Archive for the 'Skill' Category


Teaching the rich and the powerful, continued…

One of the persistent myths in Taiji is that when Yang Luchan went to Beijing, he made the training easier by taking out all the hard stumping and jumps from the form to make it easier for the nobles.  There has been two reasons supplied for his doing so: 1) the form would otherwise be too difficult for the nobles, 2) he didn’t want to teach the real art to the Manchurians who invaded and took control of China in 1644.  If we just take a step back and take a look at everything else we know to be true about the martial art scene in Beijing at the time, we can easily conclude this not to be true.

To start, both of these reasons implies the true essence of Taiji lies within powerful stumps and high jumps.  But those are not what make basic Taijiquan skills work, or makes it different from other martial art right?  If we want spectacular high jumps and kicks, none can surpass those in modern Wushu.  Are those Wushu’s athletes’ competition more authentic than even the classical forms then?  As for powerful Fajin in strikes, out of the Big Six martial arts of the north,  Tongbei and Baji are the ones most famous for that.  In terms of stumping, Baji and  Xingyi emphasize those in their training more than other arts.  The essence of Taiji is using subtle circular forces to change the direction of the opponent, taking him off his center before he is aware.

Yang Luchan may very well have changed the practice over his lifetime, and taking out the powerful fajin and jumps (the high kicks are still in the form) may very well be a conscious decision to make the form’s tempo completely slow, even, and smooth, which help the practitioner get the correct feel sooner.

As for deceiving the prince of Qing Dynasty for all those years, that is just not possible for someone in his position.  First: before coming to Beijing Yang Luchan spent his entire adult life as an indentured servant.  He was freed only because his master died, and it was unseemly for an single adult male his age to be living alone with the widow of the master.  A commoner cannot even loiter outside a prince’s palace without permission.  Before coming to Beijing, Yang Luchan first went back to his hometown of Yongnian.  There he seriously injured an opponent during a fight.  The challenger’s family and clan sought revenge.  When Yang Luchan came to Beijing, he was able to keep a low profile for a while, taking a job as a regular family tutor (literature, not martial art) for the owner of a famous pickled vegetable shop.   However when one day a band of 20 brigands tried to rob the factory shop, he single-handedly defeated all of them.   Soon the old enemies showed up at his door again.

The shop he worked at – Tianyishun Jiangyuan (天义顺酱园), supplies the imperial family.  The owner knew Duan Wang, the cousin to the emperor.  The shop owner Zhang Fengqi (张凤岐) introduced Yang to the prince, with the idea that with him serving the prince, trouble will stop following him once and for all.  And that was the way things worked out.  Not only did it provide livelihood, honor, and prestige, but the association with the prince provided security and peace of mind as well.  Why would Yang Luchan, whose life has been mostly impoverished and troubled up to this point, do anything so outrageous and daring as secretly creating two systems of teaching and deceive the person he depended everything on?!

Besides, we all know how counter-intuitive the slow Taijiquan training method is.  How would it look to the prince if he and his men spent years training with little results, while Yang’s own son Banhou, who is 3 years younger than Quan You and others, grew by leaps and bounds in skill?  Such deception is simply not possible.

Besides, we knew people inside the palace got the real skill.  As the famous saying goes “Of Luchan’s students, Wanchun (萬春) got his hard fajin, Lingshan (凌山) was adapt as throwing, and Quanyou (全佑) was skilled at neutralization.”   So these were his three best students (besides his sons of course).  Wangchun, Lingshan, and Quanyou were Manchurian guards working at Prince Duan’s palace.   Wangchun and Lingshan had no desciples, Quanyou today is respected as founder of Wu Style Taijiquan.  According to family lore within Taiji circles, there were actually two other Manchurian students who obtained Taijiquan skill before these three, but they both perished during the invasion of Eight-Nation Alliance.

We can tell whatever Yang Luchan taught, he taught everyone the same.  Banhou’s skill and training is no different from what is taught in Quan You’s lineage, or different from those of Yongnian students Yang Luchan taught before coming to Beijing.  In fact, of the six big styles of Taijiquan today, all five that shared common ancestor in Yang Luchan look more or less the same, with only Chen Style looking very different.

So if Yang Luchan made the change, he taught everyone the same way, he did not single out the Manchurian employers.  If that were not the case, then there should be no difference between Yang Style and Chen Style.

