Monthly Archives: April 2010

Learn TCM online


I was taking a look at the website of the China Beijing International Acupuncture Centre, and I noticed a headline in the news section about “Distance Education”.

I read the news item, and it linked to a site of online education, where you can get educated in TCM via the internet. Some of the material is even free of charge…

So, since both Ed and Carlos have expressed an interest, here’s the link

Category: Beijing, TCM

Opening and closing the gates

I haven’t written much about the yiquan lately, but I’m still going. In recent lessons, I’ve been concentrating on the kua a great deal.

Master Yao has called me out a few times in the tui shou practice for relying on strength too much, as opposed to technique – and he’s right, of course.

I’m doing quite well in terms of using core muscle strength rather than arms and shoulder – though even there, a stiffness is creeping back in, as I haven’t been doing sufficient solo zhan zhuang practice recently. This isn’t enough: I’m pretty good at sensing my opponent’s force, but not fast or powerful enough to properly use technique to uproot them. I also tend to be too passive, not attacking often enough when a gap opens up in my opponent’s posture.

Speed will have to come through more practice, for which I need to start attending the large-group classes – which is where tui shou is practiced more.

In terms of power – as opposed to strength – I’ve been improving a lot at using my kua as the gates that instigate movement in the whole body. It took me a long time to get the muscle movement right, so that the kua could open and close without straining my knees, but I think I’ve got more or less got it now. In the testing-force exercises and mo ca bu stepping it seems to be effective at getting more power into my moves, but I’m not succeeding in using this in tui shou. Well, as always, more practice is needed…

After class last Saturday, I cycled down to Zhongshan Park again, where I took these pictures. I worked on my ZMQ-37 and taiji xuanxuan dao forms; I’m slowly making progress with the latter! I concentrated on the kua again in these forms and it seemed to help. I attracted the attention of a very short and very sweet Chinese lady, who came over to watch for a while. She wanted to know all about me, and how long I’d been studying taiji. She said she was in her fifties and had been studying taiji for a few years; she found it very good for her health. She was studying the jian, and hadn’t seen a dao form before. Quite rightly, she told me off for forgetting it!

A friend sent me a link to a bagua school I hadn’t heard of before: Small Steps Neijia. They have some clips on YouTube, and I thought it might be worth checking them out as the integrated qigong is relatively unusual and the lineage is uncommon. I called the contact, a Serbian woman, but she turned out to be in Europe – with call-forwarding on, so I reached her but it was 5am there. Ooops!

More on the tuina soon.

Tuina update

I haven’t written about what’s going on in the tuina course…

In lessons 3 and 4, we spent most of the time on practical applications of the massage techniques. We learned a few new points, though:

All of these are on the shoulders, arms and hands.

Last night, we started work on the lower back and waist, which actually extends down to the buttocks. We learned a lot of new points:

Phew! What a lot to remember!

So far, we have also been introduced to a number of different massage techniques:

  • One-finger meditation pressing;
  • rolling
  • kneading
  • scrubbing
  • rubbing
  • pressing
  • grasping
  • patting
  • knocking
  • tapping
  • pecking
  • shaking
  • rotating
  • stretching

That looks a lot, but really we’ve only had a quick introduction to most of them; we’ve only used a very few with any regularity. Having said that, the knocking, patting, pecking etc are very similar to martial arts techniques, with much, much less power behind them, of course!

The term for pressing the acupuncture points is dian xue, which I’d only heard before in the context of attacking these points – so it is the same term for both healing and fighting. I begin to see how that would work. Of course, knowing the points isn’t enough on its own; you also need to know the times of day at which specific points are strong and weak. (If you’re interested in pressure-point fighting – and I know some of you are! – remember that gekiryudojo‘s channel on YouTube has some interesting videos).

It turns out that there are several applications for the iPhone that deal with acupuncture points; I’ve bought one which is really useful – it shows photographs of the points’ locations, gives their names in Hanyu Pinyin and English, shows the meridians, explains the treatments which each point is useful for and a whole bunch of other stuff including setting up self-test quizzes and the ability to add your own notes for each point. This is going to be really useful. Unfortunately, it doesn’t show the difference between the meridians that are on the surface of the body and those that are internal, but I guess at my level that’s not so important – plus, I can learn that elsewhere. There is also an application in the iTunes store that seems to show how the qi flows from point to point at different times of day, so I’ll get that as well at some point!

