Is it a Huey-Shan clay figurine? It was just a toy from my childhood, six decades ago. Although it was cute and lovely, it was never considered a real treasure. If it broke we would just buy another one since it was made of clay. It was so inexpensive that we rarely gave it good care.
Later the civil war in China started. It was like a huge wave moving my family to the beautiful island - Taiwan.
I grew up with games popular in Taiwan, such as catching earth worms, playing marbles, flipping paper cards, raising silk worms, etc. Who would miss the clay figurines?
Later, I moved to the U.S. I felt my vision had widened and my emotions ran more deeply. Wider vision came from seeing the prosperity and richness of western civilization. The deep emotions came from the military and political defeat in China, doubt on the value of our own culture, and the lack of direction for our future.
When mainland China opened its door to the outside, its cultural products, works of art, relics, etc. were introduced to the world. I enjoyed the exhibitions, displays, performances and other cultural activities. I was pleasantly surprised that plenty of treasures still remained after the massive destruction of the Cultural Revolution
I visited China alone several times and traveled a long way to track down the roots of Chinese martial arts. I saw and heard numerous wounds and heart-breaking stories from the people I met. I felt their excruciating pain and sorrow everywhere I went. The smell of the soil and the warmth of the culture urged me to think deeply and read again ancient Chinese masterpieces like Five Classics, Four Books and the Twenty-Six Histories.
I came back to Taiwan eight years ago and started teaching martial arts to the "new generation." The first whack to my head was Culture Shock! The challenge I faced with the students in Taiwan was the same as that with students of the western world.
The practice of martial arts requires unique coordination of the entire body no matter if it is the execution of a punch, a kick or a weapon. One's movement is directed by the mind and demonstrated by the arms. "Mind force" and "muscle force" are complimentary to each other. Together they become the "combined force" to accomplish the proper posture and movement.
Mind and muscle are two different power sources. Martial arts differentiate movements as attack and defense: upward, downward, forward or backward actions. In Chinese martial arts, the important key is: How to move up and down? How to attack and defend? By other respected martial arts styles? Or by genuine Chinese martial arts style?
Any martial art style has its straight punch. Punching straight ahead is a martial arts move all kids can do naturally and they use such simple punches on their family or classmates. But the straight punches executed by a Chinese, Roman, Korean or Japanese are all different depending on their culture and their characteristics.
Therefore, the straight punch is not just an action for fighting or fitness. It is a cultural expression.
In this exhibition organized by Echo Publishers, the Huey-Shan clay figurines are either delicate fine art or abstract craft. There are statues of cows, cats, fairies or Buddhas. Are they just dramatic actors, toys, auspicious signs, or only decorations?
Top Light and Bottom Heavy with Focus on the Entire Body
The layman watches the posture while the expert observes the power. Look at the structure of the clay figurines (Figure 1): Each one is based on a down-rooted triangle with the center of gravity at the lower stomach, the "dan tian" area. The entire statue of several pieces together also has a basic triangle shape like the word "山" (shan, Chinese for mountain) with a sharp top and blunt bottom, i.e., top light and bottom heavy.
Greek and Roman sculptures are very different and even contrary to the principles of eastern art: Western aesthetic is based on an upside down triangle and the center of gravity is at the upper chest, the "tan chung" area. A sculpture consisting of several pieces would look like the beautiful shape of the word "學" (Xue, Chinese for learn).
Eastern and western aesthetics are just different and we cannot really say one is superior to the other. Basically, the upside down triangle leads the viewer's eyes to the upper part of the body. It is associated with the "golden section ratio" and "stereographic projection" and its single focal point draws all attention. The more unstable the design is, the more attractive it is. The upside down triangle emphasizes the difference between the top and the bottom that allows no interpretation by the viewer.
A normal triangle has the opposite power, leading your eye to look at the entire body. There are multiple focal points that can be moved around by the viewer's feeling naturally. There is no differentiation between the top and the bottom. The clay figurine clearly demonstrates that the eastern aesthetic is different from the western.
After looking at the statue as a whole, let's pay attention to smaller areas. The postures of the man and woman always show at least one leg bending. When he stands up with both legs together, your imagination pictures his knees relaxed and slightly bent. Even if her legs are hidden under long robes, her posture without doubt shows the bending leg. It is the sense of sinking down. It is the present progressive tense, like practicing, punching or kicking.
