Courtyard, Camp and Village

Now, while the heat of the afternoon has not yet risen and the dust still lies there without tainting the air, they leave their huts, after tasting a bit of food and sipping their tea, and walk to the practice area.

Jokes and small talk do not cease immediately. They warm up casually almost desultorily. Their whipping arms and bending, complaining knees are thrown about in floppy, loose and imprecise motions as befits farmer-students. The sifu, a foreigner from a village ten miles away, barks amiably at them as they move, calling their attention slowly to practice. At one point, without a word said, they line up haphazardly and the lesson is begun. Even crippled Lan and “Cow Tail” Pang drop into decent stances, thrust up their hands to the Curtain Punch posture and wait for their corrections while the brilliance of the morning sun crawls up their ragged shirts.

Field, camp and courtyard. These three modalities of Kung Fu practice have stayed the same for centuries. Only weeds thrusting up can tell you if the courtyard is neglected, though sometimes the the huge stepping stones are bellied and sunken with the accumulated force of foot stomps multiplied beyond count.

When we claim classic or traditional training we could be recalling any one of these three weddings of method, environment and ceremony. The field of the village, the military camp ground, the courtyard or temple or governor; as in real estate wisdom, location location location is the mantra that sounds through halls and between trees, calling the sprit of the boxing art to each distinct locality.

Not to be fooled, each of these had a purpose and approach. The military camp, which has become the default standard throughout the world of martial training, was a harsh survivalist world where the general was god (and cashier at that) and competition was fierce but might– just might–bring advancement all the way to a generalship itself. Martial skill in such a world was a shiny coin. There was another aspect to this of little interest nowadays but of major meaning “back in the day”: individual skills were often without meaning unless they were executed for group advantage. Here is the career soldier, as scarred as a knife throwers tree trunk, barking out exotic names like “Phoenix Spreads Wings” and “Black Tiger Steals the Heart” to a thousand troops. The names are like football plays, a code unto themselves, meaningless to an enemy, a winning strategy to you. Martial skill in such formation was compounded to a new high. The famous Open-Close-Thrust triad of actions for spear fighting looks entirely different when performed in close-order formation by a mass of trained soldiers. It resembles nothing more than a threshing machine and basically shares that same purpose.

The Taoist or Buddhist temple of the scholarly courtyard has always run by a different clock: an internal process of acculturation occurs as the disciple struggles through the mysteries of faith, practice, education and example. True, for some, the temple might be more  rigorous than the arm camp. But everything was like Alice’s looking glass: a world where fighting skill was developed to avoid fighting, inward battles traded the clash of swords, and the screams of pain for silence as deep as a well-prison.

As in the unique balance of the tenant holding his heat while the laird’s car passes, Chinese culture has long kept at least a pastoral relationship to its agrarian roots. The farmer may be poor beyond belief but, like the Sicilian peasant, he is as much a part of the land as the highest noble in the area. The farmer worked hard and long, field and house the twin focii of his elliptic circumnavigation. His relaxation was mythic, habitual and physical. Often such villagers were surprisingly well versed in the agrarian concept of communal efficiency, would pool their pennies and hire a teacher to come on a contract basis, and teach their whole village. These often highly skilled but penurious masters might train the peasantry hard and long but also well, making sure the canny farmers got their money’s worth and renewed their contracts. Legs conditioned by squatting long hours, spines long familiar with the correct shape for lifting, minds secure with long repeated actions: farmer trainees sometimes reached high levels of skill, passing to the status of teachers themselves.

The camp, the field and the courtyard. The male, the female and the familial: as schools in martial arts moved out of Asia the teachers often followed a form, imposed a discipline and created a mythos they themselves did not fully understand. Nowadays some schools are relaxing the image of the military camp and becoming more like the village school they should be while others are focusing on  a heightened martial approach. Nature, as the Taoists say, is self-correcting.

Now the farmer walking home from a day of field work throws a kick, directed to nowhere, for no other purpose than to test his own skill, just to see.

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