Monthly Archives: October 2008

Baseless medical speculation


Learning: we start knowing nothing. we learn something, and try to apply it. We learn more. Sometimes we discover that our earlier attempts at understanding were correct. Sometimes we discover that they were incorrect. I guess that this is the Scientific Method.

I am not, by nature, a passive person. Meditation, and the TCIMA, have been extremely beneficial for me in terms of my general tendency to Not Take Things Lying Down.

So: in Traditional Chinese Internal Martial Arts, there’s this principle about pressing the tongue against the palate. I’ve speculated about it on previous occasions, based upon my experience of living in the region where some of these arts originated, or were developed.

Something else just struck me, and perhaps you could let me know what you think. Let’s consider three different ideas:

  1. An ingrained habit of breathing with the tip of the tongue pressed against the palate.
  2. High-stress, high-risk situations.
  3. Hyperventilation.

Comments are welcomed…



Quoting Formosa Neijia for the second time in a week, I heartily agree with these comments, especially regarding DVDs/VCDs. I collect all sorts of bagua videos, and am now stocking up on yiquan/da cheng quan material as well. It certainly helps me learn, and to understand these arts in more depth.

I always find it really difficult to learn during class. It’s just my learning style, but I often find that I get overwhelmed with new material, and by the time i go home I’m just confused. I’m just not able to watch someone do a move, and then repeat it. If I can watch my teacher, or someone from the same family, performing the moves on video at home, that’s even better. Best of all is when I have the video available while I’m training solo. Then, when I get confused, I can watch a move over and over, repeating it myself until I’m really sure that I’ve got both the move and the intention correct. That’s difficult to do in class. This way, when I do meet my teacher again, I’ve got something material that he can give feedback on, rather than vague recollections from the previous session.

One of the problems I’ve had learning bagua with Sun Ru Xian is this lack of revision material to help me in-between classes. As a result, I haven’t been progressing much, which I feel is a bit dispiriting – certainly for me, and perhaps for him as well…

However, help is finally at hand! I recently bought a Mac Mini to use for work at home. Sun Ru Xian is a student of Liu Jing Ru, and is teaching me Master Liu’s forms. So, I’m using VLC to rip the content from some of Master Liu’s VCDs and convert it into MP4. I’m then using iMovie to edit it, making clips of each individual palm from the Ba Mu Zhang and Ba Da Zhang, which I then export as mp4v files. I can load these onto my iPod Touch and bingo, I’ve got the material to refer to when I do solo practice – which, after my prolonged martial arts depression, I’m getting fired up to start again…

Yiquan Babel

I went to both lessons this weekend, Saturday and Sunday afternoons. A lot of the people who were there last weekend weren’t there this time. However, there were a lot of new faces, many of them Westerners. Actually, htere was a German couple, fairly young, and a Russian couple in, I would guess, their forties. None of them speak English, as far as I can tell. The German guy speaks Chinese; the Russians had brought another Russian, who didn’t take part in the class but just acted as an interpreter for them. Cacophony! As soon as Master Yao said anything, the German guy would start translating for the girl, and the Russian would translate for his friends! It was incredibly disorienting at first, but I eventually got used to it.

We worked on a mumber of moves – a chop, a palm strke, and various other moves – all in the same way: slowly while standing, slowly while stepping, slow-slow-fast while stepping. Very cool. I could feel my hips opening up, my pelvis swinging, and my back lengthening – excellent benefits! I teamed up with one of the Chinese students to practice power exercises; he’s better than me but not by much – enough to give me confidence that I can improve! He can pretty much consistently uproot me and throw me; I can do it to him about half the time. One the other hand, I can use full-body power and keep walking forward even when he’s pulling me back; he can’t do it to me so well. Heh.

Anyway, more and more. I realise that I really like yiquan. I really look forward to class! Master Yao takes a real interest in everyone, coming around to us individually and asking how we’re getting on, asking whether we have any questions sending us flying against the wall – just what you’d expect from a great teacher 🙂

So it’s not just me…


I had a ‘spirited discussion’ recently with a friend who also studies bagua. He’s being trained by his shifu in what I suppose we may call the “traditional IMA” manner: keep practising your techniques, and the ability to apply the art in a fight will develop naturally.

