If you thought I was being unnecessarily bearish about the immediate future, well….
I need to pinch myself; what I’m hearing beggars belief. Here’s the latest: officials from the US states bordering the Gulf of Mexico are briefing their disaster-response peers in other stats on plans for mass evacuation of the population of the Gulf states. Holy refugee disaster, Batman!
Why would they need to do this? Well, apart from the almost certainty that huge numbers of the population may be stricken down with Gulf War Syndrome, there’s the non-trivial possibility of hurricanes drenching cities in flammable hydrocarbons, which would lead to Dresden-style firestorms…..
As they say, if you put this in a novel, no-one would believe it…. But then, I never believed that a disaster in a major American city would basically be ignored…. until I watched the reports from New Orleans post-Katrina….
All that, plus a double-dip global recession looking almost certain…. Better be thinking about how to prepare…
Went to another qigong class at Small Steps last night, and enjoyed it. I’m coming to the end of the classes I’ve prepaid, and after that I think I’ll switch to the baguazhang classes to get some work done on the applications side of it.
They also organize Friday-night lectures and events connected with Daoism; this coming Friday, they have a session of individual zhou yi fortune-telling, which will be interesting. Apparently, the teacher coming to do that is a bagua brother of Liu Lao Shi, who gradually became more interested in the philosophical side of things. I was asking Dalida about it; she told me that this teacher was nominated one of the best at a recent convention held in Beijing of zhou yi practitioners from around Asia. She has been given readings by him before, and says she found them extremely accurate, so I await Friday night with anticipation. S. is going as well.
I had planned to go to yiquan class this morning, but was delayed by unexpected visitors, to the point where it wasn’t worth going. Instead, after they’d gone, I had another go with Scott Sonnon’s Flowfit. I’d decided that I was ready to move on to Level 2. I bought a yoga mat yesterday in preparation. I’m already impressed enough that I ordered FlowFit 2 last night from Amazon; that one’s about falling and groundwork….
Wow, though, level 2 is tough! Saying that – given there are four levels of difficulty, it’s really obvious how unfit I am 🙁 Great exercise sequence, though, I really feel thoroughly worked out – even though I only managed half of the time i was supposed to do, being sneakily glad that I had a call come in on Skype….
That also highlights something about neijia styles – from the Flowfit, I can see my lack of fitness, coordination and strength – and yet, in the tui shou sessions, I really don’t have too much difficulty holding my own. Thus: a good insight into how internal styles are great for those who are physically weak, old, etc….
The Wall Street Journal has a very interesting article about Daoism – take a look before it vanishes behind the WSJ paywall.
The gist of the article is that Daoism is finding it hard to compete against other religions, and against widespread ignorance amongst Chinese (both mainlanders and the diaspora, including Singapore) about what it actually stands for.
As I mentioned, the Small Steps school train in a different Beijing park every Sunday. Yesterday, it was the Temple of Heaven, right down in the south of the city. There’s now a subway stop outside the East Gate, so that’s how I went – but it seemed to take a loooooong time, and I joined the class about an hour and a half late. Next time we train there, I’ll go on my bike – I think it would be quicker!
The east side of the park is where the crowds are; loads of elderly Beijingers practicing ballroom dancing, Beijing Opera, that weird taiji badminton, kicking feathered weights and so on and so on… There was a new one I hadn’t seen before, of tossing large rubber quoits at one another, and trying to get your head through the centre so that you build up a set of them around your neck like some strange African tribe…. Past all these, and the tourists (both Chinese and foreign), past the vendors of chilled water bottles (yi kuai wu! yi kuai wu! Harlo! Two yuan!) Hehehehe, past the surreal flying saucers of the temple itself, and over the the quieter west side – more open and forest-like. Here, every grove seemed to have its own group of martial artists… One group, near where we were headed, were practising xingyi and bagua; young, heavily muscled, standing motionless in santi, or gliding in circles….
Then I joined Liu Lao Shi, Dalida, and a group of others, who had been there for a long time before I arrived! I was set to working on some of the qigong postures, including a long stretch of zhan zhuang. By the end of all this, my shoulders were really aching! After that, a session of the bagua ‘tea cups’ exercise, which I haven’t done in a long, long time! It was fun, though. All too soon, it seemed, the session was over, and we all went our separate ways.
