With his proclamation Cogito ergo sum, Descartes set the stage upon which most Western philosophers have played for the last four hundred years. Under his model, the human being is composed of two distinct entities: mind and body. Some thinkers agree, and others disagree, but few challenge the validity of the model itself, and its silent implication that nothing lies between.
Following George Orwell’s advice, I will begin by stating the obvious: East Asian martial arts training was never meant to be performed within this framework.
Although Descartes’ model allowed for each aspect to influence the other, he did not recognize the full breadth and depth of the mind-body relationship. So, like the atomic model of physics failed to explain observable and repeatable quantum phenomena, Descartes’ atomic metaphysics obscures the potential of high-level martial arts. When authentic traditional training is reformatted to fit into the duelistic model, the result is typically and predictably Bull-shido.
Theory and Application, and Nothing More
Two tragic outcomes result from the application of duelistic mind-body theory to martial training. First, the Complete Martial Art is defined as one containing both Theory and Application—and where Theory is given undue precedence.
(You cannot drive a picture of a car, or eat the idea of an apple; yet the purveyors of “principle-based” and “concept-based” martial arts believe that theory is an integral part of self-defense, and the most elaborate theories confer the greatest advantage. European styles of Wing Chun, with their abundance of clean angles, seem particularly affected by this scientism.)
The second, and more troubling result of the theory-application model: any training that doesn’t fit neatly into one of these two categories is implicitly or explicitly devalued.
Together, these affectations do not produce a superior martial stylist, much less a superior human being. Instead, you get Harry Potter and the Karate Kid, crane kicks and magic spells (albeit “scientific” ones). You get a system of invincible secret moves, or in other words: Bullshido.
Bullshido fairly describes most of the “traditional martial arts” marketed to the mainstream American public—but not, in my opinion, the authentic martial perspective and training practices. In fact, a vital element of the original training method falls squarely between theory and application.
The Tale of the Lucky Spider
Just as traditional Chinese medical doctors understood anatomy and physiology, but considered them unimportant (by Western standards), traditional Chinese martial artists were familiar with the Cartesian theory-application model. By and large, they were not impressed.
Fighters who supposedly knew, but could not practically apply their knowledge were ridiculed with the derogatory term Hua Quan Xiu Tui, which can be translated as “flowery punches and silky-soft kicks” or “worthless martial art”.
These wushu masters understood the missing link between theory and application. Let me introduce it with a story from my own training:
Late one evening last year, I was walking through my living room barefoot. All the lights were off. Halfway to the bedroom, I stepped on what seemed to be a crumpled ball of paper. This I found quite puzzling, as I do not normally scatter trash across the floor; so I turned on the lights, and to my great surprise found a large spider, escaping with all deliberate speed. I caught, and tossed him out the window.
It wasn’t theory or application that spared the spider’s life (not to mention an unpleasant carpet cleanup job). It was Taijiquan shenfa, or body cultivation. The instant my foot touched the spider’s legs, I lifted it—without pausing to look, or to cogitate.
Tiyong: The Missing Link
Body cultivation is not theory—although you could call it the embodiment of theory. Nor is it martial application, since it is unrelated to any presence, or the existence of an opponent—though it can certainly be applied when fighting an opponent. Thus, the theory-application model neglects this critical element of traditional martial training; shenfa doesn’t even appear on the map.
Modern American Bullshido is (among other things) the product of multiple cultural impedance mismatches, in which not only techniques, but also values were lost: expensive shenfa supplanted by cheap concepts, principles and disembodied (hypocritical) theories.
Sunzi, the ancient master of wartime strategy, said that expert fighters begin by making themselves invincible; then, every chosen battle is a foregone conclusion. This is the historical context under which East Asian martial arts were developed. It is not theory-and-application, but body-and-application, or tiyong. As explained by Charles Muller:
When classical East Asian thought is juxtaposed with [other] major thought-systems, among the most pervasive structures of philosophical thought that we can observe on the East Asian side…are the two mutually inseparable archetypes of tiyong and interpenetration…I believe that these two are vitally important for identifying a special East Asian philosophical worldview.
It is important that we identify some of the basic misconceptions that are generally associated with tiyong and interpenetration by Western interpreters…By far the most commonly seen mis-presentation of tiyong in works on East Asian thought is its characterization as a type of “polarity,” or “dichotomy,” both terms that denote separation, disjunction, opposition, or contradiction. While the primary purpose of the use of tiyong is in making distinctions, such distinctions are always made within the framework of an overall unity, and are not oppositional or disjunctive in character. The terms “polarity” and “dichotomy” do not accurately describe the relationship between the roots, or trunk of a tree, and its branches. Nor are they applicable for describing the relation between a living body and its activities, or the relationship between the basic potentialities of the human mind and its emotional and intellectual manifestations.
When the terms ti and yong are used outside of a holistic locus, then the distinction being made is no longer one of ti and yong, and the discussion is removed from the realm of interpenetrated tiyong, into the realms of duality or monism. Another way of putting this is to say that the ti and yong aspects of anything must by definition, be mutually contained, or “interpenetrated.”
A cultivation-and-application model relegates theory to its proper place in traditional martial arts training—everywhere, and nowhere.