Monthly Archives: October 2009

Being lucky is easy


I suspect that those of us who meditate, or who really work at the observation aspect of internal martial arts, will find that this makes a lot of sense: Be lucky – it’s an easy skill to learn

[U]nlucky people miss chance opportunities because they are too focused on looking for something else. They go to parties intent on finding their perfect partner and so miss opportunities to make good friends. They look through newspapers determined to find certain types of job advertisements and as a result miss other types of jobs. Lucky people are more relaxed and open, and therefore see what is there rather than just what they are looking for.

It seems that the Welsh are best at this. Just sayin’…

Category: Meditation, Miscellaneous

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Fang song

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In other words, “relax”.

Back to yiquan class again today. We were working on dragon postures, uprooting, and punching… Master Yao was reminding us constantly to relax, to stay soft… I’m a very stiff, tense, person: as I’ve very often mentioned in this blog over the years, I’ve had chronic stiffness in my left shoulder and lower back. That is, until I started to study yiquan with Master Yao Chengrong, since when I’ve been clearing it out. It’s not gone completely; it still is there for the moment, and tends to come back if I stop practicing, but it is definitely weakening. So… I was a bit disappointed to read Tabbycat’s recent post, which wasn’t up to his usual standard. It didn’t really make sense… he talks about yiquan and zhan zhuang, but then goes on to assert that only one particular taiji teacher is able to teach relaxation properly – a bit of a non sequitur, since he’s thereby trashing every other teacher of every other neijia style… Anyway, I’m sure it’s true in his experience, but I have to say that Master Yao Chengrong also does a pretty good job of teaching relaxation, IMHO. Tabby does give some interesting insights into catatonia, though…

Speaking of Master Yao, it seems I was misinformed – his birthday meal is not next week, but the week after… That’ll be a busy week, I’m having dinner with some Chinese and African NGOs the day before to see if they can use my internet skills….

After today’s class I went for a run around the lakes, and didn’t die. Actually, I had no problems with breathing at all – I guess all the cycling I was doing before my accident did have some benefits after all… Mainly my problem was, yes, posture, with my lower back really giving me gyp – something I remember from cross-country running at school, so this does go way back… I was wearing my Vibram 5-Finger shoes, which are great. There’s a bit of chafing where the straps are sewn on, but they really got me running from the front of my foot rather than the heel, which seemed to let me generate a lot more power. Having said that, I usually wear cowboy boots anyway (Twisted X calf ropers, FWIW), and those also seem to get me walking from the front of the foot rather than the heel, so go figure…

Other interesting links from the last few days:

  • YMAA: The Dao of Kung Fu Why are martial arts practiced as a part of religious beliefs that teach compassion and humility?
  • Stepping Into Freedom Becoming a Monastic in Plum Village
  • The Guardian: Pakistan’s ‘heretical’ Muslims Increasingly threatened by religious extremists, Sufis are the inheritors of a tradition that predates Islam in south Asia
  • The Telegraph: The rise and fall of oil production Conventional oil powers modern economies and provides around a third of the world’s energy. But many commentators forecast a near-term peak soon and subsequent decline in global production as the resource is depleted. Some expect this to lead to major economic disruption, with “non-conventional” sources being unable to fill the gap in the timescale required.

TCM helping fertility


I saw this in today’s Guardian, and thought it was worth linking to: a doctor trained in both traditional Chinese medicine and western medicine is having extraordinary results with TCM treatments for infertile women. Dr. Zhai Xiao Ping is originally from Guangzhou, but is now based in London.

Category: TCM

Precious gems


Well, I went back to the Beijing Zhong Yi Yiquan Wuguan today, for my first yiquan lesson with Master Yao Chengrong since my accident. What can I say, it was really cool, and it felt great to be back into it.

It was a small class, with a couple of familiar faces, a couple of new Chinese students, and a French-Indian guy from Réunion Island, who’s here for a month to train with Master Yao. We worked on a couple of postures that were new to me, as well as some stepping techniques I’ve not seen before. I’m pretty stiff, and need to get back into stretching, but I’m still able to open my kua and get some power out, so it hasn’t all gone.

Apparently the Beijing government has announced that yiquan is a cultural treasure to be protected; other martial arts are also considered to be similarly endangered, I think. Those of you who can read Chinese will be able to read more:

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I’ve also returned to classes just in time: Master Yao’s birthday is coming up soon and so next Wednesday he and all of his students – including me – will be going for a dinner in Xinjiekou… Should be interesting!

Interlude


What’s it all about?

