Like many of you, I am currently recovering from our 6th annual Martial Arts Studies Conference which selected as its theme “Martial Arts, Religion & Spirituality.” Some great papers were given and I continue to be impressed by the ever increasing empirical and theoretical rigor of our field. The big difference is that this year jet lag is not part of the normal post-conference readjustment. Due to COVID-19, it was not possible to hold the meetings in France which had originally been planned. Yet rather than cancelling the conference the organizer decided to take it on-line, creating an incredible archive of the current state of Martial Arts Studies research. While live panels and discussions were held earlier this week, I would encourage all of the readers of Kung Fu Tea to spend some serious time with the event’s YouTube page, where the actual paper are archived.
In the next few weeks I hope to engage with some of the conferences central themes, and a few of my favorite presentations, here on the blog. But I wanted to start this discussion with something a little different. My good friend Daniel Mroz has thought as deeply about the origins, meaning and function of taolu in the Chinese martial arts as anyone else in our field. These are topics that he has addressed before, but I felt that the paper he gave this year (as part of a panel titled “Martialité: art, performance, and religion”) really represented a culmination of his thoughts on the subject, and comes as close to solving the riddle of forms practice as any discussion I have yet seen. This is a topic that is important to most students of Chinese martial arts as taolu is something that has a profound effect on our understanding of these fighting systems. Still, it remains controversial and any debate seems to generates as much heat as light.
Luckily, Daniel has agreed to provide a guest post on the subject which seeks to understand the origins of taolu as a set of practices responding to specific (often overlooked) Chinese cultural values and beliefs. His discussion moves beyond the purely pedagogical and martial presentations found in Ming era military encyclopedias and ask how common cultural complexes around ritual and theater would have shaped the way that these exercises were encountered and understood. Those who prefer their Martial Arts Studies in podcast form can listen to the entire essay here. But this is one of those papers that where you will want to go back, reread paragraphs, and think about the footnotes. All of that can be found below.
Martiality and Transformation: Tàolù as a Martial Yoga of Space
Daniel Mroz, Ph.D.
Department of Theatre
University of Ottawa, Canada
Greetings and welcome. I’m Daniel Mroz from the Department of Theatre of the University of Ottawa. This paper is entitled: Martiality and Transformation: Tàolù as a Martial Yoga of Space.
Tàolù, the choreographed sequences of the Chinese martial arts can be described and experienced as a Yoga of Space. Tàolù are acts of self-consecration that express martial theatricality and religiosity. Their structure and phenomenology cultivate a particular spatial perception that has combative, theatrical and religious consequences.
D.S. Farrer has proposed we examine cultural practices to trace the threads of martiality found within them. What is martiality? Pragmatically, it is a proto-combative behaviour, a level of practical coordination that can approach virtuosity and that can be put at the service of combat. It exists prior to the context that will eventually give it meaning as warfare, hunting, duelling, self-consecration, meditation, sporting competition, aesthetic performance or a host of other possibilities. Martiality is the human performance OF combat which includes, but also transcends, human performance IN combat. The martiality expressed in tàolù is found not only in Chinese martial arts, but also in Chinese theatres and religious practices, current and historical (Holcombe, 1990: passim).
Let’s observe the movement routines that make up the fundamental grammar of these ritual, martial and theatrical activities. In the video on the left, two recreational martial artists who are students of the present-day, international Choy Li Fut Kuen (蔡李佛拳, coi3 lei5 fat6 kyun4) lineage perform a choreographed fight using double sabres and spear. Simultaneously on the right are two professional teachers of Jīngjù (京剧) or “Peking Opera,” from the National Academy of Chinese Theatre Arts in Beijing, demonstrating basic phrases of fight choreography with the same weapons.
Please watch the follow video clip before reading on.
There is a slight difference in the tempo-rhythms of the two choreographies, as one is a real performance by amateurs and the other is instructional material presented by professionals. The Jīngjù weapons are made of light and resilient wood reinforced with twine or fibreglass. The Choy Li Fut weapons, while still light and maneuverable, are made of heavier wood and metal and the spear is about 1/3rd longer. Yet these two presentations are virtually interchangeable. The contexts may be different but the physical culture and martial movement displayed are the same.
