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The Map is not the Territory

October 20, 2011

The competition is in two days, and the good news just keeps mounting up.  Not only does it transpire that the Tai Chi competition is the flagship event in the biggest tournament of the year at the university, but I am now to lead the form from the front, on my own.  Jolly good.

“This is a very important place,” Grace, my instructor, explained “you will not have any point of reference for most of the form, and the rest will follow you – so you must not make a mistake.”  No pressure, then.

This is why, as the sun set last night I was down by the lake, getting busy with some Tai Chi.  It’s interesting that whilst normally as a laowai (foreigner) you can’t normaly walk ten feet without somebody staring like they’ve seen a ghost (well, we are known as white devils out here I guess), when going through my movements I failed to attract even a hint of attention.  It’s ironic that something that would look so bizarre and cause so many stares in the UK is the perfect disguise here in China.

Moving slowly in the breeze, water at my feet, I began to feel the movements flow through me as I let my mind go blank (not a challenge for me, I might add).  Maybe, just maybe, this might not be a disaster.  I know the movements, I’m stumbling less and less, all I need to do is slow down and keep time and I might just get through this with my pride intact.

I’m still going through my Wing Chun forms in the evenings, and spending at least two hours a day studying Tai Chi.  Does this make me a martial artist?  Is the form the martial art?  The answer, to me, is a resounding ‘no’ – a martial art can only be truly studied if one is learning to apply the movements.  All I am doing now is some mildly aggressive dancing.  That is not to say, however, that form is not important to martial arts.  Far from it – it is vital.  It’s the foundation of any martial art; within the form lies its spirit and, if you can find it, its own unique personality.

Each night, from my window, I can hear somebody learning the piano in an apartment close to ours.  I listen as this mystery musician makes their way falteringly through the scales, repeating and repeating and repeating in to the night.  Anyone who plays a musical instrument will tell you that it is impossible to make music without first mastering the scales, and chords.  This, then, is what form is to martial arts.  The development of structure, of movement, of muscle memory; the seamless connection of physical movement until, as my instructor succinctly puts it, one thing follows naturally after the next.

The movies have it all wrong.  Without fail, martial arts battles consist of two masters performing rehearsed moves on each other, countering them, and performing counters to the counters, all perfectly executed and textbook classroom technique.  This is not what form teaches is, and is a misunderstanding of real world application.  A piano player does not make music by repeating perfectly prepared scales; music is made through the systematic and organised destruction of the scale and the re-assembling of it in a near infinite number of ways, through a new understanding of their structure.  So, too, with martial arts.  We move, we mimic; we flow, we float; we bend, we break; we snap and flick, stretch and kick but only when we start to disassemble do we truly understand.

But it’s not just that.  The form is the beauty of the fight; it puts the art in martial arts and it’s what keeps so many of us coming back to more.  It’s our link to a culture, to a thousand years of history; what keeps the thing alive and connects it to our soul.

“The map is not the territory” My instructor says, meaning just this – form is not reality, and should not be treated as such.  I would add an epitaph to this: the map is not the territory; but it has its own unique beauty and, when you’re lost in the darkness, it’s your best bet of finding your way home safely.

  1. Stuart permalink

    Good luck with the competition, looking forward to hearing about how it goes.

    you should celebrate your forthcoming victory with a slap up roulette meal. 😀

  2. that, sir, is a splendid idea. Keep your eyes peeled here for videos on a very impressive opening ceremony for the games, and a less impressive wobbly westerner trying to do Tai chi in front of thousandds of people…

  3. Marc Moor permalink

    I am pleased and grateful that my voice has travelled with you, and I am proud that your feet are happy and that your soul is feasting on the all delicacies and delights at your door.

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