I’m currently on medical leave from work, which has given me some time to think.
I haven’t been posting here in some respects because I just haven’t had any time to go to my martial arts classes, or to muse on the topics that have made up this blog’s topics.
More importantly, though, I think it’s time to move on. Jianghu was driven by my experience as a Brit experiencing the martial and meditative culture of Asia, be it in Singapore or China. When I came back to Wales I expected that soon rather than later I would be going back to China, so it made sense to keep the blog going. It’s become clear, for various reasons, that I won’t be going back. The context in which I am thinking and want to write has also changed, and will increasingly be about life in the shadow of Peak Oil, and the ongoing slow collapse of the globalized economy.
As a result, I’ve decided to mothball this blog; the times have changed, and this isn’t any longer the right place to write.
I’m also planning to change my hosting company, so this blog may temporarily vanish. In the meantime, I’m going to use a free wordpress.com account for my new blog. Many of the topics of jianghu will continue to appear there, but in a different context. If you’re on of the regular readers of this blog, I’d like to invite you to register there; it’s a private blog for the time being: Celliwig. It’s still early days there, but at least new content is appearing!
After two weeks out of the office, my energy is returning, or so it seems.
There’s a small hill near my house where, as a child, I used to walk the dog. It’s not of any particular size, but to get there you walk through the oldest part of the village, past the remnants of the castle that dominates the river valley. I’ve been meaning to walk back up this hill ever since I came back from China, and there’s no reason why I shouldn’t have except that my energy and will to do anything have been so depleted. But, this morning, I went up there, and it was quite magical. Once you get onto the path upwards, slipping and slithering through the mud, you get into a new-growth forest where there was once common land, and sheep grazing. The trees are bare now, of course, but many of them are covered in a vivid green moss; ferns and fungi are everywhere around.
Reaching the top of the hill, the path splits, forming a crossroads. As you stand here, you can see over the treetops and see all along the river valley, from the brooding black hills to the north, and southwards towards the sea. Just next to this is an older tree, with dramatically spreading branches. Someone had left a bunch of brightly-coloured flowers between this tree’s roots. Who knows why? Perhaps there’s a coven active locally.
Retracing my steps, I went along the the riverside towards town. The music of hounds suddenly reached me from above; the local fox hunt were working the fields adjacent to where I’d just been. I could see the hounds following a line into the woods; behind them came the field – 20 or so mounted followers – silhouetted on the skyline for a few moments before vanishing from sight.
All of which is nothing much to do with anything, other than – perhaps – it’s a part of the process of re-connecting with the qi of the land, and of rebuilding my own reserves of qi.
Earlier this evening, I stood in zhan zhuang; I was practising indoors, because that’s what I’m used to doing now, what with the constant rain we’ve had these last months. I was ready to go to bed, to be honest, but I thought I would take a look outside first – and what do you know, it’s cold and clear outside.
So, I wrapped up, turned all the house lights off, and took myself to the bottom of the garden for another session of zhan zhuang. There’s a spot where all streetlights are blocked from my line of sight; there’s still the lo-glo of course, but there’s nothing to be done about that. The sound of traffic from local roads is much heavier than it was when I was younger, but you can tune it out. And so I stood there, the stars clear overhead; the calls of two different types of owl, out on the hunt, were clear, and close. The wind is light, and draws out the presence of branches.
So I finished my session, and came indoors… but then realised that the moon is rising. Soon, I’ll be able to go back outside to that spot, and stand for a while with the moon visible over the rooftop. It’s late; I’m tired; I really should go to bed… but moments like this are rare.
Lots of tumbleweed blowing around here…
Nope, I haven’t abandoned the blog; on the other hand, I haven’t really had too much to say, or energy to write it.
I had lots of good intentions for 2012, of course. As it turned out, though, the year can be summed up in these two images:
During the summer I managed to get some good work in with Cheng Hsin and Systema; that all ground to a halt after September due to pressure of work.
It wasn’t totally a wasted year. I’ve got more trees planted – more apples, plums, and pears. I have a new polytunnel up, where some fig trees and sichuan pepper bushes are sheltering from the winter weather. I’ve begun to learn how to use my old hand-powered Singer sewing machine, and started learning how to make clothes – with some quite good results so far, ie something I wouldn’t be ashamed to wear in public I’ve also found another, related skill, that I want to develop (upholstering!) and I hope to train up in that next year! I have various other projects on the go, which have been on the back burner but I intend to develop in 2013.
Finally, a lesson that life is cyclical. As those of you who are Facebook friends know, it was 10 years ago this month that I left the UK and went to live in Singapore. That set me on a path of discovery that I count myself blessed to have experienced; much of it has been documented in this blog. To make that step, I’d had to turn my back on a toxic situation, an environment that was holding me back and crushing my hopes. It wasn’t easy, but eventually a leap into the unknown was better than staying. Ten years later… well, history repeats itself if you don’t learn its lessons, but I do learn…
So, no: this blog isn’t dead yet! I’ll pick it up in 2013, possibly taking it in new directions. I hope you all have a good time tonight, whatever you are doing to see the new year in, and I wish you all success and happiness in the year to come.
