War and Play

Cosplay and Kung-fu

This post is a reply to Jesse Conley’s article  Make war the Roman way  about some patterns he sees in self defense teaching that get on his nerves. Essentially I agree with him, I'd like to take a parallel path to some of his points then rejoin him at a similar destination.

To summarise Jesse’s article he states that what is often taught as self defense is ineffectual, unlikely and time consuming. Ineffectual because the techniques are too complex, unlikely because they are responses to assaults that are rare or non-existent and time consuming because of the excessive complexity.

What he proposes is that genuine Chinese martial arts and the famous teachers of previous generations were pugnacious, often stood their ground, that they were simple and vicious when they fought.

So far so good. I'm with Jesse so far. Many people have overly romantic views of Chinese martial arts masters. People have prototype mental images of what certain categories are. For many the prototype image of martial arts is a white training gi and  black belt. The Chinese master has the prototype image of Yoda but with smaller ears. Self defense techniques, I suspect their prototype images are the techniques Jesse rails against (two handed wrist grabs and strangles).

What this means is that students seek out a Yoda look alike above people who look like Jesse*, and if they go to a self defense class will feel ripped off if they do not learn defense against two handed strangles. Such students are a bit like visitors to Beijing who are shocked that not every restaurant serves sweet and sour pork.

Anyway Jesse rightly focuses on his desire to educate people - Chinese martial arts historically had little to do with silk pajamas, fortune cookie wisdom and wispy beards.

Now for the parallel path. Let's step away from the ruthless bone breaking masters for a moment. While this may be true of the teachers who became famous taking on challengers or running security services they were not all the practitioners. There is a big aspect to Chinese martial arts that is social.

To look deeper into the social side part of the value of kung-fu and martial practice is play - which tends to get lost in the serious Chinese Daoist heritage, or matter of life and death approaches to martial arts.

It’s easy to trivialise play, but play is vital to all mammals (and it seems it is also part of fish, reptile, bird and mollusk learning too. Yes, mollusks - octopus play). So when you want to dismiss play remember that play is how lions learn to kill.

There is another aspect to play alongside functional learning that I think is important in martial arts and easy to overlook. Play is how young animals (people included) learn to use force, receive force and is an important part of socialisation.

Kids who engage in a lot of rough and tumble play tend to grow into good training partners. Adults without that kind of background will not be as nuanced in their use of force - they are more likely to panic when force is applied to them, and have less idea of what effect their force has on others.

With smaller families, more health and safety and a social climate in which rough play is frowned upon more and more young humans do not have the benefit of this basic part of their education.

This means that when they are in a physical situation they are less likely to know how to deal with unwanted contact, their emotional response will be greater and their response will be less measured. As such it might be reasonable to suggest “All out self defense when things get physical” (and here is no way to leave), not because it is the best option, but because it might be the best available option given the available capacities.

However the formal if slightly pointless techniques that Jesse has railed against in his article might also be seen as a kind of play. I agree with him that that there are better educational games though. Games that build the overall physicality of a person the ability to use the strength available to them intelligently, that build strength, mental resilience and overall adaptability.

Now for something that may be less easy to accept from the perspective of a 'hardcore' practitioner. In some ways  Chinese martial arts offer a different kind of play for a lot of people. I think I’ve posted this story before. It's about Chinese young people seeing traditional martial artists as engaged in 'Cosplay for old people' (same story different site).

For many Westerners kung-fu is a kind of dress up fantasy play. I must say that this has never appealed to me. In some ways it winds me up. But when I see it as play I find it more amusing than infuriating and I am beginning to see how it can be valuable.

This kind of role-play can serve people as a way out rigid social roles. Perhaps better to dress up for a few hours each week and play wuxia knight, Daoist mystic swordsman or Mulan and begin to explore alternatives in body use, belief and behaviour to an enforced or rigid role/identity of bullied boy/girl, or macho hard guy. In time the dress up may no longer be necessary. Well I hope so.

If there is a take away for people who browse for Daoist robes on Amazon and for teachers with starry eyed students it is that identities shift with time, and that play is one way to explore possibilities and it can be guided in healthy directions given a happy balance of clarity, humour and care.

Where I think Jesse and I will definitely agree is when the fantasy side gets confused with the applied side it's a mess. It’s fun and educational to play various kinds of martial arts tag. But it’s not a good idea to think that the tag, or elaborate joint lock flows will have the same effect when attempted on someone who wants to hurt them.

As I said earlier ruthlessness is likely to serve better in the moment than sophistication or even skill.

While I'll finish in a similar place to Jesse I want to suggest that the more potentially dangerous your all out response may be the more important it is to learn nuances in the use of force and when it the use of force is appropriate. There is a tendency to glamorize the capacity to damage righteously in self defense circles which dismisses questions of legality or ethics. Righteous damage is still damage and the price of it is borne by communities as well as individuals. 

Use your training to go from 0 to 100+ very quickly, and also learn the gradations in between.

This is where studying how people use violence outside of the martial arts context is important. It’s a big and not very pretty subject in which no one has a monopoly of knowledge. Researching the different motivations for and methods of violence is important. A bar fight is not date rape, date rape is not mugging, mugging is not breaking and entering, even if there are often overlaps. They all have different warning signs, different ways to escape to de-escalate, and different possibilities in the use of force.

This kind of research is not common in Chinese martial arts, and is sadly often lacking in much self defense training.

So research the darkness, learn from it but don't live there if you don't have to. Use the contrast to appreciate the light and invite others to join you there to play.

*Jesse is built quite like his great grand teacher and martial artist of repute Wu Mengxia