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NY Times says MMA Fighter Pummels T'ai Ch'i Master and I'm Like... meh

I don't think that's a real martial art, dude.

A recent NY Times article complete with video tells us that China recently lost its collective mind when a homegrown MMA fighter trashed a T'ai Ch'i master. You can see the article and video here:

The article irritated me because it seemed utterly ahistorical and willfully ignorant of modern political realities in China. If you have an interest in the history and practicality of martial arts, read on. Otherwise this rant might prove a little TL;DR. Here's what I mean... It has been a long time since traditional martial artists (TMA) in China trained for more than exercise or gymnastics display. In public at least, who can say what continues in private against Chinese law, hidden from government eyes. In 1951 all private martial arts schools were declared "feudal" and closed. Since then the history of the arts in mainland China is the history of increasing state control.1

It has also been a long time since the pre-modern training methods of TMAs — such as we know of them — were actually used. Or, for that matter, since anyone fought in a no-holds-barred, all-comers, sign-the-death-waiver-first match like the 5th National Kuo Shu Tournament in 1933, which if I recall correctly numbered among China's last.2

What we do know comes from practitioners who fled China in the 1950s for Taiwan, and again after the Shaolin Monasteries were purged during the Cultural Revolution, when monks fled to Canada, the U.S., and elsewhere.3 Some of those who fled Shaolin and came to the U.S. made the conscious decision to hide who they were, yet open their teachings. In short, they stopped advertising themselves as Shaolin, but also stopped keeping so many "secrets" for fear the next Cultural Revolution would erase their arts altogether. Better to share it wide, so no single blow could erase the history and teachings. Better to hide the teachers so no government could target them. Students would find teachers on their own, naturally, as water flows downhill. I'd argue that teachings from Kung Fu masters, spread to the West by diaspora, has founds its way into the MMA. There it was subjected to a fairly rigorous analysis and testing process. In the U.S. the MMA strikes me as one of the best unarmed combat simulators available to civilians.

I've an anecdote to support this. One of my first Sifus grew up a temple rat whom the CIA smuggled out of China in the 1960s to train agents in Wing Chun. Hand to heart. On the walls of his obscure little Chinatown basement in NY hung pictures of himself and Strom Thurmond. The story was Sifu used traditional Chinese medicine to help Strom keep his hair longer.

Sifu ended his days in obscurity, drunk on grain alcohol – complete with a dead snake in the jar, don't ask – and chain smoking away in his damp, mold-filled basement. His older students shared stories from before my time when everyone had to quit the school for the day because someone was coming who had to be trained in secret. Bruce Lee hunted Sifu down to learn his footwork. The guy was the real deal. Note: I'm avoiding his name so as not to appear to trade on his reputation. Please know that the above in no way represents a claim by me that I was a good student, or that I learned anything special. I neither confirm nor deny whether or not I can fight my way out of a wet paper bag. My point remains the nuance not captured by the NY Times article. In the video that T'ai Ch'i master doesn't look particularly old to me. I doubt he studied before the communist revolution. So unless he trained illegally – always possible, I don't know him – I doubt he learned an actual combat art. He learned mastered health exercises and state sanctioned performance gymnastics. Now don't get me wrong, I'm sure those gymnasts could outrun, outclimb, and probably outfight me. That's not the point. T'ai Ch'i was originally developed by martial artists who first spent a lifetime training to mastery in "hard" or "external" arts first. Theys guys and gals fought bandits on dirt roads for crying out loud! Kung Fu was the military training of the day, sometimes private and sometimes not. Sometimes sanctioned by the ruling dynasty, sometimes not.

Those pre-modern and early modern masters wanted to find ways to retain their physical power when their bodies started aging out from underneath them. Toss in the daoist quest for immortality (makes sense that would increasingly appeal to older people, no?) and the "internal" arts were born. Still I don't know many people these days who can say, "I trained to kill bandits in my youth and to wield a spear against Shiung Nu raiders with the Imperial Army. These days I try to use my waist more when bandit killing. I'm also trying to preserve my life energy with daoist potions and breathing meditation that draws on the underlying energy of the universe. I think if I preserve my life energy – and maybe train it – I can still crush throats, or take another iron spear ferule to my jaw. I'm spry at 70 despite my osteoporosis." Well, the last person who said that to me was drunk at a convention, so I'm disinclined to believe. For myself, I've come to competitive fighting late in life. I stick to sparring so far for fear of neck injuries. For any actual save-someone's-life-by-killing-an-asshole, I'd go gun or knife first. Especially given my knee and inability to run a five minute mile. However, if you take an old MMA fighter as broke down as me and put them against a TMA fighter trained before the communist revolution... it's still a bullshit comparison. It's the artist, not the art. So long as the art has _something_ of use for actual combat and isn't total bullshit. Like this hilarious video: One thing I've heard from talking to violence professionals (military, police, etc.) is that they've found, generally speaking, MMA fighters have a shorter learning curve than most when asked to develop real world combat reactions to street assaults, military ambush, etc. I suspect this is because MMA fighters, amateur and professional, have more experience with responding to threats in adrenalized scenarios than most of us get from modern TMA training. Now, if I only had a stable of condemned, underfed gladiators to train against it might be a different story. But I don't think my toolshed is large enough...


1 This seems a reasonable article, largely consonant with what I've read on the topic...

2 For more information, google Chang Tung Sheng and other competitors.

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