Archive for July 21st, 2009


In defense of simplified forms

In traditional martial art training, in Northern China at least, children are usually taught basic Chang Quan (usually Tan Tui, Shao Lin) and Shuai Jiao first. This is not because they need to have basic mastery of external martial art first. But just to prepare them physically so they can do the very demanding physical movements in those internal martial art forms.

In the old days these forms are used as one of the primary tool for training by professionals. That whole process involved both training and selection. Today these arts are open to the general population, and since we no longer rely on empty hand martial art skills for real world fighting (war, police, home defense), the selection and training are much more lax.

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One problem with this is that a lot of people don’t have the prerequisite physical conditioning (strength, power, endurance, speed, flexibility, balance, reflex, and coordination) . If you can barely hold your leg up at chest level, how are you supposed to relax when doing the kicks in the Taiji form? If you cannot do single leg squats, how can you supposed to really shift all your weight to one leg?

So this leads to several problems:

  1. if the physical movements are too challenging, if you have to struggle and strain to just completing the gross physical movements, then neither the body nor the mind can relax. If you cannot relax, how can you really focus on the detailed mechanics of the skill? How can you concentrate on all those tiny details that are so crucial?
  2. You’re not doing the movements according to the standard (high, professional level) requirements. Correct movements leads to correct feeling, correct feeling leads to skill.
  3. In the beginning the movement have to be big so to make it easier to experience the correct feelings, many of which are very subtle. If you are weak, inflexible, and can only do all the movements in very limited range of motion, you may never get the correct feeling.
  4. Many of the skills, both basic (ex. basic thrust and circles in spear) and advanced, they require many hundreds, if not thousands of repetitions per workout initially to understand, and hundreds of thousands of repetitions overall to master. If you do not have the required endurance, and can only do a few reps per session, you will never master them.

Usually children are taught many different chang quan routines. They are mostly variations of the same things. This is because just like in today’s high level sports competition, high volume training since early childhood is one of the key factors of success. When you’re asking kids to do that much training, realistically you have to introduce some variety to make things interesting.

For these reasons, it may look like people are doing a lot of hard style training before they start internal martial art. But the truth is they are practicing the same conditioning basics shared by most empty hand styles.

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So what about adults who are introduced to Taiji Quan directly, who lack the high level of gongfu in basic conditioning to practice the form?  If they can’t do the form correctly, they will never get the correct feeling.  In essence they are not doing Taiji as an internal martial art, but as a set of difficult physical calisthenics.  This is one reason so many people can practice Taiji Quan for decades without really understanding it, and therefore benefit from it.

For this reason I think simplied, beginner forms are necessary.  Drop the degree of diffiulty from professional to amatuer level.  This way they can do the movement correctly, and as a result get something.  The level of mastery achieved will be more limited of course.  But at least they are doing Taiji.  And if they choose to do so, as their conditioning improve, they can move on to the more difficult, more varied full professional curriculum.


Balanced Force – sinking vs heavy

In normal usage, the words chen (沉) and zhong (重) are often used interchangeably to mean heavy. In Taiji Quan, we make clear distinctions between them. The key difference is zhong is just one direction – a big force going downwards. Chen should feel like a object sinking in water – there is also an upward force.

This has very practical impacts in martial art. Because how we think, how we feel affect our postures and quality of movement right? If you think “I want to be an immovable object, like a big rock or tree”, you will subconsciously try to go as low into the ground as possible, and be as resistant to change as possible. While that may make you more stable, it sacrifices mobility and quickness. The term “Taiji” means having two opposite qualities within the same entity at the same time. So real Taiji skill means here we need to also supply an upward force. However Taiji does not dictate that those two opposite forces must be equal. Otherwise it makes it hard to move right?

So even when we’re standing still, putting all our weight on one leg, we don’t just sink into the ground, we use mental imagery like “there’s a light, pure, upward lifting energy (definition of yang) shooting to the top of the head”, or “think pushing your body out of ground instead of sinking into it”. Having forces in the opposite direction, or at least the mental preparation to exert that force at any time, helps us not just be more agile (the ability to make change quickly), but also more stable. More stable because the overall force is more balanced. That’s why we say elements of yin yang, or wu xing, are opposite but complementary forces. Complementary because they help each other, serving some bigger goal together.

So in Taiji Quan, we want Chen, not Zhong, as by definition zhong is not a taiji quality. An untrained person does not have root, so the first thing we tend to emphasize is to ‘sink qi to dan tian’. But if we only do that, we will be too slow. This is self-evident when doing moving push hand/sparring, but not so much in static push hand. This is why we see people who primary do static push hand do poorly in real fights. They give their opponents their dream target – a slow, solid object that takes in the full impact of attacks.

