Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Taijiquan, headhunters and a "hitting" doctor in Borneo...

On tour in the "dark heart of Asia"
At the moment I am enjoying some time in Kota Kinabalu on Borneo Island, a place I've visited many times over the years. Nestling in the foothills of Mount Kinabalu, South-East Asia's highest mountain, it is a fascinating place referred to locally as the "land beneath the wind". When I was a kid the word Borneo conjured up Tarzan-like images of explorers hacking their way through impenetrable jungles full of man-eating plants, wild animals and roaming tribes of headhunters. Last week a group of students from our school returned to the UK after a couple of weeks training and experiencing  this "dark heart of Asia".

Taijiquan by the South-China Sea
For the group the experience was quite different from the Chenjiagou boot camps they have taken part in. Here each morning began with Taijiquan practice on the beach looking out to the South China Sea. If there is a more idyllic place to train I've yet to find it. The rest of the time was spent getting to know this part of Borneo Malaysia. 

Chinese make up the largest ethnic group of Sabah, followed by the 30 or so indigenous native tribes. It's not possible to really understand Taijiquan without first understanding Chinese culture. Taijiquan was not created in a vacuum, but drew on many aspects of traditional Chinese culture: martial arts, the ancient health giving methods or daoyin tu-na, yin-yang philosophy from the Yijing and jingluo theory from Chinese medicine. The names of many movements within the forms are drawn from Daoist and Buddhist roots, whilst the "Chen Family Rules" are a typically Confucian call to correct and upright behaviour. 

Taijiquan enthusiasts wishing to understand the cultural ideas that lie beneath the art shouldn't underestimate
Kota Kinabalu's Heavenly King Temple
the devastating effects of communism and the cultural revolution on these ideas in mainland China. Many of the Chinese diaspora spread around the world are in fact far more representative of these ideas than China itself. One afternoon our group visited a local Chinese temple - the Tian Wang Miao or Heavenly King Temple. It is a working temple - there are no entrance fees, souvenir shops etc. Several members of our party commented on the difference in behaviour of visitors to the temple - quietly reflecting and praying rather than having a day out at a theme park - to the temples they had visited in China.

Training on the "lansaran"
Another visit was to the Mari Mari Cultural Village where we got up close to some of the local tribes of Borneo. Most interesting - from a martial arts perspective - were the Murut tribe. The Murut were the last tribe in Borneo to give up the practice of headhunting. They had lots of ingenious methods for training fighting skills including a bamboo stick dance where, much like a western boxer, they would train footwork and co-ordination. The dance is called the Magunatip Dance - "atip" meaning to be "caught between two sticks". Six to eight pairs of bamboos are rhythmically clapped together, their speed controlled by the beat of the accompanying music. Starting slowly, the dance gradually increases in speed to an adrenalin pumping frenzy. In the past this dance was used to prepare for battles. Warriors who failed the test of speed and agility and were caught in the bamboo were deemed unfit for battle. I used to do a similar, though less intricate exercise when I trained Shaolin Gongfu back in the early nineties. At the time I thought it was a traditional Shaolin exercise, but considering that the head of the system was a Malaysian Chinese teacher, I can't help but wonder at its origin. Another ingenious training aid is the "lansaran", a wooden platform set on bamboo springs and set in the middle of their longhouse. Using as much might and power as possible individuals leap high into the air in an attempt to reach a target that has been secured there. Sometimes the young students in the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School practice a similar, if not so dramatic drill using a mat placed against the wall as a springboard and trying to leap up and touch the ceiling.
CTGB on tour in Borneo - with the Murut natives of Sabah

Kung Fu Restaurant
"meat bone tea" at the Kung Fu restaurant
Malaysia has a strong martial arts heritage with its own indiginous arts as well as a strong Taijiquan presence. One evening we even found ourselves eating in the Kung Fu Bak Kut Teh restaurant. The shop front, menus and even the waitresses uniforms were decorated with brightly coloured images of Bruce Lee. Bak Kut Teh literally translates as "meat bone tea" and is a mix of pork ribs cooked in a dark soup rich with medicinal herbs. How long till we see the Kung Fu chain coming to the west?

