Monthly Archives: May 2008

Good end to a bad week

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It’s been a bit of a rough week; I’m mentally drafting a blog post about it, as it’s required lots of soul-searching. Not sure if I’ll publish it, though.

Anyway, I’ve been feeling bad about how my practice in both martial arts and meditation has been kind of sidelined in the months since I came to Beijing – which wasn’t entirely unexpected, but I didn’t expect the extent of it! So this week I’ve been trying to change conditions to let me get back into the groove.

Buying a bike was a good, and much overdue, idea. I’ve been able to explore parts of the campus I couldn’t easily get to before, and it’s helped me to find a place to practice. Previously, the only place I could find was on the edge of the sports field, surrounded by large areas of concrete. The qi felt really bad there, plus I was in full view of the crowds of students hanging out there, which was a bit awkward. On the bike, I’ve found a courtyard park area in the midst of the older staff apartments. It’s private, shady, and the air is really good. Lots of birds singing in the trees above, and a few old people doing qigong in the morning. It only takes a few minutes to get there by bike – although, going by bike means I have to use a shoulderstrap on my sabre’s scabbard, and sling it over my back. I look like some sort of demented bicycle cavalryman as I whizz around campus; it’s surely only a matter of time before I get arrested 🙂

So, I went there this morning – first morning practice for a few weeks, made easier by the new timetable. (I’m able to re-use stuff from last semester now, rather than getting up at 6am every day to start researching & writing on the day’s new lecture material). I started with 15 min or so of zhan zhuang, then went into a couple of sets of CMC-37 taiji. After that, I tried the xuan xuan broadsword set for the first time in ages, but got a mental block halfway through. Now worries, that happened from time to time even back in Singapore, when I was doing it regularly. Experience has taught me that when this happens, it’s best to just stop, rather than keep banging away at it. Next, a few reps of the moves I’ve learned so far of the ba da zhang, working on some details that I’m finding tricky. I followed that with a first attempt in ages of Master Zhou’s wuji long xing baguazhang set; I’m very rusty, but I really need to get back into it. Not sure why yet – I’m sure it’ll bubble up from the subconscious at some point – but having started a bit of zhang zhuang, I think there’s some sort of strong connection with the wuji set. Anyhow, I finished up with a couple of sets of the bagua needles form, before cycling back home through the crowds of students who were by then on their way to the day’s first lectures.

Back home, a met a technician who’d come to fix my computer, which was getting badly clogged up by a couple of years’ worth of Singapore and Chinese dust; it’s now running much cooler and faster. Hooray!

Awareness and intent

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I didn’t write up everything that happened last week when I went to the Yiquan Academy, because there were a few things that happened that called for a little more reflection before I talked about them.

You can’t knock around the world of internal martial arts for as long as I have without learning, even by osmosis, that the masters consider the root and power of their arts to lie in zhan zhuang, or standing practice, rather than in the form. However… I haven’t particularly practiced zhan zhuang, and few of my teachers have put much emphasis on it. My taijiquan practice is what’s given me a feel for it, I guess, and particularly the taijigong taught by Nam Wah Pai in Singapore.

Yiquan, of course, is all about the zhan zhuang, with no set form at all. When I went to the Academy last week, H. told me we would just practice what I know as the basic “holding the tree” posture, with some mind work to accompany it. I’ve tried this posture a few times over the years, and have a few books that talk about it, but in all my solo work I’ve very rarely practised it – time always seemed so short, and I needed to work on the forms I was learning before I forgot them again!

So I stood in this position for about half an hour. After a few minutes, of course, muscles started to ache. My shoulders are chronically stiff, so they hurt. The long muscle or whatever that runs down the right side of the spine was also really tight as well; that’s the result of all the desk-work lately. What to do? H had shown me a “relaxation posture”, where the hands are moved to the back, next to the kidneys, to use if I got too tired, but it seemed better to me to try to get through the pain while keeping the same posture.

I decided to do what I learned on Vipassana meditation retreats; when experiencing physical pain, don’t seek relief by moving the body – instead, send the mind to the pain, and try to find the exact spot where the pain is located. The result is that the pain just goes away. It worked. That let me carry on doing the other extra practices that H. had mentioned. Glenn had also reminded me to form my back into a bow shape in order to tuck the coccyx underneath, so I remembered to work on that and on sinking my weight. After twenty minutes or so, I as tired, and a funny thing happened – it really felt that my arms were being held up not by strength and muscle, but by intent and will.

