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176 Enacting a Daoist Aesthetic through Taiji quan Training ADAM D. FRANK136 In Jet Li’s classic, pre‑Hollywood film Taiji Zhang Sanfeng (1993, aka The Tai Chi Master and Twin Warriors), the young monk Junbao (portrayed by Jet Li) and his trouble‑making best friend Tianbao are expelled from the Buddhist Shaolin monastery, the famous and infamous cradle of China’s most popular martial arts. Later betrayed by Tianbao, Junbao is so crushed he suffers a nervous breakdown. Recovering in seclusion, he finds himself one day standing next to a well full of water in which an inflated ball is floating. He pushes the ball down. It pops back up. He repeats the exercise several times. Soon he realizes that here is the es‑ sence of a new kind of martial art that favors softness and flexibility over hardness and rigidity, inner buoyancy over muscular strength, inward peace over outward power. Junbao dubs the new art “taijiquan,” taking the ubiquitous taijitu 太极图, Diagram of the Supreme Ultimate, as the symbolic handle on which to hang his new art. Junbao, it turns out, is none other than the legendary founder of taijiquan, Zhang Sanfeng, and, with his new found “Daoist” martial art, he ultimately defeats the evil Tianbao.137 136 This essay began as a paper presented at the ARGOEMR Workshop: The Viewpoint of the Technique: Managing Time and Crisis Resolution in Eastern Religions and Medicines, University of Oxford, in January 2010. My thanks to the organizers, Profs. Elisabeth Hsu and Katherine Swancutt, to Profesor Ana Lora‑Wainwright at Oxford, and to the Honors College of the University of Central Arkansas for making my participation in the symposium possible. I also thank Profs. Hsu, David Palmer, Gry Sagli, and Lim Chee Han for their in‑ sightful comments on previous drafts. 137 Variations of this film plot summary also appear in Frank 2006 and 2010. Frank, “Enacting a Daoist Aesthetic” / 177 In this article, I use the martial art of taijiquan, specifically the two‑ person training method of push hands and accompanying body structur‑ ing practices, to address two questions, both of which draw upon the complementary work of Marxist philosopher Li Zehou and anthropolo‑ gist Tim Ingold. First, what is the aesthetic basis for making the claim that the modern martial‑exercise system of taijiquan is somehow “Daoist”? Second, in terms of transmittable techniques, how is that aesthetic actu‑ ally enskilled and enacted through the social milieu of everyday practice among taijiquan practitioners? Douglas Wile(1996) has argued that taijiquan is to some degree an invented tradition of nineteenth century Chinese literati seeking a sort of post‑Opium War re‑emasculation (Frank 2006). It is this group of literati who begin to blend Daoist principles, cosmological notions of qi, and esoteric meditative practices with the nuts‑and‑bolts, highly practical martial elements of Chinese boxing. Wile notes that the term “taijiquan” does not appear in written texts until the mid‑to‑late 19th century, mak‑ ing the case that the term itself is a reifying agent for actualizing the Dao‑ ist credentials of the art. In contemporary China, however, origin tales are as likely as not to get mixed together with current popular culture. During my dissertation fieldwork on taijiquan practice in Shanghai in the early 2000s, one practi‑ tioner told me the story of how Zhang Sanfeng, a former Shaolin monk, “discovered” taijiquan when he pushed a ball down into a pool of water and it bounced up. My practice partner placed a hand on his dantian 丹田 (cinnabar field, a point about two inches below the navel) and empha‑ sized its significance in creating a sense of buoyancy. When I asked if he had seen Taiji Zhang Sanfeng, he not only admitted that he had seen it but also admitted that he had drawn his own version directly from the film, arguing that it seemed as good an account as any of the origins of the martial art.138 138 A slightly different version of the origin story and my fellow practitio‑ ner’s response appears in Frank, 2006. 178 / Journal of Daoist Studies 6 (2013) Taiji quan and the Daoist Aesthetic As an operational strategy for fruitful ethnographic fieldwork...


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pp. 176-192
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