Monday 1 December 2014

Looseness... is it really that important?

First time I went to China was in the mid-1990s. Each teacher I met I pestered with questions about how I could improve my Taijiquan to get the same level of explosiveness I was seeing from the teachers and their students. Invariably I was met with the same answer - "fangsong" or "loosen-up". 

           The explosive fajin of Chen Xiaowang
A year later I was back in China, again marvelling at the explosive fajin of many of the guys over there. Once more I was full of questions about how to get the same result. At the time we were training with Chen Zhenglei, but in the free time we spent quite some time with a young instructor whose name escapes me now. After listening to my umpteenth question about fajin, he asked me if I was really serious about this? After I replied "YES"! He said that "if you're really serious, then for the next year you should do NO FAJIN WHATSOEVER"! He put it bluntly, "Taiji power comes from looseness and pliancy and unless you understand and get this looseness, you won't fajin in the correct way". This was absolutely the last thing I wanted to hear. Before coming to Taijiquan I had trained external martial arts for fifteen years and - at the time - thought I knew a thing or two.  The message that came across load and clear was that it didn't matter what you've done before - if you want the same end product you have to follow the correct method.
                                                        Training in Zhengzhou in the mid 90s
All styles of Taijiquan are built upon the qualities of "song", "rou" and "man", that is looseness, pliancy and slowness. In a quick brainstorming session after class we came up with the following non-exhaustive list of benefits we can expect to gain if we achieve Taijiquan's brand of looseness:

1. Allows the body to be in a resting state

2. Whole body allowed to be loose and free

3. Diaphragm is unrestricted - so Qi is not stuck in the chest

4. Joints are flexible

5. Movements become expanded and comfortable

6. Allows roundness and circularity

7. Decreases stiffness, inflexibility and brute force

8. Increases speed and power

9. Enables Qi to sinkdown

10. Makes legs stronger

11. Stabilises the centre

12. Increases usability

13. Xiapan (lower plane) becomes strong

14. Increases blood circulation

15. Increases stability so that the form doesn't float
Looking for looseness, pliancy and correct structure

16. Improves Qi circulation

17. Increases sensitivity of the skin and flesh

18. Enables sectional movement

Working stiffness and incorrect movement patterns out of the body is a long term job.   Getting back to the UK, I took the advice on board and did no fajin for the next year...

Tuesday 28 October 2014

Chen Xiaoxing – “Know the rules, but be flexible in their application”!

Chen Xiaoxing - "The direction depends upon where your opponent is"
During one session at GM Chen Xiaoxing's recent seminar in Warsaw somebody asked him about the exact direction of the fist in the "Punch to the Ground’ posture. Chen Xiaoxing shook his head and answered "mei guanxi" ( "it's not important").  The group consisted of students who have completed the form and with several years’ experience.  He explained that the direction depends on where your opponent is.  What is important is to be structurally correct, to be rooted, to be able to move in complete unison and to be able to adapt to a changing situation. These are the skills that should be developed.  Variations of this question come up frequently - what is the EXACT position of the hand, the foot, etc.  As students are more frequently exposed to different teachers and to different ways of doing the same form, their confidence and certainty are often being replaced with confusion and uncertainty. New students obviously need a clear map when they are first learning the form, but over time the form should act as a template rather than a shackle. Instead of focusing on the differences, focus on the things that are the same - Is the structure correct and the energy unbroken? Are we alternating opening and closing correctly? And with no unnecessary or additional movements to telegraph the intention?
Poland 2014

The key point of this seminar is:  learn the rules, but be flexible in their application. Chen Xiaoxing illustrated this point with a joke about two groups of soldiers - one Japanese, the other Chinese. Both were ordered to march. After a time the path was blocked by a river where, without a moment’s hesitation, the Japanese soldiers marched straight into the river and were washed away and drowned.  The Chinese soldiers, however, on arriving at the river, halted but continued marching on the spot. The moral of the story - you must obey the rules, but you must also have the presence of mind to change according to the situation in front of you.