It as at this point that we tried out the sparring. I’m usually very bad at this; I think too slowly, and easily get my balance messed up. My partner/opponent was quite a bit bigger than me, stronger than me, and about fifteen years younger than me. However, the effect of the standing practice seemed to be that when he issued force, it just seemed to pass through me; I didn’t need to have to consciously react to it, and it didn’t affect me. My awareness was still intense in my arms, and I could sense changes in his strength and respond naturally, without thought. At one point, he got through my guard and pushed me forcefully on the right pectoral, which would normally have sent me flying backwards. On this occasion, I could just sense exactly where the power was, and was able to pivot around it and step behind him; he went flying forwards instead, as his strength didn’t find anywhere to land.

This is very uncommon for me! In fact, it was just total beginner’s luck.

Still. This is the first time I’ve ever managed experienced what taiji, for example, is meant to be all about – to use softness to defeat an opponent who was actively seeking to throw me hard into a wall. To experience why the internal martial arts are powerful beyond qinna and other physical techniques. Heh. I know that some of the people who read this blog are very good internal martial artists and will be saying “At last! It took you long enough!”. I know. I’m a slow learner, but I’m just trying to learn at my own pace – bear with me!

A related event occurred the following Saturday, when I went for my bagua pan guan bi class with Sun Zhi Jun and Mi Lao Shi. I’ve revised the form, and can go through it without many mistakes now. They were telling me, though, that it looked ugly. How could I change that, without being able to see myself? I just did it again with more focus; putting more intent into the movements as if I was surrounded by opponents. Much better, was the response. Hmmm. So “intent” was what improved it…

As usual, none of this leads up to any particular point. However, it is an important breakthrough for me to discover that combining standing practice with a meditation technique did clearly, and immediately, show results against an aggressive training partner. Heh, apologies again to those of you who’ve been patiently waiting for me to “get it”!

Yiquan in Hong Kong


[youtube wW1ZPKOr2wI]

Those skinny Cantonese guys, eh… gotta watch out for them…

No further comment…


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OnePlusYou Quizzes and Widgets

Category: Uncategorized

Meeting Master Yao


Yesterday morning I went down to Chaoyangmen subway station to meet H. My gosh – it took me longer to get from the university to Wudaokou on the bus than it did to get from Wudaokou to Chaoyangmen on the train and subway! Beijing’s traffic just gets worse and worse…

H. had brought along an American acquaintance from the hostel where she’s staying, a guy called Glenn who has studied bagua and yiquan before. The three of us went along to the Yiquan Academy, where she’s been studying for the past three weeks.

The Academy’s training area is apparently nicknamed “The Submarine”, and it’s an apt name! It’s a small basement room with no natural light, lockers along one wall, and doors leading off to a few offices. There’s also a small dormitory, with beds racked three-high. Very small… possibly even “cramped”…. There were a few Chinese students already there; young guys in their twenties who, I think, live in the dorm.

Anyhow, Glenn and I were just there as observers, not to participate in any lessons. H. told me to practice zhan zhuang, according to the way she’s learned it there; Glenn added some tips from what he’s learned. He was practicing a yiquan ‘health dance’ that he’d learned in the States; from the comments made by the Chinese students, it seems to be different to what is taught at the Academy.

After a short while, Master Yao Chengguang arrived. H. introduced us, and we had a short chat. I explained that I couldn’t start training immediately, but would like to do so intensively after my teaching ends; we agreed that I would give him a call nearer the time. First impression is that he’s very tough, no-frills, but impressive; I liked him but I certainly wouldn’t like to get on his wrong side.

After half an hour or so, Glenn tried a bit of tui shou with one of the students; it looked interesting, so I asked to try as well. I’m not strong at all, and after half an hour of zhan zhuang, my muscles were tired, so I couldn’t use strength. It was pretty cool, and I don’t think I embarrassed myself, even though the Chinese student could of course have flattened me if he’d really tried! Afterwards, Master Yao asked me if I would like to try some more – I’m not sure if he meant with him! I was tired though – my aerobic fitness is rubbish – so I declined, politely I hope. If I’m going to study there, I need to a) get fitter before I start (some hope!) and b) be prepared to be knocked about – from what I saw, they really throw each other around, and there’s no mats, or padding on the walls. Sometimes, some of the students where just sent flying through (open) doorways, or into the dormitory!

