By Sascha Matuszak
It’s safe to say that Taijiquan has made it through the gauntlet. Of all the many elements of the traditional martial arts that have fallen into disfavor or disrepute recently, none have managed to rebound and rebrand themselves the way taiji has. The key to taiji quan’s success in China is the upper middle class, who find that taiji fulfills several of their core demands.
You can walk around any city in China and see the older generations practicing taiji in the public parks. But as one taiji master in Sichuan told me, “the old people have no purchasing power.” Neither do the martial artists who make up the other stalwart demographic practicing taiji. Without the money of the new taiji enthusiast, the art would have flowed along softly, not quite stagnating but never really growing.
Now, with real budgets to work with, taiji masters can open larger schools, throw events exhibitions and seminars, and travel the world promoting their art. Money breeds money; the more CEOs who turn to a taiji master in search of answers, the more taiji masters and schools will emerge to fill that need.
That’s what is happening in China right now. As has been pointed out in great detail on this blog, this is not an unexpected phenomenon, and there are several trends that helped popularize taiji. I am going to describe one of these trends, the rise of the upper middle class, through a few separate stories.
The first is about the Men of Culture.
I was joined on my trip to Chenjiagou in Henan Province by Chen Jia, a disciple of Chen Xiaowang who has her own taiji school in Shanghai, and four men who had paid for exclusive access to Chen Xiaowang during his annual spring trip to Chenjiagou.
One of them was a calligrapher, another was a tea buff. The third was a regular rich guy from Guangdong, who worked out a bit. The last man had brought them together, negotiated the fee, and helped chaperone them on the trip. Promoting culture is his business; he’s a culture fence.
These men are deep into Chinese culture. Highly educated on what teas to drink and when to drink them, able to quote popular Tang poetry, discuss the best watercolor painters alive today, and tell you when to climb which mountain in order to glimpse a certain flower that blooms only then. Being with them is to be constantly tested for one’s grasp of esoteric knowledge. They hurled culture at each other like a food fight; they winked culture at each other knowingly, over tea. They proclaimed it from on high, until they were in the presence of Chen Xiaowang himself, and then they became clumsy and muddle headed, unable to form a straight line or look anyone in the eye. Traditional Chinese culture emphasizes hierarchy and accepting one’s status, so when men of culture meet a cultural icon such as Chen Xiaowang, they tend to bow and scrape.
The cultural knowledge of these four men was undeniable, but so was their charlatanism. Culture is an accoutrement for these men, and taiji is a new jewel. The right shoe to be wearing right now. Taiji has become popular with culture buffs, because it represents an intrinsic Chinese contribution to world culture; it is as important these days to know your taiji as it is to quote poetry, drink good tea, or have bamboo furniture in your small garden. The tea buff had the strongest grasp of all these elements, his stances were solid, and he knew the movements. That’s why he ended up asserting his cultural dominance over the group: his was the most authentic culture.
Taiji is as important to the image of the monied class as a flashy car or brand name bag. In fact, a strong grasp of taiji (and therefore also Chinese medicine and perhaps a bit of art) is what separates the truly cultured gentleman from the uncouth peasant and his recent riches. The middle class is defiantly distancing itself from its farmer roots, from the title of nouveau riche itself, from the greedy masses, from yesterday’s fashions.
The second story is about the Stressed Out CEO.
I was sitting with a taiji master, drinking tea of course, when he leaned over and showed me a text message he had just received. It was from a female CEO of some large company that he didn’t mention. He read it out to me, but the first sentence is what sticks in my mind,
“Wise Master, thank you so much for your advice, all things become clear and simple when you describe them to me … “
It wasn’t surprising really, to see people here reach out for a guru. Taiji is tied to Taoism, and every student expects their taiji master to also possess a bit of deep wisdom to go with the taiji sword. What surprised me was the lengths the masters would go to meet the demand.
CEOs reaching out for quick, effective remedies to the stress that builds up has resulted in simplified taiji forms – down to six moves for example – that can be downloaded onto a smart phone and practiced in an office room. If the businessperson has a question, just hop onto Wechat and send a voice message. Taiji masters must be able to navigate social media and mobile apps, be able to explain simple moves, and above all be able to couch everything in pop philosophy.
This market is the exploding one. The exclusive, high end taiji service for the elite Chinese businessperson. One high level official I spoke to salivated over the possibilities a chain of high end taiji-themed spas would provide him with. Taiji Zen, Jack Ma and Jet Li’s endeavor, is exactly that wrapped in populism and cultural tradition. Of course. The whole point to is differentiate between the nouveau riche of the 1990s and early 21st century and those that are taking China into the next era.
Taiji masters with high level clients stay busy traveling from company to company, government office to five-star hotel, holding seminars, dispensing wisdom, commenting on certain stances, and looking positively Taoist.
Although having a taiji master in China today is almost like having a lawyer, the product is real. The demand is very real. People want their health back, both physical and mental. And they are willing to pay for it. Unlike the cultured men who want to be able to talk about and demonstrate taiji, the businessperson is interested in an exchange of capital for services: I make sure you get rich like me, you make sure I live long and think deep like you. The taiji masters must not only know their forms, but also be able to deliver common sense, detached opinions in Taoist terminology.
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The third story is about the Ardent Activist.
Taiji is actually just riding the wave. The middle class is not just about money or symbols, the people who have made some money and have a bit of an outlook on life are also about saving their country.
For many of the activist Chinese, the first thing that needs to be saved is the soul. Not necessarily the “Christian soul” though; the Chinese soul requires morality, balance, and sustainability for this life, not for possible rewards in the next.
Middle class Chinese are seeking out alternatives to what they feel is a repressive and outdated education system. They are looking to organic farms due to concerns for food safety. Middle class activists for a better China are re-discovering traditional Chinese medicine, for the same reasons they are accepting of taiji. Chinese seek exposure to the best the outer world has to offer, better books and better movies.
There is a demand for quality now, and taiji falls into the category of “positive influence” and also, more importantly, taiji has not been discredited as much as traditional Chinese medicine has been. Taiji has benefited from a large number of accomplished masters who have helped maintain the reputation of the art, so the middle class repays the art by ensuring that the majority opinion toward taiji is a positive one.
In my experience, activists are not necessarily practitioners, but they are the social media in the equation. They help in their role as barometer for what is righteous and good for society and for China. That in turn informs who CEOs may turn to for help, and what cultured men require for their collection.
Although in the public discourse, the government and the elite have the largest and most powerful voices, society here works by consensus. The consensus is that taiji is valuable, and must be nurtured and protected.
The rise of taiji is part of a larger phenomenon across China. Middle and upper middle class Chinese are seeking out better lives, not just enough money to survive, and taiji – along with food safety and traditional medicine – fulfill that demand. Equally important is the fact that taiji also fits into the Chinese affluent class’s image of themselves and the world: modern and avant garde, yet steeped in traditional Chinese values.
About the Author: Sascha Matuszak is a freelance writer based in Chengdu, China, and an editor of the site Chengdu Living. Sascha also runs a martial arts themed blog, thelastmasters.com. You can also find his writing at Fightland.