Monthly Archives: August 2008

Reset; decrement counter to zero;

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I’ve got one week of holiday left, and huge amounts of preparation for work to finish. The last couple of months have been intense – a heck of a lot’s happened, and now I’m trying to process it all. Current points:

  1. I am now at point zero. I know nothing whatsoever about martial arts. I’m overweight and out of shape.
  2. This is OK. It’s only a few years since I came to Asia, and before that I was completely ignorant of martial arts. It took a while to realise this. I’ve spent the last few years trying to work out what it is that I need to learn. Then a bit longer to work out what I ought to learn. Cool. Now I know. The fitness thing is an issue, but I’ll work on it.
  3. Everything I’ve done in the last few years has been a great education, and has given me a good grounding, but it’s time to say that from now on I need to start learning from scratch again, from the basics upward, in order to get good at the styles I want to focus on.
  4. Looks like I’ll be in Beijing for one more year, then back to Singapore.

This should be interesting.

Holiday reading

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As you may have guessed, I’m on holiday. I’ve been in Singapore for the last couple of weeks, chilling out, catching up with people, and thinking hard about the future.

Not much martial arts stuff to report, except that once again it’s important to be in the right place at the right time, and to seize opportunities when they arise. I popped into Kinokuniya at Ngee Ann City last Monday, and noticed a sole copy of Dr. John Painter’s Combat Baguazhang Volume 2. I flicked through it, and immediately decided I had to buy it! It’s full of really good material. The next day, I went in again, and there were four or five copies of volume one, so of course I grabbed one of those too! Two days later, they had all vanished, so it seems there’s a number of people in Singapore who are on the lookout for baguazhang books!

I haven’t had time to do more than skim them so far, but these books look very, very good – just what I needed at this stage. No forms, more of a focus on principles and application, some interesting discussions about the history and philosophy of baguazhang, etc. I’ll only have time to read them once I get back to Beijing, I think.

What else? I caught up with Master Zhou Yue Wen for lunch; he’s doing well, it seems. Master Sun Ru Xian asked me if I could find a DVD of Filipino stick fighting for him, and thanks to Jono I managed to find one. Ummm, that’s about it, I think.

More once I’m back in the ‘Jing.

The Yiquan Academy: Review

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Right, this is coming quite a bit later than I expected due to unforeseen events; sorry if you’ve been waiting. I’ll try to keep it brief.

I attended classes at the Beijing Institute of Yiquan almost every weekday for three weeks. On most of these days I was there twice, from around 10:30am to 12:00pm, and 5:00pm to about 6:45pm. I studied the equivalent of four modules from their syllabus.

Yiquan

I knew almost nothing about yiquan before I started. I knew that it was derived originally from xingyiquan, with elements incorporated from baguazhang, taijiquan, and western boxing. What attracted me, though, was that it did not have set forms, as almost all other martial arts do, but seemed to develop strength and sensitivity through the use of standing postures. I really wanted to learn more about this because:

  • My research into internal martial arts was increasingly convincing me that if I want to make progress, I need to work hard at standing techniques to develop strength and endurance. Most of my teachers have taught me forms but not standing, and I felt I needed to correct this.
  • My time is very limited. I wondered whether there was a martial art that could combine effective training with effective meditation. It seemed that yiquan’s techniques might be the opportunity to do this.

My conclusion – such as it can be after only three weeks – is that yiquan really is superb. After many individual sessions, I really came out feeling that I had had a fresh insight into posture and physical structure. I am absolutely certain that continued study of yiquan will rapidly undo years of bad posture, relax chronically tight muscles, and overall generate the physical ‘softness’ that’s at the heart of the internal martial arts.

Starting from these crucial foundations, the yiquan curriculum rapidly moves on to work on combat techniques, all of which seem to my unqualified eye to be extremely functional and effective.

As I said in one of my posts: yiquan rocks! I am deeply impressed.

The school environment

The school is in a street very close to Chaoyangmen subway station. It isn’t what I’d expected from the web site; it’s a basement apartment, not a traditional courtyard building. Training in the park only happens on Sundays, although I wasn’t able to attend any of these sessions.

