Welcome to the seventh guest post (by Adam Frank) in our ongoing series examining the ways that the current health crisis has impacted those of us who sit at the intersection of martial arts practice, communities of martial artists, and Martial Arts Studies. As with most of our discussions at Kung Fu Tea, this one straddles the line between practitioners whose lives have been upended by these events, and scholar who seek to make sense of this moment in history. To some degree we all fall into both camps. That fact should remind us of the value of community when facing challenges such as this, and it is my hope that some of these essays might reinforce those communal bonds. If you would like to share some of your experiences or thoughts about the theoretical implications of all of this, please feel free to send me an email.
“Thriving in Pandemictown and Its Guilt”
By Adam Frank
Over the years, many Chinese friends of a certain age who lived through the Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution (1966-76) have told me, somewhat furtively, how happy they were during that period. True, they admit, being sent to the countryside to farm or engage in other manual labor was often a shocking change for them. Many came from intellectual backgrounds or from wealthy families, so they felt fortunate to have escaped the severe beatings or death that acquaintances, colleagues, even family members had suffered. Still, they remember their time in the countryside as a generally happy, healthy experience. In a time of zero industrial growth, the air and water were clean. They worked hard, but were not worked to death. Indeed, the work made them stronger. Life was simpler. Their off hours were spent chatting with friends, thinking and talking about philosophy, playing music, and often simply doing nothing. Yes, so many suffered, and my friends understood they were in a privileged minority. Still, they were happy. Some even met their future spouses in the countryside.
So, here I sit on a lazy, post-semester spring afternoon in a small Arkansas town, trying to decide whether to go outside and garden before the mosquitos invade for the evening or to take the dog for a walk (again) or maybe to engage in a second round of taijiquan practice – first rounds have been hard to come by for a while now, let alone second rounds. Choosing, finally, to turn to this blog because the semester is over and I can no longer avoid it, I have to admit that, yes, I am thriving in the pandemic. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a pleasure to write about martial arts, but I have to admit I’m thriving, while friends and students in the health professions are risking their lives every day because the United States lacks proper testing, PPEs, and policy. Food service workers, grocers, meat industry workers, and shipping workers – indeed, workers of all stripes who have no choice but to continue working, have risked their lives so I can write this blog in the quiet of my home. At the same time, to return to the audience at hand, many of our martial arts brothers and sisters who rely on martial arts to pay rent and feed their families (I do not), have been stripped of their livelihood. Thus far, the government response to small businesses in the US has been sluggish at best, disdainful at worst. While help may still be on the way, what is the owner of the small martial arts school to do in the meantime?
So, there’s the guilt. But then there’s the thriving. What does it look like? And is it the “arts” part of “martial arts”? The great Wu family taijiquan master Ma Yueliang was said to have been under house arrest in Shanghai during much of the Cultural Revolution, and like many other martial artists, he was forbidden to practice this relic of a decadent past. Forced to practice secretly, often simply visualizing his martial arts sets while sitting in a chair with his eyes closed, Ma described this period of isolation as one of important breakthroughs and deepened understandings. In other words, at least as far as martial arts went, he found himself thriving.
I am no Ma Yueliang, but I am someone who has gone deep into my studies of taijiquan. Largely through the kindness of Ma, his children, and his students, I was able to move to Shanghai during more than one period of my life and completely immerse myself in the study of Wu style taijiquan for months and years on end. My journey was always attached to academic study in one way or another, so it should have not been surprising that over time my academic and family life overcame and very nearly obliterated my practice time. Twenty years ago, an average practice day was four or five hours. By a few months ago, an average practice day was four or five hours per month, if that. In mid-March, when my university incrementally moved to online teaching and I found myself working at home (a place, I must admit, I had avoided working from for many years), my first reaction was to feel isolated from those I could most directly help (my students) and to wonder how someone like me, who essentially had zero useful skills (resume: expired first aid and CPR certifications, poor carpentry skills, shitty tailor), could help anyone anywhere in this godforsaken mess. So, out of a need to feel useful – as opposed to actually being useful – I decided to put my new online teaching skills to work and teach a qigong class every morning. I mined all the qigong I had learned from the age of 17 onwards: standing meditation and taiji ruler and a set that looks an awful lot like The Tendon Changing Classic and a set called the Shiao set which I learned so early in my practice years that I never found out or bothered to ask if “Shiao” was somebody’s name, the word for “small”, or all of the above. After some false starts due to technical difficulties, I took to rising each day in time to begin my broadcast between 8:00 and 8:15 AM, rotating through my four or five sets over and over each week and occasionally throwing in something else that had rusted, like spear form or push hands solo practice or even the basic warm up stretches I learned on the very first day I ever took a taijiquan class.