Brain mapping research - subject Chen Xiaoxing
In July this year I reported on the ongoing brain mapping research being conducted by Polish scientists from Biomed Neurtechnology. On that occasion Chen Ziqiang was the subject. This time the researcher was happy to find  his father Chen Xiaoxing in town. The results have not been analysed yet, but the preliminary impressions of researcher Greg Wlodarczyk were very interesting. During the first measurement stage when Chen Xiaoxing was asked to sit with his eyes open and keep his mind free (i.e. not in any kind of quiet or meditative state), the frequency of his normal brain waves appeared to be more like those of a person in his 30s.  Wlodarczyk explained that a person in his early 60s would typically show much less frequency. During the final stage Chen Xiaoxing was asked to close his eyes and to consciously quieten his mind.  Like the test with his son there was an obvious and strong connection between the frontal and rear parts of the brain. We'll include a full report of the findings from both Chen Xiaoxing and Chen Ziqiang in our next book (yes, it’s a plug!!!).

Friday 10 October 2014

Do you own your Taijiquan?

The last few months I've been on the road, taking in France, China and Slovenia like some kind of Taiji gypsy. One of the fascinating things you can't help but notice is the different perceptions of the art that many people hold. Here I'm talking about serious Taijiquan practitioners, if we judge seriousness in terms of dedication and time spent actually doing it (as opposed to talking about it!). Beyond the common martial art v health distinction, there are many different ways a person can approach Taijiquan and get a good return for their investment of time and effort.

CTGB 2014 group in Chenjiagou L-R:  Crawford Currie, Viki Lloyd, Dragan Lazarevic, Davidine Sim, Chen Xiaoxing,  David Gaffney & David Murray
The time honoured method of training in Chenjiagou places great emphasis upon realising fundamentals before progressing to the next level. That said, one of the things that struck me during this recent trip was the many different ways Taijiquan can be practised depending on the age, fitness and goals of the person: 
  • One group of young guys in their teens and early twenties started every day training Laojia Yilu with Chen Ziqiang before going training weight training and sparring sessions to prepare some of them for a repeat of last years challenge match with a team of champion Thai boxers from Thailand.  Others to prepare for full contact sanda competitions.
    Two of the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School's top young fighters
  • A group of more mature students were training the Guandao (halberd) everyday with Chen Hui, another of the school's senior instructors. Using heavy weapons they were building strength in Taijiquan's traditional way while mastering the favoured weapon of Chen Wangting, creator of Taijiquan. 
  • One elderly character who comes to Chenjiagou for a few months every year and delights in walking around bare chested (or in a vest in severe weather), as well as doing his forms, was constantly stretching to keep his mobility in later life. 
  • An elegant young woman was training everyday in the double sword form - one of the most aesthetically beautiful weapons in the system.
My sword group in Slovenia
  • One of the Chinese students who joined our group with her husband is an expert in Chinese tea culture and a member of China's traditional painting society. Each day after training she would go to her room to work on a long term project of doing a calligraphy copy of the Yellow Emperor's Canon of Internal Medicine - one of the defining classic texts that underpins many of the theories of Taijiquan. To her Taijiquan practice is a natural extension of a deep study of China's culture.

It's vital to learn from someone who really understands Taijiquan
Each of us has our own unique body and temperament. Throw into the mix age, fitness, past experience... Different people who learn from the same teacher must ultimately bring out their own particular strengths. In Chen Zhaokui’s widely circulated article “Training for Sparring”, he urged practitioners to consider carefully their own physical and mental advantages and disadvantages and train accordingly: 

"After a reasonable mastery of sparring techniques, you should specialise in one or two techniques, the exact ones will be defined by your build, stamina, reflexes, and other factors.  For example, a tall person should put emphasis on cai, or plucking, and lie, which means splitting… A short person should mainly practice shoulder, elbow, and leg techniques in order to attack the lower part of the opponent.  He must be fast and agile…For the powerful, emphasis should be on cai, lie, and zhou.  Strikes should be so powerful that the first strike eliminates all possible attacks…For the agile, emphasis should be on fake moves.  The opponent should be tricked in any way possible… Then …hit with fast moves…For those with slow reflexes, emphasis should be on defence, i.e., when the opponent strikes, the strikes should be blocked and then countered". 

