Monthly Archives: December 2009

Janus and the zombie


So here is New year’s Eve; I suppose I should look back at the year that’s closing, and forward to the year that’s coming.

I’ll be brief, since no-one likes a whiner! In short, I can’t wait for the next few hours to pass: 2009 was a horrible, horrible year. I’ll look back on it as ‘The Year of the Zombie’, since I spent most of it so exhausted I couldn’t think straight. A number of things that have been going on for a few years now got worse and worse, and well… Let’s just say that it felt like nothing was working out. I lost sight of the person I want to be; most of my friends moved on from Beijing; my martial arts and meditation practice seemed to be going backwards fast, and professionally I felt over-qualified, under-paid, and under-valued. By late August, I was ready to quit Beijing and head back to Singapore. Frankly, I was planning to renew my meditation and grounding in the Dharma with the aim of stepping into freedom… Then I got knocked off my bike, and things got worse…

There were good points. In particular, I’ve made contact with a number of you guys, readers of this blog, who have turned out to be great people. Thanks for reading, guys, and for all the other interaction we’ve had online or IRL. It’s meant a lot. My friends in Singapore have turned out to be real stars as well. The yiquan has kept me going, even if I didn’t improve much. There was the connection I made with the village in Hebei, and the dragons… It turns out I really like Mongolian music

As for next year… Well, it’s odd. Something changed in the stars in early December. I started to get some real insights into the yiquan, and my practice suddenly improved a lot. I’ve also found new friends in the other foreigners who are now coming regularly. I’m meditating and working with the Yi Jing again. I’ve met a new crowd of people on the same wavelength as me at the Beijing Improv workshops. I’ve been motivated to start bagua again, and found a place I can practice. Professionally, I find that my value has been acknowledged, and I’ve been made an offer that’s better than anything else I could hope to find, either in China or Singapore.

In short, I’ll be going into 2010 with a fair wind behind me. The balance has swung back to staying in Beijing. There are new opportunities to grow, in almost every aspect of my life, and I find that I couldn’t justify leaving. That doesn’t mean I’m breaking my bonds with Singapore – far from it, and I’ll be working on that in other ways.

There’s also S. – but ahh, what to say there. We’re not a couple, and I don’t know if we ever will be. Still, she drives me to become a better person; like Dante with Beatrice, Petrarch with Laura, perhaps I can only sing her praises as my unattainable muse, a reason for poetry and living… She’s made such a difference to my life…

So there we are; interesting times. As the old toast goes, may the best of the old year be the worst of the new – happy new year!

Category: Miscellaneous

A walk in the park

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Just got back from meeting Kong Cheng. We trained for an hour, and then he had to leave, after which I did some more work on tang ni bu, finishing up with some zhan zhuang.

My baguazhang has gone. There’s no other way to put it. It’s over a year since I did any training, and from today’s experience, I was probably doing a lot wrong anyway. All of my physical misalignments reappeared… it was awful! I couldn’t even do tang ni bu properly any more! Aaagh!

Still… a lot should come back, with practice. Plus, for the first time ever, I now have a bagua teacher who speaks English. That’s going to make a huge difference. I’m looking forward to this….

What’s also extremely important: it turns out that, with the new subway line, Zhong Shan Park is very easy to get to from my apartment. I’d never been there before, and it turns out that it’s really quiet and peaceful. It was fantastic to be standing in zhan zhuang, with very little noise to disturb me, facing the early morning sun as its rays lit up the yellow tiles on the roof of the Gate of Celestial Harmony… WOW! It was one of those “I can’t believe this is really happening” moments…

Finally, I’ve found somewhere to train without crowds of gawpers! I hope to go there a lot in the new year.

It was cold, though… Very, very cold….

Dies Natalis Solis Invicti


Whether you’re celebrating the solstice or the birth of Jesus: Mithras or Elah-Gabal, Yule or Hanukkah, Yalda or Saturnalia – at this moment of ancestral memory of those long, cold winter nights when the food and logs begin to run low and we look with hope to the coming of spring:

Merry Christmas!

Category: Miscellaneous

Circles at the centre

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I caught up with Kong Cheng last night. We met near the Drum Tower for a couple of hours and chatted about his trip to Europe, and about mutual acquaintances. We also chatted about various books about baguazhang; it turns out that he’s got plans to write a book in English for more advanced practitioners. I was urging him to start blogging, so maybe he will…

I’m going to start training with him next week. It will only be for a few classes, as he’ll be away in January, and I’ll probably be in Singapore for a lot of February. That reminds me, I ought to say something about my plans for next year; never mind, that’s for another post. Anyway, as for the bagua classes, it’s more than a year since I trained in bagua, and I’ve had a lot of insights through my yiquan training, so I want to start again at the very beginning, with tang ni bu, and then build up again.