Pay attention to the arms of this clay figurine (see Figure 2). No arm is "fully" straight: the shoulder sinks; the elbow drops down; the wrist rises up; the fingers have various gestures and mostly curve up just like flowers.
The clay figurine doesn't talk but she silently shows the elegant beauty of the Chinese aesthetic style. It's so unlike western style, that reveals totally without any reservation. Martial arts practice is energetic; the clay figurine is just a dummy. However, both have the same root and cultural characteristics. The clay figurine's motion in stillness, grace and endurance are the lessons for martial arts practitioners to learn.
Basically, every straight line has its limit, i.e., its total length. When it goes beyond its length, it won't create any variation and stimulate any imagination no matter how much we admire the work of art and the great artist. Western martial arts is like a fixed formulation of 1+1+1+1. It will not grasp the eastern philosophy of "one evolves two, two evolve three, three evolve all creatures."
Curving in Chinese martial arts is the same as the curving shown by the clay figurine. The curving is a motion in stillness. It is motionless outside but alive inside. The artists quietly lead or trick the audience to recreate or develop variation without limitation.
Not overstretching and not overextending become "small is big." Not complicated and not overlapping become "less is more." Chinese art pursues the influence and development beyond the work of art itself.
Our view will be limited if we only use our eyes to see. If we use our eyes and the mind together, we will not only be more rewarded but will also see: Another world that could be felt by the heart but cannot be described by any words.
From Inside to Outside and Extend Fully
For example: With your imagination, the line extended from the fingers of the clay figurine circles around its body endlessly (Figure 3). The feet of the clay figurine sink down and root into the ground like an old tree extending its roots underground. Both arms from the shoulder to the wrist extend straight outward as a cross but they also wrap inward fully at the same time.
The clay figurine shows both the "shape" and the "shi." The "shape" is the external outline and it varies irregularly. The "shi" is the charismatic power radiating from inside and it is the motions of the imaginary lines extended from our mind: front, back, separate, join, contradict, and unite. If it only has the "shape" without the "shi" it will be like an empty shell without the soul.
The martial arts practitioner uses his own body to form a posture to control the situation and then issues power to defeat the enemy. If one only uses external movement showing just the "shape," it is not based in the Chinese martial arts principle of "internal and external exercise" together to issue "power." It would not be real Chinese martial arts and would not benefit the practitioner's health either. Western sports do not have the concept of internal exercise, while Chinese philosophy and martial arts consider that "flowing inner energy" and "external movement" go together and should never separate.
I would like to humbly point out that if the education of the new generation is not built on a solid foundation of Chinese culture and aesthetics, even with 100% Chinese training, the Chinese martial arts performed by these kids still looks like westerners.
Culture is neither a mainstream doctrine nor a commodity. It has to be cultivated and cannot be purchased. Real education is different from rote training and it’s not just for passing examinations. There is no fast lane for it and it cannot be imported either. It is so easy to give in and to achieve superficial results. I am deeply disappointed with the current situation and have grave doubts that my efforts will result in any success. It is easier to blame others than to put in my effort for a better future no matter how little impact I can make. However, I cannot restrain myself from expressing my opinions as long as I am able to contribute.
It is not easy to teach students the straight punch. It is even harder to teach students the straight punch of Chinese martial arts. Why is it as difficult for them as reaching the sky to do the same as the Huey-Shan clay figurine – top light and bottom heavy, from inside to outside?
Starting from the Republic of China, many heroes including scholars, generals and political figures dedicated their power and life to rebuild the strong modern China that earned our respect and appreciation. One basic problem is that they tried their best to learn from the western world--philosophy, democracy, sciences, education. This is admirable. The biggest mistake or wrong choice they made and are still making now is abandoning our own culture. Culture is like the land. Without the land, nothing can be planted or grown and so nothing can be harvested.
What is culture? The topic is huge but let me narrow it down by saying this: Chinese martial arts will look like western if it is based on a DNA without culture; whereas the clay figurine will look like a lively man if it is built on a DNA with culture. The key lies in the style, not in the skill.
How should I position myself in this time of chaos? Why should I hide my secret recipe? The secret is: It is not enough just attending class and practicing. We must encourage students to go to Chinese exhibitions and presentations, read books and periodicals, and learn beyond the literal borders of martial arts training.
The clay figurines shown in the Echo's exhibition are works of fine art with preserved tradition. The exhibition is a must-see. The panacea is called "high dose vitamin C" and the "C" is "Culture!"