This is where understanding the cultural context is really helpful.  Who are these Manchurians who learned from Yang Luchan?

Manchurian Warrior on Horseback

Manchurian Warrior on Horseback

The Manchurians are an ethnic minority at the northeastern border of Ming Empire.  They were an autonomous vassal state that had to pay annual tribute to Ming.  With Ming government overthrown and country still in chaos as the peasant rebels still trying figuring out what to do, an opportunity arose for them to raid the country.  But clear-sighted and ambitious Prince Dorgon rightly saw this as not just another big score, but an rare opportunity to take over the entire country.

There was great opposition as the native Han ethnic group opposed rule by foreigners.  Those opposition died down fairly soon as Qing Dynasty was blessed with many brilliant, enlightened rulers, in sharp contrast to Ming Dynasty.  The Manchurian did not repeat the key mistake the rulers of short-lived Mongol empire made – trying to make a much larger, more advanced civilization conform to the social, economic, and agricultural systems of a less advanced nomadic culture.  Instead, they eagerly adopted Han ways, so the native population did not feel a constant cultural clash that reminded their differences and fueled dissent.

One tradition the Manchurians did not abandon is the way its male members lived in constant readiness for war.  Made up of 8 tribes/clans, the male of each of the tribes were not to have full-time occupations that would prevent them from being called up for war/raid at a moment’s notice by their clan leaders.  For most of its 261 year history, Qing Dynasty enjoyed uninterrupted peace and prosperity.  For all this time, the entire male population of the ruling ethnic groups lived off rich government stipends, and had nothing but free time on his hands.  These man are known as Sons of Baqi (Baqi Zidi 八旗子第).  Baqi – eight flags representing the eight tribes of Manchuria.

Since they can’t have full-time professions, they had full-time hobbies.  During this time, every conceivable leisure-time activity:  arts, crafts, falconry, gardening, cuisine, … cricket-fighting, everything got pushed to absurdly high, refined levels.  This included, for a people whose entire way of life (and very idea of manhood) centered around horseback riding, wrestling, and hunting, a natural and abiding interest in martial art.

It is during this time Shuaijiao reached its zenith, as Manchurian, Mongolian, and Han styles merged into a much larger, more detailed skill.  The Manchu emperor has his own wrestling team of around 438 people, divided into two camps.  Throughout the year the camps competed with each other, had frequent exhibitions, traveled with emperor during hunts, and most importantly, faced off against the Mongolian king’s wrestlers in annual contest.  Membership and promotion in the team depended entirely on one’s performance in all these events.

The 438 of professional wrestlers at Shan Pu Ying (善扑营) belong to but one of the three capitol city garrisons.  The one where Yang Luchan, Liu Zhijun, and Song Mailun taught at – Shen Ji Ying, had over 2,000 instructors/weapons experts who led the training of 30,000 strong palace guards.  That plus the battle-hardened agents of Big Ten security companies (Biaoju), members of Big Six martial arts of the north, and all the people who flock to the city to make a name for themselves, Beijing during Qing Dynasty represented the peak of development and growth of traditional martial art.

Shan Pu Ying

Wrestlers of Shan Pu Ying

The lifetime patronage of the large number of ruling class already deeply steeped in martial culture played a huge role in all of this.  The Manchurian, experts to start with, with unlimited time and resource, were discerning connoisseurs of martial art as in any of their other hobbies.  One nobleman – Duke Lan,hosted Ma Gui for years hoping Ma would teach him the famous Eighteen Interception (si ba jie 十八截) – an advanced broadsword (regular length, can be worn at waist) skill.

Taken all together, given the large, vibrant, and knowledgeable community, it would be impossible for the Yang’s to be teaching one set of drastically watered-down skills to the nobles – the very people who made all these growth and development possible, and teach another, more advanced set to other Han people, whom the Manchurian patrons also know equally well.

This traditional of patronage would continue during the early days of Republic era.

In 1933, Yuan Liang became the fourth mayor of Beijing.  Yuan was deeply interested in martial arts, and asked head of Beijing Physical Culture Institute (北平体育研究社) Xu Yusheng (许禹生) to recommend a teacher for him.  Xu was one of the first modern educators in modern China.  Between age 20 – 24, Liu Dekuan came and taught him at his house.  Beijing Physical Culture Institute was the first time martial art was taught to the public outside of the traditional private master-disciple system.  Many of the first generation instructors were great masters, they were responsible, as a necessity for teaching large classes, systematizing, formalizing, and in many cases creating (ex. Bagua Jian) many of the empty hand and weapons routines in traditional martial art.  So Xu knew everyone.