Training in Bukit Padang

After seeing the group off at the airport I moved to KK's Luyang district to stay with my in-laws Mike and Alice. Every time I come to KK I take the chance to train in the nearby Tun Fuad Stephens Park, or  Bukit Padang as it is known locally. Bukit (meaning hill) Padang is a popular exercise site where from as early as 4am locals come to jog, practise Taijiquan and Qigong or simply to take the air and meet up with friends. A steep trail leads to the top of the hill made up of a gruelling set of 300 or so steps leading to a small clearing and then another couple of hundred steps leading to a flat summit with various stretching and exercise apparatus. Many KK locals use this hill to train for the gruelling climb up the overlooking Mt Kinabalu, especially the elite athletes who take part in the annual Kinabalu Climbathon billed as the "world's toughest mountain race". Each morning we begin doing reps up and down these steps while it is still cool and dark, finally coming out onto the summit clearing to do some Taijiquan and stretching.

Beginning of the steps...
It's interesting to see the difference in how people in the  west and east approach exercise.  The same group meets at the summit every morning - some are super fit who race up and some are older people who stroll up leisurely. Each morning there are laughter and banter between the group as they went through their routines. The World Health Organisation defines true health in terms of three important aspects "complete physical, mental and social well being". How many times are the mental and social aspects overlooked in the appearance-obsessed gym culture of the west? Another striking difference is the amount of stretching and arm swinging loosening exercises. This philosophy is adopted not just by young gymnastic exercises, but by people of all ages. There is a saying in a Chinese exercise circles that if you "Stretch the tendons by one inch, you can add ten years to your life".
"Stretch the tendons by one inch, add ten years to your life"
Visiting the hitting doctor...
Dr Yek in action
Throughout South-East Asia traditional medical systems are widely practised, ranging from dubious folk remedies to well respected healing systems such as traditional Chinese medicine. Taijiquan theory draws upon many of the ideas handed down in TCM. While it is not necessary to be an expert in TCM, to do Taijiquan well it's interesting to experience the application of these theories in their original context. Over the course of the last week I visited local Chinese physician Dr Yek several times to treat a shoulder injury that had been giving me trouble.

The waiting room is different than those of most Western doctors. There are no marketing men in white coats.  In one corner of the room a battered punch bag, a set of dumbbells and a barbell are strewn around the room and also a play station sitting on a table!

Dr Yek is a Chinese physician specialising in bone and tissue injuries. As well as the more widely known
Some interesting shades after a few treatments!
methods like acupuncture, tuina, moxibustion etc, he is carrying on a traditional treatment method which involves striking the patient's body to clear blockages of energy. Yek learned from his father from an early age who in turn learnt from his father... This form of healing has a close association with Chinese Martial Arts and Yek's  father is well known in these parts as an accomplished traditional healer who also happened to be a disciple of the famous Taijiquan and White Crane  master Huang Xingxian. His uncle teaches martial arts in New Zealand. According to Dr Yek, this form of treatment is rare even in China. Where there are many universities and hospitals teaching acupuncture and massage the system of hitting the body to promote healing is only passed down from master to student.

After a short examination he began the treatment. Dr Yek strikes with the back of his hand and fingers in a fluid, elastic and surprising strong motion. This treatment is not for the faint-hearted and after a few visits my upper body was black and blue and a number of other interesting shades. He explained that to hit correctly one must "fang song", have a strong root and be able to bring  strength up from the feet. Sounds familiar doesn't it?

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Chen Ziqiang on training successfully...

What characteristics do we need to make a success of our Taijiquan training? The following article by Chen Ziqiang was translated by Davidine Sim for the Chenjiagou Taijiquan GB website and after reading it I thought that some of you guys would enjoy it: 

What you need to know for your Taijiquan practice? 

1.Respect your teacher.  Place strict demand on yourself. Not respecting your teacher may not present a problem on the surface, but in actual fact you have not realised the true essence of martial arts principle.  If the character is not upright, attempts to take short cuts, harbouring unnatural thoughts - will inevitably not attain the true essence of Taijiquan's philosophy and martial art.

Chen  Ziqiang: "Train with concentrated attention"
2Do not be arrogant and egotistical. It is easy to attract trouble and disputes when a person is arrogant and egotistical.  Do not be arrogant with your skill, and do not be conceited in your speech.  Be calm  and harmonious in your dealings. One who is arrogant and conceited is bound to run aground in mid-course.

