Monthly Archives: June 2008

Monkey see, monkey do…


This is a rant. You’vebeen warned!

The TV crew were in touch again last week; they wanted to film me at my bagua needles class. I said sure, as long as Master Sun agrees. There wasn’t much problem there, as they’ve already been filming Dragoncache and others training with him. So, all cool there.

Yesterday morning, they were in touch again. It was heavily overcast, and they were afraid it was going to rain – so, could we move the lesson forward to 2pm? OK, I said, as long as Master Sun is OK with this. They called back a bit later – sure, all fine.

So, I arrived just before 2, and find the TV crew sitting in their car outside the apartment block. We go up to Master Sun’s apartment, I ring the doorbell… and start getting a very bad feeling… Plainly, no-one is expecting us. Master Sun, his family, and two of his Chinese students are there… the students speak good English, and say of course we couldn’t move the lesson – Mi Lao Shi is still on her way and won’t be here till 3… Of course, at this point I felt terribly embarrassed. Turning up unannounced with a TV crew behind me is not how I like to approach my teachers! Very clearly, nothing had been agreed. I’m increasingly feeling that the director simply lied to me about that. So, at this point, I said very sorry, I’ll be back at 3, left and went outside to train on my own for the next hour. The TV crew emerged very shortly afterwards but, frankly, I didn’t want to talk to them, and they kept their distance.

At 3, Mi Lao Shi arrived, Master Sun and his other students came out, and we got started. The previous hour of practice had helped a lot, so I was pretty warmed up and able to give the lesson my best – which isn’t very good at all! The cameras brought out lots of gawkers, even though they must have all seen me many times before; it’s funny what a media presence does to people! Anyway, so there was quite a crowd. Master Sun and Mi Lao Shi gave me lots of correction on fine details, which will make me look even more clueless on the film, but which was very very useful all the same!

I had a quick chat with Mi Lao Shi afterwards; I wanted to take a break for the summer. I’m not paid when I’m not teaching, so (at that point) it looked like I would be without any income until the end of October. More on that in a later post.

Anyway, at this point things really went off the rails. The whole point of my involvement in this TV thing is that they wanted to profile foreigners in China who are studying martial arts. No problem. I agreed to this, and said that it was fine to follow my life. However, let me be clear that I’m not being paid for my involvement in this. From this point onwards, it became clear that the TV crew had an agenda, and they didn’t want to just film a documentary; they have a narrative they want to tell, and Dragoncache and I are going to be fitted into it,whether we like it or not.

So… after the class I planned to go to the Bookworm, where Dragoncache and I normally meet up. The director had other ideas. She wanted to take me to a martial arts shop. Well, the penny hadn’t yet dropped, and it sounded interesting, so I called Dragoncache, we agreed to see what happened and stay in touch, and so the crew and I went off in two cars. It turned out that we were going to Tiyu Daxue, the Sports University…

We arrived in the wrong place. My car did at least… We came to a martial arts equipment store that I already knew – it’s the same one that my other teacher, Sun Ru Xian, recommended to me, and where I’ve already bought a few things. The cameraman went in to see if this was where he was meant to be going… it wasn’t;he called the director, who was in the other car, and found out we were going to another shop, in the next street. However – the owner came out, and recognized me. Now, once again, I felt really bad. Perhaps I’m taking this too seriously, but because I’ve been given discounts there as a student of Sun Ru Xian, I felt very awkward that the cameras had gone in, turned around, and walked out again – so I insisted we go in and film. And, as it happens, they have some very cool, very high quality – and thus very expensive – weapons there. While we were doing this impromptu filming, Daroncache and his wife arrived, as did the director and the rest of the crew.