Historically, the Choy Li Fut exponents playing tàolù enacted a magical, religious role for their community. The play of tàolù in a seasonal calendar of popular rituals demonstrated the adepts’ martial prowess while earning spiritual merit for the entire community. By practicing and demonstrating the arduous and humbling physical training Choy Li Fut requires, these performers consecrated and re-consecrated themselves over and over to what Daniel Amos refers to as a religion of the body (1997: 31-61). This self-consecration made them spiritually inviolable and venerable in the eyes of their community. Their demonstration of skill acquired through perseverance, or gōngfū (功夫), was a meritorious act performed on behalf of the collective.
This self-consecration was also tacitly expressed in theatre. Theatre permeated public and private life in 19thcentury China. While professional actors belonged to a marginalized underclass, people loved the entertainment they provided and hired them not just to perform but also to teach and coach. For professional, amateur and private groups, the learning, rehearsing and presentation of theatre was beloved, constant and intense. While non-actors would never play professionally, virtually everyone was involved in performing at some level. Chinese theatre, or xìqǔ (戲曲) and Chinese martial arts employ many virtually identical training methods. As Jo Riley relates:
‘In 1991 I filmed a wǔshù club training in the village temple in Zhong Suo village in Guizhou under their master Lu Huamei, who was also the head of the village theatre company. Lu teaches tang quan style, which is in the middle level range of skills, and over three hundred villagers train regularly with him (nowadays girls included). Six small boys also take part in the training, the youngest of whom is ten years old, and the skills they learn from Lu are also observed from standing on the stage with the village theatre company when they perform. As in many villages, the village temple, martial arts training and performance indivisibly form the cradle of acting in and spectating theatre’ (1997:17).
Whether amateur or professional, actors portraying deities and ancestors on stage would achieve an exponential self-consecration: the actors performed martial movement, in doing so they self-consecrated. Their performances composed the stage figures of ancestors and deities, a further act of self-consecration. These stage figures in turn performed martial movement within the fiction of the dramatic narrative, self-consecrating for a third time!
More concretely, what makes us move? Tàolù always imply the presence of another body, even if the practitioner is training or performing alone. The impetus for movement in Chinese martial arts comes from outside of the exponent’s body. They may begin the process of movement because of an imagined natural force, an ancestor, deity, teacher or opponent. They may even have a real teacher or an actual audience to salute, but from there on in they are moving in response to the prompts and demands of an attacker, present or implied (Mroz, 2017:48).
This extroversion is fundamental to all of the developmental agendas we might attribute to Chinese martial movement. To respond competently to violence, I must reject my instinctual or preferred reactions in favour of responses that help me neutralize my aggressor using my environment. To perform capably in a martial competition or demonstration, I must externalize my decision-making process to respond to my partner’s actions and timing. To self-consecrate through training I must abandon my self-involvement and conform my body to pre-existing ritualized shapes and sequences. This rejection of habit and preference is accomplished using a durational training that over time changes my relationship to what I normally consider to be my body.
The externalization created through this training process is practical. When called upon to respond to an outside stimulus, such as dodging a ball, I will move faster than if I am asked to merely move as quickly as I can without having to dodge the ball. In the absence of an actual ball, the solo-movement training process of the Chinese martial arts teaches me how to construct movement tasks for myself that allow me to use my imagination to access the abilities normally recruited by real stimulus. I achieve this by learning to project my imagination outwards into the space around my body.
Both the Chinese martial and theatrical arts describe externalization using the five-character formula shǒu yǎn shēn fǎ bù (手 眼 身法 步), ‘the method of integrating the hand, the eye, the steps and the body.’ In the theatrical version, the character for body is replaced with zhǐ (指) the character for finger (Riley, 1997:88). In some martial arts formulations the character for loosen or sōng (松) is added. The formula stands for elements that need to be differentiated and individually emptied of habitual reactions, and then reintegrated to produce an expert level of performance.