3. Do not be prideful and self-satisfied when learning Taijiquan, as "an army puffed up with pride is bound to lose".   The proverb says: "Beyond the heaven there's another heaven; besides this man there's another man".   A humble man who is worthy of being taught, the venerable elder empties his treasure trove to transmit.

4.When you learn Taijiquan you should learn with concentrated attention.  Every posture must be practised and studied repeatedly.   Thinking must be natural and rational. Movements must be continuous and unbroken. If they are not continuous the energy flow will not be smooth and in order, and it would be impossible to utilise your primary dantian energy at will.
5. You must understand the way and principle of Taijiquan.  If you don't understand the way, you will not understand how to learn.  Ultimately you will not be able to experience the wondrous essence of the art.
Davidine Sim and Chen Ziqiang lecturing on Chen Taijiquan at the Warsaw Pacific and Oriental Museum
6. You must be conscientious during practice.  Understand the changes within movements.   Train with method; the method must be compatible with your body and understanding.  Train systematically; work with your concept, in order to enable your physical movements to change and alter to fit in and harmonise with your intellectual understanding.  From the first posture to the last, if you are familiar and are able to remember the principle of every direction, angle, posture and its transition, only then can you claim to have grasped a form (taolu).  This is known as "Zhao Shu" or "Familiarity with the Form".

Pay attention!
7. During practice pay attention to the functions of the movements.  Every movement has a different function but at the same time movements are mutually changeable, and supplement and balance each other.   It can therefore be said that the function of every movement in a form from the beginning to the end is elastic,  changeable  and linked.  Only in this way the power of every movement is expressed perfectly in the appropriate place.   This is known as "Dong Jin" or "Understanding Energy".
8. There must be intention during practice.  Because every move expresses its function and thought process.  A common saying states: "During training act as if there's an opponent.  In combat act as if there's no opponent".   When you reach a stage where you don't need to pause to ponder either in practice or in actual usage, when you're able to spontaneously use your every move and posture to deal with external changes.  This is the instinctive manifestation of "xin" and "yi" (mind and intent).  It is known as "Shen Ming" or "Divine Realisation".
9. Fear neither hardship nor fatigue; make unremitting efforts; in order to reach your full potential.  You must have patience, perseverance, and a calm harmonious heart in order to arrive at the final level of "Divine Realisation".

Monday, 24 February 2014

Should I train weapons?

Weapons - To train or not to train?
In the days of Chen Wangting the answer to this question was a no-brainier. Traditional weapons were still being carried onto the battlefield and used for real. Today, the various weapon forms are often considered within the context of demonstrating or exercising in the park and many modern urban Taiji warriors question their continued relevance. The logic goes - "if you want to use a weapon, why not just carry a gun?"

It's certainly true that now most people train Taijiquan for its health benefits and for personal development rather than for life or death combat. From this perspective it's easy to see why many combat-oriented practitioners have come to view weapons training as an unnecessary anachronism. However, this represents a superficial understanding of the role of weapons training in the traditional training curriculum. 

Each weapon trains and reinforces different aspects of Taijiquan that helps to develop the physique and attributes of the Chen boxer: The sword develops strong and flexible wrists and hands and flexibility throughout the body; The broadsword develops powerful explosive movement - especially when trained with a traditional heavy weapon rather than the flimsy modern wushu version most widely seen today; The spear form helps in the development of fast and accurate footwork as well as improving upper and lower body co-ordination... Heavy weapons have long been used to increase strength.
CTGB  group training spear form 

The question of the continued relevance of weapons training for the modern player was addressed in an article on the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School website recently. The article went as far as to say that the essence of Chen Taijiquan's footwork is in the spear form training and not the hand form. A thing I often notice in push hands training is the reluctance or inability of many students to move backwards. Strong guys are happy forcing their forward, but upon meeting someone of equal or greater strength are not flexible enough to use footwork to neutralise their opponent. 

Lt: Wang Zhanghai v fencer
An interesting programme floating about on YouTube in the last few weeks shows a  friendly challenge between Chen Taijiquan exponent Wang Zhanhai (son of Wang Xian) and a fencing champion. The unarmed Wang uses evasion and rapid agile footwork to prevent the fencer from touching him with his weapon. Only on the fifth attempt did the fencer manage to register a hit against Wang's body. 

