DEADLY BUTTOCK BLOWS & THATCHERISM
Back in the hazy, unruly days of the 1980’s when the Eastern arts had finally settled in the west, teachers felt obliged to copy the sage-like expressions and postures seen in early Kung-fu flicks. They raised eyebrows, sneered or even snarled were anyone to ask the point of wearing a tunic from 17th century China, or why building callouses on the knuckles was more important than keeping them arthritic-free. Why, for instance, students should train themselves to absorb a front kick to the solar plexus, or head-butt an assailant in the buttocks when, perhaps, other life-skills were being called for in the era of Thatcher and Reagonomics? When pushed on the subject for an answer, they merely returned an aloof gaze and warned of the dangers of revealing “truths” to early to those not ready.
Yet Western students were in the habit of receiving less cryptic answers. Even when considering a school, they felt confused as each claimed to offer an exclusive truth and authenticity; an indisputable lineage and an unbeatable system of defence. Was it possible that every school and every system could all be equally true?
GEOMETRY & TAI CHI
Before the onset of self-publishing, Tai Chi books followed a standard pattern: A chapter on family histories and lineage, some old photos of wispy beards, a few vague health claims, even vaguer martial applications and an endless list of sketches of men with numbers below them:
“16d: Now let us move on to the posture called Extract the Stale Loaf from the Bison’s Bladder: Begin by raising your right elbow and place it against your left ear-lobe. Breathe out twice whilst spinning 360 degrees to land with 29% of your weight on your right big toe.
16f: Look North, to North-East, but don’t turn your neck whilst both hands remain in your pockets. Recite thrice “I am plucking the monkey’s knee from the moon”. “
BEAN CURD & TAI CHI
This emphasis on teaching by geometry was part of a general movement in the martial arts to find meaning through definition. The more a subject could be analytically deconstructed, the more it was hailed as a "scientific" fighting art. And so, definitions were lusted after as enthusiastically and as importantly as someone may lust over a shiny new mobile phone or an influential and good-looking follower on Instagram. Styles and teachers adopted names, histories and coloured uniforms to help define themselves and it all got very silly. After having trained in the martial arts since I was knee-high to Lao-Tzu’s Yak, and having taught Tai Chi since the end of the 80’s, silliness was in my blood stream, but I fought against its desire to engage in comparisons and in the categorisation of the arts, particularly when new students would arrive at class:
Classical Student: “ Excuse me, I want to to learn a style of Tai Chi".
Me: Uh huh.
Classical Student: "Yes, a style that is Classically-Authentic, Real and Genuine, Traditional-yet Modern, Uniformed and vertically structured. What style do you teach SIfu-Master-Guru-Sensei?”
Me: First up, the name is Paul. Second, although I have learnt different styles over the years, If I have to come down on one or the other, I woud say I’m drawn to the softness and and non-knee dislocating stances of the Cheng Man-Ching style.
Classical Student:“But, that's not real Tai Chi,(turns and spits on floor), that's a poor westerners version of the real thing taught by a Chinese immigrant to New Yorkers. That’s tantamount to... Bean Curd Boxing!
Although thrown out as an insult, it occurred to me that Bean Curd could be seen as the ultimate yielding material. In fact, a Bean Curd Boxer was the perfect description for someone who could absorb anything thrown at him/her.
A Bean Curd Boxer should fight with other weapons than just clenched fists, perhaps by Softening Their Glare, Banishing Frowns and Slowing Down when asked to speed up. Perhaps a Bean Curd Boxer would not toss shurikens (hidden circular blades tossed like Frisbees at approaching enemies) but instead toss smiles, and perhaps, when backed into a corner come out fighting with well-aimed tales of nonsense and contradiction.
After a while, people would cross the road when they saw me coming, but I wasn't deterred. I began to write down some some these ideas about how this art might resonate with a wider group of people (other than seekers of definitions). In 2009 I published those ideas as The Manual of Bean Curd Boxing.
THE BOOK RELEASE
So here we are, light years later and looking around, I’m not convinced things have changed so much. There are some good signs that schools have begun to define themselves by the place and time in which they live, but others still seek refuge by “dangling dangerously” from threads of lineage and secrecy, uniforms and uniformity.
Even as we slide blindly into this amorphous digital landscape, it is clear that our tools for imparting "knowledge" need updating as well as the mind-set of teachers. Perhaps now, the medium needs to move beyond the traditional formats of class locality, class leadership, and beyond the anachronistic definitions of “Masters” and Gurus. Perhaps now, new technologies can offer the study of Tai Chi - with all its colourful philosophy and inherently supple and flexible nature - in a more interactive, transparent, accountable and a less rigid, vertical structure.
Rising to the challenges of the age, last year after 25 years of teaching, I stopped teaching local classes, I began to move around and travel more and in the process explored the notion of teaching an online Tai Chi course based on the ideas from the book.
More on this later. Meanwhile, in a parallel universe Bean Curd Boxing formed a political movement, took over the United nations and declared a freeze on all activity thats wasn't worth doing (most of it).
To celebrate international Bean Curd Day - the teapotmonk released the audio version of the book and a sample of this has been sent out into outer space for all other species to benefit from.
Contrary to popular belief, the teapotmOnk (paul read) is neither a mOnk nor a teapOt. He is, however, a writer on Tai Chi, speaker, course-creator & teacher with more than 25 years of experience. He can be found wandering between Andalucia (Spain) & Devon (Uk). More here.
Contact him here or keep in touch, subscribe for some great Tai Chi stuff delivered to your inbox.