Blog Archives

Shaking power

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Wow, this is great:

Time has been too short in the last few days to do any work with the spear; even if I’d had time, it’s been raining too much (heh, so I’m wimpy – but even if I’d felt like practising in the rain, the ground is so wet that I would have trashed the lawn, so I needn’t feel bad about not going out!)

However… I’ve been getting a heck of a lot out of what I’ve been doing with the spear so far. As I mentioned in my last post, for someone without a training partner, spear-work really is a good test of whether or not the technique is generating power or not. In that video above, the key moment for me is at about 15 seconds in, when the performer starts full-body shaking, transmitting the power down the spear. Damn, I can’t do that! It really reminds me of a part of the longxing bagua form that Master Zhou Yue Wen taught, which also had a shaking move, very similar to what’s happening in the clip.

Looking at that, I think it seems to encapsulate the key element of what I’m striving to achieve; master that kind of full-body shaking power, and it can be applied in taijiquan, xingyiquan, or baguazhang… No problem. Again, and this is a purely personal observation, I have to say that the only path I’ve encountered that would lead me towards this is yiquan as taught by Master Yao Chengrong…

On moral and martial virtue

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Right then, back to the nominal topics of this blog.

It’s Monday night and I have a long list of things that I should be doing, but frankly I’m too tired. For the first time in ages, instead, I sat for a session of vipassana: not too successfully, I fear – the monkey mind is very strong at the moment! Never mind, keep going…

This weekend there was a change in the air; everyone could taste the Spring coming. Last Thursday morning, I left for work before dawn; before getting into the car, I took a moment to stand silent, listening to the birdsong build up. The air was very still and full of qi; it made me clap my hands and shout HA for the joy of breathing. As I had a bit of a time margin before I needed to be in the office, I stopped the car as I drove over the moorland towards the city limits, and parked on the side of the road. I’ve often meant to do this, but never actually did it. On this occasion, there was a heavy mist, fragrant with the smell of brine from the nearby sea. In the pre-dawn gloom there was nothing of the views that are there on clear days, but the sense of stillness and space was calming. Soon, it’ll be the end of winter; time for me to buy some hill-walking boots!

Since I last blogged about martial arts, Earle Montaigue has passed on. I gave my condolences to Eli, but of course I don’t know him well, and I never had the chance to meet Earle. I’m saddened by that. I suppose the best anecdote I can give is that I bought a copy of his dim mak book in Singapore. When I moved to Beijing, I lent it to a Shaolin-trained martial artist who was studying dian xue of the Yang taiji style; his comment was that “it wasn’t the real thing”… but he never gave it back, despite being asked!

The last couple of weeks have been super-busy at work, combined with more than a little insomnia. I’ve made it to Eli’s classes; bagua followed by taiji. I’m really getting into this. It’s great to study the two together, which is something I’ve never done before, and I’m really getting my bagua vibe back! Plus it is just great to finally have an English-speaking teacher. I’m getting very excited about neijia again 🙂

On the other hand, I’ve missed the last two systema classes; I’ve been too tired, and basically didn’t trust myself to drive there and back without falling asleep at the wheel (oh, and I needed to work late at the office…). I should be able to make it this week though. There’s also an all-day seminar coming up at the end of this month; I plan to go to that, so I’ll finally get to meet Mark in person!

As for the title of this post… Having had a great time in the last class with Eli, I asked him whether he’d ever seen wulin zhi. It turns out that he hasn’t, so I’ll lend him my copy when I go tomorrow. That has motivated me to watch it again myself; it’s playing as I type (the famous scene with the pole circle is on right now!). As always, I love it – and yet, I feel saddened.

Those of you who know me IRL know why I left Asia, and I still think I did the right thing. And yet… and yet… I keep on being reminded why I originally quit Wales, and why I didn’t think I would return – until suddenly I had to. Hardly anyone has asked me what my life was like in Singapore and China; what I valued, and what I did with my time, or who I knew and why I valued them. It seems to be assumed that it was just a phase, and now I’ve returned to ‘normal’ life.

Not so, though. As I sit here watching wulin zhi, I’m reminded of how much I have internalized the values of wu de. To quote from that link, wu de stands for:

  • Ren: benvolence and mutual love
  • Yi: righteousness, justice, judging with the heart, having friendly feelings
  • Li: respect, rules of conduct, politeness
  • Zhi: knowledge, reason, education and learing
  • Xin: trust, sincerity and openness, to truly believe in something, and also to keep one’s promises, be stable and engaged in things
  • Yong: courage and braveness

I think of some of my teachers, especially of the older generation: Yao Cheng Rong, Zhou Yue Wen, Sun Ru Xian… These are men; men to be admired, men to be respected, men to be emulated. It’s important to me that though I never approached anything like their level, I was at least taken seriously. I find none to match them here; indeed, even today, I found some of the values that they and I hold were mocked by a colleague. Don’t get me wrong; there are other values. In my home town, I more and more feel a part of the community; it’s no small thing to be greeted from all directions by people old and young, from all walks of life, when you walk into a pub. But, and but… when the darkness falls here, Asia calls me.