As you can see, I’m really getting into this, and enjoying the course still. It is of course only a super-basic introduction. We’re not taught the points’ numbers or their specific functions, nor are we looking at the meridians at all – but I can start researching that on my own. I asked the teacher about that, and he said that in practice TCM doctors don’t use them, remembering the names instead. Our numbers are starting to drop – there were only five of us last night – but that doesn’t make much difference to me! The teacher is really good and hands-on in his instruction, and the interpreters are really good (and pretty knowledgeable in their own right).

I mentioned that I would be interested in studying this further, with immediate results: the centre has been lending me lots of books to read, and will be giving me some VCDs about the techniques – they’re really keen to get me learning more! The I Ching is suggesting to me that this isn’t the time to enrol in formal courses, but the teacher suggested that I meet a friend and colleague of his who has good English and could teach me TCM basics (though she’s a specialist in acupuncture as opposed to tui na), and that sounds interesting.

So, the classes continue; three more to go. Really glad I signed up.

Category: TCM, Tui Na

Beijing spring

Some shots from Zhongshan park, where I’ve been practising taiji lately:

There’s a PLA barracks located in the park:

The Shichahai lakes:

The Bell Tower:

These are the last remaining parts of ‘Old Beijing’ – neighbourhoods of old hutongs, full of character, where a thriving and vibrant scene of small shops, bohemian bars, artists’ hangouts has grown up… So naturally, greedy eyes have fallen upon them; nothing in China will stop the pursuit of short-term profit, even though it means destroying the very things that created value. Soon, all this will be gone; the rich will have made more profits, leaving behind a sterile simulacrum of the creative community that once existed. The Spectacle will rein supreme in Beijing.

Category: Beijing, China Life

What is ‘the system’?


The list of things I don’t know is, of course, infinite; it does at least give a constant flow of little discoveries.

One of these was learning that ‘Russia’ and ‘The System’ will have meaning, for many, many people – but they will think of Konstantin Stanivlasky and his ‘Systema‘, not of Ryabko or Kadochnikov.

I’d heard of Stanislavsky, but only in terms of Method acting; I’m intrigued to discover that this is regarded as a distortion of his ‘system’. Stanislavski’s system means ‘an actor being “in the moment” but always staying one step away from complete belief‘. Stanislavski developed a method of physical action:

Training was highly physical and demanding, and Stanislavski’s respect for physical action brought his system to a point of apotheosis, a way of reaching emotional truth and psychological realism while maintaining a grip on control of the physical. Further: freeing oneself up for performing anything, be it Modern theater or Greek.

Late in his life Stanislavski put much faith in an approach he called the Method of Physical Action. (The use of the word Method, again, causes confusion with Strasberg’s Method.) This approach, Stanislavski surmised, finally dealt completely with the instrument of the actor and with a universality of performance.

The Method of Physical Action (hereafter, MPA) is complex. It requires an understanding of the significance of physical action, and in the performance of physical action. The idea behind the MPA is fairly simple, but its implications are profound. It is based on the idea that the only thing an actor will ever have control of in his life is “his body.” There is never a direct line to emotions in performance, only to the body. Emotions may be remembered and brought up via emotional memory, but Stanislavski generally considered this a rehearsal tool or technique of research, at best. There is, in the end, only the body.

Does this sound familiar?

One of Stanislavsky’s pupils was Mikhail Chekhov, who developed and extended Stanislavsky’s system:

In the late 1920s, Chekhov emigrated to the Germany and set up his own studio, teaching a physical and imagination-based system of actor training. He developed the use of the “Psychological Gesture,” a concept derived from the Symbolist theories of Bely. In this technique, the actor physicalizes a character’s need or internal dynamic in the form of an external gesture. Subsequently, the outward gesture is suppressed and incorporated internally, allowing the physical memory to inform the performance on an unconscious level.
[M]uch of what Chekhov explored addressed the question of how to access the unconscious creative self through indirect non-analytical means. Chekhov taught a range of movement dynamics such as molding, floating, flying, and radiating that actors use to find the physical core of a character. His techniques, though seemingly external, were meant to lead the actor to a rich internal life.

