One of the frequent criticisms I hear of the idea that there is a connection between Chinese martial arts and Chinese theatre and religion is that no respectable Chinese martial arts teacher has ever implied their work comes from dance or spiritual ritual, so the idea is laughable. I have experienced a pretty negative reaction from some of my Chinese martial arts friends to these ideas. The thought that the rough and tough martial art they genuinely suffered to learn and dedicated their lives to had religious or (worse) theatrical origins is anathema to their world view, akin to an insult.
But the question really is, how can they not be theatrical? Just look at Chinese martial arts – of course they’re theatrical!
Here are some questions to ask yourself: Why do we do long complex, showy forms at all? Why is Chinese martial arts still so strongly associated with Lion Dance? Why do its modern day performers so often put on demonstrations for the local community, on stages? Why do performances sometimes have chaotic drumming soundtracks?
I’m sure any competent Chinese martial arts practitioner can produce answers to all these questions based entirely in the physical realm of pugilism – it’s all physical training at the end of the day – but when you put all these questions together an obvious picture begins to form.
Nobody looks at Capoeira and says, “this has nothing to do with dance”. So, why do most Chinese martial arts practitioners look at their long theatrical forms and say, “this has nothing to do with theatre or religious practice”?
There’s an inherent mystery to Tao Lu, or “forms” found in Chinese martial arts. This great video by The Scholar-General hopes to provide some answers: