THOUGHT PROVOKING…. ESSENTIAL READ! Jonathan Bluestein’s ‘RESEARCH INTO MARTIAL ARTS’ is a hugely valuable addition to the modern day musings on the relevance and practice of traditional martial arts.
I have to admit that I am a bit of a nerd when when it comes to Chinese martial arts. I suppose it’s a result of years spent with teachers whose teaching techniques require an hefty dose of blind faith, a belief that persistence will produce the results promised. I’m consistently amazed at how little personal research my fellow students have done as from day one I’ve sought out books and videos that contextualise and illuminate the art I’d chosen to learn. Back in the day, that meant a trip to Compendium books in Camden Town or seeking out material via the small ads in Kung Fu magazine. However, the last decade has resulted in a flood of visual and written material from China, and if you’re like me, keen to dig in, do the research and the cross referencing, you will inevitably end up asking, “Why has my teacher not explained this… it seems pretty fundamental…”. Or, “So, that’s what I’ve been practicing…”. That said, the amount of info available now is potentially overwhelming.
So, when one discovers a book that seems to encapsulate many of the questions and conclusions that have arisen on one’s own journey I was pretty excited. At last, we have a book where a seriously devoted but essentially young practitioner, Jonathan Bluestein, deals with essential concepts and the practice of martial arts in the spirit of openness and exchange. It’s a work-book a that relates his own journey to an ongoing set of debates and discussions which, in the end, are rooted in daily physical practice and skill – gong fu. It’s also a text that thankfully sets itself against the frustrating secrecy and mysticism that all to often shrouds the Nei Jia / Internal schools of Chinese martial arts.
I first came across Sifu Jonathan Bluestein on the lively martial arts discussion forum, Rum Soaked Fist (http://rumsoakedfist.org/), which is focused on the Chinese martial arts of taijiquan, baguazhang and xing yi quan – the three main disciplines of what is known collectively as the Internal Martial Arts. The forum allows practitioners from all over the world to voice their opinions on a whole range of seemingly esoteric practices but the one issue that unites many of its contributors is whether these traditional Chinese fighting arts are actually effective in a post Jeet Kun Do (think Bruce Lee) and MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) world.
Jonathan hails from Israel and is the founder of the Tianjin Martial Arts Academy where he teaches Xing Yi Quan and Pigua Zhang. It’s clear that this large format 415 page book is truly a labour of love. It took him 5 years to complete and as a multidisciplinary researcher his reflective and thought provoking writings are influenced by a combination of Chinese Philosophy, Jungian Psychology, modern sports science and various historical sources and anecdotes. Jonathan considers the martial arts to be a holistic field of study, and therefore strives to explore their nature utilizing many different viewpoints and disciplines.
The practice of martial arts can simply relate to the art of practical methods of self defence – learning how to fight – and there’s a myriad of choices to choose from – boxing, Brazilian ju jitsu, taekwondo, muay tai, karate, krav maga… the list goes on. I myself became involved in this martial world through the practice of a Chinese martial art that most people don’t believe has any martial dimension at all – taijiquan aka tai chi – and despite the inevitable bouts of doubt and disillusionment it’s a practice that offers deep physical, cultural and philosophical dimensions, all of which have definitely shaped my world view and who I am.
It all began in the early Eighties when I enrolled at a Yang taiqiquan class and discovered Cheng Man Ch’ing. I went to check out the 16mm films that a one of Master Cheng’s American student brought to London. I thought, “Awoah! The man has got skills.” My own teacher also professed to be able to push people away without touching them. I witnessed a demonstration and experienced a combination of pride tinged with scepticism. I was a ready volunteer. I needed to experience it. But I never got chosen.
Back then it was all about chi and forms and push hands and when I fell into a lung related ill health – a by product of smoking & a misspent youth – I naturally felt disillusioned. The magical health generating properties of taijiquan had failed! I abandoned taiji and on the advice of Isamu Mochizuki took up Hatha yoga. That said, I remained drawn to other Chinese martial arts that were more aerobic and overtly martial but still considered “Internal” – like xing yi quan and baguazhang. Basically, I was hooked and have remained so ever since.
Jonathan kicks off this book by asking the reader not to dip into it but start at the beginning and follow, what is to him, a natural progression. It’s worth it. He commences with a discussion on the different approaches of external and internal gong fu and goes into great detail discussing muscle power, body structure, endurance and efficiency, and how martial arts are related to Daoism and Chinese medicine. The book openly discusses diverse concepts like “invest in loss” or “tensional integrity” and Jonathan homes in on the role of mind and intent and the “holistic connections” which relate to one’s centre/dan tian. And if you’ve recently watched Wang Kar Wai’s The Grandmaster you’ll be interested in his views on the internal implications of Ip Man’s branch of Wing Chun.
Anyone practicing martial arts, but especially internal martial arts will benefit from reading this book. He examines the impact of practicing slowly and looks at concepts like axis rotation, dragon body and short wave force. These are mostly thing I’ve been lucky to come across after visiting and training with different teachers, attending workshops, chatting and practicing with people doing other styles. To find all these concepts united and discussed in one book is a huge bonus to anyone who may be devoting time and energy to exploring Chinese martial arts.
Jonathan is opinionated but open minded. Part II of the book contains his thoughts on the martial arts and our daily lives and is subtitled Contemplations On Controlled Violence. It includes ‘In Retrospective’ a piece penned by Jonathan’s master Nitzan Oren and Robert Pittman writing on ‘The Ethical Foundations of Martial Arts’. Jonathan readily tells his own story and reprints a poetic reflection on practice by Gao bagua practitioner Robert J Arnold.
The final section of the book is given over to a series of long, in depth and revealing interviews with teachers like Chen Zhonghua, Strider Clark and Yang Hai which at times shake you to the core and make you wonder if you’ve wasted years of your life. That said, part of the intention of this book is to defeat what he calls, ‘The Crime Of Ignorance’, and the furtherance of a community of practitioners dedicated to openness and honesty not secrecy. I like that.
So, despite the onset of age (I’m getting on a bit now!) and those corrosive bouts of doubt that are related to my own lack of gong fu, I shall continue to step out on my balcony to practice zhan zhuang or head off to park to stretch out and go through some forms. I’ll continue to study with my Chen taijiquan sifu and connect with other teachers I respect. To borrow the words of Robert J Arnold, “Never stop doing what you do. There will always be a thousand reasons not to train. For those of us that continue there is 100% chance of success.”