We were there for quite some time; the owner gave some kungfu spear demos, and got interviewed. After that, we all left. Dragoncache and I were both really hungry, but we were told that we still had to go to the original shop… “because it was cheaper”…. I have no idea why. We went there, milled around, didn’t do anything structured… and there really wasn’t anything interesting there… The quality of the equipment was much lower. Dragoncache thought it was because they wanted to film us haggling over a purchase, but neither of us wanted to buy anything…

Phew. Finally, we got to eat. They took us to a Shanxi restaurant, and I have to say, the food was good. The crew paid, so at least I’ve got a free meal out of all this… at the expense of any remaining dignity. At one point, someone said something to the effect of “look, they can use chopsticks”, so they insisted we be filmed picking up peas and eating them… Yes, guys, hairy foreign devils can be taught how to use chopsticks, get over it, it’s not a big deal any more….

At this point, Dragoncache and I just lost interest in the whole affair. We made our excuses and got out as soon as possible! His wife and another student took a cab downtown; we headed off to Wudaokou, and finally got to catch up! It’s been a while since we last met, and we had a fair bit to chat about… I’ll talk about that another time, though.

So… on the whole, I don’t think the TV crew are bad, as such. They’re just… media people 😀 It’s been an interesting experience. It may even have another chapter… When they filmed me on campus, they said it was just backup because the weather was poor – but yesterday, they said they may not have time to film ‘for real’… but maybe they’ll come back next Friday, we’ll see. It’s pretty clear now, though, that this programme, if it gets aired, will be basically fiction as far as I’m concerned – goodness only knows what they’ll do with the editing 🙁

Category: Baguazhang, China Life

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Tokyo Manga has a short, insightful interview with the ex-alcoholic, ex-paratrooper, youngest brother of the Dalai Lama. After what seems to have been an intense life, he’s found peace. However, he’s probably not on Steven Seagal’s Christmas card list.

Divide by zero

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I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned it before, but about a year ago someone asked why I study martial arts. It was someone I’d met through Facebook, someone I don’t know in real life, but who is herself involved in martial arts (Sunmudo, actually!).

I couldn’t answer. In fact, it left me incapable of continuing the conversation, and we’ve barely been in touch since.

“Why do you study martial arts?”.

Such a simple question! But whenever I tried to grasp the answer, it slipped away from me. It was there, but I couldn’t see it, only the shape of its absence. I’ve thought about it almost every day since, sensing how close it is. I couldn’t find the answer, though…

Ever since then, whenever someone’s asked, I’ve given the usual glib answers – but I’ve known that they’re not the real reason.

Why am I studying martial arts? I began to wonder, myself. This elusive question… It seemed to cause a mental paralysis. I could function perfectly well as long as I didn’t think about it. As soon as I did, though, my reasoning ability left me; there was a hole that I could never quite focus on…

A year….

Then today it hit me. It’s been my own personal koan. Aren’t there Zen monks who spend their lives contemplating one specific question, waiting for it to finally wear down their intellectual, rationalising mind, until they break through beyond into direct experience?

I’m studying martial arts because I want stillness and an empty mind. Clarity. A mind like a clear pool, where all the silt has settled.

Meditation does this. Regular sitting practice, in my own experience (never mind books, or what people say), has shown me this. After my first Vipassana retreat, I had a taste of it, and it lasted for almost nine months. It wore off. Right after that, I began my MBA, and that knocked my meditation practice into a cocked hat; I’ve never managed to get it back on track.

I’m working on fixing that. But even so… anyone can be calm when they’re on retreat. The hermit is untroubled… but in the city, how do we maintain stillness of mind? Of course, regular sitting practice develops mindfulness; meditators do get stronger, and can maintain their calm mind in daily life. What about when we’re faced with existential fear – like, for example, finding yourself broke and stranded in a foreign land? (Not that I’m in that situation, I hasten to add! It’s not impossible to imagine, though!)

The key to this breakthrough may have been in that visit to the Yiquan Academy. After the zhan zhuang, I was pushing hands with a bigger, stronger, opponent who was doing his best to push me backwards into a coatstand. The zhan zhuang, though, had left me calm, centred, able to observe and react impartially, without emotional engagement.