I first started sensing that there was a natural overlap between martial arts, meditation and acting back in 2006, and gradually I’ve become more convinced of that. It turns out, of course, that I’m far from the first to think that!

That brings me to some of the books that I bought on my last trip to Singapore. Phillip B. Zarrilli in Psychophysical Acting: An Intercultural Approach after Stanislavski discusses his use of Kalarippayattu and taijiquan in training actors in mind-body unity (though he consistently mis-spells it taiqiquan, which gets really annoying after a while!).

David Zinder, in Body Voice Imagination: ImageWork Training and the Chekhov Technique also takes a deep look at the integration of body, voice, and imagination, including lots of exercises for improvisation.

I find it really interesting that all these ideas and techniques were emerging from Russia in the run-up to the revolutionary period.

Another book I bought – more in hope than anticipation of actually using it – was Jumping into Plyometrics. Plyometrics, a method of rapidly improving muscle and nervous-system performance is, it turns out, also a Russian innovation.

Whether any or all of this influenced the development of Systema or Sambo I can’t know; I just find it all very interesting. Plus, as someone I know said on Twitter, “US strategy too reliant on strength, firepower. What to do when you lose them? An individual’s mind is most powerful weapon“, and there does seem to have been this philosophy in the Soviet system to develop human performance rather than equipment systems (though no-one who has read Arkady Babchenko’s book or articles would say that the whole Russian army is efficient…..)

Just part of an ongoing thought process…..

Category: Acting, Russia, Systema


I’m prompted to write about this after reading Tabbycat’s post, Paint It Black. I had no idea about Tabby’s past activities, but we are very much on the same wavelength here (I’ve previously outed myself as a Peaknik).

The title of this post is taken from an article on Peak Oil Blues, which refers to the common reaction of people who have just learned about what’s facing us: the end of cheap energy, environmental degradation and climate change, and the consequences of the unwinding of an economy based on debt and financial gimmickry.

I’m no exception: I only started reading about this after I got to China, and it’s really messed with my head. It means that the plans I had for the future, vague though they were, have to be abandoned. At some point, and there’s no telling when, we will be living in a much, much poorer world; the economy and lifestyle we are used to will have gone, to be replaced by something much simpler and localized. (By we, I mean you and me, reader, the comparatively affluent who can afford computer and internet access, and probably aren’t living in a favela somewhere in the great and growing global slum).

The transition is likely to be bumpy, as the economically privileged (again, I mean you and me) are forced to accept that the days of cheap, throwaway plastic goods and fast food are over, while those who have only aspired to our lifestyle realize they’re never going to get it.

If you accept that this will happen, and I do (given the available facts, it seems certain to me), the question is: how do we prepare? Even if there’s a slow decline over decades rather than a rapid social and economic collapse (and though the former seems far more likely, the latter can’t be discounted given the likelihood of a black swan event), the time to start getting ready is now. I’ve been kind of paralysed on this.

I look at the British papers today, and already rising oil prices are affecting the British economy.

In fact, peak oil isn’t the only thing to worry about, since peak oil also means peak food; we’re also approaching peak water. Oh, and peak phosphates (which, like oil, is needed for agriculture, so there’s a double whammy on food…), copper, and so on.

It’s probably worth taking a look at this article on Natural Non-renewable Resource scarcity.

The US Department of Energy is predicting a decline in oil supply from 2012 – that’s only two years away! Or even 2011, next year! Then, everything that depends on oil will start increasing in price – and almost everything in our society depends on oil…

Here’s two examples of life after peak oil:

  1. Peak oil and the end of life as we know it in Northeast
  2. Transition Town, for when the oil is gone

You may think this is off-topic for this blog, but not really. I’m wondering how to chart a course through the changes that are coming. That 2012 date (and no, I don’t believe in ‘Mayan Prophecies’) has really jolted me.

