Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Learn diligently and train bitterly...


Yue Fei
A few weeks ago I visited a temple in Hangzhou province that honours one of China's most revered generals. Yue Fei (1103-1142) lived in the Southern Song dynasty and his life is remembered as one of the country's greatest examples of filial piety and heroic patriotism.  He has been credited as the creator of a number of martial arts including Fanziquan and Chuojiaoquan, but the two styles most associated with Yue Fei are Eagle Claw and Xingyiquan. One book states Yue Fei created Eagle Claw for his enlisted soldiers and Xingyiquan for his officers.

Groomed from birth to be a warrior and to do great service for the country, his mother famously had the four characters "jin zhong bao guo" (serve the country loyally) tattooed on his back as a constant reminder to never forget his duty.
The youthful Yue Fei learning the martial arts under the maxim - "Learn Diligently, Practice Bitterly"

A mural on one of the temple walls caught my eyes. The image depicts Yue Fei training his martial skills under the four character idiom, "learn diligently, train bitterly" (qin xue ku lian). This maxim is often used by people practising Chinese traditional arts whether it be music, calligraphy, martial arts etc... The best learning process being the combination of knowledge and action.
 

 
At our recent camp with GM Chen Xiaoxing  we trained alongside a quiet and serious person named Chen Hong. I first met him at last year's Chenjiagou Taijiquan School branch instructors' course. He's one of the very first group of students to train full time in the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School when it opened in 1983.  More than three decades later he trained alongside our group and a new crop of Chinese students. Each time Chen Xiaoxing explained or demonstrated a movement, Chen Hong observed intently, and then took himself off to a quiet corner and worked on whichever point had just been explained. 
Lt-Rt Davidine Sim, Chen Hong, David Gaffney

Our training trip to Chenjiagou is for the purpose of deepening knowledge and embedding skill.  The training curriculum invariably focuses on training the fundamentals (standing pole and reeling silk exercises) and the gongfu form (Yilu) under the watchful eyes and guidance of one of the most highly skilled masters of taijiquan.  Most experienced students find this training to be demanding but invaluable, and make many return visits to do the same.  The inexperienced and less discerning ones may view the training as repetitive and monotonous and become impatient for more entertaining items.  They have no insight into their own lack of skill and think that knowing movement patterns equals proficiency.  
 
The maxim on Yue Fei's temple struck a chord - learn diligently and train bitterly! There are no short cuts in learning the traditional art.  First  be clear of the correct training method. Then drill it into the body. What is required is serious, disciplined study alongside focused repetitive training.  
 
At the tomb of legendary General Yue Fei




Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Chen Xiaoxing - "When you know you know"!

Taking in Aberdeen Harbour Enter the Dragon Style
I'm writing this latest post at the end of this year's training camp in Chenjiagou with GM Chen Xiaoxing. Our group was sixteen strong, plus a group of Chen Xiaoxing's Chinese students who trained alongside us.

Mixing it with some of the Ani-Com characters
Most of our group met in Hong Kong and enjoyed a day off to shake off some of the jet lag before flying on to Chenjiagou. With such a short time in Hong Kong, we joined an organised tour and visited some of the "Fragrant Harbour's" iconic sites -  several with links to martial arts culture: we took a sampan around Aberdeen Harbour, a location for countless local films, usually centred around the ongoing battle between the Hong Kong police force and the infamous triads. It has also been a standout location in a few international cinema classics - most notably and memorable being Bruce Lee's Enter the Dragon - where the various fighters boarded a junk bound for the mysterious Mr Han's Island; we also visited the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre (HKCEC) and the nearby Ani-Com Park. The HKCEC is a major landmark on the Hong Kong Island skyline instantly recognisable to Jackie Chan fans as the setting for the dramatic ending of New Police Story;   Ani-Com Park opened earlier this year as Hong Kong's first selfie theme park and features life-sized statues based on 30 classic Hong Kong animation and comic characters including Hero Wah, Andy Chan, Bruce Lee, Old Master Q etc...;  Repulse Bay, located in the southern part of Hong Kong Island, and whose name comes from a 19th century battle in which the British army repulsed attacking pirates that infested the area. A colourful Daoist temple flanked by the giant statues of Tin Hau (Goddess of the Sea) and Kwun Yum (Goddess of Mercy). Westerners are always a bit perplexed at the seeming randomness of Daoist temples. Here we were met with colourful mosaic statues of folk deities including the God of Love , the Fish God and the God of Wealth, and creatures like dragons, goldfish and rams.