I won’t be getting on a plane anytime soon, unless it’s for a holiday. Nevertheless, it’s a good thing to be reminded of wu de, and that the values of the jianghu, the values of wulin are more virtuous, and more admirable, than those of the little people I sometimes have to deal with here.

The biter bit

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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).

The fighting art of the Sikhs

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I came across an interesting article today in the UK Independent: Ancient but deadly: the return of shastar vidiya.

I dated a Sikh girl for a while, and I retain an affection for Sikh culture. I particularly find it interesting that it’s one lonely enthusiast who has dedicated himself to reviving a vanishing art; I hope he finds the disciples that he deserves.

The article draws a distinction between Shaster Vidiya and Gatka, which seems to be more of a performance art – much like the distinction between traditional Chinese fighting styles and modern performance wushu/ Nevertheless, Wikipedia redirects to Gatka, and there are some passages that I find very interesting – spooky, even. For example,

The foundation of the art is a movement methodology for the use of the feet, body, arms and weapons in unison. Gatka favors rhythmic movement, without hesitation, doubt or anxiety.

Interesting… In many ways, this echoes something that I heard elsewhere about Systema… But then there’s this:

The system devised by Captain William Ewart Fairbairn and Captain Eric Anthony Sykes borrowed methodologies from gatka, jujutsu, Chinese martial arts and “gutter fighting”.

Well now…. I wrote about Fairbairn quite a bit on the first version of this blog. One of his martial arts teachers in inter-war Shanghai was the grand-teacher of my own bagua teacher, Zhou Yue Wen. Fairbairn was also the organizer of Singapore’s riot squad, by the by…

Of course, the Shanghai of that period was awash with Russians – refugees from the 1917 revolution, Comintern agents, and who knows who else?

We know about Fairbairn because of what he did afterwards with the British Army in WWII, his fighting manuals, and his post-war work in Singapore and elsewhere. I wonder… was there a Russian equivalent of Fairbairn who also studied in with Sikhs and Chinese in Shanghai? Is that the root of Systema?

Anyway, that’s getting off-topic. YouTube is blocked by the Chinese government, so I can’t search for videos of shastar vidiya. If you can, I would be interested in hearing what you think of it.

A checklist

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Well, it’s been an interesting week. I’m skipping my class yiquan class today as I have a pile of work to clear, plus I’m feeling under the weather. I went yesterday, though, and on Wednesday night, when H. came along as well. On both occasions I got the chance to take part in a lot of tui shou, and I have the muscle pain and bruises to prove it….

All I can say, really, is – at last! Sorry to keep banging the same drum, but Master Yao Chengrong’s Zhong Yi Wuguan is finally providing the mix of neijiaquan development and application that I’ve been searching for over the last few years. During the sparring sessions, I’ve been trying to apply the understanding of internal power as I’ve come to understand it… and basically I’ve been getting wiped out! Hahahaha, I’m not discouraged, though 😀 It’s only convinced me that the theory is correct; now I need to learn how to apply it correctly. Anyway, here’s a short checklist of things that I’ve been mulling over.

Muscle strength
I don’t have much of this! I need to work on this area, but I think that if I carry on sparring, I’ll develop strength fairly quickly. Although I do need to get stronger, I’m not too fixated on this. A number of the other students are significantly stronger than me, but I can hold my own when I get other things right. So let’s move on…

Aerobic fitness
Endurance, keeping my breath… I’m not doing too badly here, but I want to improve a lot. In yiquan, there’s a strong emphasis on finishing the fight quickly, but it’s not good to find yourself gasping for air when an opponent’s on the attack so… In the past, I built up a lot of aerobic fitness through bagua circle walking, and I’m hoping to repeat that – especially now that spring is here. The Siberian wants to start early-morning jogging around the Houhai lakes, so if we can drag ourselves out of bed in the morning I’ll start circle walking while she jogs…

Body weight
Like I said, a lot of the other students are significantly stronger than me. However, I’ve noticed that I can sometimes uproot them when I get my body mass moving correctly. It’s giving me more understanding of what the ‘yiquan dance’ is really doing:


This is definitely something I need to work on.