Chen Zhaokui - "Specialise"!!

The important point is that at some point we need to make the Taijiquan we train our own. Of course it's vital that you learn from someone who really understands Taijiquan and put in some serious training under their guidance. BUT if your idea of doing "good Taijiquan" is being a clone of your teacher, ask yourself why all the most highly skilled practitioners express their own distinct flavour? If you've followed a teacher for fifteen or twenty years and still depend upon them, rather than your own understanding then have you really learned anything? 

Monday 18 August 2014

Meeting Wang Xian...

For the record...
At the beginning of the month I spent a week in the French coastal town of Fecamp. We came here to meet, train with and interview Wang Xian, one of the pre-eminent Chen Taijiquan practitioners of the elder generation. Fecamp is in the Normandy area and has a long martial history. Here, close to our hotel, William of Normandy celebrated with a giant banquet almost a thousand years ago after conquering England and killing King Harold. The nearby beaches saw action more recently with the bloody allied landings in the Second World War. Wang Xian's camp brought a more peaceful martial vibe...

The Four "Buddha's Warriors"
Wang Xian is one of the "Four Buddha's Warriors" of Chenjiagou Taijiquan and is renowned for his great combat skills. Over the last two decades I've had the chance to train with the other three and was curious to see how his teaching style compared. One of the things I really enjoyed about the seminar was his spontaneity in breaking out of the set programme. Many people who only learn via seminars and don't attend regular classes find this stressful. They argue that the poster said Laojia Yilu or Xinjia Erlu or whatever and that this should be stuck to, or the group won't be able to finish the form. Anyone who has trained in a traditional class for any length of time knows that the best instruction often arises in an unplanned way.

The programme for the week was Xinjia Yilu (New Frame First Form). On the first day Wang was not satisfied with the footwork of the group, so spent quite some time having everyone go through various stepping drills  - including how to take deceptively long or "greedy/hungry" steps to enter an opponent's space unexpectedly. At any time he would switch from the Xinjia to train some movement from Laojia that could illustrate the point he was trying to put across. With a great emphasis on appreciating the subtleties that lie at the heart of correct Taijiquan he would repeatedly ask people to place their hands on his waist, kua, shoulders, chest or dantian so they could feel what was happening. Then after a while he would call everyone to go away and train themselves - "You won't get it by watching me doing it.You'll only get it by doing it yourself!

Wang Xian explains a point...
Above all, he constantly stressed the need to achieve "song" or looseness through slow training and great attention: "Everything is dependent upon song"; "the amount of Qi in the body is a direct reflection of the degree of song". The Daodejing says that one must: "Make freedom from desire your constant norm; thereby you will see what is subtle. Make having desires your constant norm; thereby you will see what is manifest". The failure to understand the difference between the root of a movement and its ultimate expression is a great barrier to many students. It's not that they are not prepared to work hard and sweat, but desperately wanting the end product, they cannot appreciate the need to minutely examine their practice. It's easy to see the explosive fajin of an accomplished practitioner or an exciting application. It's not so easy to realise the correct route of the movement or its energetic requirements. When people are asked to train slowly, you can see that in a short time, some people soon feel the need to go faster, some just get bored and start to do some push hands, some just have a convivial chat with their  friends. Only a few painstakingly repeat the movement over and over, checking if their chest is loose, back filled, kua relaxed etc etc ... It's particularly striking when the teacher leads the group through the form after telling everyone to do it slowly. Some people are always one step ahead. Those who know how to learn try to stay with and  mirror his movements as closely as possible.

(L-R) David Gaffney, Davidine Sim, Wang Xian & Yen Sujie
A few of the tips he gave over the course of the week included:

Don't stupidly repeat the form and think that you are going to get fighting ability. You must take out single movements from the form and train them repeatedly until you completely understand them.

