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China once more


Something odd happened recently during a work trip to Tianjin. I had a few spare periods, and I used them to practice my ZMQ-37 taijiquan form. Like most things that I write about in this blog, it’s been over four years (closer to five, in fact) since I did any work with this, but it came back surprisingly quickly. One set in particular went very well; I entered the flow state, with my mind quite empty of thoughts except for the feeling of my soles in contact with the floor, the movements of my joints and bones, and tendons and ligaments.

Suddenly, the room seemed to fill with the smells of a forest. There was the spicy fragrance of flowers, but also herbal undertones, and the richness of spring vegetation. It was quite inexplicable; I was on the eighth floor of a concrete monstrosity, in the middle of a dusty concrete campus on a very hot and smoggy day. There were NO plants anywhere nearby; the windows were firmly closed, and the aircon was blowing full blast. The experience only lasted for the duration of that set, and it was the only time I smelt anything natural during the two days I worked in that room.

On the other hand, although it’s not something I’ve experienced before, this is the kind of thing that is supposed to indicate a spirit presence. Even to me, that last sentence seems a bit far out but, after I heard the dragons singing in Qingbiankou a few years ago – when I was also in a deep meditative state – it’s an explanation that I’m open to.

Aaah. Yes, I’m back in China. There are different rules here….

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White nights ahead


This time next week, I will have just arrived in St. Petersburg, on the shores of the Gulf of Finland. I’ll be there for at least a year, and possibly longer – we’ll see how things go. I’m hoping that during my stay there I’ll be able to train in systema and other Russian martial arts. It’ll be a completely different experience to training in the Chinese internal martial arts in Beijing, so I’ve set up a new blog for it: Sing, Dance, Fight. I’ll continue to post here occasionally when I find, or think of, something relevant.

Mothballed

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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! Later edit (July 2014): that blog didn’t work out; I decided to revive this one.

Category: Blogging

Farewell 2012

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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:

Work so hard that it destroys your health and crowds out any chance of having a personal life.

Before you diagnose yourself with depression or low self esteem, first make sure that you are not in fact just surrounding yourself with assholes.

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.

Category: Blogging, Miscellaneous

Comments


Over the last few months, I haven’t been posting much but I have still been administering the site. It’s got to the point where 250 spam comments have been left every hour. As a result, I’ve had to implement a captcha system. If you want to leave a comment, you’ll have to solve a very simple maths problem. Sorry for the added inconvenience, but I’m afraid there’s no alternative.

Category: Blogging

Still here….

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Sorry for the long silence – re-insertion into the world of work has been …. hectic. I’ll get a real blog post up here soon.

In brief, the yiquan has been going very well, and I learned a lot during the holiday that’s led to some improvements. I’ve been meditating, and last night got time to attend an improv acting workshop, which was cool.

Lots of ideas are buzzing about in my mind, hopefully I’ll get to write something about all that…

Baby steps

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I was back in Zhongshan Park this morning, and oh my, but it was cold.

There’s something I want to get off my chest… I was checking one of the martial arts blogs in my RSS reader, I honestly forget which, and caught a reference to “keyboard martial artists”. I don’t know who the author was referring to; I’ve got no reason to suppose it would be me, but it still got me thinking. I’d hate to be considered one such, if only because if I ever considered this to be a martial arts blog, I certainly don’t now. In fact, I’m pretty sure I never did; as the ‘Jianghu’ name was intended to convey, what I’m writing about is the experience of being one of those following “a different drummer”. For me, that means martial arts, yes, but also (and perhaps, more so) meditation, and acting… In the zen sense, I’m trying to discover my ‘original purpose’. Martial arts is a way of doing that, but I could choose others. So… I appreciate everybody’s contribution – genuinely – and I’ve been lucky in finding that most of the people I’ve encountered in the ‘world of wushu’ to be very genuine, nice people. I’m aware though, that there are those who are snarky, who want to know whose style, whose teacher, whose skill is ‘best’…. I’m not interested. I’m doing this for myself and my own reasons, and if my slow progress bothers you, then too bad – my progress or lack of it doesn’t affect anyone else’s.

OK, so that’s said. Now, back to normal programming!

So, this morning it was back to bagua. I’m definitely still back to the beginning, but with a bit more practice and thought, it was interesting to reflect on why.

I haven’t practiced bagua in over a year, as I mentioned. Thinking about it, I suspect one reason was watching the clips of my training when that TV unit filmed me in the summer of 2008; I could see that my posture was all wrong, that my tailbone wasn’t tucked in, etc etc, and I realised then that all my training hadn’t sorted my posture out.