It only struck me later: that is what I’m looking for. That is why I’m studying martial arts, and the internal martial arts in particular.

The health benefits aren’t the reason, though they help.

The ability to defend myself isn’t the reason, though it will be great if I ever get that good.

I’m studying to try to reach that calm, to maintain that clear pool, even when someone is trying to knock me silly, or flatten me. When I’m faced with the really big fears. When there’s nowhere to go but through. Meditation in motion – just like it said on the tin. Baguazhang, taijiquan, and yiquan – they’re all getting me there. I just didn’t realise it till now.

Meditation training with extreme prejudice, perhaps.

Do you think I’m crazy yet? Or are you perhaps thinking, everyone knew this, what’s the big deal? Well… I could have repeated it to you before, because I’ve read it in books. Now, though, I’ve directly experienced it – and it went so deep it took me a while to realize what had happened.

Wow.

Now I really can’t wait to get started with the yiquan.

A hostage to fortune

5

Dragoncache sent me an SMS a couple of weeks ago – would I like to be on TV? I should know better – I’ve had bad experiences of being on TV – but like a fool I still said sure, tell me more..

It turns out that CCTV (China’s State Broadcasting Agency) have set up a new English-medium channel, to be broadcast in the US (and maybe Europe?). Someone had had the idea of a programme about foreigners coming to China to study martial arts. You can see where this is going, right..?

I met the reporter, Sunny, shortly afterwards at Lush, and we chatted for a few hours. She decided they would feature me, and arranged to come to the University on Tuesday last week. Well, that got cancelled, rearranged, altered, etc, and eventually they came on Friday. We spent most of the morning in the garden where I normally train, plus some time filming me cycling around campus.

Heh. I don’t think they asked me the right questions… They filmed me going through a taiji set. Now, I was perfectly happy to tell them that it wasn’t a form taught in China, but instead was developed by a high-ranking Guomindang official who subsequently moved to Taiwan and New York… but they didn’t ask…. When it came to bagua, Sun Lao Shi’s admonition that I’m not good enough to represent him yet was still fresh in my mind, so I used the form I first learned from Zhang Sheng Li back in 2004; I’ve practised it regularly, so no problems there.

Of course, I’ve always said on this blog that I’m not very good, and that’s not false modesty. Now, who knows, you may get to see it on TV or, more likely, on YouTube… I’m not embarrassed by this, btw – I’m learning at my own pace and in my own way, and I’m happy enough; I don’t feel any need to compare myself to anyone else!

It was interesting, given that I’ve thought about trying out acting sometime; we had to do some shots many times, because the cameraman thought my expression wasn’t quite right… They interviewed me about why I’m here, and as usual, my brain turned to mush as soon as the camera went on – all of the coherent arguments and turns of phrase that worked well in rehearsal turned to blah bleh uuurgghh dribble….

It was also interesting because the cameraman asked me to repeat certain moves so that he could shoot from different angles; not see easy to know what he meant, when the translator says can you repeat the bit where you [cue waving of arms that’s apparently meant to indicate what I should do… but doesn’t…] Even when I worked out what he wanted, I found it really hard to do just a couple of moves in isolation; I needed to work up to them by repeating part or all of the form….

Later, they filmed me in class, (they needed material to show my daily life) and we had a clash of wills as the director started ordering my students around; I had to remind her that this was my class, not hers, and she should just film and stay out of the way…

In the evening, I was due to meet friends at the Drum and Bell, so as part of the ‘daily life’ bit, the camera crew tagged along. We got there early, so they filmed me strolling around the hutong to the side of the Bell Tower, and tried to get me to play badminton with the local kids… I refused – no problem filming my ‘normal life’ but I’m not going to let them make stuff up….

Oh, and that day had really bad air quality, so they say that the footage they took of me practising is “just in case”; they’ll get back to me again to shoot more when the air is clear and the sky is blue. Plus, they want footage of Dragoncache and I chilling out, chatting, practising together (which we never do), and drinking beer together (which we often do)….