Although based in a modern apartment building, the school is very much as I imagined traditional schools to be. The apartment’s main room is where students train, and there are two rooms connected to it where a number of students live full-time. It’s a completely different environment to the kind of “evening classes in a gym” that most of us westerners (and I include Singaporeans in that!) would usually have experienced. I found it a really cool experience. The more experienced students would sometimes go outside, and train in the street. I was the only foreign student during the period I attended the school. Most of the Chinese students were very friendly, and helped me out if they saw me doing something wrong. A couple spoke English, but most didn’t. The apartment was pretty hot and airless, given that it was summer, but with fans blowing it was quite tolerable.

The teaching experience

As you would expect in a traditional environment, I was – as a new student – taught by the senior student, Li Xin, not by the head of the school. In fact, I didn’t see Master Yao Chengguang very often after the first few days. However, he did keep track of what I was being taught; when he arrived late in the evening session, he would check with Li Xin what I had been taught that day, observe me practising and correct mistakes, and generally kept an eye on my progress. I really respect and like him, and overall found him to be very concerned about his students and his art.

Li Xin doesn’t speak any English, but he was very good at explaining the techniques and demonstrating what he wanted me to do. My limited Mandarin, and the excellent explanations in the supporting books, helped to clarify any issues.

The website gives the hours as Monday to Saturday, 8:30 – 11:30am and 3:30 – 7:30pm; this differs from my experience, where I was told I could attend 10-12 and 5-7 Mon-Fri. I wasn’t able to go on the weekend in any case, so I didn’t ask about these. As it turned out, I rarely attended even these hours fully; even given the shorter hours I spent there, I felt that it was plenty of time!

Given this good quality of instruction, I felt that I learned a lot very quickly. However, there were times when I felt that I was being pushed through the curriculum quicker than I was comfortable with, and that I was not given enough time to work properly on some techniques. This is not something that applies to me: a friend who attended the school on a different occasion said the same thing, and comments I’ve seen online suggest that other people also felt this.

Supporting materials

Master Yao has developed a series of books and DVDs to accompany the syllabus. They’re not cheap by any means, but they are one-off purchases. The books are excellent; they are extremely clear, and helped me understand the purpose of each exercise along with the mental visualisations that I should use. I haven’t had the time to watch the DVDs yet, so I can’t comment on them.

Pricing

The price per module is 600RMB. I finished four modules in three weeks, and would have done more if I hadn’t deliberately slowed the pace down. When you consider that I was there for between three to four hours every day, that’s extremely reasonable for Beijing!

The four English-language books are CAD $75 each, and the set of 8 DVDs is CAD $300. These are Western prices.

I referred to cost quite a bit during my posts, so I need to clarify that this is a personal blog and reflects my personal situation. I try hard to keep it neutral and informative, but nevertheless, I have no obligations to write about what “a typical student” would experience. So, I complained about costs at times because it’s an issue for me, and so I’m going to write about it. However, to be clear, I’m not a typical Western student; I’m earning a local salary, and furthermore, I attended this course during the University holidays, when I have no income whatsoever. Bear that in mind; most foreigners who wish to attend the Academy won’t have such issues.

Overall

Yiquan is superb. I really do hope to carry on with it. I really liked the school environment, I found the teaching and support good, and the people are great. Would I recommend them to other people? Yes, as long as you’re clear what you’re getting into.

As I’ve mentioned, the school seems to me to run on very traditional lines. That’s great, but it can be very different to what many wushu students from overseas may be used to, which might lead to some misunderstanding over expectations. Also, if, like me, you don’t speak much Mandarin, you may find that there are communication problems (such as when I arrived to find the doors locked and no-one there).

As for the pace of the lessons, there are two points of view being expressed here. The way the school works is to take you through the material very fast. Andrzej explained this in a comment: the intention is to help the student get the overall idea of how the different element – health and combat – relate to each other. The material is then repeated several times, in increasing depth. This works, I think, very well – as long as the student has committed to yiquan, and is intending to spend a long time learning in-depth. However, for people in my situation (and my friend’s, and – I suspect – some of the others whose comments I’ve read online) we’re not there yet; we aren’t really sure about yiquan, we want to learn more, and we want to be sure we understand what we’re shown before we move on. When we’re pushed through faster, we remain unconvinced that this is really what we want, and we feel rushed, that’s the truth. Pointing this out isn’t a criticism of anyone; I’m just, again, highlighting an issue arising from different expectations. I’m lucky that Andrzej has been reading my blog, and has taken the time to explain where the school is coming from; I think other people who haven’t been so lucky may have left feeling a bit less satisfied.

