By Michael A. DeMarco, MA

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Martial Art Essays from Beijing, 1760, presents 64 essays written by Yang Mingbin, a painter in the Royal court of the Ching dynasty. Or does it? As well as being a painter, Yang was also a martial artist and the papers are his thoughts on his martial practice, except that Yang Mingbin never actually existed, and the work is entirely a fictional piece of writing by the modern author, Michael A. DeMarco. DeMarco is a Tai Chi practitioner who used to publish the peer-reviewed quarterly Journal of Asian Martial Arts

Yang Mingbin’s place in history is well researched, and surrounded by genuine historical figures such as Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766), a real Jesuit priest who was a painter in the Royal court in Beijing, and was responsible for influencing the Chinese style of painting of the era with western Renaissance ideas. You’ve likely seen some of his paintings before, such as the famous one of the Emperor Qianlong in ceremonial armour.

So, the conceit here, then, is that you’re being asked to imagine what it would have been like if Giuseppe had had a friend in the court – another painter – who was also a martial artist, and what would happen if we had recently found a copy of his notes on martial arts. It’s a thought experiment, that the author begs your indulgence in as you read along.

Initially it works, because the historical setting feels authentic, but once we get into the actual meat of the book (Minben’s 64 martial arts essays), we find that Yang Minben writes exactly like a 21st century American who practices Tai Chi would write, rather than like somebody actually living in 1760 in China would! 

Actual martial arts writings from that period in history tend to be functional, pithy and less verbose. Worse, Mingben’s text often uses modern conventions, for example, (p63), 

Dive into a swift flowing river and swim against the current. Keep swimming, but gradually change the direction – 0 to 45 degrees, to 90 to 135, then to 180 – finally swimming directly with the current.

Would a Chinese person writing in 1760 have described this using degrees?

And things get very odd when, on p97, Minben writes, “between 1775 and 1779, Qing troops stabalized the northern and western boundary of Xingjang province, harshly squelching the rebellion in the area occupied by the Mongolic Zunghar tribe.” 

How is Minben writing about events that happened in 1779 when the current date is supposed to be 1760? 

That’s not to say there aren’t interesting things to learn here. I enjoyed the discussion of the Neo-Confucian scholar Zhu Xi and the concept of Li, the calligraphy analogies and the references to Lao Tze and Chuang Tzu. But if the author wants us to enter into his historical conceit, then I think it helps if the writing is consistent with the time period. I would have also liked to have heard more accounts of what Beijing was like in 1760. That would have helped build the illusion – city life, how business was done, what the pervading political climate was like, what the fashions were, what the gossip was – what was happening in Royal Court?

You could argue that since all of this is imaginary anyway, perhaps we do not need to make a big deal out of it? DeMarco’s writings are a collection of modern philosophical musings designed to be easily read and understood by the modern Tai Chi crowd and that draw in frequent references to the Daodejing and analogies with calligraphy and painting. I quite enjoyed them, but if you are looking for something that reads like the real classic writings on martial arts, you’ll be disappointed. However, if you’re after something a little easier to read and that inspires you to practice Tai Chi more, then you’ll find it here. 

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