Look at some of the leading Chen practitioners: Chen Fake is said to have great issuing power and reputed to train with the long pole daily; his grandson Chen Xiaowang is known for his great explosive power and fajin skill and in a widely seen film snaps the head off his guandao during a demonstration of the form; Beijing based Chen Yu is known for his Qinna skills but at the same time can show a wonderfully dextrous performance of the sword... In fact it's difficult to find a leading exponent of the combat capabilities of Chen Taijiquan that is not also an accomplished weapons practitioner.
Qinna training with Chen Yu is a painful experience - his weapons skills happen to be pretty good as well! 

Monday, 3 February 2014

The importance of marginal gains...

Taijiquan training develops every aspect - "hands, eyes, body & footwork"
Taijiquan training looks to develop the total capacities of an individual. This is reflected in the saying that one must train " shou yan shenfa bu" (hands, eyes, body and footwork).  There are strict rules for every part of the body and on how to train until the whole body moves as a cohesive unit. These rules can seem impossibly pedantic to many students, who may wander off to do something more immediately gratifying. Or discard aspects of training that they deem unimportant to progress.  But it is important that we don't lose confidence and underestimate the power of small positive changes. 

It is interesting to see some leading modern sports coaches adopting a similar "total" approach in developing their charges to levels of achievement recently thought impossible. For instance, Dave Brailsforth, performance director of British Cycling and mastermind behind Team GB, who took 7 of the 10 gold medals available at the London Olympics. His philosophy has come to be known as "marginal gains theory".  Put simply... Brailsforth showed that small improvements in a number of different aspects of what you do can have a huge impact on the overall performance of an individual. He explained: "The whole principle came from the idea that if you broke down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improved it by 1 percent, you will get a significant increase when you put them together ...there's fitness and conditioning of course, but there are other things that might seem on the periphery, like sleeping in the right position...many tiny things but if you clump them together it makes a big difference".

Small changes give big results - if you persevere!
His concept of marginal gains is strikingly similar to that of England's 2003 Rugby World Cup winning coach Sir Clive Woodward: "Winning the Rugby World Cup was not about doing 1 thing 100 percent better, but about doing 100 things 1 percent better. Woodward famously went as far as employing a visual awareness coach to improve the peripheral vision of his players. 

Just because you cannot see or understand the importance or relevance of some requirement or other, be careful not to discard aspects of a training methodology that have been tried and tested and evolved over nearly four centuries. Tiny incremental changes add up and, given time, can make a large impact.

This slow deep cultivation is what real Taijiquan training is all about.

Monday, 6 January 2014

Can modern students cope with traditional methods?

Browsing in Singapore's Tong Lian store
I saw the new year in in Singapore, a place with a great martial arts vibe. Whenever I'm there I usually take the chance to drop into the Tong Lian martial arts book and equipment store in Bras Basah. While browsing through some of the books in the store I came across the following quotation from the famous Taiwanese internal martial artist Wang Shujin: "Follow the rules honestly: do not doubt, do not cheat. All these rules come from our ancestors. I did not invent them; I am simply transmitting them". It made me think of Ma Hong, a well-known student of Chen Zhaokui, who passed away earlier this month. He kept copious notes of his years training with Chen Zhaokui, which he documented in a number of books. These were a great reference tool that we turned to in writing our own books. Like Wang Shujin, Ma was adamant that his role was to pass on the knowledge that had been passed down to him.

Ma Hong
In the last few years we have lost some of the greatest of the older generation of Taijiquan masters - Feng Zhiqiang, Wang Peisheng, Ma Yeuhliang, Yang Wenhu to name a few. These teachers all learned first hand from an older generation in the slow, painstaking way that characterises traditional Taijiquan.

Can we say that Taijiquan is in such good hands today? How many teachers stress the realities of real Taijiquan and how many students are prepared to  go down the traditional route. Traditional Taijiquan has many sayings that point to this complexity:

"Don't go outside the gate for ten years"

"Three years small success, five years medium success, ten years great success"

                                                                                                             "One days practice, one days skill"

                                          "Treat 10 years as if it were one day" etc etc...