One of the other students, the Canadian I mentioned, knows something about systema, and we’ve chatted about it before. We agreed yesterday to catch up some time to try training together; I think we could work on some of the exercises from Scott Sonnon’s Softwork DVD….
I went pretty much straight on to my afternoon yiquan class, pausing only for a plate of baozi. Mmmmmm, there’s a branch of the Qing Feng Steamed Baozi chain just around the corner from Yao Lao Shi’s school, and I often eat there on my way to class.
There were four of us there; two foreign, two Chinese. It was a good session, pretty strenuous towards the end. I managed to get in a tui shou session with all three of the other guys, and was feeling pretty strained afterwards; one of them is a lot taller than me, so I had to work pretty hard. Luckily for me, he has a habit of locking himself into a position and then pushing, so he’s pretty much unshiftable if you push against him – but with a swift change of angle, he can’t defend himself. He’s going to be tough to beat once he figures that out…
Then, on to Zhongshan Park. I worked on the ZMQ-37 as usual, giving it a few rounds. Next, the wuji long xing bagua form of Master Zhou – which I haven’t done for a good long while, and needs a bit of refreshing. That’s got a move very similar to one in the ROSS systema ‘wave’ DVD, of stretching out the arms and sending a wave rolling from hand to hand; something got a bit crunchy in my left shoulder when I tried that….
After that, a bit of xuan xuan taiji dao. Mentioning that, I should note that on my way to the park, I’d noticed that my bike was shaking unusually when I braked, so I stopped at the Drum Tower to get it fixed by the bike repair man there. It turned out that the rim of the front wheel was a bit buckled, so that needed changing. While he was building the new wheel, one of his friends noticed the sword bag slung over my back and wanted to know what was in it, so I told him it was a taiji dao. Oh, he said, a taiji jian. No, a taiji dao. Is it long? he asked. Yes. Ahhh, it’s a bagua dao. Sigh. I got it out of the bag to show him. Hahaha, it’s a Japanese sword, not a Chinese sword, he told me. Sigh. I gave up.
In the bag, I also had my shashkas, of course, and I ended my training session in the park with a spell using those.That, and trying a few simple Cossack dance moves…. I’m getting faster and more accurate with one, and a bit more coordinated with two. I don’t think I’m being too forward if I say that I can already do a lot of what this guy is doing (not as well; not as smoothly; but getting there, bit by bit); what I can’t, I should be able to do soon….
My left wrist is going to take a while to train up to be as strong and flexible as it needs to be, though, and my shoulders definitely felt the strain. The left, in particular, is still too tight; it’s difficult to let the sword in my left hand swing naturally. Hehehehe, and one day I must get someone to take a picture of me doing that while a platoon of PLA soldiers marches past, staring at me in curiosity whilst keeping perfect step….
Oh yes, and I mentioned recently that I was still working on finding the correct way to grip the shashkas. Well, since I bought my new MacBook I’ve switched my default browser from Firefox to Chrome, and discovered with great pleasure that it’s got an auto-translate feature by default – which has seamlessly made a whole lot of YouTube comprehensible… Thus, I found myself looking at this, which kind of answered my immediate questions:
When I was a student at Tsinghua University, the cafe-bar Lush overlooking Wudaokou train station was one of my favourite hangouts. Later on, when I first moved to my current job, it effectively became my office – it was where I would do a lot of my lesson prep and marking. I also used to go there a lot for breakfast after the early-morning bagua training sessions with Sun Lao Shi. I don’t go there so often these days, since my life and working patterns have shifted somewhat, but I popped in yesterday after dropping my suit off at a dry-cleaner’s.
By chance, sitting at one of the tables was taichibum, whom I haven’t seen for a year or more. We trained together for a while with teacher Zhang, in the Blade-Runneresque environment of a freezing, condemned warehouse. Shortly after that, I decided to focus exclusively on yiquan for a while, and we lost contact. Taichibum is looking well, I have to say; he’s obviously training hard! It seems that teacher Zhang has migrated to the US, where he hopes to open a school. The group is now training at the Language University (the warehouse having been demolished), and are being led by one of teacher Zhang’s friends, who is a shuijiao expert. Funny how things turn…. Anyway, taichibum and I will hopefully catch up again, though the academic year is coming to a close and both of us will be travelling over the summer.