Finally:

  1. I began the three weeks knowing almost nothing about yiquan. I am now highly impressed, and had more than a few major insights while I was learning some yiquan techniques. It’s very, very good.
  2. I really enjoyed my time there. The atmosphere was friendly and supportive, the teaching was good, and Master Yao is knowledagble and very committed to his school and students.
  3. Was everything perfect, from my point of view? No. Mostly, these are due to my personal situation, and shouldn’t be of concern to most readers. Some issues are due to differences in expectations, and the Academy could make some changes to their marketing, but the quality of the art, the teaching, and the Academy are not issues here, and are all very high.
  4. Would I recommend the Academy to readers who are curious about yiquan? Absolutely, yes.
  5. Will I be carrying on with yiquan at the Academy? This is more tricky, due to personal factors. I do want to carry on learning yiquan. The Zongxun Academy is not convenient to get to, for me. Even after I move into Old Beijing later this month, by the time I’ve commuted back down from where I work, I’ll still be on the other side of the city. In fact, by coincidence, the other Yao brother, Yao Chengrong, has his school a few minutes’ walk away from my apartment, and it makes far more sense for me to try that. We’ll see. That’s just a practical matter, though: I would happily recommend Yao Chengguang to anybody.

OK, this has taken me a long time to write; I lost a draft and had to start again, so there’s perhaps lots more I could have written, but this is enough. Feel free to ask questions or respond in the comments!

My name is mud…

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Seriously. Or at least, it should be. I have been very dumb… but I think I can at least give a reasonable excuse….

Let’s talk about our environment, the way ot affects our perceptions, and the consequences for martial arts.

I wrote some time ago about how moving to northern China had given me a new insight into one particular element of martial arts: keeping the tongue pressed against the palate to stimulate the flow of saliva. When I was in Wales and Singapore, this just appeared to be one of those freaky elements of qigong that really had no useful purpose – all the explanations about the saliva stimulating the digestive system – or about ‘connecting the qi’ – seemed plausible, but really, what’s that got to do with my wushu?

Moving to Beijing answered that question definitively. The air here is incredibly dry for much of the year. You must use this technique to get the saliva going, or your mouth, nose and throat will dry out almost immediately once you practice. Simple, really.

I had a similar insight today, and a rather more embarrassing one. Once again, it’s to do with my understanding of the natural environment, but it means that I’ve discovered that ever since I started studying baguazhang, I have completely misunderstood a basic principle. I’m talking about tang ni bu, the mud step.

So, let’s talk about mud.

What is mud? The combination of soil and water, of course. It’s a bit more complicated than that, though.

What does it mean to you? If you’re a city dweller, probably not much at all. Something you get on your shoes in a park or garden. Not significant, really, is it?

I’m from Wales. Wales has a sadly justified reputation for being wet – our mountains are the first point of contact for a LOT of the clouds coming east over the Atlantic. We get lots of rain. We also have lots of hills and mountains, which is significant for my point – because almost everywhere where I’ve been out walking – on relatives’ farms, up in the hills, wherever – the drainage is really good. Rainfall drains off down the hills and into the streams and rivers.

Consequently, if you ask me what the distinguishing feature of mud is, I would tell you “It’s slippery”. After years of hill-walking in Welsh mountains, my main worry about mud is whether or not it will make me lose my footing so that I fall flat on my backside or go skidding down a hill.

So when I see all the books about bagua telling me “walk as if you are in mud”, all of my experience tells me: keep your weight on your back foot, and explore forward lightly with the front foot until you find a solid, reliable place to stand and then shift your weight forward.

This is not the intended meaning, it turns out.

The topic came up in this morning’s class with Sun Lao Shi, who explained that this is partly a visualisation technique. You aren’t walking as if you’re on shallow, slippery mud; you’re walking as if you’re calf-deep in thick, clingy, high-resistance mud, too deep to get your feet out of it, so you’ve got to just drag them through it as you step forward. Suddenly that whole bagua motto of “every step a kick” makes more sense; there’s a lot more energy being directed into moving the back leg forward than the way I had been doing it.