Yuan Liang had one pre-condition, that he would fight each candidate, if he loses, he will be the disciple with no questions asked.  The first few candidates, afraid to harm the most powerful man in Beijing, held back and ‘lost’.  Yuan was deeply unsatisfied.  He demanded Xue Yusheng produce someone better.

Wang Maozhai

Wang Maozhai

It is at this point that Xue Yusheng thought of Wang Maozhai.  Also a senior disciple of Quan You, Wang was not much involved in the business martial art.  Throughout his life he operated a profitable building supply company called Tong Sheng Fu (同盛福) in the center of the city (Don Dan district).  He didn’t need to teach, and worry about any politics associated with it.  As predicted, Wang Maozhai had no reservations when he met Yuan Liang, and beat Yuan Liang as he would with anyone else he met.  Of course he did not injury Yuan Liang, but gave Yuan Liang a very clear idea of his skill.  Yuan Liang, thoroughly impressed, immediately knelled down.

When word of this went out, Wang Maozhai, who was previously only known inside the professional circle, became famous overnight.  Many flocked to him.  Wang, throughout his life, always felt his teacher Quan You was slighted by the nobles of Qing Dynasty, he always told people “my teacher is Quan You, and his teacher is Yang Luchan (not Banhou).”  He could not have cared less of ranks and titles, in fact he was antagonistic.  He refused to teach anyone related to the Qing nobles.

The people flocking to him now were the elite of Beijing’s political and commercial world.  Everyone want to be ‘brother’ with the new major.  After a careful selection process, Wang Maozhai also admitted seven other famous businessmen of Beijing at the same time as Yuan Liang.  During the same ceremony, Wang allowed his disciple and successor Yang Yuting open his door.  It was here that Master Wang Peisheng joined the group.

Master Wang’s experience training with the new elites of Beijing was very interesting.  From very early on he got the opportunity to train with Wang Maozhai directly.  He remember as a teenager going to Wang Maozhai’s home in the winter, and next to the door he would see all these coats and pelts made of the most expensive, exotic material.  This is before the age of advanced man-made fibers, winter cloth tend to be heavy and bulky, made of cotton.  Except if you are very rich, then you can afford materials like mink that is incredibly warm and extremely light at the same time.  It was quite a sight for a boy from poor family.

As mayor Yuan Liang was deeply interested in traditional culture, he initiated many projects restoring and promoting traditional art and architecture around the city, hoping to turn Beijing into this cultural heritage site appreciated by all foreigners, who would in turn oppose Japan’s design on it (Yuan went to university in Japan).  With Yuan’s patronage Wang Maozhai established public classes at the Grand Temple (Tai Miao 太庙).  Eventually thousands flocked to those classes, making Wang Maozhai the leader of largest Taiji school in history (that record was broken when Yang Chengfu went to open his school in Shanghai).

Wang Maozhai's Taiji class at Tai Miao 4 - Henri Cartier - Bresson

Wang Maozhai’s Taiji class at Tai Miao – Henri Cartier – Bresson

Master Wang started assisting Wang Maozhai in his classes at age 18, a mere 3 years after he started learning Taiji – probably the youngest Taiji instructor ever.  His duty consisted of spending hours every day doing push hands with all the rich and powerful students trying to hobnob with the mayor.

Unlike the Manchurian patrons during an earlier age, these wealthy merchants and politicians tend to be of middle age, otherwise inactive, used to life of luxury and comfort.  They tend to be very overweight, and quite a few indulged in opium.  They were not martial art material to say the least.  During push hands, they have poor awareness of their own center, and tend to lean forward too much during advances.  It was young Master Wang’s job to prevent them from falling in such circumstances.  Similarly, he need to very precise in his own attacks so these clients won’t get thrown down to the ground.  Master Wang looked to this not as a drudgery, but an opportunity to refine his skill: here has this heavy weight he needs to carefully control at all times, he has to follow the opponent, make him think he’s doing well, he needs to do his own skill, but beat the opponent without hurting him or cause any discomfort.  Imagining getting a job at New York’s Museum of Modern Art moving around the marble statues in the Greeco-Roman Gallery everyday, it would be something like that.