Aiyoh…. I should have learned that being on TV only means trouble… now I’ll end up on YouTube being mocked by people who are actually good at bagua and taiji…. What have I done????

😉

Trivia; and being put in my place!

7

My class this morning with Master Sun Ru Xian went pretty well; we reviewed the 5th, 6th and 8th palms of the Ba Da Zhang, he gave a demo of the Shanxi whipstaff, and then we all had lunch. “We” here meaning Sun Lao Shi, his wife, Rene, Rene’s girlfriend, and myself. All but me speak Mandarin, so on these occasions I just nod and smile a lot, and Rene translates when he can.

A bit of trivia came up – Wan Lai Sheng, the famous Ziranmen master, and one of the “Five Tigers who went to the south”, was a graduate of China Agricultural University, where I’m teaching. Heh.

Speaking of the university, we lecturers are still waiting to hear about our contracts – if we will have our contracts renewed (probably), and which subjects we’ll be teaching if we do get a contract. Some of next semester’s courses begin in September, others in October. If I start in October, I’m very tempted to spend most of September in Korea. I have an invitation to visit the Kwan Um centre in Daejon, and I’m really tempted to spend a week or so in the Golgulsa temple, where they teach Sunmudo. This latter would be a bonus – my reason for going to stay in the temples would be to get some intensive meditation done, which I really need at the moment.

I mentioned this to Sun Lao Shi, and he wasn’t happy. He said that I must practice bagua a lot beforehand if I go – since people in Golgulsa (well, one person) know that I study martial arts, I would be a representative of the Chinese martial arts community in general, and of his students in particular. In his opinion, I’m not good enough. He’s quite right, but I hadn’t the least intention of giving demonstrations… Still, as I mentioned, he’s the most traditional of my teachers, and here’s the proof. Yikes. Well, ok: there’s a challenge to me to practice more during July and August.

Can do.

Zhang Guanyu and Yiquan

3

A little while ago I bought some DVDs at the Xidan Bookstore. One of them was “Stance Training”, apparently one of four by Zhang GuangYu. The DVD drive on my laptop is playing up a bit, so the video and sound are pretty choppy, but the DVD actually appears to be really, really good – just what I imagined yiquan to be like… I’m just wondering if anyone out there knows anything about Zhang Guang Yu, because Google turns up nothing apart from the DVDs, as far as I can tell…

Category: Yiquan

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3

Phew, something’s going on, that’s for sure – I had vivid dreams last night that woke me up every hour or so, drenched in perspiration even though I had the aircon on low at 23C….What were those dreams? Of course I don’t remember them, but I DO remember that they seemed to me about my past lives… Not in the reincarnation sense, but the people I’ve been in this life – the country boy on a scholarship to a school where everyone else seemed more talented and cosmpolitan… the techie… the politician…. the consultant…

And now here I am lecturing in Beijing. Time to count my blessings, I guess, and to take stock of the path that’s led me here. I’ve been stressing out about this for a while, particularly since the trip to Pingyao. Two of my companions on that trip were fellow-students on my MBA; one now works for one of the biggest-name investment banks, the other for a major global advertising firm. I, on the other hand, went to work for a startup that was going to make me rich… if it hadn’t tanked instead. Unexpected market changes, no blame anywhere; it couldn’t be helped. So I’ve been lecturing… It’s certainly no way to recoup what I spent on the MBA, although it does offer opportunities. Looking at it conventionally, there’s no doubt that my star has fallen far, and sometimes that worries me.