I was in Tiantan park in 1998 killing a few days before we travelled to Henan. We walked through the park in the early morning looking at the different Taijiquan and Qigong players. What I was looking for really was any interesting Chen Taijiquan, but what arrested my attention was an old Wu style practitioner. At that time there were lots of groups, some being quite large. Zhang Baosheng was training with one student. As we watched it was immediately obvious that this was high quality Taijiquan. When he finished his routine he came over to chat and we arranged to do some training with him over the next few days.

Beijing 1998 with Zhang Baosheng and student
Zhang was a student of the aforementioned Wang Peisheng, who he described as simply the "best Taijiquan teacher in the world"! Zhang believed that there was too much emphasis upon different styles of Taijiquan. To him what was important was understanding the correct method and then being able to apply it practically. For example talking of the merits of different styles pushing hands he simply concluded that "It doesn't matter who is doing what style, the one who is still standing up at the end is doing it correctly". Zhang described the tortuous early years of training fundamentals with his own teacher - everyday for the first few years having to do several hours standing before beginning any form training. At seventy-three years old he was still very strong doing one legged squats while holding the other leg above his head - as a warm up.

Close to Zhang's patch in the park a large group trained in one of the modern simplified forms of Taijiquan. With accompanying music and many of the students chatting casually to each other as the leader set the pace, it was little more than a nice social way to begin the day. His one student, on the other hand was serious and disciplined. When we commented on this Zhang said that unfortunately that was the way it was now - "young people in China are not interested in the old ways". While he felt an obligation to pass on what he himself had been taught, he sadly concluded that the authentic Taijiquan was in real danger of becoming extinct. When we we visited him again in 2005 or 2006 he was in the same place - still training and still looking great. Now in his eighties, and now alone - Zhang's sole student had left to find work.

Contrast the above approach with Jet Li's new Taiji Zen project, a high-profile modern example of Taijiquan in the "internet age". Prospective learners are wooed with the possibility of achieving a 9th Duan grade in as little as 3 years. And to validate their "achievement" at each level they receive a certificate signed by Jet Li himself! Forget the fact that Jet Li is a wushu guy who did a little Taiji on the side, the difference in approach could hardly be more striking. But sadly it seems that this is what people want today. I've touched on this phenomena in previous blogs with the explosion of short and simplified Taijiquan forms and fast track instructor courses. If that's what people want that's what they want, but don't anyone kid themselves that they will get any of the often mentioned benefits of Taijiquan. The traditional art is a lifetime process of constant introspective refinement. Traditional skills are hard earned. An individual is said to have "good gongfu", whether it be in Taijiquan or any other pursuit, when it is clear to a skilled observer that they have put three elements into their discipline: The first is that they have studied for an extended period of time; the second is that they have worked very hard or "eaten bitter"; and the third is that they have exhibited yongxin - literally "using their heart" - more than just working hard, they have given it their full, deep and unwavering concentration.
Wang Shujin - Don't neglect the fundamentals!

I'll leave the last word on whether this fast track type of Taijiquan can give results anything like the old ways to Wang Shujin. Talking about the merits of slowly and meticulously training the fundamentals of Taijiquan (in this case the likelihood of gaining high skills without seriously training standing): "You must practice Post Standing (Zhan Zhuang). No matter which Chinese martial art you study, Post Standing is considered fundamental practice. In ancient times, students had to practice standing for one or two years before they were allowed to learn any forms. That is why each generation produced outstanding martial artists. Society and people's way of thinking have changed, making adapting to these requirements difficult...If you skip the fundamentals, your form will remain undeveloped and you will be ridiculed by experts".

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Is "Qi" relevant to today's Taiji boxer?

"Qi" - calligraphy by Zhu Tiancai
I recently followed the comments of a long time Taijiquan player on the internet. He was decrying the dilution of the traditional art and came to the conclusion that this was the fault of the current generation of silk-suited believers in "Qi". Was he right? Is Qi no more than an interesting historical concept of little relevance to today's Taiji boxer? Or is it a central concept that must be understood if we are to understand the art of Taijiquan as it has been passed down?

Chen Xiaoxing stated that it is impossible to reach a high level of Taijiquan without having a deep understanding of Chinese culture. "Students can reach a low level by copying the movements, but they could never hope to realise the depth and subtlety of Taijiquan without this understanding".