Master Wang would remember these clients remarking at the end of their practice that “it was some workout”.  He could only laugh inside as he was the one doing most of the work.  So in the case of Master Wang Peisheng, teaching corpulent, inept students turned out to be unexpectedly beneficial to his own Taijiquan practice.  It was a unique challenge to one’s skill that most people don’t get to experience.


Biaoju 镖局- security companies

In the previous post we talked about masters who taught princes and nobles. In terms of status and prestige, that is definitely the highest level a professional martial artist could aspire to.

In general, career options for martial artists – those whose focus purely on weapons and empty hand skills (vs broader studies involved in military arts), are few in traditional society. There were basically four:

1) The best, most ideal situation is one where the master has his own school. Here the students come to you.  This requires the highest level of skill, as you have a known, fixed location, and anyone can come and challenge you. If you lose, by custom you have to leave and cede the school to the challenger.

2) The next level is being a teacher, but you don’t have your own school, you have to go to where the students are – you work for someone, or you teach in the military.

3) The third level is one where you have to risk your own life for protect the life or properties of private clients/masters. Examples are security company jobs, and bodyguard services. In the later scenario, normally you would be live at the household you are protecting. Here the head of security can be a prestigious position, but the rank and file are basically servants of the house. In general there is a huge fall-off in prestige between the second and third level, as people think only the desperate would risk their lives like that.

4) The lowest level is in entertainment. Whatever people say about those who risk their lives for private clients, they must have a certain level of fighting skill to make a viable living doing that. The requirement for fighting skill in performance and entertainment is much lower or non-existent.

As with the case of teachers living and teaching at houses of nobles having the highest level of prestige than others with their own school, there is a notable exception for level 3 mentioned above.

In 2006 China’s central television company (CCTV) had a really interesting documentary on development of modern banking in Shanxi province.  In mid to late Qing Dynasty there was great posterity, and the population of the country doubled within a century. Commerce flourished; suddenly there were many types of people needing to securely transport currency and other valuables over long distances. The interesting part is how all of this drove the development of Xinyi/Xingyi in Shanxi.

Before the invention of modern banking, if you had a lot of money, they were stored in the form of gold or silver. When you move you would have to transport all that bulky metal, becoming a big, slow, conspicuous target.

It was in Shanxi where the depositor’s note system and interstate banking was first developed some two hundred years ago. These large banks have between 5 – 10 millions ounces of silver in circulation at any one time. They had branch location in all the major cities along important trade routes. You can take their note to any one of their branch locations and convert it to hard currency.

Now there are large silos of gold and silver where these banks branches are, hence the need for large number of high level martial artists to guard the bank and the wealthy bankers. Since this is Shanxi, it meant Xinyi/Xingyi masters.  Because of the great market demand, high level Xingyi masters were paid like today’s professional athletes. No surprisingly the ranks of elite Xingyi masters and the art itself grew by leaps and bounds during that time.

In Shanxi the number one location for these banks is Taigu. There one such wealthy banking family the Chao’s (曹) employed over 500 security guards for his household alone. The martial instructors working for him included such luminaries as Li Laonong (李老农) and Che Yizhai (车毅斋).

This is also where the first government-approved private security company – Biaoju (镖局), was founded. The martial art master who founded the first Biaoju is known as Zhang Heiwu (张黑五). He was the fifth (wu 五) son of his family and had dark complexion (hei 黑). Today we don’t know exactly what martial art he studied, we just know that he was from Shangxi. According to legend he was martial art instructor to Emperor Qianlong. That it was with the emperor’s suggestion/approval that he opened the first of the “Big Ten” Biaoju’s of Qing Dynasty. He actually opened the Beijing branch first. This makes sense as most banks have locations in the capitol, and at year-end they usually ship large quantities of gold/silver home to headquarters in Shanxi.

Before the age of motion pictures, television, cable, satellite, internet, and recorded medias, everywhere people in sports and entertainment in general occupied the lowest rung in societies. But with the power of media comes astronomical increase in the earning potential, and with that the elevated status. So it is true that great masters who would otherwise have their own school or teach powerful/wealthy clients would choose the pursue the most dangerous, but now incredibly lucrative private security business.