A practical example: we eat with our hands. As we prepare to take a bite, we lean forward and drop our head while we move our hands towards our face. As a result, when we begin to learn martial movement, any action of our arms unconsciously pulls our heads forward, sabotaging our balance and disturbing our peripheral vision. In swordplay this tendency allows our training partners to tap us on our fencing-masks every time we move our sword, as our heads come forward automatically, presenting themselves as easy targets. Consciously separating the actions of the head from those of the hands is essential in learning martial movement.
Mid-20th century martial practitioner Tāng Rǔ Kūn (湯汝昆) describes how mastering the five characters actually feels. Tāng was a teacher of the 20th century Chinese martial art named Yì Quán (意拳), founded by Wáng Xiāngzhāi (王薌齋, 1885-1963). Tāng writes that martial training produces qì gǎn (气感) or ‘the sensations of the life force,’ which are heat, weight, vibration and expansiveness (Tāng in Cohen, 1997: 270).
Qì is a term with many meanings, and its use in the discussion of Chinese martial arts is contested. It’s been described by Chinese experts as everything from the sina qua non, to nothing but bogus talk (He, 2006: xxvii).
For our purposes qì is a phenomenological correlate to the circulation of blood. My blood is a material substance with an obvious location and flows along predictable paths. When I practice the basic exercises of Chinese martial arts that realign and strengthen the tonic, supportive muscles of the body, both my circulation and the depth of my felt-sense of heat, weight and vibration will improve dramatically. To use Tāng’s terms, my body empties of compulsion and it can fill with qì.
The last term on Tāng’s list is expansiveness, a euphoric subjective feeling of blending into the environment (Cohen, 1997:271). As our experience deepens, rather than being hypnotized by ever smaller physical sensations, we reverse our inward focus and project ourselves out into the space that surrounds us. This reversal should emerge tacitly from training and then be supported directly with visualization.
Like the externalisations mentioned above, expansiveness is practical. Our ability to orient ourselves has been developed through the practice of stances, postures and stepping. We can predict the shape of our space and our position in it using our felt-sense of the position of our feet, the distribution of our mass and the orientation of our body. We have also learned to measure the space around us using the body of another, through partner training and collaborative martial games. Using the body of another to measure space is called kinetic projection and we do it every time we write with a pen and feel the surface of the paper through the stylus we are holding. In expansiveness we combine the potential of all of these capabilities to create an imaginal rendering of the space we are moving in. We experience our body inside our mind, which is co-equal with space.
How much space can we embrace with our minds? I was introduced to three magnitudes of space in my training in the swordplay of the Wǔdāng Dàojiào Xuán Wǔ Pài (武当道教玄武派). The first distance was the range at which I can, with a leap, strike my opponent with my sword, but where they hopefully cannot reach me. The second distance allows me to touch my opponent with one hand while also striking them with my sword, while at the third distance, I can strike them with both my elbow and my sword.
These three concentric spaces are named after features and phases of Chinese cosmology. The first range is named after the bāguà (八卦), the second is referred to as the range of tàijí (太极 ) or yīnyáng (阴阳) and the third is called wújí (无极). These cosmological designations are surprisingly concrete. At the bāguà range, there are many possible striking actions available. At the yīnyáng tàijí range, those possibilities have been curtailed to a few binary options and at the wújí range, I cannot differentiate clear striking lines as my limbs are entangled with those of my opponent.
Visualization is used in solo and then in partner practice to map the space of play. As part of my training in Wǔdāng swordplay, I memorized the eight position ‘mandala’ of the bāguà and practiced projecting it outwards in front of me to form a circle around my training partner. I also learned to project it downwards towards the ground to form a circle around myself comprised of the eight principle directions of movement. Lastly, I was asked to visualize the vertical circle in mirror image, to be able to see how my training partner was seeing me.