First and foremost, I don’t see a way for Singapore to remain a viable economy and society; it depends on massive energy usage and imports almost everything – and the rise in the cost of everything is coming just as the government has decided to massively increase the population. I’ve searched the government’s web site, and Googled, and I find no policies for adaptation, and no programme to prepare the population for the coming, permanent, belt-tightening… I’m not saying it doesn’t exist; just that I can’t find it. This doesn’t encourage me to plan for a future in Singapore, much though I like the country (and I really do). I get a lot of readers from Singapore, so I would appreciate any pointers or feedback on this…

Secondly, China looks like it will be a secure base for a while; though there are many problems here, the country is likely to stay stable. Also, I enjoy my job and my life here. It won’t be a long-term home, though, I wouldn’t say. Short-to-medium term, though, it makes sense to be here, especially as it’s where I need to be to acquire the skills I want.

Third – back to Europe, and Wales? Well, the UK is pretty much broke, though it’s not widely discussed yet. The state is a huge employer, especially in Wales, and a huge number of those jobs are likely to vanish as the state pares back spending. So, if I eventually go back, it’ll be to a society and economy much different from what I left. Much more of an informal economy, hopefully lots of transition towns, lots of what Time magazine calls ‘The Dropout Economy‘; lots of angry, impoverished people…

So, and I’ve mentioned this before, I need to start planning for how to live, post-oil.

  • Train in yiquan
  • Train in tuina
  • Train in meditation
  • Train in performance
  • Study the economics of transitions, eg LETS
  • Identify intentional communities in the UK? (Well, I’ve got no family…)
  • As Tabby points out, “basic prep material” like seeds and seasons, compost toilets, etc…


  • Via a post by the Post-Carbon Institute, I found a link to this report (link to PDF file) on the near-term consequences of energy shortages in the UK. It confirms that the crunch will begin soon. The authors are extremely prominent and successful business leaders, not ‘eco-loons’ and hippies.
  • Damien Perrotin writes about why rising energy costs lead to flooded cities in France
  • Ugo Bardi writes about why rising energy costs mean the US and Europe are reverting to gravel roads instead of asphalt in many places

Tui na, 2nd class


In last night’s class, we began by reviewing the names of the points to which we were introduced on Tuesday (I couldn’t remember any except the bai hui, oops, although I could remember their location). We were also taught about the unit of measurement used in TCM, the cun.

We then spent an hour or more working in pairs, practising the different massage techniques, and working on the lines of face and head. As I mentioned, I’m partnered with an Australian guy, Tom. I actually found it easier than I’d feared to locate the points when I was working on him, so that was encouraging.

Next, we were introduced to a number of points on the neck, shoulders and arms. These are

We’ll practice massaging the lines connecting these points in our next class. The English acupuncturist has a book with all of these points described in English, which she’s offered to lend me; that’ll be very useful.

Then, all too quickly, class was over and it was time to get on my bicycle and head off for dumplings near Beixingqiao…

If it’s not obvious, I’m really enjoying these classes so far, and rather excited at the feeling of having my mind stretched in a completely different direction. I’m rather tempted to pursue a professional-level qualification in tuina – classes are available at the Beijing Massage Hospital, the Beijing University of Chinese Medicine, the China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences, and various other places. I’m interested to have read somewhere that tui na as taught and practiced in China still includes bonesetting, whereas tui na in the UK and perhaps elsewhere does not; that would be a useful skill to acquire…

Category: TCM, Tui Na

The smell of…. spring

Cycling to the office this morning, I became aware of an aroma that was pretty unusual in Beijing – despite this city’s wealth of smells… It was the smell of the cowshed, of fresh manure mixed with straw, warmed up by the body heat of the cows… It’s a familiar smell that I remember well from boyhood visits to my uncle’s farm… but I certainly wasn’t expecting to encounter it in the ‘Jing!

I was assuming that it was really something else (probably toxic) that just contained enough similar chemicals to trigger an association – but then I realised that I was passing work gangs with lots of blue sacks. They were digging up the earth around the roots of the roadside trees, and adding compost to fertilise it, and also planting rows of small shrubs in the flower beds – that compost was the source of the smell!