We discussed various locations for the training, and settled on Zhongshan Park, on the western side of the Forbidden City. That’s thematically appropriate, since it’s named after Sun Yat-Sen, who I was just talking about in my last post! Apparently it’s one of the most central locations of Beijing, so there’s a certain appeal to ‘circling the city’s axis’, as it were…

Category: Baguazhang, Kong Cheng

Bodyguards and assassins

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I went to see “Bodyguards and Assassins” last night at the Oriental Plaza cinema in Wangfujing. Something felt wrong… until I realized that this was the first time I’d visited the cinema since coming to China, and it’s warm inside! (In Singapore, the cinemas always turn their aircon so low, you can practically see your breath!)

The movie was in Mandarin (duh!) and had no English subtitles. S. could understand it perfectly, of course; for the talky first part I treated it as an improv exercise, imagining an alternative dialogue. In the second part… well… you didn’t really need to know what anyone was saying!

If you don’t know what the film is about, it deals with a 1905 visit to Hong Kong by Chinese revolutionary (and future president of the Chinese Republic), Sun Yat-Sen. Ostensibly, he was there to visit his mother; in reality, he was there to meet fellow revolutionaries. The Dowager Empress and the Qing court, sensing opportunity, dispatch a company of assassins… In Hong Kong, a disparate band of warriors and workers agree to act as bodyguards for Sun…

OK, let’s cut to the chase: spoilers ahead.

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Still here? OK. Pretty much everyone dies, except Sun. It’s a great film. There’s one scene in which a few of Sun’s supporters are hiding out in Sun’s house, while outside one of the bodyguards (a Daoist monk turned beggar) battles overwhelming numbers of Qing assassins. Sun’s aged mother silently holds the hand of one young man who knows he’s going to be killed if the assassins get through, and tries valiantly to conceal his terror. I found it very moving…

There’s a spectacular scene of parkour, as one each of the bodyguards and assassins fight a running battle through a bustling Hong Kong street – demonstrating exactly why I think I should learn parkour! Maybe next year…

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed it, even though I had no idea what anybody was saying. S. tells me that it’s based on historical fact, though I can’t Google anything up to support that. It make you laugh, it makes you sad, it keeps you on the edge of your seat plenty…

Recommended.

Water method

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I got back in touch with Liu Jing Ru’s disciple Kong Cheng yesterday; he’s just got back from his ‘European tour’. I’m going to arrange to start bagua training with him. We talked about it back in the summer, but there wasn’t an opportunity then.

I think I’m ready to see if I can apply what I’ve learned in my yiquan training to bagua; plus (as you’ll guess from many of the links I’ve posted recently), I’m a little concerned about the growing possibility of recession/depression-driven unrest around the world. I’ve also seen hints that the US and EU are increasingly open to the possibility of introducing tariffs on Chinese goods, in order to retaliate against China keeping the RMB’s value artificially low against the dollar; the day that happens will be a scary day to be a foreigner in China, I think! Bagua would be useful in a crowd scene; I’ve seen examples before of how any dispute between a foreigner and a Chinese draws a crowd, and the mood can turn nasty very easily. I was also spurred by Aedh’s recent post about using circle-walking against a bigger, heavier, kickboxer.

Sooooo, anyway: in preparation, I picked up my copy of The Whirling Circles of Baguazhang, by Frank Allen and Tina Zhang, who became disciples of Master Liu a couple of years ago. Although I brought it to Beijing from Singapore, I haven’t looked at it since I stopped training in bagua over a year ago. It got me back into the mood, but it also surprised me to find that at the back there’s a section about the Water Method that Frank learned from B. K. Frantzis; I’d forgotten about it, but it is exactly what I was talking about in my post on ‘Answering a Few Questions’. I guess it had been at the back of my mind all along, but now I may actually be taking the first steps in practising something similar, having come from a different direction…

Speaking of bagua books, I lent my copy of Yang Jwing-Ming’s Emei Baguazhang (which I also haven’t opened for a long time) to S., who is enjoying it; she hasn’t read many books in English about bagua, I think (though many in Chinese). She’s translating a book that her own bagua master has written, which should be interesting.