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In a classic display of the innumeracy that is apparently endemic in the UK, the Guardian (one of the UK’s leading broadsheets) is running a special edition “looking back on the ‘noughties'”. Guys, 2009 is not the last year of the decade; 2010 is the last year of the decade. Sigh. I had the same experience around the time of the Millennium; the UK, and I suppose many other countries, decided to have large and expensive celebrations welcoming in the new Millennium…. and managed to do it in the wrong year… I had to give up with complaining, people just won’t go against the crowd, and don’t like being shown they’re wrong. No wonder we’re in the middle of a financial crisis. I mean, I know from my MBA that accounting is not my strongest subject, but at least I can count using my fingers, which seems to be beyond most Brits these days. I mean, we have ten fingers, there are ten years in a decade, how can you get it wrong?

Anyway, one of these articles in the Guardian, by David Hare, ended with a conclusion that struck a chord:

Well, you may ask, what has changed? Human beings have always found that life has a curious way of slipping away from them. You reach the end without feeling you’ve done anything you meant to. For that reason, I’m reluctant to speak ill of Looking Away. I do a great deal of Looking Away myself. Who knows? It may be the only way of getting through. But our inclination to Look Away is the reason we invented professionals. Their job, after all, is to Look At.

Meanwhile, out of my RSS reader popped a blog post by Robert Twigger, of Angry White Pyjamas fame, with a quote from Robert Heinlein:

“ A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, con a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyse a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly: specialization is for insects.”

This synchronicity resonated with a recent train of thought. What’s it all about? Perhaps because I was bookish child, spending my time with Beowulf, Vikings, Alexander the Great, and Caesar, I’ve always felt that life was to be lived fully – so as I became an adult, I sought experience, the opportunity to do great things… Of course, we live in a diminished world – not just in terms of natural resources, but of imagination. John Buchan, in his novel ‘The Three Hostages’ recognized this back in the 1920s:

There were people there who wanted to turn Sandy to other subjects, especially Fulleylove and the young Cambridge don, Nightingale. They wanted to know about South Arabia, of which at the time the world was talking. Some fellow, I forget his name, was trying to raise an expedition to explore it.

‘It’s the last geographical secret left ‘inriddled,’ he said, and now he spoke seriously. ‘Well, perhaps not quite the last. I’m told there’s still something to be done with the southern tributaries of the Amazon. Mornington, you know, believes there’s a chance of finding some of the Inca people still dwelling in the unexplored upper glens. But all the rest have gone. Since the beginning of the century we’ve made a clean sweep of the jolly old mysteries that made the world worth living in. We have been to both the Poles, and to Lhasa, and to the Mountains of the Moon. We haven’t got to the top of Everest yet, but we know what it is like. Mecca and Medina are as stale as Bournemouth. We know that there’s nothing very stupendous in the Brahmaputra gorges. There’s little left for a man’s imagination to play with, and our children will grow up in a dull, shrunken world. Except, of course, the Great Southern Desert of Arabia.’

It occurs to me as I write this that this is another reason why I came to Asia, where life as yet isn’t quite so grey and regulated and stifled as the UK. It puts me in mind of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, where Renton’s soliloquy became the wall poster of a generation of students:

Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television, Choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players, and electrical tin openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol and dental insurance. Choose fixed-interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends. Choose leisure wear and matching luggage. Choose a three piece suite on hire purchase in a range of fucking fabrics. Choose DIY and wondering who the fuck you are on a Sunday morning. Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing fucking junk food into your mouth. Choose rotting away at the end of it all, pissing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, fucked-up brats you have spawned to replace yourself. Choose your future. Choose life .

That’s a selective quote, though. It actually ends with:

But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life: I chose something else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin?

That’s where I part company with Renton. I don’t use or need heroin. But the rest of it? Amen. I don’t want that kind of life. That’s me though; so many people settle for it, and good for them, and then find that they’ve spent their lives Looking Away, and on their deathbeds perhaps look back and wonder if paying off the mortgage and owning a flat-screen plasma TV was a worthwhile reward for forty years of servitude, and say yes, yes it was… And why do we Look Away? I have to conclude that it’s fear. Fear of being made to look stupid. Fear of failure. Fear that we might not be able to succeed. Fear of other people’s opinions. I’ve never been able to accept that. I’ve often been told that I’m being unreasonable. I’m fine with that. As a better man than me once said:

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

Me? I’ve seen witchdoctors dance in hidden valleys on the roof of Africa. I’ve drunk beer with Chinese shamans. I’ve studied with masters of little-known arts. I’ve dabbled in politics, and did OK. I’ve been successful professionally.