These projections were preceded by a series of meditations done holding the jiàn or straight-sword, in lying, seated and standing positions. In these shēn jiàn (身剑) or ‘body and sword,’ meditations, the student practices merging the felt sense of different parts of their body with the felt sense of the sword they hold. Initially the student imagines breathing in to their lower abdomen and breathing out along the blade of the sword, which is imagined to extend infinitely. Gradually, increasingly complex feelings and intentions are asked of the student. During training retreats, for example, students are expected to sleep beside their swords, holding a particular body shape corresponding to the handle, guard and blade of the jiàn.
The three ranges of Xuán Wǔ Pài swordplay correlate well with the general categories of spatial perception posited by neuropsychology. Extrapersonal space, corresponding to the bāguà range, is the space that occurs outside of our reach. Peripersonal space, corresponding to the yīnyáng or tàijí range occurs within the reach of our limbs. Percutaneous space, corresponding to the wújí range, occurs at and just above the surface of our skin, where even if there is no contact, we will sense heat and motion (Elias & Saucier, 2006: chapter 10.1). A contemporary, if reductive interpretation of Tāng’s evocative term expansiveness casts it as the ability to transfer the immediate sensitivity we have at close tactile and visual range to spaces further and further from ourselves.
When we begin to learn martial movement, we are extroverted. We hope to be able to defend ourselves from others, to demonstrate martial skill in competition or performance, and perhaps in doing so to self-consecrate in ways our community will find meritorious. Once initiated into practice, we experience a first reversal. We are asked to differentiate our bodily movement, to breathe with the abdomen in mind, to focus on the personal and internal world of sensation. When we come to express the results of this withdrawal into our soma, we encounter yet another reversal. The self-sensing that we have refined through inward focus becomes an outward projection of perception and action.
Such reversals are fundamental to the Chinese yogic method of jīn dān (金丹) or the cultivation of the golden elixir. The practice of cultivating the golden elixir dates from the around the 2nd century (Pregadio, 2019: 2). It is found in Daoist and other branches of Chinese normative religion. It is composed of physical exercises and visualization, or cún xiǎng (存想). It is undertaken with the view that engaging with our mortality can lead to us towards agency and meaning, rather than to banal social and material careerism. While not literally concerned with the transmutation of metals, jīn dān takes its name and its metaphors from alchemy, comparing the reversal of the normal process of human maturation and decay with the transformation of dross into gold.
The reversals of jīn dān are also expressed in the narratives of folktales and theatre through the trope of divine madness. Consider Zhāng Sān Fēng (張三丰), the Daoist immortal and jīn dān master that folk tradition credits with the invention of the supposedly peaceful and enlightening martial art of Tàijí Quán (太极拳). He is portrayed as a filthy, contrarian drunkard who likes nothing more than a good brawl! While this perspective resembles the universal literary trope of Bakhtin’s carnivalesque, it is important to keep in mind that jīn dān is a technical and embodied process not just a funny story. Its reversals are specific procedures that produce particular psycho-physiological effects. In the Wǔdāng Xuán Wǔ Pài, an oral transmission attributed to Zhāng Sān Fēngoffers advice on adapting training to various climactic conditions:
- Waxing Moon – practicing sword enhances qì,
- Waning Moon – practicing slow, even open-hand movement develops force orlì (力),
- Windy Night – hike and climb uphill to train the endurance of the lungs,
- Rainy Night – read Daoist texts and contemplate them,
- Midnight – meditate to become aware of our ‘human qualities’, chief among
these, our mortality and our tendency to deny it.
While still quite general, the specification that training should take place at night reverses social norms and personal habits, setting the would-be student of martial arts on the path towards jīn dān.
The fundamental effect of any of these reversals is surprise: in theatre, surprise is used to control the attention of the audience. In fighting, surprise enables victory, or the transformation of disadvantage into dominance. In religion, surprise creates insight when we consider the meaning of the two experiences we prefer not to think about: death, and more critically, life.