H. and I left a little early, as we wanted to go to the Xiang Shan park; she’s going back to England next week, so it was her last chance to catch a bit of Chinese nature! We had a really nice day out, and eventually said our farewells. Who knows if we’ll ever meet again! It’s been a real pleasure to meet another Brit who shares my interest in martial arts and Buddhism… Incidentally, she mentioned that if I hadn’t mentioned the Yiquan course to her, and she had gone travelling for a while before leaving China, she would have been in Chengdu when the earthquake hit. Scary. Funny how lives can turn around chance conversations…

Getting through a bad patch

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A bad patch only in terms of my martial arts practice, I hasten to add; things generally are OK.

We all have to find the balance somewhere between job, career, etc on the one hand, and martial arts, meditation, etc on the other. In Singapore, the balance for me was firmly on the right hand side of the equation. Since my move to Beijing, it’s swung well over to the other side.

Hopefully, a bit more of a balanced situation is in site, as the future becomes a bit clearer. It was my intention to return to Singapore after my contract ends in July, but I’ve changed my mind. Much as I like Singapore, it makes absolutely no sense career-wise to go back there; there’s just no opportunity there, whereas in Beijing there’s much, much more happening. I’m also pretty happy with the teachers I have here as well, both in martial arts and in Zen meditation.

In my job, this semester has been crazy; I didn’t have any opportunity to prepare before I arrived, and went straight into teaching, so I’ve constantly been playing catch-up. The university want me to stay on, and I like the job, so I think I’ll be here for at least another year…. I’ll be on summer break between mid-July and early September, so I’ll have time to take the Yiquan course, AND to do all my preparation for the next semester… so I’ll have more time for daily practice once I start teaching again.

Speaking of Yiquan, Hannah’s invited me to her class on Thursday, so I’ll meet her teacher.

Oh, you may remember that a few weeks ago I met a young martial arts teacher who’s based at Beijing Language and Culture University; he’s just emailed me to let know that he’s put some videos online. Here’s one; there’s more on YouTube:

[youtube um7ybeWsQFs]

I want to learn this.

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Not now. Not even any time soon. But… some time. Saw it in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and loved it then… (and in fact, that film continues to grow on me). Now I know what this form is….

One day…

[youtube xqavWkIDkuQ]

Update:

OK, here’s the clip from CTHD. Not entirely sure that it is the same style, but close enough… I read “somewhere on the internet” that they used Bow Sim Mark’s style… Hehehehe, what, you want authoritative sources??? Anyway, it’s very cool:

[youtube hOlA6LLATuY]

A yiquan conversation

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I wrote a short while ago that I’d met up with my friend H for a farewell evening before she went travelling for a month, and then back to England. During the course of the evening, after several beers, I happened to mention that after my contract ends I’m hoping to take the 1-month course at the Yiquan Academy. H, whose background is in Tanglanquan (Northern Preying Mantis), was curious, and asked for the URL. She checked it out the next day, and immediately cancelled her travel plans; her last month before going home would be spent doing this course. What with one thing and another, we haven’t had time to catch up since then, but she just called me, and I want to write it down before I forget. It went something like this:

Me: So how’s the course going?
H: Well, it’s nothing really like it says on the website. It’s not in a park, it’s in this basement somewhere in Chaoyang, where there’s no natural light. They only go to the park on weekends, but I couldn’t go this weekend so I’m none the wiser where it is. We don’t do anywhere near the number of hours they say on the website, and everyone’s smoking, in fact it seems like its almost encouraged to smoke. Plus, there’s a number of modules we’re supposed to get through, and it really feels like we’re rushing it a bit.
Me: Crap, it sounds like I recommended a really bad course to you! Sorry!
H: No! It’s f*****g brilliant! The guy’s a really good teacher, he explains things really clearly, and I’m learning loads. Most of the students are Chinese, which is great, and the style’s really effective! There’s no bullshit here. I really want to carry on with this style!
Me: Wow, cool!

So, there you have it – my feedback so far… I’m still looking forward to trying it myself in July!

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I’ve just come back from a short trip to Pingyao in Shanxi province. Pingyao used to be a centre of private banking in Qing-era China, and was a very wealthy place. However, as the country developed, the growth of a national postal system and national-scale banks rendered Pingyao’s pre-industrial system irrelevant. The city declined into poverty; in fact, it became so poor that the inhabitants could not afford any of the products of the 20th century, or to do anything than patch up their buildings and just get by. As a result, it’s hardly changed since the early 20th century, and its Ming- and Qing-style architecture is almost entirely untouched.

