Archive for the 'Training method' 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.


Simple, boring, painful, time-consuming 耗

There is a Chinese expression that “Gongfu comes out of Hao (功夫是耗出来的)”.

Hao (耗): expend, consumed, dawdle, waste, exhaust, wear out.

In martial art practice Hao means holding a particular pose, and just stay there for long periods of time. Martial art is art of movement, so why do people place such emphasis on static training?

This addresses a common problem in martial art training. That people by nature find certain things more exciting, interesting to practice. Everyone loves practicing skill, technique, whereas holding a hamstring stretch for 30 minutes at a time is a lot less appealing. However, most basic training such as flexibility and post standing requires Hao type of training. Basics are important because they are the foundation. The strength of the foundation puts a limit on how high a building could be.

Hao Tui

In everyday usage, when people say hao shijian (耗时间), it means wasting time doing meaningless activity. But that’s not the case with training. Beyond basics, there are many aspects of martial art training that looks simple, boring, and repetitive, but that’s exactly where we develop our gongfu. Hence the expression “Practicing skill without practicing gongfu, in the end we have nothing (练武不练功,到头一场空).”

Another aspect of Hao that discourages people is that it’s often painful. So this is when we get questions like “can we listen to music when we practice?” Here what we’re really asking is “can I at least mentally disengage from this activity, and get some short-term gratification?” Actually pain is a teacher, it tells us a lot about the strength and weaknesses of our body. We should instead go deeper into the practice, and investigate it: where is the pain (in the muscle I want to stretch, or in the tendons and ligaments), what kind of pain is it (soreness or sharp/wrong kind of pain), is it caused by something else (if it’s in a joint, is it because weakness in muscles, so this part is overcompensating), etc.

In martial art practice as in life, results are determined by what we focus our attentions to, what we spend our time on. We naturally prefer certain types of things, and neglect, belittle the importance of things that seems easy to understand, boring, painful, and takes a very long time. But often it is those seemingly simple things that are of key importance, deserving of our full attention.


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.


Time and place for training

Traditionally people say you should train at the same time of the day, in the same place, every day.

I’m sure you had this experience, one day during practice you had some new insight. Then you didn’t practice for a while, and later, after you resumed your practice, several sessions into it you had the same insight again. And you think: I can’t believe I lost that. If you practiced everyday, you would’ve be reminded of that immediately next day, and you build upon that… Replicating the training environment also conditions you get into that really deep, focused state faster. It’s really one of the best things you can do to optimize your training.

In term of training space, it should be an area that is well lit, has good air qualities, flat, free of obstructions, and secluded.  Doing Taiji Quan en mass in the park is a fairly recent phenomenon.  Professional or serious practitioners generally do it out of public eye.  For one thing some things are secret.  But the other major reason is you don’t want any distractions.  The traditionally form of Chinese residence is the si he yuan (四合院), literally “courtyard enclosed on four sides”.

Even up to my teacher’s generation, who trained in the 70’s and 80’s in Beijing, people trained mostly in their private courtyards. But location of practice does make a difference. For example you will have a very different feeling practicing Taiji or Bagua here than in your small private yard:

Lu Mountain 庐山


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.

Image Image

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.


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.


Changes to Bagua Zhang’s training methods

Yin Fu, Cheng Ting Hua, etc probably all received basically the same content from Dong Haichuan. But from a teaching perspective, the way those materials are organized and presented, seemed to become more systematic and clearer as Dong Haichuan taught more and more people.

Elite athletes are physical geniuses who have innate sense for movement: think Michael Phelp’s feel for water. These people just seem to know automatically how to move in the most effective, efficient manner when you teach them a new skill. I’m sure both Dong Haichuan and Yin Fu are like that. We know Yin Fu was one of very few students Dong Haichuan had when Dong was working for the king. There was a lot of one on one intensive training, especially in the nine years Dong was in Mongolia managing the king’s estate. So talent + hard work + opportunity = greatness for Yin Fu.

In terms of growth, no other group in history of traditional martial art had as rapid a rise as Bagua Zhang group. Before, Dong was fully preoccupied with his work, plus because of his position, ordinary people probably cannot just seek him out. The huge influx of students happened after he retired. Not everyone of them are going to be as talented (or talented in the same way) as Yin Fu. He probably couldn’t spend as much time with each students as he did with Yin Fu. Also, they all had varying degrees of martial art experiences.

Traditional teachers in general do not like to teach students with a lot of prior experience. Because if the materials are very different, either the student’s previous training is so ingrained he cannot change, or it takes too much effort to deprogram and untangle all the confusions. Dong Haichuan then, must have spent a lot of time in those years thinking about the best way, the most efficient way to teach all these different people, to help them get ‘it’.

We know one thing: he clearly decided at some point that teaching everyone the 64 Palm routine he taught Yin was not going to work. When Dong was teaching Yin Fu, Yin Fu probably imitated Dong’s every movement perfectly, very quickly. Dong did not tilt his hips when he walked, so Yin didn’t either. This is just my guess, because I know a few people from real life who are perfect mimics like that. Their teachers actually did not correct their physical movements that much. Most of the people on major Wushu teams today, they have that type of talent.

The problem with a lot of these physical geniuses is that they do so many things correctly, naturally, they never had to think about it. This is especially true for basic things like proper alignment that us mere mortals have to spend years to perfect and solidify. That makes it hard to fully transmit your knowledge to people who are not exactly like you. A lot of times it’s not because they don’t want to tell you, or they couldn’t articulate it, but because they are not even aware there’s something that needs to be articulated.

Just like being a fighter, the more, different types of people you encounter, the better you are as a teacher. As he sees all these people who are very different from him and Yin Fu trying to imitate him, he must have noticed all lot of these previously unspoken things. He must be like, “oh, ok, it’s not working for him because he’s not doing that. I didn’t tell him that. So that thing is actually very important. He needs to master that first…” This is one reason why people say the process of teaching actually deepens your understanding.

July 2017
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