Anyhow, I mentioned recently that I’d been picking up the bagua again. Not strictly accurate, that, but I have joined a bagua school: Small Steps Neijia. They run two tracks of classes – one in qigong, and the other in bagua applications. I’ve been going to the qigong sessions, as I felt I needed that more at the moment. There’s been some attention paid to bagua stepping in this strand as well, which I’ve found valuable as we worked on the issue of raising the heel that I’d encountered with Kong Cheng.
The bagua tradition is in the line of Liu Feng Chun, and – as I understand it so far – is influenced by xingyi. It’s also, if I understand correctly, fairly ‘minimalist’, without the longer and more complicated forms of other lineages.
There are informal classes on the weekend as well, in a different Beijing park each week. I’ve only made one, having had other things to do, but the applications and pad work are a part of these classes as well.
The students are a mix of Chinese and foreigners (majority foreign), and of male and female (majority female). Most don’t have a deep background in martial arts. At least one is also a student of Zhang Sheng Li’s Milun School, which was my first bagua school back in 2004, and later during my time at Tsinghua. As an aside, it seems that Zhang is no longer teaching so much; that’s being done by his senior disciple, while Zhang himself is more involved in getting a Buddhist Temple built….
Anyhow, back to Small Steps; I really like it. It’s very friendly, and there’s kind of a family atmosphere that I find valuable. Apart from the qigong and the bagua, the teacher, Liu Xuyang, is also a tui na practitioner, which is a field I want to learn more about. So, it’s very definitely right for me at this stage.
Also: a little bird tells me that, in the wake of the Yip Man movies, filming has started on a movie about the life of Dong Hai Chuan! I can’t say more about it, but the little I’ve been told makes it sound intriguing; I’m looking forward to this one…
I had planned to work late in the office last night, but by the time I’d finished teaching I was feeling a bit jaded and in need of exercise and fresh air. So, I got on my bike and cycled to Zhongshan Park, stopping at home to quickly change and pick up my shashkas.
I got there a little after 7pm; the gates close at 8, so I got in just under an hour of practice. I’m working out various different patterns of swinging the shashka, and I’m getting to understand how to hold it now – which is quite diffferent to the Chinese swords I’ve used in the past. Still, I need to think about this a bit more to be sure I’m doing it properly; I’ve never studied this, but I’m aware that there are many different ways of gripping sword handles. Apparently the ‘handshake’ is the best for the shashka.
There weren’t that many people in the park at that time, which was nice. On my previous visit, last Tuesday, it was a public holiday, and the place was packed; not necessarily a problem, but I had to keep stopping when people tried to photograph or film me (which I don’t want!). Last night, though, it was just me, a few elderly couples, and some security guards. The guards never give me any bother; that’s one of the nice things about China, actually, with its martial arts traditions – you can swing swords around in a public park and it’s regarded as entirely natural 🙂
Anyway, I’ve made enough progress with the shashkas that I’m now able to work with one in each hand; when I first tried this, my co-ordination wasn’t good enough. It’s interesting to note some of the sensations here. Long-time readers know that my left shoulder used to be really tensed up. Yiquan really made big improvements there, as I’ve previously noted. When I started using the shashka in my left hand, though, I could still feel that there was stiffness there; that’s going away as I use the swords more.
Using the swords is quite good exercise; I work up a sweat, and afterwards can definitely feel the effort in arms and shoulders, while ‘dancing’ as I move works the legs pretty well. I still need to improve the strength and coordination of my left hand, though – I found little nicks in my leg where the sword had caught them – good thing they aren’t sharp! One other interesting thing: the stainless steel replicas that I bought from taobao feel heavier than the carbon steel one that I bought in Panjiayuan Market; however, I notice that my hand and arm feel more tired after I use the latter. It may just be because of the grip: the replicas have resin handles, the other has a wooden handle and it may just be that I have to work harder with that because it doesn’t slip around in my hand as much as the replicas…
One thing that has amused me in the yiquan classes is that Master Yao and other students have mentioned several times that I’m very strong – which can’t be true as I don’t do any strength training beyond carrying my groceries, and haven’t done so for years. What they’re referring to, I think, is actually that I’ve gotten better at relaxing, so they’re pushing against body mass, not muscle strength. Still, I’ve been thinking that I need to get a bit more active; I’m doing a fair bit of aerobic work simply by dashing around Beijing on my bicycle, but some strength training would be good….