Once upon a time, that wouldn’t have satisfied me. I wanted more. But, you know, there’s always someone like Antonio Graceffo, or the modern explorers like Ranulph Fiennes. There’s always someone better. What do you do then? Strive to match them? Give up? It brought me around to questioning “the great life” as a motivator. Why do it? The danger is that it becomes a craving, a desire to tick boxes, a need to complete that which can never be completed and ultimately, like Alexander, be forced to weep (as John Calvin expressed it):

setting no bounds to their hopes and desires, and scaling the very heavens in their ambition, like the insane Alexander of Macedon, who, upon hearing that there were other worlds, wept that he had not yet conquered one, although soon after the funeral urn sufficed him.

So, drawing a line on the pursuit of endless experience, and accepting that one must content oneself with certain limits… what then? What’s left? No going further, no conquering endless worlds. No going back, no return to the dead world of mortgage payments, reality TV, and the Spectacle. I’m seeing that the remaining path is the inward path. More on this to come, I suspect.

Two tribes on the score

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I’m hoping to start attending yiquan classes again next weekend, finally bringing the hiatus to an end. In the meantime, here’s some examples of what I like about Beijing – the different cultures from all around northern and central Asia that gather here…

The first three clips are of a Mongolian band – get that throat-singing!

The next two are from a Uighur band out of Xinjiang (plus guest on the non-Xinjiang double-bass!)

Things may not be what they seem

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Quite apart from the vicarious delight of seeing an idiot being handed his ass on a plate, there’s a serious lesson to be learned here: the transvestite you see on the street may be a cage fighter out on a fancy dress stag night…

Never make assumptions about your opponent.

Oh yeah, and this is in Wales, by the way.

Hat tip to Dylan Jones-Evans for the link.

Category: Martial Arts

Cast away

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Finally. I went back to the Peking Union Medical College yesterday, and had the cast taken off my right arm. The “bone doctor”, as the receptionists insist on calling him, is a pretty abrupt guy, but he seems nice enough. After the cast was taken off, I needed one final set of x-rays.

This took a while, as the radiology room was dealing with a group of elderly American tourists; one of their number, a woman who looked to be in her late 60s, had fallen, and apparently badly damaged her hip, which needed surgery. The last I heard, they were trying to find out if this had to be done immediately, or whether it could wait until they could get her back to the States. I hope it works out OK for them; it puts my own woes into perspective. From my own, newly-earned, insights into the health-care system, though, if they want to get the surgery done in the US, I hope they have damn good insurance – otherwise, there’s much to be said for getting treated in an English-speaking Chinese public-sector hospital. [Health tourism in China]

Earlier this week, I was sitting in Lush, in Wudaokou, doing a bit of work, and had to endure the sound of another American ranting at his Chinese language partner (there’s a common system of foreign men meeting up with Chinese girls for language practice). Apparently this guy had had to go to hospital for some reason, but he’d wound up at one of the foreign, privately-owned ones where he’d been charged astoundingly high fees. Which he went on about at length, so that in the end I felt really bad for the poor girl who was sitting there forlornly. Anyway, as I’ve said before, this whole episode since my accident has really confirmed my support of universal, state funded health care.

That’s an aside. The bone doctor looked at my x-rays. That’s a habit I’ve noticed he has – he’ll look at the x-rays, sigh, look at older x-rays, sigh again, look perplexed, think for a little while, sigh again, and then tell me that the bone looks OK, all the time with an expression that suggests that really it’s a mess but he doesn’t want to worry me. He told me that I shouldn’t carry any weight with it for another 6 weeks, after which I can use it for light weights. It should, according to him, be OK in a few months. To begin with, I should only stretch it.

I’d already arranged to meet Kong Cheng later in the afternoon, so I mentioned that I would probably be getting massage and tuina. The bone doctor looked perplexed. “No”, he said. I was surprised. Why not? “I see no benefit”, he told me.

WTF? This is why I lose confidence in Western medicine. It’s so compartmentalised. He’s an orthopaedic surgeon. The bone is mending, and no longer needs a cast. Job done, nice to see you, pay on the way out. The fact that I still can’t use my hand isn’t his department. In fact, in Western hospitals, it doesn’t seem to be anyone’s problem. Sigh.

So: the muscles, or tendons, are still damaged, or have atrophied and stiffened while my hand was in the cast. I can’t close the hand into a fist; trying to do so is painful. The best I can do is a loose ‘taiji fist’. I can just about do a “single whip”. I can raise it about 35 degrees from horizontal. So – of course I’m going to need more treatment (although, now I’ll be paying for all this myself, since my insurance doesn’t cover TCM).