I know and respect his shifu, who’s very widely known, and highly regarded – but I still can’t bring myself to believe this, not any more. I feel a bit conflicted, actually, precisely because this teacher is so well known, and I know that he can fight very effectively – and yet I know for a fact that many of his disciples can’t. At all. This is why I’m training more and more in yiquan. I love bagua, and I respect my teachers deeply. I will keep training in it. However, I want to train in an IMA that will give me practical training, and so far the yiquan schools are the only ones to do that.

Like I say, I’ve felt a bit guilty about this – but well, what else to do? Anyway, I’ve just read this article on Formosa Neijia about why he’s training in Brazilian Ju-Jitsu Judo – and I think he’s completely right. I wrote some time ago, I think, about an episode that happened just after I arrived in Beijing – I saw two men dragging a woman into a deserted side-street late at night and start beating her up. I felt I had to intervene. It ended well – but if it had turned nasty, I’m not confident that that all of my training in forms would have been of any practical use whatsoever. that was a turning point for me. I’m sorry if I’m being disrespectful, or non-traditional, but now my requirement is: show me that it works, and show me how to use it.

Pingyao caravan guards

Back in May, I visited Pingyao in Shanxi province. In the Qing Dynasty period, Pingyao was a centre of private banking, so there was a lot of cash, gold & silver coming and going – which of course needed to be guarded. The compounds of two caravan guard companies are still open as museums, with another martial art museum as well. Interestingly, there seemed to be a very strong emphasis on xingyi and bagua.

I thought I had accidentally deleted all of my pictures of these museums, but I’ve managed to find them again; I’ll gradually post some of them as I have time.

Looking back


Just remembered one thing that came up in conversation with taijibum last night…. We were talking about body rotation in the bagua dragon/millstone stance. He mentioned that traditionally, in Cheng style, your torso should be twisted around so that you can look down onto your back foot. In his view, this is hardly ever taught these days and, even when it is taught, it takes a long time to be able to do.

In fact, I was taught this by my first bagua teacher, Zhang Sheng Li. It didn’t take long for me to be able to do it, either – I know for sure that it was only a couple of months. He’s right, though, that no-one else has ever taught this; one of my teachers actively told me that I should not be doing it. Still, I remember how, when I was training with Zhang, I really felt power developing in the waist and dantian. I’ve never had that feeling since then.

Hmmm. Maybe I should try training with Zhang again. I forget whether I mentioned, but I ran into his senior student by chance in Ritan Park a couple of weeks ago. I was going to meet Dragoncache for a beer, and apparently Zhang was teaching someone in a private lesson. I went to find him, but he must have left by another way in the meantime.

Anyway, what do you think about this? Should we train bagua by twisting around until we can look down on the back foot?


The Great Firewall of China has blocked access to Yahoo! servers again, bah! Since that’s where I host this blog, I can only reach it to post new material by going through a proxy service, which is slow and a real PITA. I’ve got an account on another hosting service, so I may have to try migrating everything there…

What’s been up since I last posted? I had my first small-class yiquan classes last weekend with Master Yao Chengrong. Thoroughly enjoyed them. There was another foreigner there on Saturday; a Belgian guy who was there for the first time. He has a background in Sanda, and is a big guy – but he was totally blown away by yiquan. Both of us were astonished by Helena, one of the Chinese women in the class. She’s an English major, still at university, I think, and tiny – the top of her head only reaches my chest, and I’m not a tall guy. Still, from a static standing position, she was uprooting one of the Chinese students, and throwing him forcefully into the wall. To look at her, you’d never guess how tough she is!

I have a rotten head cold, and my knee still hurts, but I think I’ll still go this afternoon. I want to buy Master Yao’s DVDs – 330RMB total for the set of 6.

Last night, I caught up with Dragoncache and, for the first time, another YouTube contact – taijibum, who’s also a bagua practitioner. He trains with a teacher at Beijing Language and Culture University; this is on the next block from the University where I teach, so I’ll definitely drop by at some point. The three of us had a long chat; a friend of taijibum’s is apparently currently training with Alex Kozma in Wales – I’d been wondering what had happened to Alex. Seems like his plan to move to South-East Asia hasn’t happened. As I happened to have my laptop and external hard drive with me (I’d met them straight from work) I was able to show them some clips of the video from the workshop I attended with Alex, and they were impressed!

Taijibum recommended this clip, which I’d never seen before:

In fact, I hadn’t heard of Jerry Alan Johnson. Comments?


OK, I thought it over, and I’m switching to the small-group classes. This is the ‘individual’ group on Saturday and Sunday afternoons; it’ll cost a little more but it’ll be worth it to be able to stop and go over things, ask questions, etc. I dropped in at the school this evening to confirm this with Master Yao; he’s ok with it, so I’ll start tomorrow.

My shoulders are much improved after the Tiger Balm, and I was able to eat unaided at the restaurant last night! Afterwards we went to the Drum & Bell bar and, from the yard in between the towers, we could see the stars clearly, with Orion’s Belt standing out clearly. The air is so clear and fresh in Beijing now. The leaves are all starting to turn a wonderful gold as well; soon it’ll be time to head out to the Xiang Shan hills west of the city to see the forests there changing colour…

Oooh, the pain! The pain!


So, I’m sitting here in clouds of Tiger Balm vapour, having doused my shoulders in the stuff in the (probably vain) hope that they will hurt less tomorrow. Yes, I’m back from another yiquan lesson.

As I was setting off from my apartment, my bike experienced what I shall call a ‘completeness discontinuity’ – in other words, a fairly important part suddenly and unexpectedly fell off. In the dark, it took my a while to find it again, and even longer to re-attach it. This meant that I got to the class a bit late, and missed almost all of the zhan zhuang section.

So… it was straight into the tui shou sparring exercises. The story gets a bit eventful now.

Let me be clear: I have no idea what I’m doing with yiquan. OK, I tried it out for a few weeks earlier in the summer, but – and I don’t care what good reasons there may or may not be – I was taken through it really quickly, and didn’t have much opportunity to really do anything in depth. So I am not at all clear what I am supposed to be doing when we do the sparring exercises – I will try to improve my Mandarin, but right now it’s not sufficient to get the drift. So, for me, the sparring is simply: try not to let the other guy hit me.

With the first few guys I sparred with, I landed a few solid punches, and actually made one lad’s lip bleed. This was all totally unintentional: our forearms were pressing against each other, we were both sweating, and my arm just slid over his with the result that my fist suddenly slammed into his face. Genuinely accidental. Unfortunately, I think a couple of the lads got the impression that I was trying to throw my weight around, and the language barrier didn’t help here, and this evening the other two foreigners weren’t around to help me out with that.

So: observation #1. These guys are faster, stronger, and way more experienced than me. They were certainly going easy on me. But: they’re not defending themselves as fully as they should be.

Fairly soon, a little bit of aggro surfaced. One of the younger guys came over for a go. Very toned, must do a lot of work in the gym. This guy wasn’t giving me a break. As soon as we went into stance, WHAM BAM, he would break my guard, spin me around, and throw me into the wall. Now, I don’t mind this last part, because everyone was doing it; it’s obviously part of the culture there, so OK, whatever. He didn’t leave it there, though. Once I was turned around and thrown flat against the wall face-first, he would follow it up with a lot of punches to the back and the back of the head. No real force, of course, but enough to keep me pinned there. So… hmmm. On the one hand, I was just non-resisting, trying to send out the vibe: look, I’m only here to train and learn, not to look for trouble. On the other hand, I was thinking, well, I’m new here, is this some kind of hierarchical thing, and he’s trying to establish himself as some sort of top dog? Because this pummeling really isn’t serving any useful purpose that I can see, when I’m already clearly outclassed and unable to do much. After a while, the whole non-resistance thing clearly wasn’t changing anything, and his act was – excuse me – getting REALLY F*****G ANNOYING. On this basis, the next time he threw me into the wall face-first, I reached back, firmly grasped his balls, lifted and twisted. At the same time, I outlined my view that he’d made his point simply with the wall-throwing business, and that while one or two follow-up punches to reinforce the point were natural, the rest were unnecessary, and I would appreciate it if he would take that on board. This was in Chinese; as we’ve already established, my Mandarin sucks. Since, after this, he was more moderate I think I have to say on this point: non-verbal communication FTW!

Observation #2: these guys rock. Yiquan is a really, really devastating martial art. BUT: these guys (from my limited observation so far) are limiting themselves to “sparring by the rules”. They seem to be vulnerable to the ball-tearing, eye-gouging, ungentlemanly ways of behaviour that Master Zhou Yue Wen, for example, often demonstrated in our bagua classes.

Master Yao, and another student, came over to work with me a bit later on. I managed to communicate that I really had no clue what I was meant to be doing, and so each sparring bout was, for me, simply a matter of instinctively trying to stay on my feet whilst trying to use what I thought it was we had been doing in the zhan zhuang session. This cleared the air, and the student spent a good while talking me through things slowly, showing me the precise movements, and letting me practise them. This was extremely helpful.

Finally, I sparred with one more student. He repeated something that a number of people had said during the evening: I have a strong tendency to raise my arms high, pushing my opponent’s arms up as well. In yiquan, this just lets them overbalance me, and then come smashing through my centre-line. Bad habit! It was interesting, though that when this guy mentioned it, I suddenly had an insight into why I was doing it. I’ve been studying taijiquan for quite a long time, but the only tui shou we’ve done has been very polite, static, cooperative work. I’ve also been studying bagua for a few years, but never done tui shou (except for a bit with Master Zhou; we didn’t have time to do too much, though). Most of my taiji teachers knew no applications whatsover (some did/do, but I’ve not got to that point with them). With my bagua teachers, some are expert fighters, but when I ask them how a move is used, they’re like BAM BAM BAM you do it like that, and when I pick myself up off the floor I say ooh that’s interesting and carry on not much the wiser. So, the last time I did non-cooperative sparring with people who were even close to my level was actually about 14 years ago, when I studied Thai Boxing for a while during my MSc. Now, at that time, I was pretty much the shortest guy in the class. I couldn’t use roundhouse kicks or standard punches, because everyone else had a longer range than me. The only tactic I had left was to get in close, try to lift their arms from below, and then weigh in with elbows and knees.

Observation #3: old habits are hard to unlearn.

OK, this has been a long post. I’m just trying to relate what’s been going through my mind this evening. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, or if you know me IRL, I hope you already know that I do try not to have a bad attitude. Sometimes, not being able to communicate really is an issue, though. As far as my sparring tonight goes, it reminds me of something I read somewhere about sword-masters: they could face expert swordmasters with equanimity – but stood in terror of the novices who didn’t know what they were supposed to be doing. Or something to that effect.

My main conclusions, though:

  1. I may need to switch to the Sat/Sun small-group classes. I need to ask more questions, and take more time making sure I really understand what I’m supposed to be practising.
  2. Yiquan is fast, aggressive, powerful and very effective. I already knew that theoretically, but now I have practical insight of just how overwhelming it is.
  3. I’m never going to be as good as these guys, and will never be able to beat them using yiquan alone.
  4. If you know that people are better than you, make sure you know something that they can’t, or won’t, do, and keep it up your sleeve to be used only when absolutely necessary.

Let me be absolutely clear: I am really enjoying my experience so far, and I really am trying to approach it in a serious, respectful manner! I’m not, in the observations above, trying to be arrogant, superficial, or boastful. I’m simply recognizing that a) for various reasons, I wish to be able to defend myself against whatever I might be faced with, b) there will always be people who are far superior to me in any given style, and c) I have physical and postural problems that will likely always weaken me. Given b) and c), how do I achieve a)? I’m just thinking that question through, and trying to reach some useable answers…

Anyway, so this is cool, and I’m learning a lot. Right now, the unaccustomed sparring is leaving my shoulders in PAAAIIIIN! I have a date tomorrow evening, and I’m afraid I will have lost the use of my arms by then. I’ll be incapable of raising chopsticks as high as my mouth, and will be forced to ask the young lady in question to feed me. Heh. I’ve already mentioned this possibility via MSN. She laughed at length, and then agreed. She’s a martial artist too, she understands 🙂

Feel free to weigh in with advice, comments etc.

Bagua on hold

After the summer break, I did arrange to start meeting Sun Lao Shi again, but our first class had to be postponed due to rain. Then it was the week-long National Day holiday, when we were both away. I called yesterday, and spoke to his wife. It turns out that Sun Lao Shi will now be away until the end of the month. So, no classes…

Of course, I should still be practising on my own. Now that the semester’s schedule is settling down, I have a clearer idea of when I’m free to do that. I’ve just bought a new bicycle, so it’ll be possible for me to get down to the lakeside in the mornings, which should be the best option, I think. Beijing’s getting chilly in the mornings now, though… 🙁

In other news, my shoulders are still aching like crazy after that first yiquan lesson! On top of that, a girl who wasn’t looking where she was going ran into me at speed on her bike, and a big bruise is starting to show on my knee. Ouch! Fortuitously, I’ve just discovered that the pharmacy next to the campus gate sells Tiger Balm, the strong red version. I have bought some….