Discovered in the Vatican Library, a file of papers, written in Chinese and belonging to the Italian painter and Jesuit missionary Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766), contains a very special collection of essays by a certain Yang Mingbin (circa 1664-1765 ). Yang, friend of Castiglione and fellow painter to the royal court in Beijing, wrote these texts in a period of transition, at a time when the secret world of martial arts was beginning to proliferate among the public and become more accessible.
Jesuit scholars at Macau University, who discovered this rare wallet, sought to place it with Yang’s surviving relatives, so he traveled to the Chinese village of Song in Henan Province, the last place where his connections were known to reside. . He remained there until Yang Qingyu (1915-2002), the last living descendant of Yang Mingbin, went to the village of Taiwan, where he was living under a ban that prevented him from returning to his homeland. Like his ancestor, Yang Qingyu was a longtime martial arts practitioner and a respected master in Taiwan. He was honored to receive the writings, which he believed expressed knowledge and insight superior to his own.
Author and martial arts master Michael DeMarco, who was a student of Yang Qingyu in real life, shares this story in Martial Art: Beijing Trials, 1760 (Via Media Publishing, $ 18.95).
Only the whole DeMarco account is not true.
Or you could say it’s all true without being entirely factual. Yang Qingyu was a real person, just like Castiglione. But Yang Mingbin is the author’s invention, as are Yang’s collected essays on the martial arts, although they are imbued with the insight and philosophy inherent in the study and practice of the traditions of the arts. martial arts from DeMarco.
âIn my original idea, I was going to put Yang Mingbin as the author and I as the author of the introduction,â says DeMarco, an instructor at the Winged Lion School of Tai Chi in Santa Fe. âSome people wouldn’t know if that was so. is fiction or not. Part of my idea was to let people guess, because a lot of martial artists who know the context are going to read this and say, âWhere’s the fiction? “
DeMarco’s book essays, which was recently translated into Chinese, are organized into 64 subtitles, which elaborate on martial arts in theory and practice.
âI thought the first try was important because it was about writing, and those are his two arts,â DeMarco says of Yang.
These arts are calligraphy and Chinese fighting traditions. DeMarco, through his fictional avatar, draws many parallels between them, which offers the reader an important lesson in understanding martial arts, not as a defensive practice, but as a philosophy or a way of life.
âWielding the sword or the brush requires unity of mind, body and spirit,â writes DeMarco in his foreword. And in the first chapter, âSacred Space,â written under the name Yang, he says, âThe paint shop and the boxing court are not just fortified areas. They are sacred places to study the Dao and forge the mind.
Indeed, this sentiment is preceded by an enlightening discussion of the common characters present in Chinese words for calligraphy, as well as boxing. And from these shared characters, the author elaborates on shared meanings.
“I read that first essay to my students, and a guy said, ‘Why don’t you take all that calligraphy stuff off? These are not martial arts, âsays DeMarco. âMy point of view was missing. The touch of the brush is the sensitivity of tai chi. The philosophy is the same.
DeMarco, in his 60s, began studying Yang-style tai chi with Yang Qingyu in Taiwan in the early 1970s. It is a little-known family tradition outside of Taiwan. The teachings arise from an anchoring in the essentials such as relaxation, balance and coordination. DeMarco teaches students of the Yang Lineage teachings in Santa Fe, where he has lived for 16 years.
He chose 64 as the number of essays in the book to coincide with the number of hexagrams in the I Ching, the ancient Chinese divinatory text, also called The book of changes.
âWhen I started I said, ‘My God, do I have enough ideas to make 64? “”
The essays are short, most of them only a few pages long. Not all of them relate to the practice of martial arts. Yang’s essays also give DeMarco the opportunity to introduce the reader to some of the important history of martial arts in China.
In the essay “Inspiring Factors”, for example, he explains how in ancient China martial arts first developed as a defense against human and animal attacks. Techniques involving weapons have evolved over centuries of dynastic change, but a philosophy of practice has led to the development of the art in the service of physical, mental, and spiritual well-being, not just military applications.
But DeMarco points out that martial arts are, in essence, deadly. And the student who learns a bad technique can harm himself and others.
âI can read a paragraph in Spanish and maybe my pronunciation is pretty good, but I don’t know what that means,â he said in explanation.
For DeMarco, a student who doesn’t take the time to learn the history and philosophy behind the techniques – and finds a teacher who has mastered the practice of a certain lineage who can impart that knowledge – learns the movements but not much – something else.
âOne thing I say to my students is, ‘Whatever I say, you don’t have to believe me at all. You have to test it. You have to know for yourself whether it works or not. Some of these ideas that I try to bring out in the book. The last chapter is all about it. Take no one’s word for it. Go out and test it.