The next day we flew into Chenjiagou. For the first time trained at Chen Ziqiang's new seven storey accommodation/training facility. At first sight it would be easy to be misled by the facade and entrance - marble floored with four floors of comfortable accommodation.  Above, though, hidden from the outside world are three floors of cavernous, spartan training areas. On the few days when it rained and the latest batch of the school's recruits were put through their paces above us, the building seemed to shake as their efforts echoed through the building. 


Top James Lucas, Below Dana Gelatova and Biljana Dusic being corrected
For ten days we settled into a daily routine of two sessions of two and a half hours with GM Chen Xiaoxing.  Each session started with jibengong (basic training) consisting of zhan zhuang (standing pole) and chansigong (reeling silk). Then, a few moves at a time, deepening of the Laojia Yilu routine - referred to in Chenjiagou as the "mother form" or the "gongfu form". 


There is a Confucian adage that says "a mirror doesn't lie, it simply tells the truth". It reflects exactly what is before it. Basic training with Chen Xiaoxing is a gruelling and repetitive business. With standing, for instance, he corrects each student in turn, adjusting and leading them into a better structural position - at the same time dramatically increasing the demands on the  legs. The lack of adequate leg strength is one of the limiting factors on the ability to "fang song" or loosen the body to the degree required by Chen Taijiquan. Over the course of each session every student would be corrected two or three times before Chen Xiaoxing brought the standing to a close with a clap of his hands after thirty or forty minutes. That's being corrected approximately fifty times over the course of the ten days. Anyone who didn't have a better idea of what to work on when they went home just wasn't paying attention! Reeling silk training involved another half an hour continuously drilling a single movement, trying to remain completely level with the upper body compact and unbroken whilst going through the exercise.   After one challenging session Chen Xiaoxing remarked that, "the training my senior students "fear" the most are standing and reeling silk".


Chen Xiaoxing is a great believer in developing a deep foundation through this kind of simple basic training and have little patience for abstract speculation and talk. When one of the Chinese students, rubbing his painful legs after one session of zhan zhuang, asked him, "how will I know when I find the right feeling?"   His short, simple yet profound answer, "you know when you know. When you don't know, you don't know".


CTGB's 2016 Chenjiagou training group with GM Chen Xiaoxing at the Chen Family Temple


Friday, 7 October 2016

Stillness in motion...

Taijiquan players often quote phrases from the classics, often with little thought or understanding of what they mean in a practical sense. For example, the instruction to "seek stillness in movement, and movement in stillness". Asked to expand the stock answers are "the mind is still while the body is moving"... or that it's "like meditation in movement". And then move on...

Look at the picture below of Chen Xiaoxing at his recent camp at the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School. His dynamic explosive movement is combined with an expression of focused calmness. Laozi's Daoist classic the Daodejing succinctly states that: "The heavy is the root of the light; the quiet is the master of motion". This is not the quietness of docility. Instead it is the supremely balanced place where a practitioner is not fixated on any one thing, whether it be an opponent in front of you, an intended technique, or a preconceived idea of any incoming attack. Rather, in a neutral and balanced state, possessing the ability to change instantly from one state to another. In Taijiquan parlance, "strong in eight directions".

Chen Xiaoxing - "stillness in motion"


To achieve this all the practitioner's senses must be activated - feeling the sensations of lifting the head while sinking the body to be rooted and heavy; expanding the body, listening behind... In tuishou there is even a saying that you "should try to smell your opponent". What is required is the use of all the senses to get a true reading of a situation.

Chen Xin writes: "Eyes level gazing forward, shining into all four directions". This means that although the eyes are directed forward, one must be aware of one's surroundings. The spirit should be like that of a cat stalking a mouse. The direction of the eyes is in accordance with the body's movements. The eyes act as the forerunner of the mind. Again to quote Chen Xin "Of a hundred boxing skills, the eye is the vanguard". But behind the eyes it is the mind that maintains inner awareness. The mind, that gives the command to act. It is therefore important to keep the intention of the mind consistent with every action.