Ah, the air is warmer and fresher, the sun is pleasant, it really is spring. After a long cold winter, which passed for me mostly in pain and sleeplessness, it’s wonderful to feel life returning to the earth! Time to start mental and physical spring-cleaning….

Body work

Last night was my first tui na class. I really enjoyed it. The teacher, Dr. Wang, is a big man who works at the Dongzhimen TCM Hospital. He speaks a little English, but mostly works through an interpreter. There are eight students in the class (the maximum number allowed); six women, an Australian bloke, and myself. Some were there just out of curiosity, a couple because they’d had tuina treatment and wanted to learn how to do it themselves, and one is a qualified acupuncturist from the UK who’s broadening her knowledge of TCM.

A lot of the class was taken up by introductions and basics. We were introduced to the three types of manipulation we will use in this course:

  1. Pushing with one-finger meditation
  2. Rolling (with a semi-fist)
  3. Kneading

This first class was focused on the head, face, and eyes, so we learned about the following points:

I have to say that I found it difficult enough to locate these points on my own head; I find it hard to see how I’ll locate them on other people! Dr. Wang came around to each of us and pressed hard on the points so that we could feel where they were. Apparently I have a very easy-to-feel bai hui point….

After that, we were shown various connections between the points that could be massaged by a combination of techniques. We finished up by practising the three techniques on our partners (I’m teamed up with the Australian guy, of course). We weren’t trying to connect with any points, just to get familiar with the methods. I’m not very good at this point, sad to say. My posture was apparently not good; have to work on that, then.

We didn’t have enough time to practise on the massage lines of the face; we should do that at the start of the next class, before moving on to the care of the cervical vertebra.

I may not be a natural at this, but I definitely felt I learned something useful, and I’m looking forward to getting more practical experience in the weeks to come. I’ll have to put time aside to memorize the names of the points…

The biter bit


Heh, this karma thing works fast, doesn’t it! The day after I accidentally punched someone in the mouth, I received a thumping palm-heel blow to the head that crossed my eyes for a moment or two! Not from the same guy – it was an accident 🙂

So yes, it was another great yiquan lesson yesterday. I was reminded of the need for constant attention and awareness of where both I and my partner are moving and directing our energy. Master Yao drew my attention to some errors in the way I was pivoting my arm against my partner’s; I can see that what I was doing was wrong, but can’t quite see how to do it correctly, so I’ll have to work on that. I was thrown when I had a partner on the run because I didn’t stay focused on his centre-line, so he was able to redirect my force and send me into the wall. I can feel it all today, with a sore head, stiff shoulder and a certain soreness around the tendons of elbows and knees.

It’s all good; this is how we learn to be effective martial artists.

In the evening, I revisited J. P. Lau’s Beginner’s Guide to Yiquan, and was even more impressed than before at its quality. On the other hand, I think I must have made a fair bit of progress recently in order to appreciate the meaning of some parts. As an aside, it’s almost convinced me to buy an iPad – to assist my own learning, I would quite like to make a mashup of sections of the guide and his essays, combined with the still pictures and videos from Master Yao Chengrong’s website, plus my own annotations. I rather think that the iPad would do all that rather well, plus the touch-screen combined with a Chinese dictionary (I use DianHua on my iPhone) is the tool I need to kickstart my language studies / learn the Yiquan terminology…. God, I’m such a geek…

Oh, and I’m really appreciating the practicality of yiquan; I haven’t been studying it long – and even that period has been interrupted a lot by travel and injury – but I can see real, significant improvements in my health and posture, and in my ability to protect myself in a fight. I had a conversation recently that involved people who have studied for years in other arts, and learned all their teacher’s forms, but have never been taught any applications. One of these people told me that if they practised the form enough, that was all that was needed and in a fight their qi would naturally make the moves effective. Ummm, no. To be honest, when I first got started in taiji, and was reading every book I could find, I think I probably felt the same way. My experience in the Zhong Yi Yiquan Wuguan has demonstrated to me, though, that regular hands-on experience with an unpredictable opponent is essential even in the internal arts. (In Singapore, if you really want to learn neijiaquan for combat I recommend, as always, Zhou Yue Wen).