I met Kong Chen at the Drum & Bell. He looked at the x-rays, and agreed that the bone is OK. He doesn’t think it’ll lead to arthritis later, which is something I’d worried about. He massaged the hand (leading to not a few yelps of pain from yours truly), and wrote down the name of some Chinese herbs I should use to make a poultice for my hand. I bought these later at a chemists’s shop on Guloudongdajie – total cost, including bandages, 18RMB. So we’ll see how that goes. He thinks that the hand may heal more quickly than the “bone doctor” suggested; I mentioned that it’ll be a long time before I can practice tui shou, let alone san shou, and he surprised me by saying that it may only be a few weeks. He’s given me some stretching exercises to do daily, which will hurt, but should help get the hand working. He’s off to Europe on Wednesday, and will be back in December, so by then I’ll know, I guess.

On Thursday, I finally caught up with S. She left China on business immediately after my accident, and only recently got back. I gave her a bunch of roses, and bought her lunch at the Vineyard cafe (I’ll buy her a fancier dinner, and more roses, at a later date, don’t worry). We had lots to catch up on, and she’s offered to give me acupuncture treatment if needed; she also recommended a top-level TCM doctor to visit (although I can’t because he only has a few consulting hours, and they clash with my teaching schedule). As for the acupuncture, it’ll also have to wait for a while until she gets back, as she’s also off travelling again for a while – and besides, after I dragged her out of bed to attend an emergency, just before a big trip overseas, do I really want to give her the opportunity to jab needles into me??? I jest 🙂 She’s urging me to stay in China, and there have been a lot of developments since I last wrote about Singapore; however I need to wait a bit, and see how some things work out, before I write about that…

I’m glad the cast is off. In fact, it’s just in time: the temperature has dropped dramatically in Beijing over the last week. Autumn is here, and soon the freezing winds will be howling down from Siberia… At least now I can put my winter jackets on…

Asgarda redux


The number of visitors here has shot up over the last week; mostly they’ve come here from search engines, looking for material on Asgarda. I couldn’t understand where this interest suddenly came from, until Boing Boing (whose RSS feed I follow) ran a piece – from which I learn that a design magazine, Planet, had featured the photographs I first saw on English Russia, and then wrote about*.

For the benefit of those visitors, my understanding is that the Asgarda movement is a spin-off of a Ukrainian cultural movement that’s trying to re-discover/re-invent an old Cossack form of fighting dance, which they call “Бойовий Гопак” (“Гопак” being the purely dance version). This gives ample room for flame wars, since Cossacks occupied many parts of the old Tsarist empire, including Ukraine, Russia, and various Central Asian countries, many of which are now tying to exclusively claim them as part of their own national heritage. Furthermore, many Cossacks also lived in the Ottoman Empire, and served Istanbul, not St. Petersburg. Furthermore, as far as I can see, there was a large divide between the members of the Cossack hosts, and the ordinary Slavs living in Russia/the Ukraine/etc. In modern-day Russia, the hosts have received a lot of recognition and autonomy, and are genuine continuations of the historic Cossack culture. I have absolutely no idea what the situation is in Ukraine.

I became aware of the Cossack “fight-dance” through an interest in the Russian martial art of Systema, the Ryabko branch of which traces its roots back to the Cossacks. I also have an interest since my Siberian ex-girlfriend is a Tatar Muslim, whose ancestors would have been on the other side, perhaps…

This is demonstrated by Russian Cossacks** in this clip:

The Asgarda movement, as I said, seem to be a part of a Ukrainian movement that’s trying to develop their own version of this:

As you can see, this has both men and women training. There was another clip that clearly showed Katerina Tarnouska, Asgarda’s founder, training alongside men, but it’s been taken down now. Anyhow, the whole “women seek complete autonomy from men” angle clearly seems like something tongue-in-cheek, said to wind up a visiting journalist. One anonymous commenter (comment #42) on the Boing Boing article says:

Oh man, this is all hilarious.

Let me tell you what it is all about. Asgarda was (I am not sure if it still is functioning) just a martial arts school based on the Ukrainian own style, Hopak. Only adapted for girls. These pictures were taken by some French photographer, who was traveling around Ukraine and are just for photo session sake.

I happen to know few girls, who were studying in that martial arts school, including the one on photo here. When I told them about all that hype around Asgarda, they laughed so hard, that I thought, that I will lose them 🙂

The bottom line is do not believe everything you read. You’ll be surprised how many foolish things they try to put into your head/

…which seems to have the ring of truth to it to me!

* NB I have no connection with any of these people at all; I just know what I’ve read online, just like you.

** These guys are members of the Spetsnaz, the Russian Special Forces. Spike TV ran a statistical analysis*** of Spetsnaz vs US Green Berets, and concluded that the Spetsnaz would win. Watch the clip here.

*** They also ran one on “Shaolin Monk vs Maori warrior“, which may interest regular readers, since the monk uses “emei ci” against the maori…