One of the most pervasive ideas within Chinese culture is the ever presence of Qi. At the same time, many western practitioners are extremely sceptical of its existence, dismissing it as an antiquated idea - knowingly pointing to the lack of "scientific" evidence? After all, they argue, it can't be seen, measured, touched etc...

To the Chinese the idea that there is no such thing as Qi is just as ridiculous.   To them Qi is an ever-present feature of life. Within the Great Dictionary of Chinese Characters, a vast compendium of Chinese characters spanning 8 volumes, no fewer than 23 different categories of Qi are listed. Categories such as: mood, morale, weather, energy, structure, vapour, momentum, destiny, spirit, meteorological phenomenon, atmosphere, strength, destiny, breath, smells... Within each category again, there are numerous different types of Qi.

To people who say that you cannot see or measure Qi, I would suggest they are looking in the wrong place. It has always been said that while Qi itself cannot be seen, it's effects can be felt. Doesn't it feel different to be fully energised than to be depressed? The Chinese use the expression Shen Qi to describe a state of heightened energy, self-confidence and pride (in the positive sense). Look at someone who has just won an Olympic gold medal or scored the winning goal in the dying seconds of an important football game. Compare the feelings they have with those of someone lacking drive and self-belief.

Another way in which Qi is understood within Chinese culture is in terms of momentum. In literature, art or martial arts mastery is achieved when a movement is completed in one swoop with no hesitation. When I started training Taijiquan one of the main differences I became aware of between the good practitioners and the majority of western practitioners was a kind of inhibited way of doing Taijiquan. As if they were constantly afraid of making a mistake.
In literature, arts or martial arts, mastery is achieved when movement is achieved with no hesitation.  
                                                                                                                                             Image: Janet Grimes

After twenty years of training they still stop every movement put their hands on their coccyx to physically check that they are in the right position. Don't get me wrong - Taijiquan requires constant rigorous attention to detail. But it also requires that a practitioner should exhibit spontaneity, fluidity and naturalness. At some point you have to start FEELING whether the position is correct. In an earlier blog post I wrote of Chen Xiaowang's response to the question of differences between Western and Chinese students. In his opinion one of the major differences was that Western students paid more attention to the external position and Chinese students paid more attention to the feeling of the movement.

Students often spend so much time agonising about Qi and trying to understand it in terms of their own culture which inevitably leads to approximations and misinterpretations.

Monday, 11 November 2013

Tai Chi Chuan & Oriental Arts - Meet the Instructor...

I was recently interviewed for Tai Chi Chuan & Oriental Arts magazine's "Meet the Instructor" section:

How many years have you been practicing Tai Chi?
I was introduced to TCC in the mid-1990s, so about 18 years.

What stimulated your interest?
I was practicing and competing in external martial arts and initially used TCC as a form of cross training to increase my looseness. After about six months I met Chen Xiaowang for the first time. He gave a short lecture on Chen TCC and then stood up and unleashed a series of fajin that blew my mind. At that point I had spent about 15 years training, first in Karate and then in Shaolin gongfu and kickboxing. I had trained with some very strong teachers, but this was just on a different level. From that moment I have trained only Chen TCC.

What does TCC mean to you?
TCC is more than a martial art, it is a complete way of life. At its heart TCC involves the search for balance in both physical and psychological terms. Using the vehicle of martial arts we try to balance the internal aspects of the emotional and logical mind and external aspects such as body structure and the equilibrium of hard-soft, fast-slow, open-close etc. The road to mastery in Taijiquan (and anything else) is the path of patient, dedicated effort without attachment to immediate results. Great success in any physical endeavour, including Taijiquan is built upon consistency and patience. We must be prepared to pay the price both in time and energy.

What is the most important aspect?
Standing,reeling, silk, form - everything is there for a reason..
I believe in a "whole syllabus" approach, rather than picking out separate bits of the system. Every part of TCC is inter-related and there for a reason. Basic exercises like standing pole and reeling silk exercises, hand and weapon forms, push hands and pole-shaking etc complement and support each other. To get the most out of TCC, practitioners should also appreciate the history and underlying philosophy of the art. What is the most important aspect to a person can change over time. The young are naturally active and like low postures and explosive movement; the strong  may be drawn to the combat side; as people get a bit older health maintenance suddenly seems like a good idea; the elderly may look to maintain their mobility and suppleness. Ultimately to be successful in our practice we need to be able to adapt our TCC over time, all the time staying in line with the principles that have been laid down.