So, the guys who developed bagua and named the steps had a particular experience of mud, and used that to convey their concept. I’m from a different physical environment, and that led me astray.

Wow. Rather embarrassing that it’s taken me this long to figure this out, but I’m also glad that I have at least finally understood.

Heh. When I’m lecturing, I always tell my students to ask questions without fear of embarrassment, because if they are wondering something then it’s a fair bet that others in the class are too. In the same manner, I blog this now even though I feel really dumb, because it’s a fair bet that someone else out there may be making the same mistake!

Category: Baguazhang, Sun Ru Xian

Hidden histories

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Once again, I was up early yesterday, and met Master Sun Ru Xian for a 6:30 class. We worked on a couple of the bagua mother palms, using bricks this time to start developing palm and forearm strength. Next, we continued to work on the first three of the 64-palm sequences. I’m enjoying these – which is not to say that I’m remembering them… They’re gradually sinking in, though. Finally, we worked on the Shanxi whipstaff some more. This is getting more interesting – Sun Lao Shi was pointing out that this is a move derived from broadsword sets, this one is derived from a jian action, this one comes from a spear attack, and so on. The whipstaff is a chest-height staff; it’s what you would use as a walking-stick in the hills, etc. It made me think that this in many ways suggests so much of China’s history – a martial arts set using a day-to-day tool, incorporating the knowledge acquired by peasant-soldiers with all kinds of different weapons…

As with the bagua, etc, Sun Lao Shi teaches the staff to be used. His demonstrations of strikes are always precisely targetted at knee joints, etc – it’s not a ‘performance’ style by any means. Has he ever had to use this stuff for real? I don’t intend to ask him – not for a long time, if ever. Master Zhou Yue Wen, when I interviewed him, was really open about his past in the Red Guards,etc, but he was unusual – most people over a certain age in China have bad memories from a couple of decades ago, I guess. Most probably will never talk about them.

On the other hand, there are sides to the martial arts scene in China that I still have much to learn about. Last weekend, Dragoncache and I were chatting about a certain martial arts teacher, and how he is also extremely practical in his applications. Dragoncache said something like “Of course, he was really active in the underground fight scene”, just before the conversation took a different turn. Wait, though, what? China has, or had, an underground fight scene? Given who we were talking about, this must have been at least twenty or thirty years ago, I would have thought – surely not a period when I would have expected that kind of thing to have been tolerated by the authorities! Now I’m really curious. Not sure how to find out more, though.

After class with Sun Lao Shi, I went down to Jiushuitan to pay my rent. It turns out that the apartment complex I’ll be living in was built for long-time Shichihai residents when all of their ancient Siheyuan were demolished. Sure, the apartments are modern, with indoor plumbing etc… but my landlady is still sad at the destruction of her hutong, and all of the beauty, history, and community that went with it…

Distracted


I know I promised the full report on my experience at the Yiquan Academy, but I want to be rested and calm when I write that to ensure that I’m fair – and events outside the scope of this blog mean I’ve had no opportunity yet. It’ll come ASAP.

On a semi-related note, it looks like I’ll be moving; same job, just living in a new place. I’ll be leaving the university district, and moving into the old city – Jishuitan, literally across the road from the lakes. This is my favourite part of Beijing, so yay for that. It will mean a daily commute of an hour or so, as compared to three minutes, but that’s tolerable, particularly in exchange for a bit more independence! I’ll be signing the contract and putting down the contract for the new place tomorrow, and moving in after I get back from Singapore at the end of the month.

A mountain, a monk…

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… and a long drop down if he slips! Looks a like a good place to live; I wouldn’t mind that myself someday. Anyone know what style he’s practicing?

I believe this is my 100th public post since I moved my blog to this server.

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(If the embedded video doesn’t show up, try here).

A question

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I bought this at Panjiayuan market, simply because I liked it. Does anyone out there have any idea what it might be referencing? Is this an idealized scene from the Boxer Rebellion? A reference to some actual event?

Beijing


Category: Beijing

More reflections on yesterday


I was exhausted when I got back home, so my last post was rather brief!