Jīn dān is a yogic path, a series of …disciplined and systematic techniques for the training and control of the human mind-body complex, which are also understood as techniques for reshaping human consciousness towards some kind of higher goal (2008:2). The Tibetan Six Yogas of Naropa is one of the few pre-19th century traditions of yoga known today, and it follows a comparable series of reversals. The practice begins with intense physical training, called trulkhor, that includes extensive martial and theatrical movement (Phillips & Mroz, 2016: 148). The heat, weight and vibration experienced in trulkhor is turned within using visualization and breath retention to produce heat in the body, called tummo. The resulting expansiveness is used to project the imagination out of the body, into a variety of spaces. The adept visualizes and projects multiple bodies for themselves. They project themselves into the liminal space between life and death, and subjectively experience of the ejection of their consciousness into pure space (Baker, 2019).
What I am calling the Yoga of Space is the ability to project the imagination into the negative space around the body, and to intentionally manipulate that empty space as though it was a positive object. In the context of combative training, theatrical performance or religious enaction, the martiality of tàolù actualizes this unusual and powerful experience.
Thank you very much.
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湯, 汝昆. 意拳淺譯. Publication information unavailable.
 I practiced Choy Li Fut Kuen intensively from 1993-2005. It accounts for at least 10,000 of the 20,000 or more hours of instruction I’ve received in Chinese martial arts. I’ve written in detail about this transmission and about my teacher, Sui Meing Wong, in my book, The Dancing Word (Mroz, 2011: 66-68 & passim). Sui Meing Wong is heir to Leung Kai, himself a student of Fong Yok Su, who studied with the founder’s son, Chang Koon Pak.
 The Choy Li Fut video was created by the Plum Blossom International Federation and uploaded to the YouTube social media service, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5tXl6xv8Sks. It was retrieved on June 24, 2020 at 17:22 EST. The Jīngjù video comes from VCDs I acquired in Beijing, from a street vendor in front of the National Academy of Chinese Theatre Arts, in the spring of 2013.
 If one insists, as contemporary exponents of the Chinese martial arts often do, that these presentations are somehow peripheral to ‘real training’ and not concerned with ‘real fighting’ (see for example, Hsu 2019: 130) then one has no choice but to consider this historical footage that demonstrates the actual state of ‘real fighting’ amongst ‘masters’ of the Chinese martial arts in the early 20thcentury: https://vimeo.com/430393295/b9c93375f1
 I owe this clear example to my friend and collaborator, Scott Park Phillips.
 For example, see Childs, 2020:84.
 Tāng was the principal Yi Quan teacher of Ken Cohen, who is in turn my teacher. He also gave Ken a copy of his book entitled Yì Quán Qiǎn Yì (意拳淺譯).
 I studied this approach privately with Ismet Himmet in Berlin, in the fall of 2018, for 30 hours. Ismet learned from Yóu Xuán Dé (游玄德), the head of the Wǔdāng Xuánwǔ Pài in China. My recent studies with Ismet supplemented my earlier work with Chinese sword-play teachers Jason Tsou, Chang Wu Na & Mei Hui Lu, and regular fencing practice with my mentor Michael Babin.
 While the nodes of the bāguà are more culturally distant than such obvious directional metaphors as the numbers on a clock-face, this exercise combined well with a pre-existing practice: In 1998, the fifth year of my training, I began automatically project a grid onto the floor of any space I work in, divided along the diagonal and cardinal lines and further subdivided into small triangular sections. On a recent visit with my friend, mentor and experienced combat sportsman Jack Rusher, I mentioned my unusual tiling habit. He mused dryly, “Not everyone does that?”
 Having practiced these methods almost daily since the fall of 2018, I have noticed a marked improvement in my ability to manipulate the jiàn in solo tàolù, in practicing cuts and thrusts on a swinging, suspended brass pendulum and in free swordplay using limited targets and light protective equipment. Heavier gauntlets seriously inhibit kinetic projection and I do not yet notice much improvement in ‘all in’ swordplay from this particular practice. I don’t spend much more than 20 minutes a day doing these meditations and I am surprised at their effect given they are static and do not model swordplay movement or fighting in a direct manner at all.
