along each axis. A master must have access to an important body of traditional knowledge. But that is not enough. They also need to have professional education at the University level in Wushu. It is even better if they have gone on to get a graduate degree and teach or coach in those subjects. One must also have competed in Sanda, Boxing, Taolu or some related combat art at a professional level. And all of this is useless if it cannot be made meaningful within the martial arts community.
In his view many individuals may achieve a sort of expertise in one of these levels. Perhaps they are the inheritor of a folk martial art tradition, or they are an expert in medical applications of the martial arts. But that still falls far short of the ideal. These individuals are, at best, false masters. A fundamental mastery of Wushu requires a detailed knowledge of its working in all of these levels. One imagines that the number of people who could cross that threshold is quite low.
This four-part division of the Wushu world was one of the first things that Ma outlined for me on the day we met. I spent a lot of time thinking about it. Honestly, I don’t know how well it meshes with the more abstract definitions of the martial arts which sometimes structures academic discussion in our field. It really only speaks to the modern Chinese experience (after all, most countries don’t have university level martial art training programs) and it clearly reflects his values and life experience. But then again, that is precisely the beauty of the thing. Being grounded in a strong set of values it reveals a different vision of excellence within the Chinese martial arts than what we typically imagine in the West. And if my goal is to empirically understand his vision of Wushu (and Duanbing’s place within it) this sort of theory might be just what I need to explore Ma’s world view.
In the next few weeks I hope to produce a handful of other posts drawing on this brief research trip. Each of them will take one of Ma’s four aspects of the Wushu community as its starting point and branch out from there. As a social scientist I know that my ability to escape my own biases, or to really understand the world in the same way that Ma does, is limited. But by seriously engaging with his cultural understanding of wushu may reveal new and exciting research questions.
If you enjoyed reading about this workshop you might also want to read: Translating the Sicilian Knife