I was late leaving for class; I’d got up early to find the rain made the early-morning class with Sun Lao Shi impossible, so blogged and then faffed around instead. I left the university at about the right time… and then didn’t, because the back tyre of my bicycle had gone flat overnight. That means a puncture, and I haven’t got the tools to get the wheel off. There’s a guy who does bicycle repairs in the building next to mine, but he wasn’t there that early. I hung around for a while, but he didn’t show, so in the end I had to take the bus to Wudaokou.

On the subway round about Dongzhimen I was sitting next to an attractive young lady. We both stood up to give our seats to a man with a small child, and that got us talking. She spoke no English, so it wasn’t much of a conversation, though. She’s from Henan, and works for a German company, I got that much. She got off at Chaoyangmen as well, and went the same way as me for a short while; she had a map downloaded off the web and was looking for something, though I didn’t quite understand what. Anyway, we exchanged cards, and when I got online yesterday afternoon I checked out her company’s website – it seems she works for a state-owned counter-surveillance company! Wow. A bit of Googling shows that there’s been foreign investment in it, which is probably where the German bit comes in. I really should talk to random people on the subway more often!

At the Academy, I spent the morning working on downward hook punches; first static, and then stepping. Hard work, for me! The Japanese student arrived mid-morning with the other guy, the one with the gravelly voice; this one never trains. Instead he just sits, smokes cigarettes, and chats. He seems pretty tough, though, and I really get the impression that he’s a minder of some sort for the first guy as they seem to go everywhere together! It makes we wonder who the Japanese student is… I asked Li Xin, but he only said that the Japanese guy’s a fairly long-term student, who’s been training with Master Yao for about 3 years. They were filming again, so Li Xin and I moved outside to practice at the end of the street; this is where a lot of the live-in students have been going to practice when the basement gets really hot, I think. There were a few tots being looked after by their grannies; the kiddies were fascinated by the waiguoren puffing and gasping as he boxed, and some of the grannies gamely ventured to throw a few hooks themselves. Ahh, I love Beijing 😀 After I’d done this for an hour or so, we moved on to another fa li exercise, the name of which I forget, a horizontal, slightly rising, chopping move.

Around 12, I figured time was up, so I mentioned to Li Xin I was going to get lunch. He took me back to the Academy because Yao Lao Shi, for some reason, wanted me to be filmed doing a bit of sparring – I’m really not sure why. It didn’t go so well, because I really wasn’t clear what they were asking me to do – it was a kind of back and forth exercise, landing a punch on the opponent’s back hand, freezing, then moving backward so your opponent could land a punch on your back hand, and so on. Heh. I dunno. Anyway, after this Li Xin let me know that we’d come to the end of the fourth module, so the last payment was finished. For me, that seemed to be a good place to stop, with the last three sessions of the week being revision.

I went down to Jianguomen for lunch, and spent the afternoon in Starbucks at the Friendship Store. I was so tired, I almost fell asleep in the window seat. A friend on Twitter informed me that she’d actually done this; apparently, the staff come around and poke you to wake you up! There was another regular customer there, a Chinese woman who always seems to wear the same floral, vaguely cheongsam-styled, dress and a gauzy scarf. Her hair is cut quite short, and she always seems to be in a rush. She carries a big plastic bag, but I’m not sure what’s in it; I always feel torn between wondering whether she’s a creative media type or some sort of street person! Heh, she seems nice, though, and we smile at each other. Guess I’ll not know, since I won’t be back down that way for some time.

I went back to the Academy at 5. Li Xin was taking a new Chinese student through the basics, and really giving him a hard time. I suppose he needs to establish himself as top dog. After about an hour of revision, I decided to head on. By this time Master Yao and the Japanese were back again and doing more filming, and the place was getting crowded, so it seemed like an opportune time.

I have things to do on campus which I wouldn’t be able do till next week if I was going to the Academy today, and they do need to be done, so I decided that I wouldn’t go back today. So, I said my farewells, and thanked Master Yao. He said to just give him a call if I want to go back at any time. I probably will – perhaps in the break after next semester, and maybe on the occasional weekend before that.

So, that was the end of my training at the Yiquan Academy. It feels odd that it’s over, after being immersed in that world for three weeks.

After that it was home, stopping once more for dumplings and beer at Gulou, since that’s also not going to be on my route much from now on.

OK, I’ll write it all up soon, once I’m more rested and I’ve got my chores done.