Before the arrival of modern ships, trains, and automobiles, long distance travel was one of the mundane but highly hazardous endeavors in life.  It is for this major reason these security companies exist. These security companies have 6 main lines of business: 1) mail courier service for the government (xin biao 信鏢)、2) transport of bank notes (piao biao 票鏢), 3) transport of gold/silver (yin biao 銀鏢), transport of grain as tax revenue for central government (liang biao 糧鏢), transport of goods (wu biao 物鏢), transport/safeguarding of people (ren shen biao 人身鏢).

Biao Che

Cart use by Biaoju

One of the most common types of customers for security agencies is retired government officials or officials at the end of a term transferring to another post.  If you passed the imperial civil service exams, the government would post you wherever people are needed. So you may be thousands of miles from home town. In China there’s this very common attitude of “a leaf falls to its root” – when you retire you’re supposed to stage a triumphant return to your home town. You left town a ‘wearing plain cloth’, you return ‘wearing silk/satin’. Showing how successful you are, how you brought glory not only to your ancestors but the home town.

Of course, just like the current situation in modern China, corruption was built into the bureaucratic system.  In modern program management parlance, China historically chose a ‘people-centric’ system versus a ‘process-centric’ system, believing no amount of written laws can cover all situations, that ultimately it’s up to the judgement of officials in charge.  Also, there’s this idea that punishment must always be balanced by humanity (eg. when sentencing people who are stealing food because they are starving).  The drawback of course of placing this much power in the hands of individuals is that this leads to ample opportunity for abuse/corruption.

Even a mid-level official would be extremely wealthy by the time his tenure ended. This is where one of the most common attempts at highway robbery took place. The local people would think “you made all your ill-gotten gains off us here, that money should rightfully stay here”. The capitol, more than anywhere else, is where these clients were.

Chun Dian Manual

Manual of Underworld Slangs as recorded by Pingyao Biaoju

There’s actually a lot of interesting things written about the security agency/bandit relationship. Like modern virus-protection software companies, it’s at the same time an antagonistic and symbiotic relationship. Lots of time it’s not even real outlaws as local powers. For example, something like a dock, or waterway, it’s ruled by some kind of gang. If you want passage, you have to go through them. There’s a Chinese saying “even a strong dragon cannot bully the local snake”. Imagine you’re going to a land that is completely new to you, you don’t speak their dialect, you don’t know anyone, you don’t know their unique regional culture, you don’t know the terrain. If they really wanted to, they can set a trap and get you fairly easily.

The local snakes were smart, they wouldn’t just rob every traveler, as that would just make people avoid their area all together. That’s where the semi-antagonistic element come in. You go to a new place, you need to pay respect to the local powers. If you’re new, you have to fight them. If you beat them, they’ll know having a full scale fight with your company is not a good business proposition. They’ll respect you, and let you pass through their territory. Of course you have to shower them generously with gifts each time. If you’re weak, and a nobody, then they’ll just take everything from you.

So security company doesn’t operate by trying to beat everyone who’s in their way every time. But they have to beat everyone at least one time. Diplomacy by itself is useless against uncivilized people if not backed by very real force. As the saying from the Warring States era goes “a small/weak country has no diplomacy” (they just do what strong countries tell them).

Where high level martial art is most needed is when you’re opening a route for the very first time. After that comes diplomacy, but you still need to maintain a great fighting reputation, so people won’t stop respecting you. The biggest companies, like the one operated by San Huang Paochui group, are the ones that had opened safe passages to many important areas of the country. Sort of like you’re an airline and you dominate the New York – Los Angeles route. That’s how your potential customer will know you and select you.

In Chinese the saying is “when at home[town] you rely on family, when traveling outside you rely on friends”. Obviously in the later case the more friends the better. Life on the road is unpredictable, you may run into all kinds of unforeseen problems. In the old days everything is based on relationship, so it helps to have a large network of such powerful “friends”.

The best example of successful agency is that of San Huang Pao Chui group. Song Mailun was originally a high ranking member of Shen Ji Ying (Capitol Garrison – Modern Firearm Division). The prince in charge of Shen Ji Yin was so impressed by him that Song was promoted to Class Five government official (out of 9 classes). But seeing how fruitless it is to serve the corrupt and declining government, he went private and formed Hui You (meet friends) Security Company, the largest in the capitol.