 For a great introduction to both jīn dān and the Xiyangji, the play in which these comic sketches of Zhang San Feng first appear, see Phillips 2019: 42-48.
 I received these instructions from Ismet Himmet in October, 2018 in Berlin.
 I owe this insight to my teacher Ken Cohen. I was asking him about the varieties of techniques in Chinese martial arts, and was already expecting an answer framed in terms of punches, kicks, locks and throws. His insightful reply was, “Surprise is the only technique. Everything else is just a method to engineer surprise.”
 Vajrayana Buddhism has historically tended to claim Indian sources to discourage Chinese territorial claims. Culturally however, the Tibetan Yoga was strongly influenced by Chinese Chan Buddhist and Daoist physical cultures developed on Mt. Wutai in Shanxi province (Baker, 2012: 222). Further, the subtle body system of energetic centres and channels or chakras and nadis now considered characteristic of yoga also appears to have entered the Indian tradition from China in the 8th century (Samuel, 2008: 278-282).
 This order of internalization followed by spatialization is also found in the two formal Daoist jīn dān practices I have learned, as well as in the principal qìgōng (气功) system I practice. In the Dàojiào Qī Pán Dà Zuò (道教七盘大坐) of the Wǔdāng Xuánwǔ Pài, one passes through seven levels of consciousness and their representative bodies. In the Huāshān (花山) tradition one moves from dynamic movement, sound and breath holding called Qì Fā Gōng (气發功) to the circulation of qì in the Xiǎo Zhōu Tiān (小周天) or small circuit of the heavens meditation; to a the raising and lowering of qì in the Jīn Guān (金光) or golden light meditation; to the concentration of qì in the Jīn Zhū (金珠) or golden pearl meditation. All of this results in the creation of the Yǐng Xíng (影形), the projected self. Finally, in a reversal worthy of jīn dān, the Zhìnéng Qìgōng (智能气功) begins with a visualization where the body expands to the ‘top and bottom of the universe,’ starting, rather than closing with spatial projection.
Video Artist: Richard Cousins
Research Assistant: Rex Li
Readers, Teachers and Friends: Laura Astwood, Art Babayans, Michael Babin, Ian Baker, Chang Wu Na & Mei Hui Lu, Chen Zhonghua, Ken Cohen, Guy Cools, Chad Eisner, John Evans, D.S. Farrer, Richard Fowler, Adam Frank, Victor Garaway, Ismet Himmet, Damon Honeycutt, Ben Judkins, Ma Yue, Sam Masich, Scott Park Phillips, Jo Riley, Geoffrey Samuel, Mike Sutherland, Marc Tellez, Jason Tsou & Sui Meing Wong
About the Author
Originally from Montréal, in Canada, Daniel Mroz creates and directs original contemporary theatre. He is the director of the BFA in Acting and the MFA in Directing programs in the Theatre Department of the University of Ottawa, where he teaches stage acting and directing in both English and French. The Dancing Word his book on how to use the Chinese martial arts in the creation of contemporary theatre is published by Brills (2011).
Daniel has been studying Chinese martial arts and physical culture seriously since 1993. He began with Cailifoquan and Wu Taijiquan and branched out into Zhi Neng Qigong. He currently practices Chen Taijiquan under Chen Zhonghua and holds in instructor’s diploma as a Qigong teacher under Ken Cohen. In recent years Daniel has become very interested in swordplay using the traditiona Chinese Jian. He’s also part of a group of scholars from around the world who founded an academic research area called Martial Arts Studies.
August 14, 2020 at 1:46 am
Hah thx for sharings.
Yes I need to understand Chinese from different perspectives, food, festival, culture etc. I heard the Chinese tradition martial art is good, but in fact, only little things remained now. I planned to go China this year, but suspended by the coronavirus, thus learn Chinese at home everyday.
Finally I took the live online lesson to learn it by tuition of native-Chinese teachers (eChineseLearning). https://bit.ly/2DHtsZH
As a result, it is good. What do you think about this method of learning?