And yet…. here I am in Beijing. I enjoy my job. It gives me daily opportunity to cultivate a compassionate outlook, to develop humility, and to seek to improve myself. It’s interesting. I’ve got the chance to train bagua with one of the big names in the field, Sun Zhijun, and to be honest I think I’ll be one of the last to have that opportunity. I’m developing what seems to be a more traditional relationship with my other bagua teacher, who’s also going to teach me Shanxi short staff and other styles… I’ve got a good Ch’an meditation teacher who speaks English, can put Ch’an into the context of traditional Chinese medicine and Daoist thought, and is well-connected with the monastic community here in China…I’ll soon have the opportunity to start training in Yiquan’s highly regarded methods… I may not be earning much money even in Beijing terms… but it’s enough to live simply and comfortably, while paying for my training…. I’m meeting interesting people…

I have feeling that if I can stay here for a couple of years, that’s all I need to make the breakthrough, to make significant progress on the questions of “Why am I here?”, “What is my true purpose in life?” and on starting to clear my karma… cultivating water-nature and wu-wei… After that – which coincidentally will be around the time I turn 40 – it will be time to start a new chapter, and right now only one option is looking like it will make sense… but a lot could happen before then.

So yeah, it’s a long way from when I was a cutting-edge geek and rising political player with a comfortable amount of cash in the bank – but I’m happier and more content than I’ve ever been. Lao Zi would approve, no doubt!

Musings on motivation


Master Sun Ru Xian is out of town, so I didn’t have class with him today. I did plan to get up early as normal, and just practice solo, but I woke up feeling lousy and decided to stay in bed. The headache’s lasted all day, I hope I’m not coming down with something.

There’s building work going on just outside the university walls. Typically, no-one warned us that the water supply would be affected. The block where the staff laundry is located has had no water for three days now. My block is OK, so my bathroom still has water, but there are some staff living in the laundry block, and they’re suffering. For me the worst of it is that I’m handwashing all my clothes in my bathroom. It’s not my forte, no matter how much I visualise Once Upon a Time in China II….

I did get out to practice this evening. After 20 minutes of zhan zhuang, the CMC-37 set must have been one of the best I’ve done so far. Today, the standing practice didn’t hurt at all, instead just striking the right balance of resilient softness… I’ve had a bit of a breakthrough on Snake Creeps Down, and have made adjustments so that it doesn’t pressure my knees so much. I followed that with a set of the xuan xuan broadsword, but my mental blank with that is still around. No worries, it will pass eventually – I’m confident it’s all still there in muscle memory, I just need to empty my mind enough to tap into it.

I spent most of the next hour working on Master Zhou’s wuji set, and I think I’m making good progress there; it’s coming back reasonably quickly, although many details remain fuzzy. I finished off with a bit of work on the ba da zhang, topped off with pan guan bi.

I attracted the attention of a moth again. What is it that they want? Do they like the salt in perspiration, or something?

By this time, it was past 9pm, and I was feeling pretty low on energy. My favourite dumpling shop outside the west gate stops taking orders at 9:30, so I hopped on my bike and went straight there – no time to go home and change, as I normally do. My arrival with broadsword slung over my shoulder, then laid on the table, caused a bit of a stir – more than I’d anticipated. The younger waiters all wanted to play with it. I really hadn’t expected it to be so strange for them – perhaps I’ve been spoiled by my experiences in Singapore! No matter what else I might say, it was a wonderful thing to live in a really old-school part of “Old Singapore”, full of wuguans (is that right?), temples, and so on, where the sight of people wandering around with swords and spears didn’t raise an eyebrow. I rather suspect that by the time I get back in August (for a visit only, my plans have changed…) a lot of that will already have gone. Singapore is losing its roots, sigh….

I spent some time this afternoon revisiting Tabby Cat’s older blog, the one describing his intensive yiquan course last year. This is the same that I hope to take a year after him – August 2008, compared to August 2007 for him. I’ve learned a lot since I originally read this, and have met Master Yao, so I am seeing different things this time round. Like Tabby (or should that be TC? No, then I only see childhood cartoon characters… Top Cat… heh…) I’m a firm believer in soft over hard; the CMC-37 set was the first taiji style I learned, and it’s still my favourite… I’ve seen for myself that the atmosphere in the Yiquan Academy can be pretty macho; not really my preferred environment… and yet I really think there’s something there that I can use to improve my taiji and bagua, as well as the inestimable value of the yiquan itself… I hope it all works out – fingers are crossed…

1

When I woke up this morning, I could hardly walk, my legs were so stiff! I’ll attribute this partly to being out and about on the bike, but mostly to yesterday’s pan guan bi lesson with Master Sun Zhijun.