Hui You Biaoju

Hui You Biaoju

From his government work he became well connected politically with the political and economic elites, giving him unparalleled access to his potential client base. As a top level martial artist – a peer of, and good friends of Dong Haichuan, Liu Zhijun, and Yang Luchan, he was well connected to the martial art scene, giving him access to the talent talent needed to run his company.

His work at the security company made him intimately familiar with every type of person, profession, and associations (religions, professional guilds, gangs, outlaws, etc) in society, from the highest to the lowest. All of this gave him great knowledge and wisdom. In today’s parlance we’d call him someone who really knew how the entire system works, who can solve very difficult problems under seemingly impossible deadlines. So he was highly sought after by all kinds of people.

Because they fight in the real world all the time and employed so many martial artist, the Pao Chui group left perhaps the largest curriculum of any martial art group. Empty hand routines alone comprise of 108 sets. On top of that every type of weapon imaginable… They had a great reputation because of the constant feedback from their daily work, any weak members would’ve been weeded out very naturally, quickly.

Just as their rise was rapid and impressive, with the arrival of trains, ship, automobile, and better roads, the decline was also swift. The last of the “Big Ten” Biaoju closed its doors in 1920.

Martial art, like any human pursuit, is an organic product of its environment. When there are economic, military, social incentives, it develops and flourishes. When those needs go away or changes, the arts either decline, disappear or adapt to meet the new need. So it is that we can say the overall state of art for Xinyi/Xingyi (and most traditional Chinese martial arts) was definitely higher in year 1800 than year 1700, and better in 1900 then 1800, but in 2000 it’s definitely lower than 1900.


Reverence and Fear 敬畏

PBS did a good documentary on the making of Samurai swords. The program weaves together footage of craftsman making the sword in the traditional manner along with lucid scientific explanations of the process in modern language by professors of metallurgy and religious studies from a prestigious engineering school.

One of the comments that caught my teacher’s attention was how by treating the process as a sacred religious ritual, it in fact has the effect of quality control. The Japanese people really believed all things in nature are imbued with spirits. And a finely made sword was the spirit of Samurai. Therefore every step of the forging process must be taken seriously, as if it’s a religious ritual. During a ritual, every tiny detail must be attended to carefully, as you feel you are in the presence of god, and any mistake would bring severe punishment. This mentality is called Jing Wei (敬畏) – reverence and fear.

For my teacher, who teaches western students internal martial art and Qigong, this represents an everyday challenge in which tradition clashes with modernity.

The human mind has a very deeply-seated need for the world to make sense, for things to happen for a good reason. From earliest days of civilization, we have been creating explanations for phenomenons we crave to understand. In the case of Chinese culture, the early theories we came up with for how nature works involves Taiji, Wuxing, and Bagua. For disciplines like internal martial art and Qigong, many of the terminologies and explanations for various practices have these mythological/philosophical origins.

Since that time we have come to know a great deal more about how nature works, theories that makes the ancient ones seems naive and childish by comparison. The challenge then is when teaching modern day students, do we still use the old languages and terminologies? That is actually very hard. Here’s a practical example: one of the foundation building (zhu ji 筑基)exercises in Qigong is called Cai Qi – gathering of Qi. The exercises involves breathing exercises done at dawn and full moon, using arm motions that look like the practitioner is literally reaching out to gather the sun/moon with his arms, then bringing it down into the dantian – like a mythical creature swallowing the sun/moon.

Do I believe this process actually brings in yang/yin energy into my body as it is described, I am deeply skeptical. But what I am not skeptical is the actual results of Qigong exercise, of doing breathing exercises, of getting up early, regularly to exercise. But here lies the problem: if I am skeptical of the process, then I will not get the full benefit of it. Why would that be the case, because as we say in Chinese: 心理影响生理 – psychology affects physiology.

It’s common sense that one’s mental state has a huge effect not just on performance of physical tasks, but the body itself. Anyone who has been under prolonged mental distress can attest to that. So how does this affect Qigong practice? Well, if you don’t believe the power of the sun, that you think it’s just a tool to get you perform a bigger movement, you can then do that exercise in a cramped apartment, just imagine the big sun with your mind. But for a beginner at least, it is much more beneficial if he were actually at a mountain top, at crack of dawn, being able to actually gaze up at the huge sun directly without fear of eye damage, bathed in fresh morning air, and do this exercise. The feeling, and the effect, will be dramatically different. To be in the presence of something big can bring that correct feeling out directly, easily. It’s like meditating in a quiet place versus in the middle of Time Square.  Yes, ultimately we should be able to put our minds in a calm state anywhere, anytime, but to learn that skill, to experience that deep calmness in the first place, it helps if we are in a more remote, isolated setting.  If we only practice in less idea settings, we may never know what our goal (real, deep calmness) is like.

