Given that monks have a lot of time on their hands and no access to You Tube, they do a lot of quiet contemplation. They have time. They umm and ahh, scratch bellies, pray and reflect on the meaning of life. They prune, pray some more, chant, and read dusty religious and philosophical texts, occasionally stepping out of the monastery to lend spiritual support to those struggling to make life work in the face of government austerity and a selfie-stick culture. What you expect from monks then, are open arms, a gentle smile, Werthers Originals and for those yet to take the vow of silence, some quiet, morally instructive words of guidance. What you probably don’t expect is a roundhouse kick in the chops; yet the Buddhist monk Bodhidharma, a monk widely regarded as the founder of Zen Buddhism in China, is also claimed to have introduced Kalaripayattu to the country. Kalaripayattu is a martial art that evolved into Kung Fu, the same Kung Fu that enabled Jackie Chan to later become a household name and spawn a generation who still think it funny to mimic subtitled fight scenes in front of their children.
Chinese Buddhist monks have since been stereotypically associated with martial arts, and feature readily in Hollywood fight scenes, usually with a stick and a steely expression. Yet whilst martial arts have forever been associated with the fighting arts of Eastern Asia, the actual term originally referred to the raised dukes and combat systems of Europe from around the mid-1500s. The term comes, as ever, from Latin and means the ‘arts of Mars’ – the Roman God of war. Today the term is a pretty loose one, and can broadly be used to describe various styles of clobbering someone with a fist, or a big stick.
The oldest work of art depicting a fight scene dates back to circa 3400 BC where some Egyptian paintings showed some form of a struggle, a struggle which continues to this day leaving Thomas Cook with an increasingly cheap armful of Sharm el-Sheik summer inventory. Chinese martial arts, as you’d expect, hark back even further to a time some 4000 years ago when the Xia Dynasty was in its pomp. It was the fearsome Yellow Emperor, a famous war-mongering general, who introduced the first fighting systems that are today seen as early forerunners to Jackie Chan’s bread and butter. Most scholars argue that the Yellow Emperor originated in the tales of the gods, and seemed to have an unearthly air to him similar, in some parts at least, to that of the late, velvet-clad singer, Prince.
In Europe, the early traditions of martial arts date to Ancient Greece and the Olympic games where medals were up for grabs in boxing and wrestling. The Romans also famously had a thirst for hand-to-hand gladiatorial combat with the odd lion thrown for a bit more interest. Sword fighting was later popular in the Middle Ages and, up until mid-19th century, there was always the option to sort out any differences with a dawn duel, often with swords but also with pistols, a tradition that tended to be less about killing an opponent and more about restoring honour. Duelling had particular traction with the in-bred aristocracy, who had the right scruples and dim wit to be wholly committed to pacing out the full ten yards.
The basic training of many martial arts, etched in popular culture by the critically acclaimed 1984 blockbuster ‘The Karate Kid’, takes time and involves more than just learning to forearm jab a plank of wood. Recruits have to learn to the rudimentary techniques and repeat simple physical movements again, and again, and again. The training aims to improve not only strength and reflexes but also to develop the heart, spirit and mind. Meditation is, in many martial arts, as important as doing sit ups; mental clarity and inner piece being as useful as a mean flick of the eyes and two-fingered poke to an opponent’s adams apple. Many of the more traditional schools, such as the famed Shaolin monks, embraced martial arts not only as a means of self-defence but also as system of ethics. They sought to develop the “morality of deed” and the “morality of mind”. The former involved in social relations, the latter in cultivating inner harmony between the emotional mind and the wisdom mind. The end game was basically to reach a state of physical and emotional harmony without the need to wallop a cheap bottle of chardonnay.
In the provinces of Guangdong and Fujian, the local custom was to use the imagery of five animals in the development of specific fighting styles, making for a very good pub quiz question. What five? Well, think big teeth, spittle, speed and fire and you might scribble down a tiger, snake, leopard and dragon. The fifth one, though, is likely to draw a blank expression and an itchy look at the smartphone lying idle on the table. For the fifth animal used, is a style of fighting based on imitating the characteristics of the crane. Yes, the crane, the very large long-legged, long-necked bird.
Legend has it that a girl, let’s call her Qiniang, lived quietly in a remote village deep in the Fujian province. Qiniang’s father knew how to handle himself and had taught his daughter a few moves should the boys in the village ever let their hormones get the better of them. One morning, whilst she was sweeping the yard a crane landed nearby. Qiniang tried to scare the bird off with the skills her father had taught her, but whatever she did the crane would counter. She tried the traditional move of whacking the crane over the head with the broom but the crane ducked, and blocked the broom with its wing. She tried to hit the bird’s wings but the beady-eyed bird would block the stick with its claws. She tried poking it but the bird went for the stick with its beak. The crane was full of answers. Instead of losing her rag and lobbing tins of tuna at it, she started studying the movements of the crane and later combined these movements with what her father taught her ultimately creating the White Crane style of fighting which was not only widely adopted, but also gave her the skills to remain a virgin for as long as she so desired. Much to the frustration of the boys in the village.
Try, then, some deep breathing and short arm punches in the bathroom mirror. It could help take the edge of the commute home. But keep the chant “Wax on, wax off” to a whisper. Such a chant offers very different connotations coming, as it might, out the upstairs bathroom.