I think the problem is fixed; commenting is back to normal.
Due to a massive increase in spam, I am temporarily tightening the restrictions on comments. For the time being, only those who already have an account on my blog can comment; I won’t be approving any new registrations until I’ve weeded out the spammers. I’ll let you know when I get this sorted out…
Some big news: my dear friend S. in Beijing has got married! This was a real bolt from the blue! I noticed her online on Skype, and started chatting; a publisher’s website here in the UK had announced that her book on Cheng-style bagua had been published, and I wanted to congratulate her. Disappointment, though – she says it’s not the case, and she’s still doing the final edits. I can’t wait, though; this book and the DVD that go with it are going to be amazing… Anyway, then she dropped the bombshell. She’s been engaged for a while, but she and her fiance had just decided to go for it, and married there in Beijing. Apparently they had sent emails out to all their friends, but something went wrong and a lot of people, including me, didn’t receive the news… Well, what can I say, but wish them both great happiness together!
It made me think, though. Over the last couple of weeks, as I’ve started going to classes in Cheng Hsin and systema, I’ve been reminded how, over the past decade or so, most of the best people I’ve met have been from the martial arts world. Sure, there are a lot of meatheads in some areas of the martial world, but as I’ve moved among the spheres of bagua, taiji, yiquan, and now cheng hsin and systema, I almost universally meet people who are sincere, down-to-earth, generous, humble, and passionate about their arts. Wu de isn’t just an abstract concept: it’s something that these people demonstrate daily in their lives, and it’s been a huge inspiration (and good example) for me.
One of the biggest issues for me as I’ve struggled to adjust back to life in the West has been the absence of this kind of community; I can’t express enough how glad I am to have found people like this again!
Apart from the systema, over the past two weeks I also went back to the Cheng Hsin classes.
The week before last was my second experience of Cheng Hsin. Kevin, the instructor, was away; I gather he’ll not be around for a lot of the summer. The class was run by two of the students instead. We really worked on one of the key concepts of Cheng Hsin – for which I suppose I’ll use the taiji term of ‘investing in loss’. The exercises we used were focussed on non-resistance; offering no opposition to the other person’s force, and allowing them to ‘fall through’ into defeat.
I must say that, although I get the concept, and I understand it to be core to taijiquan, I struggled. Partly, I think it’s because my most recent neijiaquan is yiquan, where in the tui shou exercises there can be quite a lot of resistance involved, and so that’s what I’m used to. (To digress for a moment, I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but I get the impression this is what ultimately turned Tabby Cat off yiquan and back to Cheng Man Ching’s taiji. However, I’m not convinced that yiquan theory per se involves this resistance). More importantly, a lot of the issue is simply ego: a force is expressed against me and so I don’t want to yield, I almost feel obliged to push back. Dispelling this egoistic response is necessary to succeed through yielding…
Anyway, we finished up with a free-form exercise – maintaining moving contact with a partner, not using any deliberate strength but, if the movement should lead to pressure, seeing what could be done with it… Very interesting, and very unusual for me. It made me think of the expression “stick like fire”, which I think is also a concept from taijiquan….
Finally, there was a quick chat and, in passing, one of the guys mentioned ‘segmentation of the body’ – which is also to be seen as a concept in systema… As they say, the human body is the same in all arts; there’s only so many ways to use it or discuss it…
I went back for my third class last week…. but there was no-one there. The class had been cancelled at short notice, I learned… Hopefully there’ll be one tomorrow night!
It’s been an interesting couple of weeks. Lots of food for thought.
As I write, the muscles between and around my shoulder blades are only hurting a bit, having been very painful for the last couple of days. That’s the result of Thursday night’s systema class! As I wrote in my last post, I’d decided to get back into gear and start attending systema classes again, the classes this time being led by Jeff Faris.
When I went the week before last, Jeff was away, attending a seminar in Europe. Not many people were there: two of his students, myself, and a newcomer who’s never studied any martial arts before, but had got interested from seeing clips onYouTube. I gathered that the two students hadn’t been studying systema for long either, but we started off with some of the exercises that were familiar to me from Mark Winkler’s classes, and then moved on to striking exercises. This was very interesting: Nick, the student who’d taken charge, introduced this in terms of theory – looking at the position of your opponent’s feet, and directing your strike towards ‘the third point of the tripod’ to break your opponent’s balance. He also mentioned the helix and the wedge, which I’ve previously only heard mentioned by Matt Powell’s Pramek, though I know it comes from the Kadochnikov system. This kind of simple but effective theory is something that I haven’t encountered before, and is one of the things that has really attracted me to systema Kadochnikova.
