- Dated: early 20th Century
- Culture: Chinese
- Measurements: length 90.5 cm
Source: Copyright © 2014 Czerny’s International Auction House S.R.L.
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“For sheer contentiousness, the Zhang Sanfeng case can only be compared to the issue of racism, abortion and homosexuality in American culture. At the dawn of the 21st century, the pendulum has once again swung towards the myth-makers. Western practitioners of taijiquan, with their monotheistic, atheistic, or “only-begotten son” backgrounds are apt to view Zhang Sanfeng as simply a historical figure with some innocent Daoist embellishments. They are not likely to understand China’s culture wars, polytheism, or embodied immortality.”Posted by benjudkins ⋅
Douglas Wile (2007) p. 32
“We know that polls are just a collection of statistics that reflect what people are thinking in “reality.” And reality has a well-known liberal bias.”
Steven Colbert (2006)
“The question of Taijiquan’s origins-and specifically whether they are Daoist or not- is no mere academic exercise but a major theater in China’s culture wars for nearly a century…The continued outpouring of fictional accounts of Taiji history in the 21st century may appear to be transparently political or commercial, but sometimes it can only be explained as the persistence of a cultural practice that refuses to conform to modern notions of “fact” and the search for a Chinese style of spirituality that retains faith in psychosomatic self-perfection and the possibility of embodied immortality.” (Wile p. 9-11).When did Taiji, a form of boxing that apparently originated in Chen Village, first manifest a close relationship with Daoism, and how did the Chinese state decide that it had a vested interest in the outcome of debates on its origins?
“What did “Daoism” mean to turn of the century martial arts ideologues? In the late 19th century, reformer Tang Sitong strove mightily to harmonize Confucianism, Buddhism and Christianity, but banished Daoism as encouraging passivity, Legalism as too repressive, and Neo-Confucianism as too puritanical. The seminal works on taijiquan written during the 1920s and 30s obviously had a different understanding of “Daoism.” For them, the philosophy of hardness within softness, as for Huang Zhongxi, was consonant with the non-confrontational political policy of appeasement pursued by both the late Qing Manchu regime and early Republican KMT (Kuomingtang, 1912-1924).” (Wile pp. 19-21)In short, when thinking about the various texts that attempted to construct an relationship between Daoist theory and Taiji, we must also remember that Daoism itself was a moving target in the volatile years of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Only when it was reimagined as something unique, capable of carrying Chinese identity in a way that Confucianism (and Buddhism) no longer could, did it become critical to both Nationalists and martial arts reformers. Wile goes on to argue:
“Following the correlative logic of the Daoism-yijing-Taijiquan triangle, it becomes increasingly clear that during Taiji’s maturation period in the 19th and early 20th century, to say that something was Daoist was simply to say that it was Chinese. Calling it Confucian or Buddhist during the late Qing would not do, as the Manchu rulers had successfully co-opted both. Ironically, it is during times of national emergency that the Confucian themes of service to the state seems to have no rallying power and heterodox faiths promising supernatural power and a vision of the sublime come to the fore. Like these millenarian communities and secret societies, the martial arts movement of the turn of the century was not simply escapist but provided a channel for repressed nationalism, religiosity, and masculinity. The promotion of Daoism in China, wedded to the knight-errant tradition, parallels the resurrection of the samurai spirit for Japan’s modern army, whose officers carried swords as symbols of the Japanese soul….”Already by the end of the 19th century there seems to have been a political dimension to the perception of Daoism’s role in the martial arts. This would become more pronounced as the Republic era progressed. In time it would become the single most important defining factor in the great Taiji debate.
“Although 19th century reformers had pointed out that archery and charioteering were part of the classical Confucian curriculum, they could only sell the martial as an expedient for national salvation and could not turn it into something transcendent. If progressive 19th century reformers rejected Daoism as representing passivity and superstition, a subset of conservative intellectuals intuited that only Daoism could transform the martial arts into a dao.” (Wile p. 21)
“The same Nationalist government that was prepared to consign Chinese medicine to the dustbin of history and allow Western medicine to win the day tacitly cooperated in the construction of a mythos for taijiquan and created the infrastructure for its dissemination. By the early decades of the 20th century taiji had its progenitor, its philosophy, its genealogy, a proliferation of styles, a stable of living masters, and an institutional base in the national and regional martial arts academies. As long as writers accepted Daoism as the state religion of taijiquan and Zhang Sanfeng as its chief god, they were free to expand the pantheon or embellish its lore and legends. During the early decades of the Republic (1911-1949) on the mainland, the strongest voices in opposition to this invented tradition came not from hard or other internal stylists, but from leftist taiji enthusiasts who resented the art’s abduction by conservative ideologues. Thus with a vision to demystify taijiquan and return it to the people, Tang Hao visited Chen Village in the early 1930s, followed by fieldwork in the Wudang Mountains to locate the descendants of Zhang Sangfeng and in Ningbo to find traces of the Internal School….”It does not appear to me that Tang Hao’s leftist ideology warped the broad outlines of his historical conclusions. In truth the Chinese martial arts have always been an aspect of popular culture, and thus associated with “the masses.” Their appropriation by elites using invented traditions to shape them for their own nationalist projects was a rather late development.