As of this writing, I haven’t missed a day of teaching my class and have cavalierly (aka foolishly) proclaimed to more than one friend that I will continue teaching every day until COVID-19 cases fall to single digits in Arkansas. Indeed, I’m on the most regular practice schedule I’ve managed in years. Every morning I do the old guy equivalent of springing out of bed to set up my gizmos, do my sound checks, and share my infinite wisdom. To spice things up, I throw in fun images and even for a time ran a daily column in the description area of the Facebook post called “News from Lake Coronabegone” where I could make wry observations about how small town folks in the American South were faring in the pandemic or make subtly ironic comments about how certain angry supporters of a certain angry president were stupidly failing in their civic responsibilities by ignoring Science with a big S.
Then, just as the smugness and self-indulgence of the whole thing was about to bring it to a screeching halt, two things happened. First, I received several encouraging messages from a physician friend at Johns Hopkins. From Baltimore, she practiced along with me when she could and picked it up from the auto recordings on my Facebook feed when she couldn’t. She told me she had a lot of sick patients who could really benefit from the softer forms of qigong I was covering and several colleagues who were so stressed out from risking their lives every day that they could really benefit from the more extreme joint-opening techniques I sometimes demonstrated. She wanted to learn as much as she could before she had to pull another two or three-week, twenty-hour-per-day stint at the hospital so she could pass them on. Suddenly I didn’t just feel useful. Lo and behold, I was sort of useful.
Second, echoing Master Ma’s apocryphal tale, I have found the last two months to be the most fruitful in my understanding of taijiquan than at any time since the early 2000s. Still recovering from knee surgery, I’m unable to practice 4-5 hours per day, but in 1-2 hours of concentrated practice, I am finding that the mere act of growing old pays off in the study of taijiquan (dang, they always claimed it would). It’s as if the curtain has been partially pulled aside from the qigong sets I learned in my late teens or early twenties. Experience has allowed me to rebuild these sets with a somatic understanding I utterly lacked when I first learned the exercises. And the qigong sets I learned in my thirties, I now understand as both waigong (external work) and neigong (internal work). All this cool “understanding” leads me to one conclusion: We as martial artists have a serious responsibility to share what knowledge we have in order to help others stay healthy. In that respect, our art serves the same function as all of the Zoom or Facebook theatre and music and dance presently riding the interweb waves: Collectively, these arts steel us internally and externally for what lies ahead.
So, yes, several unsurprising paths lead me to conclude that the yin and the yang of the fucking pandemic is that in the midst of thriving, there is suffering and in the midst of suffering, there is thriving, that this moment is the moment of “arts” in “martial arts” because we simply can’t touch each other (hell, whole armies are standing down), that the “usefulness” of a person in such historic moments of pain lies partly in our ability to focus, to be with utter intensity, to operate at the top of our game, whether our shift is one hour on Facebook in the morning or 15 hours on the floor of the hospital. What, after all, are we supposed to do or be as martial artists? Certainly not, I think, simply self-indulgent purveyors of physical skills and two-cent philosophies. Rather, like the heroes of The Water Margin or The Big Brawl, aren’t we really in this to do some good in the world, even if it’s just helping one physician or nurse get up in the morning and make it through the day?
About the Author
Adam Frank is an Associate Professor of Anthropology/Asian Studies at Honors College, University of Central Arkansas. He has made multiple contributions to the Martial Arts Studies literature including Taijiquan and the Search for the Little Old Chinese Man: Understanding Identity through Martial Arts (2006, Palgrave Macmillan). As an anthropologist of performance and a theatre artist, his interests include theatre and social justice, Asian theatre, puppetry, and expressive culture.