The poverty of the last century is evident, with many derelict and semi-collapsed buildings. However, its UNESCO status is gradually bringing tourism, along with the money – and social problems – that accompany it. We stayed in a hostel close to the old government building, which was OK, but not necessarily somewhere I would recommend or want to stay again. We took an overnight train from Beijing, which was noisy and uncomfortable. There weren’t any available tickets for the return trip, though, so we ended up hiring a car and driver to take us to the provincial capital, Taiyuan, from where we caught a coach back to Beijing. The less said about that trip, the better!

Don’t think I didn’t enjoy it, though! It was an adventure, with good company. As for Pingyao, I love it. In the early morning, it’s beautiful; the streets are empty except for locals going about their business, and it looks exactly as it must have done in centuries gone by; it’s surely the closest I will ever get to time travel

From about 8am, the fleets of coaches started arriving, and the main streets were crowded with throngs of tourists, almost all of them Chinese. There were a couple of local performers dressed up in Republic-era clothes (a mixture of traditional Chinese and western), who specialised in posing as rickshaw men, with tourists sitting in the rickshaw dressed in period costume. It was interesting to see Chinese tourists flocking to have their photo taken, where Westerners would surely be too afflicted by post-colonial guilt!

After about 5pm,the crowds melted away, and the streets became wonderfully quiet again. Pingyao in the summer evening is almost perfect. In the mellow evening air, you’re free to wonder around streets that are lively but not crowded. The only illuminations are from red lanterns hanging on the buildings, and from the shopfronts and restuarants. The old gate towers are also gently illuminated and visible from almost everywhere. I would love to go back just to spend a few more evenings there.

The old walls are still complete (after a little restoration), and we walked around one quarter of their length. It didn’t take long – Pingyao is very small! For the first time, I realised how intimate these old cities were; I wonder what it was like to live your life within a walled city…
On our last morning, we looked at our city map and decided to visit two temples: the Temple of Confucius, and the Dragon Temple. The Confucius Temple was very, very noisy and crowded when we went in, but most of the crowds didn’t go beyond the first couple of courtyards; as we went deeper in, there were more and more gardens and trees, and it became more tranquil. There always seemed to be a barely visible door or gate which, when investigated, led to another hidden courtyard and garden. There were lots of sparrows in the gardens; that reminds me, another lovely feature of Pingyao is the number of swifts (swallows? what’s the difference? Don’t ask me…) which sweep through the streets, darting around just above the heads of the pedestrians. The Dragon Temple, just outside the city walls, was a whole other story. After leaving the Confucius temple, we hired a tuk-tuk to take us there; the driver was astonished – “Why? There’s nothing there?”. He was right – and wrong. The temple was a gutted ruin, with what must have been the main altar open to the wind, the windows empty and broken, and a wholly desolate atmosphere pervading the whole complex. Tucked away in the back of the compound, a few temple buildings had been converted into housing and, though we didn’t linger, the poverty was clear. According to a sign on the outside wall, the compound had once housed an elementary school, but there’s absolutely no sign of that now; the only presence there is decay and collapse. We saw only one sign of life: an aged man sitting in the courtyard as if he’d been in the same spot for the ages; he barely acknowledged our presence, and certainly showed no surprise at the sudden appearance of this noisy group of Westerners. As we left, though, he came after us and locked the door behind him. It was almost as if he’d been waiting for us. I wonder how long he’d been there, and what tales he could tell about this temple’s past. Here, for the first time, I felt the damage and destruction wrought on traditional Chinese beliefs.

Pingyao used to be a centre of banking; banking means money, and money needs protection. There are a couple of museums in the premises of old-style security companies. These were family businesses just like the one Michelle Yeoh ran in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. There’s also a martial arts museum. In the Chinese way of doing things, the English signs in these museums weren’t particularly helpful, but it seems clear from what I read that these companies were specialists in xingyiquan and baguazhang, which I found extremely interesting. I took a lot of pictures, which I’ll try to post here in the hope that someone can give me more information! I knew from Master Zhou, of course, that his own line of bagua descends from convoy guards, but it was fascinating to see it here, in the buildings where these companies’ own headquarters.

OK, plenty more to say, particularly about my fellow travellers, and the train of thought this trip and other recent encounters have started, but I’ll save it for another post.