Later on, another student arrived, and the session went up a few gears. This was a guy from Latvia (I’m guessing from accent etc that he’s one of the Russian minority population there), and has clearly trained extensively in systema. He got us working with exercises in soft power, unbalancing our training partner simply through redirecting their force. With my background in taiji and yiquan, I’m fairly good at this sort of work, but I have to say: this guy stood in front of me, put his hand very gently on my chest and, with very little pressure indeed, had me flying backwards. It was very similar to what you see taiji masters doing…
The same guy was there last Thursday when Jeff came back from his travels. Jeff had us doing a lot of hard striking work, using punchbags and pads. That’s why my shoulderblade and back muscles are hurting! We did quite a lot of work striking double pads; I did my best to use the big muscles of back and leg to generate power, and it worked fairly well. The muscles that are aching are those that are loaded when I’m standing in zhan zhuang properly, though I plainly haven’t been doing enough of that lately. We also did a lot of work on ‘crowd scenes’ with five-on-one work, either simultaneously or in procession. When we were all attacking simultaneously, it was interesting to note that the target rarely had to deal with more than one or two at a time, with the rest standing off to look for an opportunity and/or getting in each others’ way.
We finished with work on some of the more esoteric aspects of systema. Jeff introduced us to ‘social distance’ – for example, the space between an individual and a hostile group at which the individual’s actions aren’t yet definitely an interaction with the group (eg a change of direction, going through a shop door – is it an attempt to escape, or something that has nothing to do with the group?) He also demonstrated how to introduce a new social distance – eg, as members of the group approach, seeming to respond to someone in the distance behind them.
Very briefly, Jeff then mentioned distractions (eg clapping hands) and changing the rhythm of your movement to confuse an opponent; I was rather reminded of Piper by the way he showed this! I asked him after class, though, and he’d never heard of Piper, so there we are.
We then moved on to no-contact force, using psychological cues to get an opponent to stop, or even fall, through gesture, eye contact, and projection of will. This was right at the end of the session, so I didn’t get deep into it – but of course, the no-contact aspect of systema (not to mention taiji’s lin kong jing) is pretty controversial. I don’t think it needs to be, since it works according to fairly clear principles – but, I suspect it needs a great deal of self-knowledge and self-awareness before it can be used. My impression so far is that it depends on identifying where the opponent has mental and/or physical blockages. It’s easier to do this if you are aware of your own, and of how they were expressed in your movements and facial expressions, for example; have that knowledge, and you can spot it in someone else. The trouble is, it also works better when you are familiar with the opponent; in my case, if my opponent expresses the intention to punch, I’m much more likely to freeze up and respond (by stopping or, indeed, recoiling and even falling over) if I’ve trained regularly with him and know how much that punch would hurt! This is why we see ‘lin kong jin experts’ getting into trouble on YouTube when they face up to a stranger; they’ve become used to training with the same people.
So: my first two weeks getting into systema have been fascinating. I’m really enthused, and have learned a heck of a lot. Can’t wait for the next class….
Yin and yang are funny things. Last weekend was really, absolutely, a low point – the sort of moment that wakes you up to the fact that things really need to change.
And so, I went back to the website of the Cardiff Martial Arts Academy, where I went to a few systema classes with Mark Winkler of Celtic Systema. As I wrote a while ago, Mark had to give up the class because of the distance, but it was due to be taken over by Jeff Faris. Where Mark is from the Vasiliev/Ryabko lineage, I get the impression that Jeff is more of the Kadochnikov/Retsinuikh school, whose approach is a bit more in line with the way I think. I’d wanted to start going to classes a while ago, but it turned out that Jeff was away for a while, “on a personal security job in Eastern Europe”. Crikey.
Anyway, thinking that he must be back by now, I checked the academy’s website for their timetable, to check when the systema classes were, and I noticed that on Monday nights there is a Cheng Hsin tui shou class. Well, I’d heard of Cheng Hsin; in fact, I have a copy of one of Peter Ralston’s books, which I bought in a second-hand bookstore in Singapore’s Bras Basah centre years ago, and have carried around ever since. (I’ve tried several times to read it, but always give up; it’s written in a dialogue style that I can’t get to grips with – by which I don’t mean to say it’s bad, just not a style that I find easy to read), and I’d really got the impression that it was getting to the core of some important elements of taijiquan…
… and in any case, although I am practising my zhan zhuang, yiquan shi li, xingyi 5 elements form, and CMC-37 taijiquan, it’s all solo work. I really fancied the opportunity to do some tui shou and partner work… and so, on the spur of the moment, I went along.
And hmmmm. Wow. It’s very much all about yielding, and softness, and all the elements that make taijiquan a badass martial art. I won’t say much, as I really need to go back for a few more classes in order to get my head around it. I really enjoyed it, though, I’ll say that much. A small class: the teacher (an Irishman, Kevin Magee), another Welsh bloke, and a German woman who, apparently, moved from Germany to Wales to learn silat, but then switched to Cheng Hsin. It was a really serious-but-friendly atmosphere. I’ll be going back for another taste, for sure….