Do you have any personal goals?
Really Taijiquan is about the journey rather than the destination. I just want to carry on training with great teachers, following the traditional Chen village method and continue to develop naturally. A saying that is often quoted in Chenjiagou is that "you can't force the fruit to ripen". There are no shortcuts. The students I like the best are the ones who quietly show up week after week, year after year and just get on with it. No hurry, no impatience to get on to the next thing. Just consistent honest effort…

Who or what inspired you?
My first martial arts teacher John Bowen - that's me on the left (about 1981)
First I'd like to mention John Bowen the teacher who first set me on the martial arts path back in 1980. His passion for the Oriental fighting arts sparked an interest that has taken me to China and the Far East almost 20 times. He died tragically young, but I do wonder sometimes what he would make of my martial arts journey. Over the years I have been fortunate to learn from some great TCC teachers who have each inspired me in different ways: The aforementioned Chen Xiaowang, Chen Xiaoxing, Chen Zhenglei, Zhu Tiancai, Chen Ziqiang and Wang Haijun… The first time I went to China in 1997 it was like opening the door to a different world. For the last decade I've been training in the Chenjiagou Taiji School with Chen Xiaoxing. Anyone who has trained with him will be aware of his penchant for simple, repetitive and excruciating emphasis upon basic training, with no truck paid to entertaining students. He offers what works and then it is up to you to put in the effort. Don't think about success. Just follow the rules and grind out the skill.

What do you make of tai chi's current popularity?
For sure TCC is popular in terms of numbers, but there are still a great many misconceptions about the art. Many people come to TCC classes with the idea that is an easy option that doesn't need any self motivation or commitment. I read a recent article during which a person mentioned that his seventy something year old mother had gone to a Tai Chi class. She said she wouldn't be going back again as "she got more exercise during the walk to and from the class than during the class itself". The continuing move towards shorter and more simple forms and to fast-track instructor courses all feed into this. Taijiquan is much more than just learning a few sets of movements or a few push hands tricks. It is the development of complete physical and mental coordination. It means striving to follow a set of rules that have been passed down for many generations. If it is to maintain its credibility newcomers to TCC need to be steered towards qualified teachers who have taken the time to learn the art properly, and teachers need to be encouraged to continue working on their own development.

As a teacher how do you feel about the martial aspect of the art?
Qinna training with GM Chen Xiaoxing 
TCC is a martial art. Within Chen TCC we can trace back almost 400 years during which every generation, until recent times used their skills to defend themselves and their community. People often try to understand the martial aspect of TCC by comparing it to other more obvious martial arts. TCC has its own unique way of training martial skill. It requires us to train the whole body as a system rather than training individual techniques. Many learners become fixated on training set applications rather than the underlying method. Simply training hard is not enough. We must understand and train in line with Taijiquan's principles and philosophy. For example if we are to develop effective fajin we should first learn to "fang song" or loosen our body. Taijiquan's unique brand of looseness allows us to use strength effectively. We should also understand spiral force, the requirements for each part of the body, how to coordinate the crotch and waist, how to use the floor to employ the system's "rebounding force"…

What are your views on competition?
Competition training in the early 80s, when I had more hair!
Competition has its place. Before I came to TCC I competed many times in external martial arts competitions and once taking up TCC was successful in several push hands competitions. All valuable experience in terms of being tested under pressure. If your goal is to achieve fighting skills, you can learn a lot about yourself and your ability when faced with a non-compliant opponent. It's okay to talk about this or that technique, but can you continue to fight after you have been hurt?  Can you control your emotions when facing a strong opponent in a full contact bout? Do you realise how much punishment you or another person can take, without even being aware of it, when your adrenalin is flowing? Answering these questions gives confidence and a sense of realism to your training. Forms competition can motivate some people to train harder. Ultimately I find that the majority of students are not that interested in competition, which is also okay.

What direction would you like to see tai chi going in the future?
Regardless of style, I would like to see more people keeping confidence in the traditional systems. The traditional way is harder to learn, but it is worth learning.