Slovenian Workshop

We were in Slovenia last week teaching workshops for the Slovenian Chenjiagou Taijiquan Association organised by Biljana Dusic and Dragan Lazaravic. Great to see the group progressing year by year! In 2015 Chenjiagou Taijiquan GB, with the assistance of the Slovenian Chenjiagou Taijiquan Association, organised the First Chenjiagou Taijiquan School Advanced European Taijiquan Training Camp held at the fantastic Olympic Training Centre in Planica. Grandmaster Chen Xiaoxing, assisted by his two sons Chen Ziqiang and Chen Zijun led a week of intensive training. It was an international event with participants from the USA, Slovenia, Italy, Russia, Croatia, Germany, Hong Kong, and the largest group from our school in the UK. Grandmaster Chen Xiaoxing will be conducting another camp in Planica in 2018.    


Thursday, 22 September 2016

Sanshou training in Warsaw

Marek Balinski and Chen Ziqiang
Pad work
I've been in Poland training with Chen Ziqiang in a series of seminars organised by Marek Balinski, chief coach of the Warsaw Chen Taijiquan Academie. Chen Ziqiang was assisted by Wang Yan, captain of the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School's fighting team. He was featured in my post a month or so ago leading the school to victory in their recent challenge match with a team of Thai boxers from Thailand. These are some impressions from the week.

First up was two days of sanshou and tuishou training in the Polish Wushu Association's purposely fitted combat sports facility.  Chen Ziqiang explained the four different types of tuishou: first, the five standard drills - single hand, double hand, forward and backward stepping, big step and flexible step. These exercises teach many of the core skills necessary for combat in a fixed and controlled way. The standard drills are enough for students whose main purpose in learning Taijiquan is for health and fitness; second, is what Chen Ziqiang described as "experimentation". Working from the preceding drills practitioners train the different qinna and application potentials, again in a controlled way; third, the stand up grappling that he said is often mistaken for Taijiquan sanshou (free fighting). This type of push hands training starts with both players being in contact with each other and from that position train mostly rooting, throwing and sweeping skills; the fourth type is sanshou, where two people stand apart from each other and then bridge the gap. In sanshou every type of techniques can be used - striking, elbowing, kicking, throwing etc..

Over the two days Chen Ziqiang systematically moved between applications from standard push hands drills, to line drills that focused on the footwork supporting techniques. Finally, training the same techniques on kick shields so that the group could practice applying with full power. Like all excellent coaches he managed to get important concepts across while the sessions were in progress: keeping the shoulders loose in order for the arms to turn freely; sinking the elbows to guard the ribs; maintaining awareness of correct timing and distance; how to change the fighting range; flexible footwork etc... ; even touching on the study and practical use of pressure points to support qinna.

There was a day to review the early part of the Laojia Yilu. When Chen Wangting created Taijiquan the idea was to develop an effective martial system. Chen Ziqiang stressed that everything within the form has its function and purpose and that no detail should be overlooked. From the starting position external aspects and internal energy are harmonised via the intention. Hands, eyes, body and footwork are coordinated. He stressed the need to look beyond your hands when doing the movements, giving the simple example that if you were punching someone you would look at them and not at your own fist. 

Anyone who has trained with Chen Ziqiang will have experienced his physically challenging warm ups. During several of the sessions over the course of the week he handed the warm ups over to Wang Yan. Anyone feeling relieved soon changed their minds.  Chen Ziqiang remarked laconically after one particularly strenuous session that "my student's warm ups are harder than mine".


L-R Davidine Sim, Chen Ziqiang, Wang Yan & David Gaffney
Our Polish visit concluded with three days of spear training. Chen Ziqiang places great emphasis upon exercises to develop basic skills. Just as a knife, fork and spoon each has its own function and usage, every weapon has its own characteristics that must be manifested. He recalled how he had trained the jibengong (foundation exercises) for weapons for several years before being allowed to train the forms. While this may not be practical for many students today, it does point towards the need to pay more attention to training the core skills of each weapon rather than just running through the forms. Chen Taijiquan's spear form marries the qualities of both spear and staff - the spear elements being straight and staff movements circular.  "Spear" techniques emphasise thrusting (zha), blocking (lan) and intercepting (na). Staff techniques are built around the ability to turn the weapon like two wheels on either side of the body and not done as if you were paddling a canoe - a mistake Chen Ziqiang said is made by the majority of people training the spear.