“During the Mao era (1949-1976), idealistic accounts of human achievement were overturned as feudal dregs, a conspiracy to deprive the people of credit for producing knowledge with their own hands and through trial and error. For Tang Hao, then, the prime mover is the masses. Qi Jiguang is a flesh and blood historical figure, and his form and synthesis of the best features of sixteen popular styles he collected among the people. The Chen family is a flesh and blood grass roots family, and their family form is based on Qi’s Boxing Classic. There is no need to kidnap a Daoist immortal and turn him into a martial artist and patriot. Qi’s credentials are impeccable: a patriotic general, a military reformer, a student, synthesizer, and standardizer of popular martial arts styles, and the most influential military mind since Sunzi. The changes—softening of the form and addition of theory—in the transmission from Qi to Chen to Yang can all be explained as evolution.” (Wile pp. 26-27)
“The only expressed opposition to Mainland officialism during the 1950s through the 1970s came from cultural conservatives in Taiwan, Hong Kong and the overseas Chinese community. The formula of most early 20th century taiji ideologues was patriotism, popularization, science, and mystification. The Communists eliminated only the mystification, using modern scholarship and science to explain taiji’s history, theory, and practice. Myth deprived the people of their proud history, and lineage monopolized the knowledge that could benefit the whole nation. The psychosomatic state of relaxation in action induced by taiji practice is not described in terms of spiritual attainment but medicine and psychology. Conservative exponents of taiji believed that taiji’s principles were consistent with western science, but western science was too crude to explain all of taijiquan.
For this, a knowledge of traditional medicine and meditation was necessary. In effect, this amounted to the essentialist position that you had to be Chinese to grasp the secrets of taijiquan. If science and history could explain all of taijiquan, then anyone could master it, and it could no longer function as an ultimate refuge for Chinese identity. The thrust of arguments by cultural conservatives was that Chen Village was too marginal and the Chen family too undistinguished to create something as sublime as Taijiquan—it could only have been created by an immortal….Nevertheless, in communist and conservative we see two different paths to national salvation: give the people faith in divine assistance or give them confidence in their own two hands.” (Wile p. 28)
“The pace of retiring errors in received wisdom is proceeding at a far slower rate than new fantasies are being churned out. In a strange convergence of Western orientalism and Chinese self-orientalization, many practitioners East and West, would rather believe that they are participating in a practice with divine origins than a “synthesis” analyzed by intellectual historians; they would rather be part of something more romantic than mere human history, and so the voices of rationality grow smaller and smaller in a marketplace where fantasy is the ultimate product. Taiji religionist Li Zhaosheng’s assertion that taijiquan cannot sustain itself without Daoist trappings and the promise of immortality takes the experience of the art out of the practitioners sensorium and locates it in the realm of religion.” (Wile p. 27)Throughout the last half of his article, Wile repeatedly returns to the question of manufactured spirituality within the modern Taiji movement. He does not appear to doubt the convictions of those who he refers to as “neo-Zhang Sanfeng cultists.” He even goes so far as to argue that Taiji practice is in some ways ideally suited to provide students with an understanding of Daoist ideas and ritual practices. While it is clearly not “Daoist” (in a strictly constructed sense) in its genetic origins, he does conclude that Daoist thought offers a good toolbox for interpreting modern Taijiquan practice.
“It is difficult to know at this stage whether these efforts to pull taijiquan back into then shadows is a sincere religious impulse or simply a cynical brandsmanship in a market that has reverted to family or Daoist lineage as a test of legitimacy rather than physical education diplomas or tournament trophies. Today, anticommunist progressives are still looking West, while anticommunist conservatives are still looking to Daoism. The government seems sensitive to progressive criticism but tolerant of reactionary, as long as it refrains from politics.” (Wile p. 35)
“In the end, all of this [modern Chinese pseudo-scholarship] can teach us nothing about the true origins of taijiquan, but a great deal about the contemporary intellectual milieu in China….Since it is difficult to use capitalist discourse to undermine a “communist” regime that is privatizing everything in sight, and democracy is not perceived as a sure cure for poverty and corruption, it seems that only a religious movement can rally sufficient passion an numbers to challenge the regime. The Taipings and Boxers are good examples from not so distant history, and the Zhang Sanfeng cult shows that Falun Dafa (lit. “Great Law of the Wheel of Law”; also, Falun Gong) is not an isolated case. Paralleling the emergence of ethnic and provincial localism, defining “Chineseness” is no longer exclusively a monopoly of the state, but can be contested by special interests.Wile introduces these ideas near the conclusion of his paper and he does not have sufficient space to fully develop them. This is a great disappointment. Given the depth of the literature on marginality and its connection to the Chinese martial arts I am hesitant to simply discard its findings. Still, Wile suggests exciting avenues for future research.
Daoism wedded to taijiquan is once again resurrected as a carrier of Chineseness in an era of global economic integration. Instead of seeing this subculture as appealing to those who are left behind in the race to the modern, it may be that spiritual aspirations based on the work ethic of earned immortality through strenuous effort, and conferring a profound and secure sense of Chinese identity, may comport with the new entrepreneurial spirit in China in the same way that the Protestant ethic supported the rise of capitalism in the West. Certainly, for the subculture of Zhang Sanfeng cultists, the reconstruction era image of the proletarian “iron man” has given way to the myth of the Daoist immortal/warrior. Daoist chauvinism should never be underestimated, and we need only remind ourselves that some Daoist apologists have claimed that Buddhism sprang from seeds planted by Laozi when he rode westward on his ox.” (Wells p.37)