Apocrypha.

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“Apocrypha: A story or statement of doubtful authenticity, although widely circulated as being true.”

The truth is that the martial arts abound with Apocrypha, but I don’t think that this is a bad thing, as long as they are all taken with a huge pinch of salt.

My approach to some of the apocryphal stories about the martial arts is that I look for the kernel of truth within the myth. Not from the view that there must be tiny element of veracity lurking underneath the embellishments of stories told and re-told hundreds of times; but instead I look for the lesson or moral behind the survival of such a story – it could perhaps contain a greater truth than the fairy-tale pretends to.

Here are two of my favourites that serve to explain my thinking.

Someone told me a story about tourists being shown around a famous Chinese Temple associated with martial arts. On arriving at a particular courtyard the guide pointed out regular hollows worn into the brick paving. The tourists were told that these hollows were the result of martial arts monks spending hour upon hour in horse stance practicing their moves. However, the observant tourist might also notice that the hollows may also have been the result of weak spots in overhead roof drainage where rainwater had dripped over hundreds of years. Naturally the guide chose to ignore this very practical explanation; thus the myth lives on. Should we therefore scoff at this deliberate hokum? I don’t think so. The factual account might be wrong but the essence of the story contains another truth; more like a model, an idea, a concept. It conjures up a heightened and exaggerated admonishment endorsing the fruits of disciplined and prolonged practice, and, to my mind that makes it useful.

Another example concerns a story about one of members of the Yang family of late 19th century Tai Chi fame. It was said that if a bird was to land on master Yang’s outstretched index finger, the bird would find itself unable to fly away unless the master permitted it to do so. The explanation for this was that the master was so highly tuned to pressure sensitivity that when the bird tried to use its legs to launch the master would detect this and very subtly deny the bird a platform necessary to spring forth. Is this actually possible? Would a specialist in avian anatomy and the physiology of flight be able to tell us that this story is complete bunkum, because a small bird does not actually need to launch with its feet? I don’t know, and frankly I don’t care. The concept of heightened sensitivity is vital to practitioners of all martial arts (or at least should be) therefore to cook up such a seemingly tall tale serves as an aspirational template; albeit an apparently impossible one.

There are other stories where the essence surpasses the truth. There is something about the martial arts that promotes the telling of tall tales. Obviously some of these are there for political reasons; the mythologies live on long after people have passed away. I have seen recent examples where a certain level of gloss has been applied to boost the reputations of the living and the dead. Tales retold have an inevitable life of their own.

Tim Shaw

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