Development in Taijiquan is a continuous process, realising the connections between all aspects of the system and putting them into practice on the training floor.

Warsaw 2016

Monday, 22 August 2016

Keys to success - consistency and perseverance…


An early picture of Chen Xiaowang - "No excuses, training every day without fail"
“What ultimately separates those who succeed from the rest is what goes on between their ears and in their heart and souls”. The preceding quote from an unknown source points to the truth that to perform at a high level in any sport or physical discipline demands sacrifices and discipline from participants, and the possession of qualities like doggedness, constancy and a long-term perspective. Without the right mindset it doesn’t matter how much natural ability you have, or which famous teachers you learn from.


In a recent interview Chen Xiaoxing highlighted the twin qualities of consistency and perseverance as central to the development of a meaningful level of Taijiquan ability. I remember listening in some years ago during another interview when he was asked about his personal training history. Chen Xiaoxing was visibly annoyed at the suggestion that it was somehow easier in the past. His reply at the time was that the problem facing the contemporary practitioner was not a lack of time, but a lack of commitment and application - plain and simply, too many excuses and not enough training. He countered the distractions facing modern Taijiquan players with the experience of hardship and starvation, political persecution and backbreaking work on the fields or in a brick factory. In spite of everything they managed to develop their skills.   
In an article published in forbes.com, Bruce Kasanoff examined “Three Essential Elements of a Winning Mindset”. He cited the work of University of Pennsylvania Associate Professor Angela Duckworth and her study of grit, defined as “the tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals”. Duckworth’s research found that individuals possessing “grit” can, through hard work, expand their capabilities beyond others with seemingly more ability:


A young Chen Xiaowang - "the key to success is consistency"
“Grit predicts surviving the arduous first summer of training at West Point and reaching the final rounds of the National Spelling Bee, retention in the U.S. Special Forces, retention and performance among novice teachers and sales agents, and graduation from Chicago public high schools, over and beyond domain-relevant talent measures such as IQ, SAT or standardised achievement test scores, and physical fitness”.
Chen Xiaoxing: "You have to treat a year like a day and that is not easy. It's very easy to train ten times for one day, but to do it year after year..."
Chen Xiaoxing, in answer to the statement that “to achieve what you have achieved must take a lot of time and effort”, answered “you have to work harder than most people can imagine”. He cited the example of his brother Chen Xiaowang’s unceasing practice: “When Xiaowang was training as a professional [In 1980 he was selected by the Henan Sports Council to go to the Zhengzhou Sports Academy to train alongside elite participants from a variety of sports], he was training thirty repetitions of the form a day – every day without fail. The key to success is consistency. You have to treat a year like a day and this is not easy. It’s very easy to train ten times for one day, but to do it year after year… most people can train like this for a few days, but how many can do this for five years?”.
 




Sunday, 7 August 2016

Have confidence and walk the road ...

Wang Yan, captain of the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School fighting team getting ready for the Thai challenge.
Results have just reached me from the latest challenge match between instructors from the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School and a team of Thai boxers from Thailand.  The "Taijiquan PK Muay Thai King Competition" was the highlight of The Third China International Chenjiagou Chen Style Taijiquan Exchange Competition which took place from the 1-5th August in Chenjiagou.

The challengers from Thailand
 
A close and hard fought contest
Closing the event was a bout between Wang Yan, captain of the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School fighting team, and a seasoned Thai fighter. Wang Yan won a hard fought contest to seal a 4-1 victory for the Taijiquan boys. After the fight, a clearly exhausted Wang reflected on the hard training he and the team had done in preparation for this challenge – “so much hard work for this one moment”.
 
Wang Yan's arm raised in victory!
Skill and achievement comes with a price. Over the years I’ve seen Wang Yan and the rest of the team develop from children in the school into powerful, confident martial artists. From the outside it may seem easy, but anyone who has been to the Chenjiagou school knows that these guys train hard. I remember a student some years ago who was homesick and struggling with the gruelling daily training. Going to Chen Ziqiang for advice he was asked to:  “Have confidence and walk the road. The uphill path might be difficult but continue to walk it”. Great advice for all of us!
 