With that in mind, I bought Scott Sonnon’s Flowfit from Amazon. I was under the impression that it was based on his ROSS background, which it isn’t. It’s actually derived from his Prasara Yoga system. Yoga’s totally new to me; I’ve never really looked into it at all, though I have plenty of friends who practice it. Still, since I had it, I thought I’d give it a go, and I’m really enjoying it. It progresses through four levels of difficulty, and I’m taking it easy – just working on the beginner’s level using a stool as a support. Very nice; perhaps I should look into Yoga a bit more.
A German friend of mine went to India last year for a month-long yoga instructor’s course at Svyasa University in Bangalore. It’s apparently very intense, with participants rising at 04:15 and training until 21:30, 7 days a week for the full month! Wow. She’s been training in yoga for several years, but her Bangladeshi husband had no yoga background, and he also passed the same course…. Hmmm 🙂 That’s something to think about for the summer holidays – add another string to my bow, and see a bit of India as well…. Hehehehe.
I’m still reading the economic news, and crossing my fingers as the western economies creak and groan under vast amounts of debt. I hope that it will all work out and the world of abundance will continue as it has for the last twenty or so years – but I, like most of you, am old enough to remember how it was before, when flying to the other side of the world was only for the few, and stitching and mending and “waste not” were the rules we lived by, and so I can’t see how we carry on as we have been, living beyond our means as a culture.
So, sorry, I’m in a bearish mood still. (I never believed in “power animals”, even in the days when I knew lots of neo-pagans. I’m coming to suspect that if I have one, it’s a bear…..)
So, let’s talk a bit about what I’ve been up to.
Others are thinking along the same lines. Dave Pollard wrote about an article on Sharon Astyk’s site, which I liked very much. I recommend reading the original article, but Dave’s summary covers all the key points:
[Y]ou should move if:
Your mortgage is way more than the value of your house (especially since house values are likely to go lower)
You have young children or are elderly, and the people you’re closest to live far away
You have children you want to spend time with, or parents who need your care, living far away
You live in an extreme climate and are not adaptable to living without inexpensive heat, air conditioning, water, and imported food
You live in a community with people with mostly lousy (by your standards) values
You don’t think your children have a future where you live
You are planning on moving anyway (sooner is probably better than later)
You aren’t going to be happy or viable where you are if everything based on oil (transport, bought food, plastics, clothing, heat) gets much more expensive, or if your ‘commuter job’ disappears and you have to take (cheaper) employment locally
You live in an exurban area with no viable public transit, no locally produced food, and few close neighbours
You are not truly ‘native’ to where you live — never really fit in, called it home — and someplace else has always beckoned.
Now, I love living in Beijing; I love my work here, and there are very good people who share my values and worldview. Recently, I’ve been practising a lot in Zhongshan Park, and as I cycle beneath the walls of the Forbidden City with the morning sunlight and clear air making the red paint glow, or leaving the park at dusk with the air above me full of swallows flitting about and chittering as they return to their nests under the eaves of the watchtowers, or chasing insects amongst the willows that line the moat – well, I have to pinch myself to remind myself that yes, it is real, and yes, I am living in this amazing, fantastic city.
But I know that it won’t, it can’t, last forever. So, maybe it makes sense to think about how and when it ends – and a number of the points on Sharon’s list were already making me a little uneasy. I also got set thinking by a recent article on Afghanistan in the 1950s – a place of engineering success, rock and roll, and liberal values. I wonder if the people in those pictures ever suspected that within their lifetime their world would revert to being “a broken 13th century country“. Kyrgystan used to be a pretty well-developed element of the USSR; who, then, would have foreseen the ethnic cleansing and savagery that’s in the headlines this morning?