We worked for some time on the form, where I’m improving a lot (he says) – though there are still plenty of issues I need to work on! These are less to do with the form itself, though, and more to do with my perennial problems of left shoulder and lower back – which sometimes improve, and sometimes regress, but never seem to go away!

I showed him the video of Shao Zhong Ming performing pan guan bi, which I have on my iPod touch, and asked him how many different forms there are for this weapon – as the one in that clip is very different from what I’m learning. His answer was that because this weapon isn’t traditionally from bagua, but was borrowed from xingyiquan, there are really as many forms as there are with empty hand. The form Shao uses in the video is older, but Shao had had to learn it in something of a hurry prior to the competition. The form he’s teaching me is one that he’s developed more recently – it looks different, but the basic moves and concepts are actually all the same.

We then spent the rest of the lesson working on some applications, which was exceedingly cool. Anyone learning a form for the first time (or at least, someone like me who has no real combat or even sparring experience) will always try to work out what the movements are for – and it’s always funny when my guesses turn out to be completely wrong! Hehe, so anyway, we went through a few demonstrations, which involved strikes to the neck, back, achilles tendon and calf… et cetera, et cetera….

Master Sun reminded me that the forms really only are to train the body in movement; when it comes to fighting, the aim is to act naturally, to seek spontaneous opportunity, and he gave me a few demonstrations of what he meant. All of this, by the way, is increasing my affection -and respect – for the pan guan bi as a weapon. It’s not sharp, but even lightweight strikes like those yesterday show how effective it could be – it can really hurt! I have a book on pressure points that I’ve lent to a friend here (who dismissed it as “rubbish, because no-one who knows this stuff ever teaches it to a foreigner”!) and I’m going to have to get it back and look at it some more. Even if it’s not ‘authentic dian xue’, it’s still a useful compendium of soft spots that would make someone unhappy if you hit them hard there with a steel spike….

My main need now is for a training partner. I don’t think Mi Lao Shi has really trained in the applications – I could be wrong, but Master Sun is doing all the talking now (in fact, yesterday was the most he’s ever spoken in all the classes I’ve attended, and he certainly seems far more cheerful when he’s talking about all this!). However, this may be about to change… As a foreigner in Beijing, you soon realize there’s an insatiable desire amongst the Chinese to improve their English. I got an email this morning from another of Master Sun’s students, Li Ming. I’ve met her a few times at Master Sun’s apartment, and she’s helped translate during some lessons. She used to be a journalist and editor, until she became a professional kung fu coach. She suggests we meet up for some language exchange, and perhaps bagua practice together. Could be very interesting indeed, so I’ll try to set that up…


On the May Day Holiday, I went with some friends to the ancient walled city of Pingyao, which is almost untouched by the 20th Century. I’ll post more pictures as I discover where they are on the various flash drives I carried around… There were quite a few places that would be of interest to readers of this blog.

First up: a sad scene – the Dragon Temple outside the walls on the eastern side of the city. It was marked as an attraction on the official tourist map, and sounded intriguing, so we went along. Our tuk-tuk driver was bemused, and we soon found out why… the place was an empty ruin. It felt completely desolate… and yet, perhaps I imagined it, there still seemed to be some power there. How magnificent this temple must have been in the Imperial era, and how cruelly time has treated it…

It was very odd: the old man was sitting in the courtyard when we arrived. He didn’t acknowledge us, look at us, speak to us, or indeed move, while we were looking around. As we left, he got up, followed us out, and locked the door behind him. Was he waiting for us? How could he have known?