Chen Ziqiang presenting the trophy to Wang Yan, who he has coached since childhood

That's Wang Yan in front of me with the spear some time in the early 2000s! 

Sunday, 31 July 2016

On GB's Olympic boxers, Hemingway and a meeting with Wang Xian...

With Nicola Adams (World & Olympic gold medallist) and Joe Joyce one of the favourites to take gold at Rio 2016 
I'm sitting in the lounge of Madrid airport with an eight hour wait until my flight back to the UK, so I'm taking the chance to write this post.  Just over a week ago I was in Heathrow airport where I bumped into some excited members of Britain's Olympic Boxing team waiting for the flight that would take them to Brazil and the 2016 Rio games. The fighters included Nicola Adams, already a world and Olympic champion, looking to retain the title she captured during the London games four years ago; the immense Joe Joyce, one of the hot favourites to take gold in 
 
British Olympian boxers Lawrence Okolie, Frazer Clarke & Josh Buatsi
the super heavyweight category. Also Lawrence Okolie who began boxing six years ago as an obese and bullied teenager who is now GB's heavyweight representative, Frazier Clarke (super heavyweight) and Joshua Buatsi (light-heavyweight). It would be hard to find a friendlier group of guys and I have to admit that I felt like getting on the plane with them to see how their Olympic adventure plays out. After shaking hands and wishing them luck in Rio I carried on with my own journey.

 Wang Xian in Pamplona
We arrived in Pamplona in northern Spain, famous for its annual bull running festival, part of the week-long San Fermín festival immortalised by novelist Ernest Hemingway. We were in Spain to meet up again with GM Wang Xian taking part in his week long seminar and completing an interview we started several years ago on his take on Taijiquan - part of the on-going research for our next book project.
Pamplona, Spain: David Gaffney, Wang Xian & Davidine Sim

 
The seminar was billed as Laojia Yilu, but Wang Xian is a traditional style teacher who very much follows his own inclinations during the sessions. He would see something lacking and address it. For example, seeing that everybody's footwork was not as agile as he would like, he led the group up and down the sports hall in a variety of stepping drills. The need for flexible footwork was emphasised in training the form with changes of tempo and the development of the ability to steal space from an opponent.

Another time, he asked everyone to gather round, sat down and gave a detailed talk about the role of Qi in Taijiquan and the importance of trying to feel the movements and not merely copying them externally.  Wang Xian constantly stressed the need to finish every movement carefully and exactly. The end of each movement represents the start position for the next move. "Starting from the correct position ensures that the next movement can be done correctly".

Some of the advice Master Wang Xian gave during the seminar included:

"Practice slowly and self-correct all the time, especially during transitional movements. Because during transition movements you have to manage internal changes and manage postural deviations."


 "Many people become satisfied after achieving some small improvements and stop actively looking to continue to develop their Taijiquan. The 3 stages of learning are: train until you are completely familiar with the movements; understand the energy within each movement (dong jin); reach a stage where you have an instinctive intrinsic understanding (shen ming). This is a process that takes time".

 "You must be conscious that you're training a martial art (quan) when doing form or the form will be empty(kong). This can be in terms of understanding the potential functions of movements or in the development of martial qualities such as rootedness, footwork and awareness. For example, you must know your body's boundary - the position of maximum strength and not go beyond it. This can only be realised through slow practice".

 "People often neglect the importance of the eyes during training. The eyes should not be allowed to look down or to stare ahead in a blank unfocused way. Your peripheral vision should always be engaged and watching around you".

 "In terms of health do your best to maintain your capabilities. Your range of movement, for eg.the ability to pick your knees up high etc. can be reduced or lost over time. This is especially important as you get older".
 
Pushing in the down time with Paris based Chen Taijiquan teacher Rudolphe Pollet
I first became aware of and inspired by Wang Xian after watching a pirated vcd in China nearly 20 years ago. The disc had a picture of Chen Zhenglei on the cover and stated that it was his vcd. Inside, though, it showcased the skills of Wang Xian and his students. The disc finished with a scene of him performing a powerful Xinjia Yilu by the banks of the Yellow River, closing with the words "If you want to be better than everyone else, train more than anyone else".