Yin Qi

So here is the dilemma: in the old days not only do people believe in these theories and explanations, but the teacher student relationship was different. When the teacher says do something, the student obeys without questioning. People believed this is the only way the teacher student relationship can work, the same way people still believe unquestioned obedience to all orders is the only way military can work. However, modern students often demand full explanation before they carry out the practice. But once you start explaining the reason you’re asking them to go out at night on the 15th, 16th, and 17th of the month is because that is when Yin Qi of the moon is at its strongest, they will most likely reject that explanation and not do the exercise the way traditionally prescribed, and risk not mastering the skill. So here’s a very interesting example of being rational and thoughtful actually impeding our training.

In traditional Chinese culture the number one criteria for success in any practice is called Cheng 诚. Cheng means honesty, sincerity, loyalty. In terms of practice, it means believing 100% in what you’re trying to achieve, and the prescribed method for reaching those goals. That you trust your teachers, who obviously reached those goals by those means, that you just need to persevere and work hard until you succeed. Much emphasis has been placed on not having “impure thoughts (杂念)”. Here impure means miscellaneous elements that keeps a thought/belief (“swallow the moon”) from being 100% pure. So these could be doubts, or other random thoughts that arise naturally that could distract from our practice.

So my own thoughts about this is the same as I have for acupuncture and other traditional medicine – it’s obviously a technology/methodology with demonstrable results. To get the result, I will follow the steps faithfully, and ignore for the time-being traditional theories that explains why it works. After I get the feeling, I can maybe make modifications (just imagine the sun and the moon, no matter what time of day and where I am) or improvements.


Magic finger … empty force

In Taiji Quan, people sometimes talk about empty force: throwing an opponent without touching. Technically then, to qualify as such you cannot touch the opponent physically with any part of your body. A lot of times we see masters (famous ones too) claiming what they’re doing in a demonstration is empty force, when in fact it was a bit of showmanship used to impress novices/outsiders, like a magician distracting the audience from what is really going on.

The term Taiji means coexistence of yin and yang at the same moment in time. So for a skill to be called Taiji attack and defense has to be done at the same time. Of course if you already have control of the opponent, you can choose not to deliver the final blow. So in these demonstrations, the master will ask someone to attack him, then he would merely point with his free hand and say “look, all I have to do is raise this one finger, point up here, and all the problems are solved. And this finger is not even touching you! It’s an example of empty force.” Distracted, what the student doesn’t see is that the real work is done by the other arm and rest of the body.

In Taiji Quan the body is one giant circle/ball that deflects/redirects the incoming force, to help with that, a beginner usually do something with the free hand (point in the correct direction) to complete the circle he’s attempting. At advanced levels you can do this with just your mind. Once you have someone’s center, you can further embellish this by shaking your finger (actually your who body is shaking/bouncing, but the movement is very small), each time causing the opponent to move.

There are other variations of this. My teacher used to kid with us: when we push him he would cause us to lean over, getting uprooted in the process. And with one free hand at his side, palms facing up, he would wave upward and say “look, I’m lifting you up with this hand, not even touching you!”

One application where this is easy to understand is when you try to reach your opponent with one arm, he touches it on the inside with arm on the same side (for example your right and his left), and in one unified movement, rotate his torso to his left with a spiral arm circle in the left arm, unbalancing you outward and downward to his left, at the same time his other arm chopping down on your neck as part of same circle. You can go down before his chopping hand reaches you. By definition, yang is where his mind is. So when you attack and he feels the pressure on his left, he just put his mind on attacking with his right. Since he has six integration, this automatically causes the left side to follow and redirect as part of same overall motion. But to the outside observer, not feeling what you’re feeling, seeing the focus of his eyes and the attacking hand, would thinks that’s what’s causing you to go down. To him it looks like empty force. But you know it’s actually internal force – his arm that’s touching you is not moving much, but it’s transmitting a controlling force.