The form is not a dead thing. Many people can do an outside imitation of the form, but they are lost in, as one participant put it, "copy and paste mode". The form must be alive within the principles.

Use slowness to achieve detail. I cannot emphasise how much importance Wang put on the fundamental need to train slowly. Everyone can quote Taijiquan's requirements such as storing the chest and filling the  back, but finding the  optimal degree of relaxation, extension or co-ordination of different parts of the body can only be realised through slowness. 

In his final address to the group at the end of the seminar he told everyone to "train everyday or you won't get it - you cannot train for one day and rest for three"!

Monday 11 August 2014

Chen family comes out fighting over Zhang Sanfeng claims!!!

2007 Chenjiagou recognised as the birthplace of Taijiquan.
Open warfare has erupted in China over the question of Taijiquan’s origin. It appeared that the dispute over where Taijiquan was created and by who had finally been settled in 2007. After extensive investigation and evaluation by the Chinese Wushu Association, and China's People Association, Wen County, Henan Province was named as, the "birthplace of Chinese martial arts Taijiquan" and "China Taijiquan birthplace" respectively.  Chen Wangting was recognised as the creator of Taijiquan. This confirmed the 1930s research of Tang Hao, often viewed as China’s greatest martial arts historian. 
However, the origin debate has dramatically reared its head again in the last few weeks. On July 16 China’s Ministry of Culture accepted and announced “Zhang Sanfeng Taijiquan” as one of the approved applicants in its "Fourth Instalment of National Intangible Cultural Heritage Recommended List” under the “Traditional Sports, Entertainment and Acrobatics Category”. The Zhang Sanfeng Taijiquan group in question hail from Shaowu County in China’s Fujian Province. The level of anger at this announcement can be seen from the reactions of two of the leading members of the Chen family, Chen Xiaowang and Chen Zhenglei.

Chen Xiaowang addressing the press over the Zhan Sanfeng issue...
Earlier today (August 11) Chen Xiaowang, an eleventh generation descendant of the founder of Taijiquan, held a press conference in Zhengzhou, Henan Province. During the press conference he publicly criticised the Zhang Sanfeng Taijiquan farce, and requested clarification from the relevant bodies and an assurance that they would deal with the issue justly, fairly and transparently.

Taking questions
Chen Xiaowang pointed out a number of inaccuracies with the claims of  Zhang Sanfeng Taijiquan as regards to Zhang Sanfeng's birthplace and its association with the art of Taijiquan and the evolution of the various schools of Taijiquan.  He also pointed out the realistic and multi-angle damage the inclusion of "Zhang Sanfeng Taijiquan" could cause.  In his words, "Once included in the list, it will create confusion regarding historical records and bound to lead to endless controversies".  He also questioned the selection process of the Ministry of Culture, and went as far as stating that " there may be serious bureaucratic and other unhealthy practices." Strong words in China when speaking about the actions of officials!

In a similar vein, Chen Zhenglei reacted immediately upon returning from his world teaching tour on July 23. Hearing the news on his arrival back in China, within two days two letters were sent on behalf of the Henan Taijiquan Association and the Wenxian County Department to the Ministry of Culture and the National Intangible Cultural Heritage Protection Centre about the “problem report”. Chen Zhenglei also contacted Zhengzhou's major news organisations, and "as an individual and as a Chen Taijiquan successor" made public the situation and his dissatisfaction with the whole affair.
Chen Zhenglei - "Zhang Sanfeng story based on myth and fairy tale".

Chen Zhenglei stated that the criteria for "intangible cultural heritage" is its lineage and  continuity, generally for  three generations or more, through father to son (the family), or master to disciple, or through other forms of traditional school.  He went on to say that the Zhang Sanfeng Taijiquan story is based on myth and fairy tale, and the Ministry for the protection of intangible cultural heritage must not confuse the public. This is not the first time that Chen Zhenglei has spoken out against misrepresentations of Taijiquan and the damage this can do to public perceptions. Over a decade ago in
 an interview with BBC Radio’s Eastern Horizon programme, which we reproduced in The Essence of Taijiquan under the heading “Ancient Art or New Age Fad”?, Chen Zhenglei stated that: “There is lots of imitation Taijiquan out there, and the public do not know the difference. These eclectic styles will be passed on as authentic and there will be fewer traditionalists amongst Taijiquan practitioners”.

