Magical Origins: a review of Scott Park Phillips

Possible Origins Book Cover

Tai Chi's origins in Central Asian shamanism are of practical interest to practitioners of the Old Yang family middle frame tradition.

As transmitted to us by Dr. Shen Zaiwen, the old middle frame is not simply combative. It is also an exercise in shamanistic self- transformation. This process is supported by a system of esoteric animal qigongs which are of shamanic origin. This is a much neglected aspect of Tai Chi, which is why it is so pleasing to see this work by Scott Park Phillips.

A practitioner of Kung Fu, Chen-style Taijiquan, and South Asian dance, he eloquently argues his thesis that the Tai Chi long form is a dramatic enactment of Daoist ritual. You can watch an accompanying video in which he states his thesis: The Cultural History of Tai Chi.

Review by Peter Reist (Associate Instructor, Cold Mountain Internal Arts):

Mr. Phillips opens up the book with a short autobiography detailing some of his history and the arts in which he has previously trained. He describes himself as a member of the Hippie Royalty and a dancer. This is an essential point of the narrative framework as it shows the particular lens through which he is approaching the martial arts.

On the whole, the tone of the text is relaxed, informal, and easy to read - a stark contrast to the highly academic tone you find in other works. This is a telling indication that this book does come out of a rigorous academic tradition.

The central thesis - that the majority of martial arts have their roots within theatre, in particular religious morality plays - is fairly compelling. The author makes reference to numerous forms of religious and folk dances that share a distinct similarity with the movements of martial arts. He presents the martial arts forms as a type of ritual dance through which one sets the stage, introduces the various characters, and tells a story, all the while engaging in a form of controlled invocation of a particular spirit into the self. The martial artist, actor, or priest plays the role of shaman and intermediary between heaven and earth, hence the allusions to the Creation and Completion phases of Deity Yoga that one finds within the various Vajrayana sects.

However, in doing so, he has to downplay the martial and the military history of the martial arts which, in several cases this has him misquoting essential points from General Qi's texts. While General Qi was, without a doubt, a highly skilled martial artist, he did not find that martial artists made good soldiers as they where too enamoured with the heroic ideal and would not follow orders. Martial artists in this regard are warriors as opposed to soldiers, a distinction that the Romans knew quite well.

Further, the fantastical martial arts he cites, which involve high kicks and tumbling, are precisely those of which General Qi disapproved. General Qi applied to them perhaps one of the first uses of the phrase, "Flower Fists, Brocade Legs". The use of simple and somewhat poetic phrases to describe the various movements of the form that he taught constitutes a basic mnemonic method, one that could easily be used to train large groups of soldiers and get them to move as a unit.

Phillips' whole-hearted acceptance of the Zhang San Feng myth is completely understandable. As this is something that so completely aligns with his own thesis, I understand why he takes it up. In light of the academic scholarship that has shown that this myth has very little to do with any actual historical basis, this approach is quite frustrating.

An interesting counterpoint to the centrality of his interpretation of Zhang San Feng on the origin of Taiji Quan is the utter and complete absence of the similar myth that Bodhidharma was the progenitor of Shaolin gongfu, a similar view that has been proven to be a fairly modern fabrication. This is an absence which I find somewhat odd, given that Phillips comes from a Shaolin tradition. He prefers to focus upon the theatrical elements and associated actor class that would be involved in a series of rebellions in the late Qing dynasty that would culminate with the Boxer Rebellion.

His interpretation of various movements is interesting and enlightening, adding an extra layer of depth and complexity to an already rich tradition. This is something that is very much still present in the various animal energies within the Old Yang tradition that we practise. This, however, is something that is almost completely absent in more modern forms of the art.

As an extrapolation of the subject of Fu diagrams that Phillips touches upon, I would suggest looking at The Tao of the Craft by Benebell Wen that goes into the subject in depth.

Addendum by Steve Higgins:

Pursuant to Peter Reist’s review of Scott Park Phillip’s Possible Origins, and to a very interesting conversation with Randall Templeton, I’d like to make several points.

All three of us agree that Phillips is onto something – something of great importance. However, all three of us also agree that Phillips' enthusiasm for his subject causes him to support a particularly questionable origin narrative, the Chan San Feng account, and to neglect potential alternatives.

For example, his symbolic reading of postures includes the identification of one of the initial movements of the form as “Play Pi-pa”. However, the posture illustrated is one we know in our Chen transmission as “Jade Lady Works at Shuttles”.

The Jade Lady figures prominently in the famous “Diagram of the Internals” at right. She is, of course, the Heavenly Weaver-girl (the star Vega), sitting in the Yellow Field of the Earth, separated from her Heavenly Herd-boy swain (the star Altair) by the swirling River of Stars we know as The Milky Way. Hence the celestial (astronomical) Yin and Yang are referenced at the beginning of the Tai Chi form, an allusion I find much more compelling.

The Chan San Feng origin account seems to be of relatively recent provenance and, as the years pass, it becomes more and more elaborated. This is a process which has been thoroughly analyzed by scholars such as Stanley Henning, Douglas Wile and Barbara Davis. When asked about their work, Phillips simply states that they are wrong. He offers no reasoned rebuttal.

However, his work reminds us that Tai Chi has a magical and mythic aspect. It is something that is usually ignored but which can provide an enriching element in our practice. It points to the exercise’s links to the tradition of Internal Alchemy, something particularly apparent in the Old Yang tradition we practice in our club.

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