- Watching Your Back: Chinese Martial Arts and Traditional Medicine
Anthony L. Schmieg is a practicing physician who studied both traditional Chinese medicine and martial arts in Taiwan in the early 1970s. He has also contributed a chapter on traditional Chinese medicine in Martial Arts of the World: An Encyclopedia, edited by Thomas A. Green (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2001).
Watching Your Back: Chinese Martial Arts and Traditional Medicine causes the reader to think, but it is not an easy read. At first glance, some of the author's views may seem quite controversial, but less so after one places them in perspective, which requires reading the notes as well as the main text. This is easily the most unique book yet published on a Chinese martial arts theme. I say "martial arts theme" rather than "martial arts" because this book is not a martial arts "how to" book. It is a book about the sociocultural environment and worldview of what Schmieg describes as the "high" purveyors of traditional Chinese martial arts and medicine. Rather than explaining "how to," it describes his perception of "how to be" as a martial artist. His role model is his shifu ("teaching father") in Taiwan, Dr. Xia Boyan, who escaped from the Chinese mainland in 1951, after the Communist takeover.
In chapter 1, "Rectification of Names," the author sets the parameters of his book with his interpretation of the phrase "traditional Chinese martial arts" and discussion of each word that comprises the phrase. The title ("Zhengming" in Chinese) comes from the Confucian approach to ordering Chinese society, which, ironically, was broadly imbued with a deep-seated Daoist worldview over which a controlling Confucian ideology was superimposed.
Chapters 2, "Survival," and 3, "Obscurity," provide the foundation for the author's concept of the "high" martial artist. First, he notes that survival is attained not so much by one's martial arts skills as by one's admirable example, which gains the respect of others in society and serves as the bulwark of survival. Next is obscurity, which is the yin (inner focused nature) of the sage and "high" martial artist.
The reader may be left with a feeling of uncertainty where the author associates the "high" martial artist with the term shi, which he describes as "the beloved hero of Chinese history." Looking at the definitions of shi, one finds different concepts at different times in Chinese history; in earlier times it is associated with martial skills, but later is more generally equated with the civil-oriented scholar officials on the top level of a four-tiered society (i.e., shi, scholar officials; nong, farmers; gong, artisans; shang, businessmen) (pp. 65-67). The author further [End Page 226] confuses the issue when he steps beyond the shi and notes that "Although the wandering swordsman is an accessible archetype of the high boxer, he in no way typifies all boxers" (p. 67). Unfortunately, he fails to provide a clear lead-in from the shi to the term "wandering swordsman" or xia, who actually has been viewed as a hero of sorts throughout Chinese history. Sima Qian, in the Record of History, reserves a chapter for the subject and does note that these individuals were prone to using force (or fighting) to carry out their altruistic missions, but the Legalist philosopher Han Feizi brands these individuals as being among the Five Vermin in society because of their destabilizing tendencies.1 So, the author's "high" martial artist appears to wander obscurely among shi, but is not a xia; he seems to be an exceptional "individualist among conformists."
In chapter 4, "Intent," the author discusses the essence of what he considers to be "high" martial arts practice (a combination of intent and function) as found in jue (formulas that encapsulate secrets of an art or skill). The famous fourth-century Daoist thinker and alchemist Ge Hong comments that these closely guarded techniques were what allowed one to overcome opponents.2 I...