Speed:
Speed and reflexes are one of my biggest problems at this point – both in the sense that I create openings but don’t attack through them fast enough, or I don’t see & react to incoming attacks. Hence the bruises… Again, though, this should improve with practice…

Sensitivity
I’m not doing too badly with this; I am improving in my ability to maintain contact with my opponent, and to respond to changes in force and angle with changes of my own that do quite well at neutralizing quite a few attacks.

Softness
MUCH room for improvement here…. and yet I’m much better than I was. In terms of resisting yiquan’s “spinning and off-balancing” techniques, once I get more relaxed, I’ll be less vulnerable to such attacks. Even now, over a few sessions of tui shou I can see that when I actively focus on relaxing, I get much less fatigued, I am better balanced, and can take the power out of incoming shoves and punches (to some degree, at least). I’m also seeing that this softness is why systema is so effective, and why ‘proprer’ taijiquan is respected by many as the supreme martial art… Also, and I don’t want to get all Mantak Chia about this, why studying internal martial arts can make one a better lover…. Hehehe, anyway not to be too provocative, so let’s move on…

Technique
I’m being a bit learning-handicapped here. Yiquan’s curriculum is, I realize more and more, extremely well structured in the way it takes a basic move with health benefits, develops it into a ‘testing-force’ exercise, and then takes it further into becoming a combat application. I’ve gained a huge amount from the first stage, in terms of relaxation, softening, opening up the joints, and improving my balance and posture. As I don’t have good Mandarin, I’ve done this by observing Master Yao carefully and copying what he does. Since starting the sparring, I’ve begun to realize what I’ve been missing from his explanations, ie how these movements are used in combat. Luckily, I’ve been training with really nice sparring partners who’ve seen that I haven’t understood this, and have taken the trouble to point it out to me and show me what I should be doing. It’s another of the things I like about the school, this openness and willingness to help each other develop.

Qi
Interesting… Yiquan doesn’t focus on qi at all, in terms of its training methods. However, having studied taijigong with Nam Wah Pai in Singapore – who are very focussed on qi – I can see that the techniques have much in common, and that one benefit of yiquan training is to allow the qi to move freely. I think it was Tabbycat who posted recently about taijiquan ‘masters’ who can feel their qi, but are still stiff and easy to throw around… I suspect that once you’ve got the softness and relaxation cracked, you’ll be able to feel the qi very strongly… Perhaps at some point in the history of their training, some people got focussed on the diagnostic tool rather than on the real aim of the training…

To cut a long story short…. I’m having a great time with my training at the moment, and I think that yiquan is really helping on many levels. I need to work for a while on the issues I’ve mentioned above, and then I can start working in meditative techniques during the ‘health’ exercises. I’ll be working on adding insights from the Ryabko/Vasiliev systema model as well. After that, I’ll be able to go back to taiji and bagua ready to take them to a higher level than I could before….

On other, unrelated topics:

  • I hear that Master Zhou Yue Wen has moved back to Shanghai after several years in Singapore. When I get back to training with baguazhang, I may well make the effort to get down there occasionally if I can track him down, as I really like his bagua style.
  • If you’re interested in yiquan, I see that Master Yao Chengguang’s disciple Andrzej Kalisz has put a couple of books on lulu.com for free download
  • Hehehe, sometimes I’m proud to be Welsh 😉

Holiday reading

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As you may have guessed, I’m on holiday. I’ve been in Singapore for the last couple of weeks, chilling out, catching up with people, and thinking hard about the future.

Not much martial arts stuff to report, except that once again it’s important to be in the right place at the right time, and to seize opportunities when they arise. I popped into Kinokuniya at Ngee Ann City last Monday, and noticed a sole copy of Dr. John Painter’s Combat Baguazhang Volume 2. I flicked through it, and immediately decided I had to buy it! It’s full of really good material. The next day, I went in again, and there were four or five copies of volume one, so of course I grabbed one of those too! Two days later, they had all vanished, so it seems there’s a number of people in Singapore who are on the lookout for baguazhang books!

I haven’t had time to do more than skim them so far, but these books look very, very good – just what I needed at this stage. No forms, more of a focus on principles and application, some interesting discussions about the history and philosophy of baguazhang, etc. I’ll only have time to read them once I get back to Beijing, I think.

What else? I caught up with Master Zhou Yue Wen for lunch; he’s doing well, it seems. Master Sun Ru Xian asked me if I could find a DVD of Filipino stick fighting for him, and thanks to Jono I managed to find one. Ummm, that’s about it, I think.

