My final project took the form of a fictional piece drawing inspiration both from the underlying spiritual concepts of martial arts in China and the portrayal of those themes in Chinese martial arts films. Through my story I attempted to create an illustration of key concepts in Chinese martial arts. I will now briefly detail these ideas then offer a short summary of the story itself.
The martial arts in China are principally focused on the dual cultivation of the mind and body. In traditional Chinese thought these aspects of a person are a single entity which can be perfected through spiritual and physical exercise. These ideas find parallels in Daoism, one of the three traditional religions of China. The principle idea of Daoism is becoming connected with the Dao, or the basic cosmic force in the universe. Through ritual practices one could connect with the Dao and improve their health, or even attain immortality. Daoist rituals would seek to cultivate the yin and yang energies within one’s body and grant them better control over their qi, the basic matter of the universe believed to be the vital essence of all things. Among the most important concepts in Daoism are effortless action, naturalness, humility, non-contention, and emptiness (of human desires). Martial arts masters eventually took to using these Daoist concepts to explain their art to outsiders of the practice. Martial arts in a sense offered people an alternative practice for connecting themselves with the Dao, which simultaneously taught them a practical means of self-defense. These ideas also created a model of masculinity which combined the strength of the warrior with the wisdom of the sage.
My research focused both on these underlying ideas in martial arts, as well as how they were adapted to the martial arts of the Chinese cinema. As is typically the case, the movies exaggerated and fantasized the practice of the arts. In the cinema martial arts masters gained the ability to fly and let out strong bursts of qi through their palms. These masters of qi energy displayed superhuman strength while at the same time being light as a feather. When fighting their movements flowed effortlessly like water, being able to reactively avoid and counterattack as one natural motion. Additionally, the true martial artists of the big screen separated themselves from other fighters through their humility and benevolence. Not only did they put their own lives on the line to help others, but they always showed restraint, even towards their enemies. Lethal blows would be stopped just shy of reaching their target, thus ending the fight with the understanding that the opponent has lost. The significance of this action cannot be overstated, because to follow through with the strike is to deny the teachings of martial arts. The purpose of these skills is not to destroy your enemy, but to help others and perfect oneself. Humility was also a common trait across all the films I watched. The masters never bragged of their skill, and often thanked their opponents for the honor after the fight. This idea made it clear that these duels were not meant to be a competition, but a way of learning from one another through fighting. The importance on not only strength, but wisdom as well, was not hard to find in the portrayal of martial arts in cinema.
The story takes place in a fictional Chinese city called Laoshen and follows the lives of two young boys: Liu Ling and Gang Li. Gang is a rowdy orphan, and Liu is the young master of an established household. One day at the market Liu notices a man threatening the shop keeper. Liu wants to help, but keeps his distance out of fear. Then from out of nowhere a young boy jumps on the man only to be beaten up. After the ordeal Liu goes over to see if the boy is alright, and the two become friends. Gang is tired of always being beaten and bullied, and Liu is tired of being too weak to help, so the two eventually resolve to take up martial arts training under master Sang Kuan Chun at a nearby temple. The two spend years together training at the temple, with Gang always getting the better of Liu when they sparred. Liu being more of a scholar, he was able to pick up on the concepts behind the motions, and while Gang was much quicker to memorize and perfect them, he was unable to see them as anything more than motions. Liu also spent far more time meditating, while Gang channeled all of his effort into physical training. The time came when the master was to choose his head disciple among his students, and a tournament was held. Liu and Gang both made it to the final round where they would face one another. Gang took an early advantage and while it looked like he was bound to win, in the last decisive blow Liu was able to channel his qi and stop the attack. Then, with a swift counter attack he won the match. This defeat stunned Gang, and he began to harbor suspicions that the master has been secretly teaching him more advanced techniques. His rage gradually built up, and in a sparring match with a fellow student he went too far, seriously injuring him. The master had no choice but to expel him, and Gang left the school in a fit of rage. Years pass and Liu eventually completes his training and leaves Laoshen. He arrives in Beijing soon after to find a gang of men with swords threatening someone. Liu steps in and defeats the men, and they flee. The man thanks him for his help and asks if he is in town for the tournament. The man then explains that a martial arts tournament is being held with fighters from all over the globe. This peaks Liu’s interest and he decides to watch the event. He is surprised to find that his former friend is one of the contestants. After all these years he barely recognizes Gang, who appears hardened from years of fighting. Gang destroys his competition with a ferocity that frightens Liu, showing no restraint towards his opponents. He overwhelmed them with his aggressive advances and continued to beat them long after they were defeated. Liu could tell that these contestants were no match for Gang. Gang wins the tournament and is proclaimed the best fighter on earth. He knows, however, that this title is meaningless so long as he has not defeated his old master Sang Kuan Chun, whom he believed to be supreme among fighters. Liu and Gang exchange words after the competition. Gang explains that he has spent the last 4 years traveling all over China and defeating many of the best fighters around, and expresses his resolve to fight the master. Liu tries talking him out of it but he cannot, and Gang leaves for the temple. Liu follows close behind, though he stays out of sight. The master refuses to fight Gang, and so Gang attacks him, thereby forcing his hand. The battle ends with Gang defeated, the master holding back his final blow. Gang takes advantage of this and delivers a lethal blow to the master. Liu then comes out of hiding to come to the master’s aid. Gang and Liu battle and Liu defeats him, holding back his final blow just as the master had. Overwhelmed with grief Gang vows to never raise a hand in anger again and begs for forgiveness.