So, back to circle-walking soon…

Links 17-12-2009



Photo: CEN

Category: Miscellaneous

Links 13-12-2009

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  • Food shortages threatened in near future – climate change, population growth, water shortages, and the spread of diseases mean a “perfect storm” is brewing for food supplies. Note the threat of riots.
  • Russian analyst Dmitri Orlov made his name with his predictions of US collapse and disintegration, pointing out that this is being driven by the same forces that brought an end to the Soviet Union – with the difference that the ex-Soviet states were far better prepared to endure collapse than the US is… Here he gives his end-of-year view of what will happen to the US in the 2010s. The prospect of American forces being left stranded in Afghanistan just as the Greeks of Alexander the Great’s army were left stranded there when it was called Bactria, almost 2500 years ago, is one of those historical parallels that would seem outrageous if you read it in a novel, and yet…

Links 12-12-2009


  • Monkey alarm calls provide clues to origins of human language
  • The ghosts of shopping past (aka the future of debt-based consumerism)
  • Sim Pern Yiau: Le Business of Taiji is less Business “How much is enough? The whole world, the economy, society, is built on ceaseless demand and consumption. To do that means creating more forms of desires. It can never end. … If as a Taiji teacher one does not realise that, and instead seek to grow Taiji just like one would grow a commercial business or a membership club, then one would have lost the point”.
  • Fake Steve Jobs: A not-so-brief chat with Randall Stephenson of AT&T “Now there was silence again. This time I was the one not talking. There was this weird lump in my throat, this tightness in my chest. I had this vision of the future — a ruined empire, run by number crunchers, squalid and stupid and puffed up with phony patriotism, settling for a long slow decline”. (AKA a great example of why I’m not interested in working in the corporate sector)

Category: Miscellaneous

Answering some questions

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First of all a bit of good news: I’ve managed to locate the Siberian, who hasn’t been trafficked into white slavery after all but “after travelling to 4 cities and getting 3 job” (in the last month!) is now in a completely different part of China and seemingly happy. We may not be a couple any more but we’re still friends, and it bothered me that she’d vanished!

Anyway, from Omsk to Ankh-Morpork. In Terry Pratchett’s Making Money the city Postmaster, Moist von Lipwig, creates a “Dead Letter Office” because:

The people of Ank-Morpork took a straightforward approach to letter-writing which could be summarized as: if I know what I mean, so should you. As a result, the Post Office was used to envelopes addressed to ‘my brofer Jonn, tall, by the brij’ or ‘Mrs Smith wot does, Solly Sistres’.

I seem to have fallen into the same way of thinking. Prompted by comments from chickenrice and transit , I looked back again at my post ‘TV Kungfu Monk’ – and realized that it didn’t explain what I meant as clearly as it had seemed to when I wrote it. Worse, it is actually fairly easy to read it and take it to mean the exact opposite of what I meant. Oops!

What I wrote was this:

Tabbycat says taiji is pure energy, get the body out of the way. Rick at Wujifa speaks of fascia, and connection. Scott talks about the big muscles of the back.

The thing is, they’re all right! I would submit that you start with what Scott’s talking about, move on to where Rick is, and eventually get to Tabby’s astral plane, the key, the connector, being a clear mind, an empty mind, that’s able to observe, learn, change.

Retrospectively, I can see that this might be read to mean that if you work on the body starting with the back muscles and eventually progressing to the fascia, then eventually “true internal power” comes – and that isn’t what I meant at all! In fact, I was trying to convey my feeling that “internal power” begins and ends with the mind, the intention or yi, encompassing the qi and then the body on the way.

Let me approach it from another direction: everyone has this power, just as everyone has Buddha nature. We don’t realize this, however. Why is that? It’s because we have too many filters in place: filters that block our energy and of which we are normally completely unaware.

These filters exist for very good reasons. If I were to randomly select a date from ten years ago, would you be able to tell me what you were doing then? Probably not. That doesn’t mean that you can’t remember. The existence of photographic memory is well-established, and there are people who could tell you what you were doing. Perhaps many of us would like to have such memory, but those who possess it often regard it as a curse.

When we suffer some trauma, time usually heals the wounds, partly because our brains forget details about the event, and so our emotions are becalmed. But if we recall everything, this cannot happen.

Every detail is recollected as if it is happening afresh, and this for every single traumatic event of one’s life, every gaffe, heartbreak, pain, embarrassment and loss. The emotional toll it extracts explains why Jill Price was so willing to give her time to the scientists; in the hope that the uncontrollable memories and emotions could be understood and ultimately brought under control.

In the same way, our senses take in everything, and I mean everything, that happens around us – but our mind filters it out, to save us from being overwhelmed. The mind stores the memories, though (and the pain, and the tension, and the emotion, and it stores it physically, in our body tissue – because what else is there, after all?)