More once I’m back in the ‘Jing.

The Yiquan Academy, day 10

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Decision: I’m curtailing my studies at the Yiquan Academy. I had planned to go through until the end of next week, but I now plan to make this week my last, and I’m not sure whether I’ll make it to the end of the week.

Mostly this has nothing to do with the Academy itself, only that it’s a 90-minute trip from where I live. I had planned to use the afternoons and evenings to prepare for next semester, but I’m finding that with all the travelling, plus the time it takes to find somewhere to eat after the morning and afternoon sessions, I’m not getting much work done. The fact is, my level of wushu ability right now is substantially lower than it was six months ago. The reason is, I didn’t have an opportunity to prepare my classes before the semester began, so I spent almost all of my “free” time frantically preparing lectures -and, consequently, I had no time to practice. If I want to have time to do martial arts seriously once the next semester starts, I need to be prepared. I’m going to dedicate next week to that.

So.

Today I did a bunch of very interesting stuff.

浑元桩(打乱程序摸劲) UNIVERSAL COMBAT POST (SEEKING FORCE WITH CHANGING DIRECTIONS)
浑元桩(六面力同时摸劲) UNIVERSAL COMBAT POST (SEEKING FORCE IN SIX DIRECTIONS SIMULTANEOUSLY)

These were cool. Here’s the beginning of training for full-body power. Woo! Hoo! Good stuff!

After the morning session, I headed down to Ritan Park, and practised bagua for a while. Ritan Park now has peacocks wandering around – when did that happen? Then it was dwon to Scitech, to catch up with a Serbian friend who has a lot to celebrate, and perhaps we will, soon.

Afternoon class (5:30 – 6:45):

丁八步头发力 T-EIGHT STEP EXERTING FORCE WITH HEAD
丁八步肩发力 T-EIGHT STEP EXERTING FORCE WITH SHOULDER
丁八步肘发力 T-EIGHT STEP EXERTING FORCE WITH ELBOW
丁八步掌发力 T-EIGHT STEP EXERTING FORCE WITH PALM
丁八步跨发力 T-EIGHT STEP EXERTING FORCE WITH HIP
丁八步膝发力 T-EIGHT STEP EXERTING FORCE WITH KNEE

Sorry, pardon my language, but OMFG. This is training for fa li, but what really blows me away is that the yiquan curriculum actually has exercises for headbutting. The only teacher who’s ever taught me this before was Zhou Yue Wen, and the way it’s taught here is exactly the way he did it, ie with the side of the head rather than the front (DON’T try this at home, kids!).

Taken all together, today’s lessons totally reinforce my impression that yiquan, and its structured, methodical, approach are superb*. However…

I was taught, as usual, by Li Xin. Didn’t see much of Master Yao till right at the end of the day. I was preparing to leave when they both came over to discuss payment.

When I first went to the school, Master Yao wrote down “600 RMB” next to each module. OK, that’s clear. Each module is nicely laid out, as you can see. So I was like, OK, no problem; I paid for the first two modules up front. As far as I was aware, that was OK; sure, I’ll pay more as we get to more advanced modules. Except, as you’ll note if you compare what I’ve written to the module list, what I’ve been taught is largely the first two modules, though not everything, plus lots from further ahead in the module.

Thinking about it last night, I reckoned I was surely into the third module by now, so I took cash out of the ATM before going to class, and paid Li Xin first thing this morning for a third module.

This was what the discussion today was about. Master Yao counted up the number of different moves I’ve been taught, said well these are equivalent to one module, these are equivalent to another module, these to a third, pay up more before we go on tomorrow please.

Well, OK. I kind of dislike the insinuation that I wouldn’t pay, but whatever. However, it seems that the charging is by move, not by module. This is another communication issue, let’s put it that way. I agreed to pay by module, and the modules’ content is very clearly laid out. However, what has actually been taught has been drawn from all over the curriculum. I’m not complaining about that, it’s been very useful and a great insight into what yiquan is all about. However, were I to put my MBA, cynical, hat on, I would observe that this does… ahem, encourage… me to buy all of the books ASAP.

I want to reiterate that I am finding all of the training, and the material, to be amazing. However, I do, still, feel rushed, and I do feel pressured to keep paying. This afternoon’s session was kind of a tipping point for me. The sequences where I learned the head and shoulder strikes just didn’t come naturally to me; I keep trying to generate power from the hips, which is not correct for these moves. Even so, we moved on to new moves, while I think it was clear I couldn’t properly perform the ones we’d already covered. On this topic, I am aware of Andrzej’s comment and explanation, but I’m afraid I can’t really accept it; I’ll go over why exactly in my review.