The mythical Zhan Sanfeng popularised in the Jin Long novels
So just who was Zhang Sanfeng and does it matter who created Taijiquan? In popular culture Zhang Sanfeng is closely linked to the Wudang Mountains.  This is largely due to the martial arts novels of Jin Yong and the movie “Taiji Master” by Jet Li.  Whether or not he was a real person, or during which historical era he lived has been variously debated. But in both myth and 'fact' Zhang Sanfeng is an alchemist and Daoist monk of Wudang. Which begs the question why does the current application come from a group in Fujian and not from Wudang in Hebei? And if the claim is recognised will all the other Taijiquan families have to acknowledge it as their ancestor?

Whatever the truth, it seems the public is lapping it up. In September 2013, Shaowu held an "Across the Taiwan Strait · Sanfeng Hometown" event, and showcased for the first time Zhang Sanfeng (original style) Taijiquan slogans.  Since then almost 3000 foreign students are reported to have come to learn the “Shaowu Zhang San Feng (original style) Taijiquan and Taiji exercises." It is this stressing of the wording “original style” that has stirred up other Taijiquan groups in China. This year from March 31 to April 2, the first Shaowu Zhang San Feng (original style) Taijiquan competition, took place with nearly 2,000 people attended the event. 

Friday 4 July 2014

Looking Inside the Head of a Taijiquan Master…

A student brought yet another newspaper cutting to class to show me the “scientific” proof that Taiji was good for you. Without even looking at it I could more or less predict what the piece would say: “Group of elderly people (or children) who had never done Taiji before given one or two classes a week for eight or ten weeks and afterwards showed significant improvement in their ability to … take your pick - not fall down, concentrate… For example, a study at the University of Miami, Touch Research Institute showed that: “adolescents with ADHD showed improved behaviour, less daydreaming and hyperactivity after JUST 10 SESSIONS OF TAI CHI” [my emphasis!] Anyone who knows anything about Taijiquan knows that it is not a simple discipline. Even the keenest young beginner can understand little more than some basic choreography after such a short time. In my opinion these kind of studies do little to improve the understanding or awareness of the true potential of Taijiquan trained in the traditional way – that is, diligently over an extended time. If anything, they feed into the idea of Taijiquan as some kind of flaky exercise for people who don’t have the inclination or ability to work hard.

Gregorz Wlodarczyk setting up the experiment 
If we want people to take Taijiquan seriously, of far greater interest and relevance is the scientific study of accomplished practitioners of the art.  I was in Warsaw a few weeks ago with Chen Ziqiang when he was asked to be the subject of an ongoing scientific study into the ability that certain people have to produce or control the level of “alpha waves” in the brain.

Alpha waves can simplistically be seen as the "relaxing waves". However, they also have a vital role to play in the human mind, acting as a bridge between the subconscious part of the mind (theta waves) and the conscious part of the mind (beta waves). I’m no scientist, so I googled the role of alpha waves and came up with the following: “Information, feelings, creativity, memories, which are deep down in one's mind, cannot become conscious if there is no bridge (no alpha waves), between the two states of mind. There are a number of benefits of alpha waves, the most obvious are that you become calmer and more relaxed. It has also many effects on the body. For example, it slows down the heart rate, which can be effective against heart problems, the body finds more time to regenerate and it even has a very positive effect on learning speed and memorization”. When someone is lacking in alpha brainwave activity, rapid thinking and overthinking generally take place.  In addition they are prone to adrenaline rushes and an inability to concentrate.  