A lot of people are talking these days about beginning to build your tribe – or, as military theorist John Robb calls it, a “resilient community”. I’m not sure that I see that happening for me anywhere but Wales…
So, what to do? There are perhaps two options.
One is to seek to retreat from the world and let it go on its way without me. That’s the route of the hermit or the monastery. I still want to write about people who’ve taken that way, in the much-postponed next post in the “What’s it all about?” sequence of entries here. That did seem a strong option for me at one point, to be honest. I’m very drawn to Plum Village, for example… 🙂 Still, starting from when I began dating the Siberian, I’ve been drawn back into the world of attachment….
The other route is to get involved in building a resilientcommunity. The question is, what can I (or you, reader) contribute?
It’s a question that is provoking a new movement in my martial arts interests – and leading me along the Tea Road…. In other words, it’s why I’ve been posting a lot about shashkas and systema recently!
I’ve been reviewing some of the DVDs of systema that were given to me, and comparing them to the “Systema Spetsnaz” DVD on “Internal Wave Energy” that I recently purchased. I also bought Scott Sonnon’s “Softwork“; I gather that this isn’t what he teaches these days, being from an earlier period in his trajectory, but it brings together what he learned from ROSS and other Russian systems.
To be honest, I really don’t see any huge differences between the practices of the different schools. I really like the philosophy that they all seem to share, and which is outlined in an article that I’ve previously linked to:
The doctrine of Russian Martial Art is based on the concepts of non-violence, cooperation, non-resistance and conformity. The Russian Martial Art master absorbs blows effortlessly, contorts the body to accommodate the threat and maintains contact until the assailant is rendered immobile.
So far so good, but if I can get this with the Chinese martial arts, why move towards systema? This is where community comes into the picture…. With the Chinese martial arts, I’m getting great results in health, mental calmness, and combative ability; yiquan in particular, as I’ve mentioned here many times, has been particularly beneficial for me. The thing is, even if I reach the level of being able to teach in one or more of these, I’m not sure how they help to build a community -especially back in the UK where they’re not exactly mainstream; in a community adapting to resource constraints, I rather suspect that they would be seen at best as “nice, but by no means necessary”.
The Russian martial arts, on the other hand, have elements that may be a bit more marketable. In particular, I’m thinking of its connection with Cossack dance and choral singing (hey, I am Welsh, after all!). These are elements that can be used to build a community – dance and singing could attract people of all ages when a lot of what has become popular entertainment turns out to be unsustainable, and people start working in larger groups again…. It is suitable for both genders and all ages… and inside the song and dance are health techniques and systema fighting methods… Add to that the connections with the theatre from Stanislavsky, Chekhov and so on, and you have a system that’s highly appropriate to community-building….
As an example, I’ve been following the “Siberian Cossack Group LAD” for some time; although there are some elements that make me wary – and I know there has been a falling out with Mikhail Ryabko, though I have no idea what it’s all about – they are doing a lot of interesting work in combining the elements I’ve been talking about, and taking these into schools, youth groups, and so on – take a look at their videos on YouTube. (And, as a point of interest, in a recent Yiquan class, we had a visitor from Hong Kong who trains systema there, and who has friends who’ve attended the seminar in Kuala Lumpur I wrote about before. We had a very interesting chat!).
Don’t take this to mean that I’m giving up on the Chinese styles – quite the contrary! I’m still really enjoying the yiquan, though I think this is something for me to work on in my original path of “martial arts and meditation” as opposed to ‘finding a role in a community’. I’ve also been training again in bagua, though for various reasons I’ve kept quiet about that; I’ll be writing about it soon, though.
I’d be interested to hear what you think about all this….
I went down to Panjiayuan Market this morning. I haven’t been for ages, and I really don’t know why I’ve left it so long – it’s such an amazing place.