Which brings me to what next. Tomorrow I will pay for one more module, however that happens to be composed, and no more. I don’t know how long it will take me to complete but once it is, I’m done; could be Wednesday or Thursday, maybe Friday.

At the end of the week, I’ll do an overall review. Don’t confuse my feelings about yiquan as a style, the standard of the teaching, and issues about the way the Academy is run as a business; these are separate topics, and I’ll address them separately in my review.

On the way home, I was hungry and stopped again at the dumpling joint at Guloudajie zhan. Surrounded by ar-ar-ar Beijing ren, I felt totally at ease, and was yet again reminded why I love this city so much…. I read a bit more of Dharma Bums, and felt invigorated by the correspondence between passages of the book and parts of my own life that I hadn’t thought about in a long time (the bits about mountain-climbing, FWIW!).

* Superb, but not complete. More about this in my final review.

Zhou Yue Wen website


Hmm. I’ve just discovered that Zhou Yue Wen has a website – or, rather, that one of his students has created it on his behalf.

I studied baguazhang with Master Zhou, but he also knows many other styles; his specialty is xingyiquan.

Master Zhou is the real deal. If you’re studying martial arts and are in, or can get to, Singapore, I wholeheartedly recommend him.

Piper in Singapore

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I’ve just been going through my hard drive, trying to find some pictures I took of the Piper guys when they visited Singapore in January 2008. I mis-filed the photos, and I’ve been trying to locate them for ages… Finally, I’ve located them. I particularly like this one…

Lloyd, Corey, and Nigel…

I’ve just realized that I never blogged about their visit; it was during my final days in Singapore before the move to Beijing, and I guess I was just too busy. It was extremely cool, though. I didn’t have time to train with them, but I saw a public demo, and hung out with them a couple of times. I was very impressed by seeing Piper in action; it’s fast, vicious, and extremely effective. The guys are really sound, I enjoyed their company. Hehehe, we exchanged some insights, and I think I made Lloyd’s eyes bulge at one point with a technique I learned from Master Zhou Yue Wen 😉

Good end to a bad week

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It’s been a bit of a rough week; I’m mentally drafting a blog post about it, as it’s required lots of soul-searching. Not sure if I’ll publish it, though.

Anyway, I’ve been feeling bad about how my practice in both martial arts and meditation has been kind of sidelined in the months since I came to Beijing – which wasn’t entirely unexpected, but I didn’t expect the extent of it! So this week I’ve been trying to change conditions to let me get back into the groove.

Buying a bike was a good, and much overdue, idea. I’ve been able to explore parts of the campus I couldn’t easily get to before, and it’s helped me to find a place to practice. Previously, the only place I could find was on the edge of the sports field, surrounded by large areas of concrete. The qi felt really bad there, plus I was in full view of the crowds of students hanging out there, which was a bit awkward. On the bike, I’ve found a courtyard park area in the midst of the older staff apartments. It’s private, shady, and the air is really good. Lots of birds singing in the trees above, and a few old people doing qigong in the morning. It only takes a few minutes to get there by bike – although, going by bike means I have to use a shoulderstrap on my sabre’s scabbard, and sling it over my back. I look like some sort of demented bicycle cavalryman as I whizz around campus; it’s surely only a matter of time before I get arrested 🙂

So, I went there this morning – first morning practice for a few weeks, made easier by the new timetable. (I’m able to re-use stuff from last semester now, rather than getting up at 6am every day to start researching & writing on the day’s new lecture material). I started with 15 min or so of zhan zhuang, then went into a couple of sets of CMC-37 taiji. After that, I tried the xuan xuan broadsword set for the first time in ages, but got a mental block halfway through. Now worries, that happened from time to time even back in Singapore, when I was doing it regularly. Experience has taught me that when this happens, it’s best to just stop, rather than keep banging away at it. Next, a few reps of the moves I’ve learned so far of the ba da zhang, working on some details that I’m finding tricky. I followed that with a first attempt in ages of Master Zhou’s wuji long xing baguazhang set; I’m very rusty, but I really need to get back into it. Not sure why yet – I’m sure it’ll bubble up from the subconscious at some point – but having started a bit of zhang zhuang, I think there’s some sort of strong connection with the wuji set. Anyhow, I finished up with a couple of sets of the bagua needles form, before cycling back home through the crowds of students who were by then on their way to the day’s first lectures.

Back home, a met a technician who’d come to fix my computer, which was getting badly clogged up by a couple of years’ worth of Singapore and Chinese dust; it’s now running much cooler and faster. Hooray!