The overall concept of balancing forces is a very common one in Chinese martial art. In Baji Quan for example, the saying is “head butting against the sky, foot planted in the river of underworld” (头顶苍天, 脚踏黄泉). In Xing Yi Quan this is called six directional force, in Taiji Quan, Baji Quan, it’s called eight directional force.

And when you’re both balanced and agile, not only can you exert a greater force, but that force is also less subject to outside influences.


A great curvature resembles a straight line

According to the principle, everything we do in Taiji Quan are made up of circles, even apparently straight line movements. How can that be?

The answer can be found in Laozi’s famous saying “a big curvature resembles a straight line” 大曲若直. People used to think the earth is flat. It is curved, but the curvature takes place over such a long distance, relative to the physical dimension of man, that it looks flat to us with unaided vision.


In terms of martial art, this is linked to one of the most important concepts in Taiji Quan. That is, when fighting against someone, always project your movement so that you create a larger circle which envelopes the other person. Li Yiyu – Sun Lutang’s grandmaster in Taiji Quan, wrote a very famous article detailing what Taiji Qyan fighting at the higher levels should be like, where he talked about covering, blanketing, swallowing … the opponent’s qi. If we don’t use the word qi, and just look at externally what happens, we can say a big part of that is about using a larger circle to control smaller circle(s).

And of course in real fighting we don’t always physically complete a circle. So a punch that is a part of a very large circle can look like just a straight punch.


If you want to catch them, set them free

欲 (yù): desiring, wanting to (verb). The word you used 慾, is a noun. It also means desire, usually carnal desire.
擒 (qín): capture.
故 (gù): deliberately
縱 (zòng): set free

This phrase originated from 需 (xu1) 卦 (gua) in Yi Jing:

Translation: If you press the retreating enemy such that there is no escape, they will lash out like a trapped dying animal. But if you let them run, they will exhaust themselves in the process. So when chasing retreating foes, don’t follow too closely, let them exhaust their physical energy and fighting spirit. When they lose their unit cohesion and disperse into individuals, you can capture them without even bloodying your weapons.

Explanation: Xu1 gua is made up of symbols for water and heaven. It implies rain/thunderstorm, therefore danger. Xu1 represent a scenario that, even if overall things are favorable to us, there is still danger involved, and overcoming that danger involves confidence. A lot of times, only when you have confidence can you be patient. If you can have patience, success can be yours.


Overall methodology for martial art training

I’ve been taking classes from Carnegie Mellon’s graduate program in Software Engineering.  They’ve been very instructive.  A lot of approaches and methodologies are transferable to other areas of life.  Here with some minor modifications, I’m adapting the Capability Maturity Model to martial art (here Taiji Quan) training:

if we want to succeed at something, we must first know clearly a) what we’re trying to do, and b) how to do it:

1. first we must be clear on goals of the training – what is the ideal skill we’re trying to achieve? According to traditional teaching, the ideal skill should be like: don’t struggle against the enemy directly where he is strong, first follow him to see what his real intentions are, from following comes knowing (your enemy), then you use internal jins to redirect that force so it misses you (“lure your opponent to emptiness”), causing him to lose balance in the process, and finally finish him off with hard external jin.

2. from that goal, know what type of abilities are necessary for that process to work: to be able to detect (“listen”) what our opponent is trying to do, we need sensitivity skills. That means from one brief touch you can tell what your opponent wants to do, what type of force will he use, what angle, what timing, what duration, etc. To listen you need to follow first, to follow you need to relax…;

3. from knowing the abilities, know what are the various types of trained forces involved: internal, external, what are the characteristics of each, what are their strength and weaknesses, when it is appropriate to use them?

3. from knowing the abilities and jins you’re after, you need to know what methods are used to achieve those: form practice, push hands, sticking staff, single movement fa jin practice…

4. we need to know how to practice/use those methods: why do we emphasize “relax, slow, circular, agile” in forms training? what are the various stages of forms training, push hands, and sparring?

5. we need to know the logic and sequence of training, know the relationship and importance of various skills (what comes after what, what are the main things – the root and trunk, what are the ancillary, assisting skills – leaves and flowers). The answer to this question explains why some groups uses a “fast form”, why some of these “fighting forms” (ie Lao Jia Er Lu) is not really a more advanced than the primary long form.


Real world value of traditional martial art expertise

Before the success of UFC, other than a few mega celebrities within martial art world (e.g. Chen Xiaowang), not many people can make a comfortable living as professional martial artists.  Even for the UFC guys, other than the top fighters, it’s exactly a good, easy life.  For poor people, is it a way out of poverty the way basketball, football, baseball are? For middle class people, is martial art a perfect alternative to undergrad degree in business or computer science? For rich people, why would you want to train this hard?

