Monday, November 21, 2011

Culture and Context

A few days ago I received an email from a person wanting to know if he could teach classes in Chinese language and culture at my taijiquan studio in Kansas City. He wrote that learning the language and culture was crucial to one's taijiquan development. 

I wrote back and said that, while I had a keen interest in Chinese philosophy and culture, my teacher (Chinese to the bone) never stressed that learning these things was essential to developing a deep understanding of taijiquan. Naturally, some background was necessary, but it was more about basic principles and perseverance in practice. It was about learning to relax-whatever the language or culture 
I have met many taijiquan players in my nearly thirty years of experience-a handful of whom had some deep knowledge of the essence of the art. A few were well-versed in Chinese language and culture, but most were not. As a result, I never felt there was a necessary correlation between comprehension of taijiquan and facility with the Chinese language or familiarity with Chinese culture. Conversely, I know one Chinese gentleman whose knowledge of classical Chinese language and philosophy is extremely erudite, but hasn't the discipline to practice taijiquan daily. Even though he has been practicing for many years, his understanding is still largely conceptual. 

Not all of the cultural accoutrements that come with Eastern mysticism-or Western science for that matter-are necessary or helpful. Some things deservedly need to be shed as they are more baggage than benefit. It is good to know the roots of the art that you love and practice, but it is also important to recognize and inhabit your own cultural milieu and not fret if you haven't mastered the intonations of the Chinese language. I am not saying that learning to speak Chinese or studying Asian culture is without value. It can be very intellectually satisfying in many ways. My point is that the wisdom of taijiquan is no longer tied to any one country or culture.

Many of the Eastern contemplative arts, including taijiquan have become, like Western science, part of world culture. We should be grateful for the generosity of those Chinese taijiquan teachers who gave of their time and talent to build a cultural bridge that propelled taijiquan onto the world stage. It was a selfless thing to do, and therefore an essentially taijiquan thing to do, because it necessitated letting go. When you allow your child to go out into the world you have to accept that they will forever be changed. It was a very forward-looking, "modern" stance to take, not typical of the traditional Chinese world view . This modern stance emphasized the belief that taijiquan was too important and wonderful to be constrained by any one culture and that it must continue to evolve if it was to thrive.

Taijiquan truly does transcend the boundaries of language and culture. As the Denma Translation Group said about the wisdom of Sunzi's Art of War: "It is a natural flowering of common human faculties present in all of us." 

This article appeared in the Winter 2004 Issue of Taijiquan Journal (Vol. 5, No. 1)  Seven years after penning it, I am still in agreement with the sentiments presented.

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