Chen Ziqiang - in the zone
Scientists Gregorz Wlodarczyk and Dariusz Tuchowski of Biomed Neurotechnology who had travelled from Wroclaw in the west of Poland have been working on a “brain mapping” programme and were keen to literally look inside Chen Ziqiang’s head. "Brain mapping" is not a new phenomenon. Wlodarczyk and Tuchowski have access to a large database of readings of the brains of, as they put it, "common people". Their study aims to compare these with the brains of “exceptional people” who have developed their minds through meditation and similar techniques. The mapping of exceptional people is in the early stages. Up to now in the field of Taijiquan and Qigong they have also done the study with Mantak Chia and expect to test different individuals with religious and meditative backgrounds.

After fitting Chen Ziqiang with an electrode fitted cap that made him look like a Russian cosmonaut about to go into space, it was time to start the experiment. One of the scientists asked Chen Ziqiang if he was going to meditate or to prepare for a fight, did he have any special method for calming his mind and if so whether he could do this now? He replied "I'll try". For the first part of the experiment he was asked to keep his eyes open, as the study was looking to see how he could control his mind in the midst of normal background noise and distractions. Within several seconds the two scientists became excited, pointing at the traces of waves on the computer screen Chen Ziqiang was hooked up to. The experiment was done using first a Russian programme to map the brain activity and then repeated using an American programme. I can’t claim to fully understand the full implications of thestudy, but Gregorz and Dariusz did their best to explain in layman’s  why they got so excited. According to them, “Chen Ziqiang, on both tests seemed to access a
What goes on inside the head of a Taijiquan  master?

high alpha state very quickly and therefore, to be able to connect his subconscious and conscious brain very quickly… Usually people can only access the back of the brain but he seemed to be able to affect the whole brain, and it was consistent”. If this is not a great scientific explanation I can only say that it’s the best I can do given my non-existent Polish language skills! Eventually they hope to publish their full findings in scientific journals in Germany and the USA.

Chen Ziqiang’s response to all the excitement was a typically understated: “If you can’t control your mind, how can you control your body”.

Tuesday 13 May 2014

It’s all in the circle…

I was interested to read an article by Yang Taijiquan descendent Yang Jun promoting the upcoming Taijiquan Symposium scheduled for July in Louisville, Kentucky in which leading figures from each of the five main styles will present their take on Taijiquan – Chen Zhenglei representing Chen style. During the article Yang spoke about the unique characteristics of the different styles and suggested that each could learn from the others. On Chen style he had the following to say:

“For example, when we are taking about the Chen style, they use the method they call "silk reeling". We don't use the term silk reeling. If you look at the way thread is made from the fibers, you have to twist and you have to pull evenly or the silk will tear. The Chen style explains that you must unify straight movements with circular movements to create spiralling movements. They have a more detailed way to talk about when to have this kind of coordination through the waist, through the back, through the arm rotating, which angle is inside, which angle is outside, and the balance of the positions throughout the movement. They have clearly defined this. For the rest of us, we have a simpler idea. We don't talk about when and where, but actually, we are doing something very similar. By studying this method with the Chen family, you can gain a deeper understanding of where this exists in other forms. Our rotating and circling is similar to theirs in theory, but we do it differently. In the end, you will find out that even though we don't have a name for it, we are working with the same idea”.

Look for the circle in every movement...
Chen Xin's diagram of Jin Gang Dao Zhui
This idea of silk reeling energy is central to the practice of Chen style Taijiquan. So much so that it has been said that an individual cannot claim to be practising Taijiquan without understanding silk reeling. Chen Zhaopi baldly stated that "Playing Taijiquan is training neijin (internal strength) and neijin is silk reeling energy". How can we recognise silk reeling energy in a practical way? It  can be described simply as a stage where there is no flat surface, no straight lines, and the whole body becomes a circle from top to bottom. 

In the Essence of Taijiquan we wrote: "the jin (trained energy) in Taijiquan is executed from a circle and expressed in spirals and arcs. Moving in this circular manner ensures that the Taijiquan exponent's actions are unbroken and dynamic. Consequently, by eliminating any straight lines, level surfaces, kinks and breaks in movements and always seeking to make every position and action round an individual will be on the correct path".

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".

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