It’s all about need. In today’s world, if your objective is just to get somewhere fast, would you fly, drive, take a train, or even bike, versus going by long-distance running? And if your objective is to kill, injure, incapacitate the people trying to do the same to you, are you going to fight them with bombs, war planes, rifles, pistols, or your empty hands?

So that leaves out practical needs.

Then we get to entertainment: people will pay money to see real, high level basketball, football, baseball skills. People will not pay money to see REAL, high-level martial art skills. Martial art is art of violence. In a civil society, that violence needs to be controlled. So as a sport, many of the best martial art skills, especially those on the striking side, the one does most damage to opponents, cannot be used (my Tongbei uncle’s motto: “I only want two things from my opponent – his eyes and his balls”). We are literally tying our own hands there. Luckily grappling does not have that problem. But again, look at success of grappling as sport entertainment before UFC, it’s mostly for entertainment – WWF. The average person prefer to see that versus seeing two guys wrestling on the ground with blood gushing all over canvas. Sure, single young men loves UFC, but it that something you can watch with your spouse, children, parent, at Thanksgiving? So it’s not family entertainment, like most other sports.

So that leaves out most professional opportunities.

So lastly, we have personal fitness. Martial art is a skill. And it’s designed to kill, injure. So automatically half of the population – women, are not going to be that interested. If you just want fitness, there are so many other alternatives that are more fun while you’re doing it: surfing, skiiing, rollerblading… Most amateurs lead busy lives, to achieve fitness/conditioning, there are much more efficient alternatives: swimming, running, etc. We are amongst few people who practice martial art for what it is, but if we’re honest with ourselves, we have to say the benefits we receive are mostly physical fitness and mental training – ancillary goals of CMA training.

And what about the social aspect? Do martial art as a profession have the same level of respect as other professions (business, law, medicine, architecture, IT…)? Can you impress strangers by telling them you do traditional martial art? You can’t, because you are engaged in an entirely unreasonable pursuit. The general public, for perfectly valid reasons, do not have familiarly, understanding, or appreciation for this outdated skill.

All those 19th century martial art heroes we’re talking about, they were professionals. If they are born today, most likely they won’t be the same people, simply because the appropriate environment (physical necessity, economic incentive, competitive pressure, social acceptance) is not there.


Taiji Quan’s Bridging Skills 接手

This questions comes up a lot:  how to deal with someone who is fast and using a lot of feints, for example the box with his jabs.

The advantages of the jab are that it’s very quick, changeable, relatively long range, and very hard for the opponent to tell whether an attack is real or fake. The disadvantage is that power-wise it’s relatively light. For internal martial arts, the main advantage of internal skills (we also use external skills, but as finishing moves) is that we can use them to control the opponent. The disadvantage is that those has to be used at very close range – everything starts with making contact first. So you’re raising one of the key questions for internal martial art fighting: how do we close that distance?

Here we have a two part problem:

  1. dealing with a longer weapon: in theory, the only way to survive against a longer weapon is to get inside, past its minimum effective range. So we have stay just outside its maximum effective range until we spot an opportunity, then we come in fast, inside of its minimum effective range.
  2. dealing with trickery: against someone using a lot of tricky/fake skills, you do something solid, real, forcing him to respond with the same. To paraphrase Sunzi, present the enemy with a target so inviting that he has to strike with real commitment. And when they do that, it’s much simpler (not necessarily easier) to deal with.

There are two types of skills we need to be good at to make this work:
Footwork: amongst many Taiji practitioners today, one common problem is that their steps are too big. This is the result of doing mostly stationary push hand and fixed routine moving push hands where only one or two pre-designed steps are required. If we are unable to stick to our partner in random moving push hand practice, then our footwork is not good enough for real fighting.

This is one reason sticking staff is emphasized so much in traditional practice. Footwork is even more import in weapons fighting, where everything is faster. There being out of position even a little bit means not being able to withdraw the weapon back in time to deal with the next attack. And the type that is needed there are mostly small, quick and therefore more stable and agile footwork. So sticking staff (spear basics) drills offers us the most challenging and realistic footwork training.

Hand skill: In push hands we normally start the practice with two people touching each other’s hands already. So how to achieve that touch in the first place? In Taiji Quan, there is actually a set of skills called bridge hands in its sparring practice. It’s one of the last skills to learn for people who are good enough to reach that stage in training. It’s similar to the ones used in Bagua – how to make contact with the opponent’s arms using the arm on the same side, opposite side; from inside of his arm, from outside; one hand, both hands; what to do immediately after making contact to get even closer, control his center, etc.

There are of course a lot of details: even when it’s a hard, real attack, the hands is still very fast and changeable, so don’t try to catch the wrist directly, watch the elbow, try to make contact with the elbow or the area below (toward the forearm), etc.

July 2009
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