Book review – Possible Origins: A Cultural History of Chinese Martial Arts, Theater and Religion

I just finished Scott Park Phillips book Possible Origins which is about Scott’s research into the cultural origins of Chinese martial arts. I got my first sniff of the book when he publicised a lecture titled something like ‘Baguazhang, and it’s origins as the footsteps of an angry baby god.’

You can probably imagine if you read my articles that gods of whatever mood or age  have no place in my conception of Baguazhang.figure-14-talisman-composite

Before I tell you what I think of the book, I’ll offer some more context, even a little personal history.

Though I’ve never met Scott some years ago one of my ex students Joanna engaged in many online battles with him. Joanna’s Internal arts website had was guaranteed ‘100% qi free’ and she objected to Scott’s description of internal arts as shamanic (at least this is how I remember it. Generally I don’t do the forum stuff, so I’m not completely clear).

On the other hand I’m on a few FB groups, some in common with Scott. In some of these groups he has posted some things that I found quite irritating, and downright condescending.

Scott’s book Possible Origins talks about the links between Chinese martial arts, Chinese Opera, religion, spirit possession and some basically seriously weird shit.

So do you think I liked it?…..


(and if you came here from Amazon, you already know… but there’s more suspense for the few who care about my opinion and reasoning)


Actually, yes!

What made the difference was this video

And while I can see that the clowniness in the video will not go down well with some viewers, not to mention the subject matter, I enjoyed the presentation and humour (so many martial artists take themselves so seriously). Also there was enough correlation between the movements and the explanations to intrigue me.

Let’s get this straight when people jump to conclusions based on a minimal data points I get dubious fast. For example I met a man who claimed that because wrestling is depicted in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs that all martial arts have their origin in Africa. Sigh.

What Scott posits in the book is not 100% certain and he even frames the book as possible rather than probable origins, but it is reasoned and not just fantasy, and the reasons match with many aspects of my experience.

taoist-black-command-flagIn the book Scott covers his own Chinese martial arts experience and explains the further research he has done into Daoism, dance, performing arts. He follows this with chapters on the relation between theatre/opera, religion and fighting arts. Then through the book he goes deeper into individual subjects like ritual, self cultivation, enlightenment and exorcism. Scott also explains how the links between these subjects have been erased over time due to various cultural forces.

It is in moving off the beaten path of ‘martial arts are for kicking ass’ and not for self cultivation, exorcising demons or performing on stage that he is likely to stir up some controversy. However he gives reasons at each step of the way and these chime with my experience – or are in subjects where I must admit zero experience. I’ll need to check with people who know better than me.

In the meantime a metaphor.  Imagine a person from a culture that has no written language. This person sees you reading a book, looks at the letters and thinks that you must be insane to stare at those squiggles so intently.  When you explain that you are learning from the book, and you are not insane it gets easy to leap to the conclusion that the book is magic.  

Classical dance and opera styles are like this. They contain vocabularies that may not be recognisable to you or I but speak volumes to the people who have learned to read them. In the same way that people meeting single palm change for the first time usually see a dance move, and have no idea of the richness of strikes, throws and sweeps that it implies.

We are so used to the bio-mechanization of the body – the reduction of movement to forces and levers that it is hard for us to think in other terms and more importantly to imagine that in the past such a way of thinking was very alien. A certain kind of mentality will find it easy to say ‘I know how to hit, but this Opera language – I can’t see it. It must be bullshit’. It might be bullshit, but unless you actually look into Opera you will not know. 

I’ve traveled enough in cultures which are sufficiently different to know that the way I think is not universal,  whether stepping over offerings to spirits on the busy streets of Bali or watching ritual dances in Tibet. The China that Scott paints with life that revolves around temples, balancing spirit and unseen forces with rituals, with theatre meshes well with these experiences as well as the local temples and festivals that I witnessed when I lived in Taiwan.

While Scott goes into some details on Chinese alchemy, exorcism and possession (and if you’re imagining the Hollywood Christian versions you will be way off)  he at no points asserts that the possessing spirits are literally real, or whether Daoist talismans really work. He simply offers the explanations given for certain phenomenon within Chinese culture.

However the overwhelming chaos and messiness of this kind of old Chinese culture is likely to be very unfamiliar and possibly unbelievable to people who have not tasted it. During the last century many martial arts were ‘purified’ in an attempt to modernise and divorce physical skills from superstitions.  This is especially true in mainland wushu which could be described as sterilised as much as purified.

However the association of Chinese martial arts with such things as lion dances, talismans and spirits continues outside of the mainland and gives a glimpse of the world Scott describes.  Take a look at this video for an example – it’s set to start when the 92 year old Ip Shui comes on and does things that have nothing to do with body mechanics and have explanations which match with Scott’s book.

Scott does not suggest that possessed martial artists had supernatural powers, he frequently cites the boxer rebellion which was a turning point for China and a major loss of face for Chinese martial arts when the boxers were not bullet proof despite the rituals they had performed.

Rather Scott suggests that the value of theatre and performance in martial arts is related to the capacity to suspend a ‘normal’ social identity and act spontaneously outside of manners or taboos and also the ability to be deceptive. Theatre is all about creating illusions on stage, on leading perceptions and I increasingly understand this as to be a very useful martial skill. I refer you to Maija’s book to go deeper into this area.

The capacity to suspend social norms may not seem very useful, especially if you have identified yourself as some kind of ‘expert martial artist’. However I’ve spent enough time teaching people ‘self defense’ to have seen how many shrink from striking, or scratching or biting because it does not match with their sense of being ‘a good and nice person.’ Also prior to the need for violence the capacity to act different roles can be used to defuse and de-escalate tense situations, or avoid tension altogether.

Scott links acting and theatre links to ‘enlightenment’. Enlightenment is another can of worms that he defines simply as a ‘stable experience of emptiness’, or the appreciation that the social identity and perception of the world is a construct. This matches with what modern neuroscientists are discovering about brain function.

Basically for all the weirdness of the subject matter Scott does a very good job of keeping it real. He shows links between the seemingly exotic or irrelevant subjects he talks about and their down to earth use.

A couple of quibbles. First there are a few typos spread through the book,  which is probably hypocritical for me to complain about (and I didn’t note them down to pass on).  Second Scott claims that Daoyin predates martial arts.  I’m not sure how anyone could know this, but it also depends on how you define the two.  I tend to think of the origin of martial arts as the first time a hominid communicated to another hominid ‘if you need to mess someone up do this’.  I suppose in the same vein the first Daoyin could be ‘when I rub here and slap there it feels cool in a strange way’. Still I don’t see how one is a prerequisite for the other.

As a read the book is an interesting tour through Chinese culture and history, it balances reference and reason with enthusiasm and is not a new age soup.  Practically it offers ideas that can expand the range of Chinese martial arts practice, and clarify certain peculiarities found within and across arts.  It has certainly given me some interesting ideas to play with, and I enjoyed reading it. I’ll say the book has enriched my view of Chinese martial arts, shed some light into some dark corners, and also allows me to added some layers to the way I will watch Anime in future.

I have left a lot out in this review, in many ways I may be misrepresenting the book.  If Scott reads this and it irritates him,  well I’m probably channeling Joanna who passed away a few years ago. I actually think that she would have liked Possible Origins too.

You can find the book on Amazon here and Scott’s site here.