These filters are largely cultural, which explains why shamans could once kill with a word, but were unable to after their culture was exposed to Westerners: the mind-body connection was mediated by a new set of filters. This connection is clear: for example, drugs and alcohol are physical substances, and yet they clearly affect the mind and personality. The two cannot be separated.

In vipassana meditation, as in yiquan’s zhan zhuang the practitioner is stilling the mind, and beginning to address and study the filters and barriers of mind and body. As the mind passes through the body, it notices tensions and blockages and misalignments that it previously had filtered out. Once it notices them, they can be corrected. The shoulders are the easiest to sense, which is why low-level practitioners such as myself may get these first. Then we move on to sense and relax the ankles, the back muscles, the fascia, and so on – and eventually, through all of these “gross physical sensations” (as S N Goenka calls them) to the karmic seeds of memory.

So, I wasn’t intending to say that working on these muscles builds qi. I meant to say that the mind, directing the qi around the body, gradually grows more sensitive and is able to detect subtler tensions in deeper materials. Thus, directions such as “tuck the tailbone in” are misguided, since they would encourage the learner to add tension to the tailbone – rather than discovering the tensions elsewhere that are causing the tailbone to stick out!

I think that I had intellectually grasped some of this from reading before I came to Beijing, more from my Vipassana experience than my martial arts studies, but it’s only since I started training in yiquan with Master Yao Cheng Rong that I’ve begun to really feel it.

That kinds of leads me on to chickenrice’s question, to compare taijiquan and yiquan, given that I’ve studied them both.

I have to say that the concepts I’ve written about here are the way it seems to me based on my experience so far plus reading; I wouldn’t dream of saying “this is how it is”. This is just the way I’m piecing together my few insights so far. Regarding taiji and yiquan, as i replied in the comments, I don’t feel qualified. I’m a mediocre student of both (and of meditation, come to that), and I wouldn’t describe myself as a credit to any of my teachers.

Fortunately, Tabby Cat has just posted a comparison. Knowing something of Tabby’s martial arts history, I’ll say that he knows what he’s talking about. Generally speaking, I would go along with what he says, with a few additional comments.

  • I’ve trained at the same yiquan wuguan as him, so his comments (in this post and other) are, in my personal experience, bang on the mark.
  • However, I much prefer training at my current yiquan wuguan, with master Yao Cheng Rong; the overall age is a lot higher, and attitudes are far more relaxed.
  • I have in the past read that taiji used to be taught by means of holding the postures, and that the form was far less important. Based on my yiquan experience, I can now understand this; however, I was never taught taiji in that manner myself.
  • I’ve never been taught ‘orthodox’ taiji, I guess. I trained in the CMC/ZMQ-37 form, which is a variant of Yang-style, and also in the Nam Wah Pai school’s Wu Tu Nan style, which is also a variant of standard Yang family style. I didn’t go through any qi work with my CMC-37 teachers; I know that some simply didn’t do any integrated qi work, whereas with others I probably just wasn’t with them long enough.
  • The Yao family branch of yiquan has no explicit qi work. However, I often find that while I’m in zhan zhuang I can feel my hui yin point activating, so something is happening. In another yiquan line, Lam Kam Chuen has reintroduced qi work, which is rather interesting.
  • Yiquan’s founder, Wang Xiang Zhai, was entirely open about his purpose: he wanted to establish as effective a fighting system as possible. It very clearly has health benefits, but these are secondary. (Incidentally, a number of old ladies turn up for classes at Master Yao Cheng Rong’s school, by which I mean 50 and 60s; clearly, they’re not coming for the martial skills. These are standard-issue, tightly-permed, working-class Beijing matrons, none of your intellectual middle class hippies like, um….
  • Moving on (ahem): if you want primarily to fight, and also get health benefits, go for yiquan. If you want enlightenment and health, and also some kickass fighting ability, then properly-taught taijiquan is the goal.
  • Of the taiji training I’ve had, the most powerful overall was from the Nam Wah Pai school. This is no criticism of anyone else. In particular, the experience of training with master Yao Cheng Rong is one I would recommend to anyone.
  • Tabby concludes that the CMC/ZMQ taiji wins out. My experience is different – it depends more on the teacher than the form – but I also edge towards taiji overall, not least because taiji offers the chance of winning without hurting.
  • YMMV. Work according to what’s best for you, in your own experience, not according to what bloggers say.

To finish up with more Terry Pratchett, this time from Feet of Clay. Corporal Angua points out that bogeymen go away if you put your head under a blanket. That is, if you can’t see them, or take steps not to see them, they don’t exist. I have suddenly realized that this explains entirely the behaviour of cars, cyclists and pedestrians alike on Beijing’s roads.