It’s called an “antiques” market, and the quote marks are there for a reason; some stalls, a very few, sell genuine antiques and rarities, but the overwhelming majority are essentially wholesale outlets for the vast output of Chinese cultural epherema, the likes of which can be found in Chinatown stores around the world…. The thing about Panjiayuan, though, is that it’s just so big, and there’s so much to be found here at rock-bottom prices…. The other reason to go is to people-watch – all kinds of tourists, vendors from all over China (notably Tibetans), and a vibrant, incessant, buzz of haggling, debate – the heartbeat of a great bazaar…
I was there for a purpose; I’d tracked down someone who was selling shashkas online. Unlike the two I bought from Taobao, these are real swords, not replicas. They are, purportedly, genuine Soviet-issue, and that’s why I’m writing this – I think there’s an interesting story here…
So: the shashkas are Soviet cavalry issue, which means that they have the bayonet of a Mosin-Nagant 1891/30 carbine mounted in hoops on the outside of the scabbard. Soviet practice in the 1930s was for infantry to keep their bayonets permanently fixed; for cavalry using carbines, this was obviously impractical, so the bayonet was carried with the shashka.
The seller was offering two different types of shashka. One, a trooper’s version, is obviously the model for the Windlass shasqua – the curve of the handle essentially follows the angle of the blade. The other, the officer’s version, has a rounded tip rather than the classic pointy shashka tip, with the handle being strongly angled counter to the curve of the blade, thus giving more leverage.
I’d done some research online, and found that there is a strong belief that these swords are fake – recently manufactured, and artificially aged. One writer points out that cossack swords were made to be used, and photographs of these swords show no sign of use in anger.
Now, let’s face it: this is absolutely plausible. Contemporary China is awash with fakes of anything that can be faked, not to mention determined efforts to fake things that shouldn’t be fakeable! So, it shouldn’t be in any way a surprise if these came out of a factory recently, or even are leftover props from a Chinese movie.
On the other hand, the seller insists on their authenticity. When I asked him how these Soviet swords came to be in China, his reply was that the Soviets and the Chinese were allies against the Japanese; after the end of WW2, a number of soldiers in the allied armies swapped weapons as souvenirs. He comes from a town in north-east China, and by some means has come into possession of a hundred or so of these Soviet-issue swords.
This is actually plausible – which is what I find interesting, because it involves an aspect of WW2 that is completely unknown to most Westerners.
The Empire of Japan occupied and colonized Manchuria, in north-east China, during the 1930s. They spread into Inner Mongolia, and attempted to take Mongolia proper as well. The status of Mongolia was unclear at that time; the Chinese Empire had claimed it as part of their territory, but since the declaration of the Republic of China in 1911 Mongolia had essentially been an independent, and Communist, state. As the Japanese threat grew, the Mongolians appealed to the Soviet Union for help, which was forthcoming. In a series of clashes, the Soviets decisively defeated the Japanese, and Mongolian independence was preserved.
This might not have been the end of the story, but then WW2 broke out. The Japanese needed their armies in South-East Asia, while the Soviets needed theirs in Europe. Neither side wanted to be tied up in northern Asia, so a neutrality pact was signed.
During WW2, Mongolia provided material and financial support for the Soviet war effort, but its armed forces, which were mostly cavalry, did not participate in the conflict.
With the allied victory in Europe, the Soviets – following an agreement with the US and UK – declared war on Japan, and invaded Manchuria.
Part of their invasion force was the Soviet Mongolian Cavalry Mechanized Group – which, as the name suggests, was mostly composed of Mongolian cavalry units – who hadn’t participated in the fighting against Germany, but were equipped entirely with Soviet weapons…. These cavalry units actually didn’t fight much against the Japanese either, capturing a lot of territory largely without resistance after outflanking Japanese units…
So, is it conceivable that Mongolian Communist cavalry, equipped with Soviet weapons including shashkas that had never been used in combat, were received as triumphant victors and allies by Chinese troops (either Guomindang or Communist)?
Absolutely it is….. And with the subsequent falling out between the USSR and Maoist China, it’s quite likely that these swords would have been kept hidden away….
Is this the real story of these swords? Or are they simply fakes? I don’t know, and there’s no way for me to find out at the moment. It doesn’t really matter, either – because there’s nothing wrong with the quality of the swords as far as I can tell. So, I’ve acquired today a pretty good sword at a price far, far below what it would cost in the West.
As to why all of my recent posts seem to have been about Russian martial arts, I’m coming to that.
I just thought I’d share this interesting article that I found yesterday, about how acupuncture acts as a painkiller. Apparently the needles stimulate the release of a natural painkiller produced by the body, which swells arteries and increases blood flow….