Single Whip

Single Whip is one of the most common application ideas in Chinese martial art. You can find it in most northern styles. The skill usually involves standing close, side-to-side with an opponent, hooking the opponent’s outstretched arm with one hand, and throwing him with an arcing overhead motioning with the other arm.

The whip it’s referring to is the kind we call bullwhip (see below), not the other major type of whip – riding crop, which is stiff, stick-like.

It’s so named because it describes exactly what the skill should be like: your spine is the relatively rigid handle of the whip. Your arm the soft, flexible body of the whip. Power is initiated in the waist area – at the butt of the whip. So the motion is not that of a staff, trying to knock over (and down) the opponent, or a lever, trying to pry him off his balance. The mental image is that of trying to strike a far away target behind the opponent’s head with a soft whip.

From experience, people have discovered that in martial art, sports, physical labor, using the correct mental image can help the person naturally use the correct mechanics, alignment. For example, Mark Rippetoe in his Starting Strength talks about how in squat, it’s natural for people to concentrate their efforts on where the weight is felt, on the upper back, neck area. And if they concentrate on pushing there, it would lead to excessive use of local muscles instead of whole body force. That’s how people can strain their neck. The really helpful mental image there is to imagine pushing up from sacrum in lower back. If you put your mind there you automatically do everything correctly for that motion. In martial art training, many secrets are small things like this, it all seems obvious after someone told you, but on your own it might take a lifetime to reinvent the wheel.

The same principle applies to single whip: if you concentrate on point of contact – your arm and opponent’s side, you’ll have to use a lot of force to unbalance him. Most likely you will not be able to, as the tendency here is to use just your arm to unbalance him. But if you put your mind on the imaginary target behind his head (from your perspective, not back of his head), and concentrating on trying to reach it with your hand (tip of the whip). You’ll find that you can move him very easily. This is because using this imagery, you naturally use your whole weight to move his center of balance, rather than applying a more awkward force using side of your arm. The other thing is, because force is spread out throughout your body, the opponent does not detect this type of change easily before it’s too late.

Finally, what can really make this motion effective is the snap at last moment. It’s what makes a whip lash sting. Here, rather than a gentle arc, which is similar to a linear motion, and therefore relatively simple force to deal with, that extra motion makes it a much more complex circular force to follow and respond to. You can throw a person a lot further by just adding this small extra motion.

Single Whip is a very old skill, people obviously put a lot of thought in naming it.


Taiji Quan’s “Eight Methods” 八法

One of the original names for Taiji is Shi San Shi – 13 postures. It doesn’t mean there are only 13 postures, but 13 basic ideas. These were the 5 directions (wuxing) and 8 methods (bagua).

In the so called 8 basic methods (people also call them 8 basic jins), Pen, Lu, Ji, An are called Si Zheng (4 main directions – N, S, E, W), and Cai, Lie, Zhou, Kao are called Si Yu (4 diagonal directions – NE, SE, SW, NW). This is actually not part of intellectual (word/numerology) game you see a lot in internal martial art that doesn’t mean much. By mapping those techniques to those directions, it indicate both their overall importance and their relative importance to each other.

Peng Lu Ji An are called the “4 cardinal directions” because they are the four main methods, Cai Lie Zhou Kao are the corner directions because they are supplemental/assisting methods. That means a lot of times in real fighting, in order to execute Peng Lu Ji An, you need to employ Cai Lie Zhou Kao to help. In many cases this is necessary because of less than ideal timing and distance.

For example, you reaction was a little slow, the opponent got way too close, too fast, you can use some type of elbow or shoulder strike to open up a little breathing room (both space and time) in order to properly execute one or more of the 4 main methods.

Another example is when someone grabs us, if our reaction is a little slow, the grab on the wrist already very strong, very solid, making it difficult for us to move, we execute a quick, short, explosive (shaking/shuddering type) jin to loosen his grip a little first, before proceeding to the regular/main technique we want to use. Short distance but powerful, that’s the type of jin Cai Lie Zhou Kao produce right?

In this context, the idea is not to get your opponent directly with those techniques. Even if they miss, if the opponent reacted by moving away, it served its purpose. In internal martial art we don’t just directly attack someone with powerful strikes hoping they would land. We always try to control him first. So of course if you got control of his balance already (i.e he is helpless, cannot respond to whatever you’re going to do to him next), you can also use elbow or shoulder strike to finish him.


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 2017
« Nov    

%d bloggers like this: