Monthly Archives: May 2009



Since this is a “holiday”* weekend in China, I took the opportunity to visit temples in a part of Beijing I rarely go to.

I’d had an excellent time in the morning’s yiquan class; we covered new material, including the use of the voice to generate power. We also did a bit of staff work. In the tui shou session, I tried to apply the ideas I was talking about before (generating power from the kua) and it seemed to work. I also tried to use more footwork – switching angles relative to my ‘opponent’; that also worked pretty well. I think I might finally be getting somewhere!

For the afternoon, I decided it was time to finally visit the White Cloud Temple, outside the old city walls to the southwest. It was a beautiful sunny day, and it took me perhaps forty minutes to cycle there. As I got close, the path became unclear, as I got caught up in a tangle of curving roads coming down from the second ring road, which at that point is elevated and not open to bicycles. This took me out of my way, and as I cycled back towards the Temple I spotted a pagoda rising on the skyline.


At first I thought it was the White Cloud Temple, but it became clear that it had to be something else, not marked on my map. I decided to take a look.

It turned out to be the thousand-year old Tianning Temple. It’s small, in terms of area; there are few courtyards. In fact, there really isn’t much there at all, except the pagoda.


I found that this actually added to its charm. Outside the gate were shady trees with locals passing the day chatting or playing chess beneath them. Inside, there were very few visitors, almost equal in number to the guards and assistants, who seemed to be a small community in themselves. Maybe it was the sunny weather, but the temple seemed to have a sleepy, unhurried charm – but unlike other, busier, temples that I’ve visited in China, it seemed to be loved by the people who cared for it. For example, it’s one of the few temples I’ve been to where the carers have taken the trouble to polish the bells:


The pagoda is, of course, the focus.


It’s beautiful and must have been even more so before it was damaged, presumable during the Cultural Revolution. There are guardian figures on each side, but almost all of them are very severely damaged, and some are completely destroyed.


The people there were really friendly. As I walked around the pagoda, the security guard – who was stretched out full length in the shade – called me over. At first I thought there was a problem, but he just invited me to sit down on the temple steps and pass a little time. We chatted to each other for a while about the usual things, and then he took me over to the temple shop to chat to the ladies in the temple shop. After a while, I tore myself away, as I still wanted to get to the White Cloud Temple! I left with regret, though; I was charmed by this tiny little temple, dwarfed by the factory and smokestack next door, and yet seemingly happy and peaceful within its walls.

So, I moved on. The White Cloud Temple probably needs no introduction; it’s a famous Daoist Temple where TCM, qigong, and martial arts are still practiced. Frank Allen and Tina Zhang, for example, always take students there to study during their annual trip to Beijing.



This temple seemed almost TARDIS-like – much bigger on the inside than it appeared from the outside! There are many small courtyards, most with one or more shrines to gods of the Daoist pantheon.



There didn’t seem to be many areas that were closed to the public, and I walked past many buildings which were clearly living areas; some perhaps for the Daoist monks, and others for lay people, some of whom I suppose may be staying for treatment at the TCM clinic.


Each small shrine had a monk attendant in charge. Most of these were reading, studying texts of one kind or another. One, however, was without any doubt practicing yiquan! I watched him for a while, thinking that perhaps he was just engaged in some other form of zhan zhuang, but after seeing how he was moving his weight, and the movements of his hands, I’m convinced that it was yiquan. I did actually ask him, but he didn’t acknowledge me.


Soon afterwards, I took a while to sit down in a small garden, and watched a sparrow as he perched on a tap, while rival birds squabbled in the trees overhead. It was one of the few peaceful spots I found in this temple. Even on a quiet day like yesterday, there were lots of people passing around; the monks all seemed very business-like. Of the two temples, if I get a free day with good weather, I think I would be much more inclined to return to the Tianning Temple to doze in the shade, knowing that this temple is a real part of the neighbourhood community.

In any case, after that, I cycled up to the Drum and Bell bar at Houhai, for a couple of much-needed cold beers. On the way, I passed some things you wouldn’t necessarily expect to see…


Sitting on the bar’s rooftop, I watched the flocks of pigeons circling, returning to their roosts on the roofs of hutong homes, and remembered how people apparently used to train them to fly into the imperial granaries, returning home with their crops full of grain…


It was a good day, yesterday. Beijing is changing dramatically, but it’s still possible to feel a connection to the life of the city that stretches back to the Liao, and to Genghis Khan….

* I put “holiday” in quotes because in China, when a public holiday falls on a Thursday, Friday also becomes a ‘day off’. However, Friday’s work duties are moved to the following Sunday, which becomes a normal work day. Thus, we get three days off in a row, but the next working week becomes six days long. No doubt there is a logic to this, but it isn’t clear to me.

We can rebuild him

How do you generate the essential power of the Chinese internal martial arts, fa jin? Occasionally I get it; usually, I don’t. In other words, I don’t understand it well enough to reproduce it consistently. Slowly, slowly, my understanding improves…

Recently I’ve been attending yiquan classes in the mornings, once or twice a week, since my schedule allows that. In fact, I should be there now, but it’s the Duanwu holiday, and my body clock evidently decided that sleep was more important. Maybe it’s not a bad thing; I went yesterday morning and we spent a couple of exercises working on just a couple of static “testing force” exercises. As we repeated the moved over and over, I gradually realized – thanks to a demonstration and explanation by Master Yao – that if I turned my rear hip and thigh this way instead of that way, then I had the ‘springy’ isometric tension that’s such an important part of yiquan technique. Aha! So, I focussed my attention on that for the rest of the class; it’s going to take a lot more practice before I can do it either well or consistently, but I wanted to fix familiarity with the sensation and action into both mind and muscle memory.

Two problems – firstly, by concentrating on the hip/leg feeling, I lost focus on what my hands were doing (I’m not so great at multi-tasking!). Master Yao repeatedly came over to correct me, and I couldn’t explain what I was trying to do. I must say, though, that he never shows any impatience or frustration! He’s really dedicated to helping us progress, even at a snail’s pace if that’s the best I can do!

Second problem – I was beginning to see how to generate power. Once generated, it had to be transmitted, and ouch, I am not as relaxed as I need to be for this to happen… I could feel it being dispersed as it passed through my lower back, and through my shoulders – although these areas are far more relaxed than they were before I started yiquan. The biggest problem was my forward leg, the right leg in the stance I was using. I’ve grown accustomed to thinking of my left leg as the weak one, ever since I really hurt the Achilles Tendon in 2005. However, after lots of therapeutic massage (plus, I am convinced, the benefits of practicing taiji and bagua), that’s pretty much fixed now. Not 100%, I gave it a painful jar when I missed a step yesterday, but functionally it’s fine.

So now, it’s the right leg, but here I’m addressing deeper issues. I’ve noticed that my right foot always tends to twist out about 45% when I’m in zhan zhuang, etc, and I’ve mentioned before that the knee/kua tend to cave inwards. Thinking about it, I can place these issues in my memory at least as far back as primary school, which means I now need to correct a life-long postural problem. Doh! It’s very important, though; as I issue force from my hips, I found that it wasn’t moving forward, down my leg, and into the ground in a clean, straight manner, the way it was meant to. Rather, it was spiralling down, wrenching my knee and ankle on the way – which means pain today! This can be fixed, but it’ll be a slow process of keeping my awareness in the muscles and tendons, gradually reshaping them so that my foot is properly aligned. A daunting prospect, but one that once again convinces me of the advantages of the internal martial arts – this is, as far as I’m concerned, an excellent example of the way neijia‘s focus on relaxation and awareness of qi, and the small physical sensations inside the body build and nurture health as well as martial ability into old age.

By the way, speaking of old age and the likelihood of me reaching it, I had a near miss recently. Lately, I’ve been cycling everywhere in Beijing; using the bike rather than public transport has totally changed my understanding of the city’s layout and psychogeography! Anyway, I was cycling home a few nights ago, along the Second Ring Road (the innermost ring, following the line of the old city walls). I was approaching an off-ramp, and was having to turn my head a lot, looking for a gap in the traffic to get past the exit… Going fast, I went straight into a pothole that I hadn’t seen in the dark! Arrgh! I was thrown forward, over the handlebars, losing my grip on them… I saved myself by clinging on to the basket on the front of the bike…. My feet, somehow still on the pedals, kept pedalling frantically, as I sailed passed the exit with my backside pointing to the heavens… Smooth, real smooth… I suppose I can thank martial arts for my balance, which meant that at least the bike stayed upright and I didn’t pitch down onto the tarmac! I regained control, but found the next day that my back had really been jarred, with lots of muscles stiffened up… Heh…

Wing Chun warrior


I know next to nothing about wing chun. I’ve never studied it; my preferences are for the northern styles. However, I do know many wing chun practitioners in Singapore. Some of them have been generous enough to give me some advice, and they totally outclassed me when we tried a bit of friendly push hands. So, respect.

I mention this just because I’ve found this book review on Asia Times Online, the Hong Kong-based online newspaper: Bruce who? Wing Chun Warrior by Ken Ing .

Some of the quotes are very relevant to things I’ve mused about here on previous occasions, and in conversations with friends – including wing chun practitioners:

Ing’s book ends with Leung, in his sixties, frustrated by the decline of martial arts in China – a decline for which the author blames the Chinese government, which since 1949 has banned the practice of Kung Fu for combat:

China produces many performing Kung Fu instructors whose unproven fighting techniques are becoming increasingly more difficult to perform, though spectacular to watch. However, they are not qualified to teach combat when they themselves have no genuine combat experience, and the effectiveness of the fighting techniques remains untested.

So Leung is now watching Chinese combatants who are regularly defeated in free-fight competitions by other practitioners of the martial arts, especially Thai boxers. And, even worse, stung by defeat, these combatants are abandoning their own traditions and beginning to fight like Thai boxers and wrestlers.

Sifu Leung has dedicated what remains of his life to reversing this trend. Ing’s chronicle will serve to help him in that quest.

