Martial Arts as Magic, Part 1: Yoga and Arhat Fist
Fantasy runs on tropes. In fact, the clichés are so deeply embedded in the genre that you can make a splash by carefully noting them (“okay, there are a lot of old wizards with grey beards”) and then systematically doing the opposite (“…but what about a young sorceress with no beard…”). This reinforces my belief that the genre has become a never-ending quest to find a new horse to beat to death.
I have to admit, though, that fantasy writers still get creative with their magic—from the blood magic of A Darker Shade of Magic to the allomancy of Mistborn to the narcomancy of The Killing Moon, there’s all kinds of interesting ideas floating around.
I’ve spoken about the use of ki and martial arts in fantasy settings in the past, but that’s not what I’m talking about today. I’m talking more about tantra, yoga, and Arhat Fist. I’m talking about channeling magic through movement. Hopefully, it’ll be something interesting for all you worldbuilders and writers to think about when you start creating your own magic system.
MAGIC AS MOVEMENT
If you read my last article on Ursula LeGuin, you probably remember this passage from Wizard of Earthsea, where the protagonist Ged locks eyes with the Archmage of Roke:
“As their eyes met, a bird sang aloud in the branches of the tree. In that moment, Ged understood the singing of the bird, and the language of the water falling in the basin of the fountain, and the shape of the clouds, and the beginning and the end of the wind that stirred the leaves: it seemed to him that he himself was a word spoken by the sunlight.”
This scene is meant to be an epiphany for Ged about the nature of magic, but it’s also a new way to think about magic in fantasy as a whole: magic in Earthsea can be spoken and written, but if it finds expression in things like the shape of clouds and the sunlight, then who’s to say magic can’t be danced, or evoked through the careful movements of a martial arts kata?
Even outside of Earthsea’s Taoist-influenced universe, the idea that magic can be cast in ways other than just speech or symbols makes sense: magic is almost always an expression of the structure and nature of its universe, and every time a mage casts a spell, they’re evoking part of that universe. In that sense, the mage, universe, and magic are all connected in the act of casting a spell, creating an unbroken chain that changes the world. The only real difference between magic systems is the terms of the spell and how it’s channeled. Most writers stick to tropes when it comes channeling (using a wand, words of power, or a written spell), but most of the time it’s out of habit, not because that’s the only possible way to cast a spell.
So why not explore something different? The unity of magic, mage, and universe has a striking connection to the practices of yoga, tantra, and the grand-daddy of many Chinese martial arts, Arhat Fist kung-fu.
SYMBOLISM IN MOVEMENT
When you do a Child’s Pose or a Warrior Pose in Yoga, you’re taking on a symbolic position with a deeper spiritual meaning—the Warrior pose, for example, is meant to symbolize overcoming ignorance and the ego. Many of these stances also have a narrative meaning—the Tree Pose is supposedly representative of a chapter in the Ramayana where Rama’s wife Sita endured his absence by mimicking the strong, grounded stance of the trees around the Demon King’s palace. Meanwhile, many tantric practices revolve around identifying oneself with a deity or aspect of a deity, as well using ritual acts that are symbolic for macrocosmic events, like death and rebirth.
Magic and rituals are part of the same idea—that humans can evoke power or change in the world through the use of symbols. In the above cases, the movements of the body become the symbols for something larger.
A great example of this is Arhat Fist, the original type of kung fu practiced by the Shaolin monks. Each of the eighteen stances has a discrete meaning that comes together in a sequence that expresses something much more profound than punching someone in the throat—in this case, the entire sequence serves as a vehicle for enlightenment, evoking concepts like wu hsin, or “no-mind.” Eventually, the practitioner learns that they are an expression of the universe, as are their movements.
Yoga, tantra and Arhat Fist serve as a kind of blueprint for evoking ideas (and even narratives) through movement alone, the same way speaking or writing a magic word evokes an idea like “invisibility” or “light.”
The movements of the body can be just as good at articulating the subtleties of language that we usually rely on words to convey, too—in the siu nim tao exercise for wing chun, for example, each set of movements is punctuated by the opening and closing of the hand and the return of the arm to the side of the body. A fight between to martial artists can be seen as a conversation, just as Shouts between dragons in Skyrim are portrayed as debates.
PART 2: TURNING MARTIAL ARTS INTO MAGIC
Well, that wraps up the theory part of this. In my next piece, I’m going to talk about practicalities of turning movement (especially martial arts) into a functioning magic system. I’m going to be touching on Avatar the Last Airbender along with some less combat-focused examples, like tai chi and magical gestures.
And, as always, if you want to challenge me to a kung-fu duel, I’m at the Brooklyn Bridge every Thursday.