Have any of you read the book? It’s damned with faint praise in the review, but I would be interested to hear what you think if you have read it…

Fresh air and qi


I mentioned a while ago that I’m working on a research project with a village in the Chinese countryside; it’s something I’m trying to get started in a personal capacity, although perhaps my employers may get involved. Anyway, a couple of weekends ago, I was invited to attend a wedding; the daughter of our local contact was getting married to a man from a neighbouring village. It was a great weekend! The Siberian and I no longer being together, I invited a good friend, S, to come with me. S was introduced to me by Dragoncache; we dated for a while last year and, although it didn’t work out, we’re still friends. She’s someone I can really look up to – highly qualified in TCM, an excellent martial artist, and very entrepreneurial.

Anyhow, we enjoyed the first evening’s dinner but, as things wound down and the wedding party split up into small groups and discussions, S and I slipped out and went for a late-night walk around the village. There was no street-lighting, and so the place was in total darkness. However, there was a lot of cloud, and the reflected light from the nearest city, an hour’s drive away, was enough for us to see. The air, after Beijing, was wonderful – fresh, clean, and laden with the scent of the wild herbs that grow abundantly in the mountains above the village. We walked to the village gate – there’s only one road connecting the village to the outside world – and stood for a while, absorbing the qi. I found myself orienting to the north, connecting with the hills, feeling the power from their roots, and the ridgelines against the sky. S turned south; the road out is ruler straight, flanked by long lines of poplars, whose leaves whispered and tinkled in a light breeze. S found a connection with those, and was refreshed by their energy.

I’ll have more to say about S in another post, but it strikes me that nature is incredibly important to me. As I wrote before, in Wales i would be out in the hills every weekend. Even in Singapore, I lived next to the sea, and there were patches of jungle, and parkland, literally on my doorstep. It’s just occurred to me that the malaise that I’ve been feeling since I arrived in Beijing may be connected to the fact that for the first time in years I don’t live near easily accessible nature…

Anyway, here are some photos of the village, to give you an idea of what I mean:

Village sign

Village sign

Showing the village walls, looking towards the south

Showing the village walls, looking towards the south

The village walls, cornfields, and goats!

The village walls, cornfields, and goats!

The hills to the north

The hills to the north

The hills to the north, with Ming-era stretches of the Great Wall in the distance

The hills to the north, with Ming-era stretches of the Great Wall in the distance

A dub poet in Beijing


I think I probably became familiar with Benjamin Zephaniah‘s work while I was an undergrad; that was a long time ago, and while I certainly can’t say that I’ve kept up with what he’s been doing in the meantime, I respect the guy for sure.

Via a couple of recent profiles in the Guardian and the Times, I’ve discovered that he spends a lot of time in Beijing these days. It seems that he came to China to study kung fu at the Shaolin Temple: “he wanted to train with the monks of the Shaolin temple in Henan province who he believes practise the purest form of kung fu“. Hehehe, well, that’s a view that might generate some debate, but anyway, good for him. It seems he’s been doing a fair bit of voluntary work while he’s been here.

One of the article also mentions that he reckons the best vegan restaurant in the world is right here in the ‘Jing – I wonder which one he means..? Well, perhaps I’ll see him in the street one day while I’m out and about on my bike, and ask him…

Anyway, I like this picture from his web site:

Monk and rasta

The fighting art of the Sikhs


I came across an interesting article today in the UK Independent: Ancient but deadly: the return of shastar vidiya.

I dated a Sikh girl for a while, and I retain an affection for Sikh culture. I particularly find it interesting that it’s one lonely enthusiast who has dedicated himself to reviving a vanishing art; I hope he finds the disciples that he deserves.

The article draws a distinction between Shaster Vidiya and Gatka, which seems to be more of a performance art – much like the distinction between traditional Chinese fighting styles and modern performance wushu/ Nevertheless, Wikipedia redirects to Gatka, and there are some passages that I find very interesting – spooky, even. For example,

The foundation of the art is a movement methodology for the use of the feet, body, arms and weapons in unison. Gatka favors rhythmic movement, without hesitation, doubt or anxiety.

Interesting… In many ways, this echoes something that I heard elsewhere about Systema… But then there’s this:

The system devised by Captain William Ewart Fairbairn and Captain Eric Anthony Sykes borrowed methodologies from gatka, jujutsu, Chinese martial arts and “gutter fighting”.

Well now…. I wrote about Fairbairn quite a bit on the first version of this blog. One of his martial arts teachers in inter-war Shanghai was the grand-teacher of my own bagua teacher, Zhou Yue Wen. Fairbairn was also the organizer of Singapore’s riot squad, by the by…

Of course, the Shanghai of that period was awash with Russians – refugees from the 1917 revolution, Comintern agents, and who knows who else?

We know about Fairbairn because of what he did afterwards with the British Army in WWII, his fighting manuals, and his post-war work in Singapore and elsewhere. I wonder… was there a Russian equivalent of Fairbairn who also studied in with Sikhs and Chinese in Shanghai? Is that the root of Systema?

Anyway, that’s getting off-topic. YouTube is blocked by the Chinese government, so I can’t search for videos of shastar vidiya. If you can, I would be interested in hearing what you think of it.