That’s when I switched over to yiquan and, as I’ve posted since then, I’ve found that the zhan zhuang and other yiquan practices have made significant and lasting improvements in a number ways, including:

  • relaxing my shoulders
  • dropping the scapulae and rounding the back
  • getting my tailbone relaxed and tucking under
  • opening the kua and relaxing the ankles

That’s not to say that these are perfect, but I’ve made far more significant progress than ever before. As mentioned previously, it was noticing these changes that made me think I was ready to come back to bagua. What I realised today is that my muscle memory is trying to get me to stand and walk the way I always did before – so my shoulders were bunching up, my tailbone was arching the wrong way, etc etc, and that’s why I found the tang ni bu so difficult last week! I’m having to start again with a whole new posture…. Hmmm.

Of course, there are other things, like simply being out of practice, there being some small differences between the way Liu Jing Ru’s style steps and the way Sun Zhi Jun’s style does it, but those are minor. The main thing for me to be focussing on is awareness of body tension and posture at this point. I’m fairly certain that I’ll manage to get the tang ni bu right soon, and then I’ll be able to progress a bit further, and on to other things.

As for the tension…. I was very, very cold while we were training. Kong Cheng told me that this is because of my internal tensions, which aren’t allowing my qi to flow freely; that would fit in with what I was writing about recently. I’m aware that due to all of the issues of 2009 my triple burner’s energy is weak; getting that stoked up again is one of 2010’s tasks!

What else? Oh, we did a bit of bagua tui shou, which was interesting since I’ve hardly ever done it before – only once or twice with Master Zhou Yue Wen, IIRC.

All of the packed snow is giving me lots of tang ni bu practice, by the way!

Relaxation redux

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Prompted by chickenrice’s recent comment, I went back to the old version of this blog to refresh my memories of studying CMC-37 taijiquan with Master Rennie Chong in Singapore. I found a post I’d forgotten about:

In There are no secrets, Wolf Lowenthal quotes Cheng Man Ching on loosening the joints of the body, in the context of the concept of sung, or relaxed strength.

I won’t quote the whole thing, but the essence is that the body has nine joints: three in the arm, three in the leg, and three in the back. One begins by loosening the arms; the most difficult joint is the shoulder. Then one loosens the legs; the most difficult joint is the ankle. Then the back is easy to relax. Bruce Frantzis says saomething similar in The Power of Internal Martial Arts; I saw it earlier this evening, but I can’t find the quote now. I wish that book had an index!

Still, my personal experience is following this rule. When I first came to Singapore and started practising taiji regularly, I found that my shoulders were terribly rigid. The near-year I spent at Nam Wah Pai relaxed them enormously. Now, with Master Chong constantly urging me to lower my stance and open up my gua (groin/hip joints), I’m finding that I’m getting a lot of pain in my hips and lower back. It isn’t because these areas are under strain particularly, though – I think it’s because my ankles are stiff and weak, so other muscles are trying to take the strain. I think once my ankles become sung, my hips and back will be able to relax a great deal.

I would agree with that even more these days. What I’m finding is that yiquan’s zhan zhuang exercises are really helping me get this done…

Commitment and the future

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Robert Twigger’s book, Angry White Pyjamas, is an old favourite of mine. I read, and re-read, it many times back in the period when I was starting to feel stifled in the small mid-Wales town where I spent much of my twenties.

In the book, he relates how he was working as an English teacher in Japan, about to turn thirty, out of shape, and going nowhere fast. His response was to sign up for a year-long intensive Aikido course with the Tokyo riot police, which would get him out of his rut, get him in shape, and qualify him as an instructor. Reading that book – along with watching The Matrix – is probably what got me back into studying taijiquan. It also got me thinking about my own imminent thirtieth birthday, and what was happening in my own life.

A couple of years later, I was in Asia. A lot has happened since then, and I’m now contemplating my fortieth birthday.

Twigger, who now lives in Cairo, has his own blog, and I’ve just read his latest post: How Much Talent Do You Have?. It’s interesting enough, but he stops just when he reaches the most important point:

The main thing is: practise as if your life depends on it. The original impulse to learn is a survival instinct. You learn in order to survive better. Therefore if you can con yourself somehow that your very survival is at stake then you will learn very much faster. One way is to do it intensively, focusing to the exclusion of everything else.

That’s the hard part, though. I was discussing this with S. recently: it’s very difficult to study martial arts and meditation seriously and commit yourself to your job and have a successful romantic relationship. There just isn’t enough time and energy to do them all well. Something’s got to give, and for most people it has to be the martial arts and meditation because they, we, put a very high value on having a job and being part of a couple. It’s very hard indeed to walk away from those.

I had the opportunity to do it, a few years ago. I had a lot of savings and didn’t need to work – but I opted to go back to grad school for my MBA instead.

Still, the idea has popped into my mind again. As I’ve mentioned, I have been doing a bit of research out in the Chinese countryside, looking into how mobile phones and the internet could be used to help rural development. However, though I set out to see if we geeks could help the farmers become more like us, I find myself wondering whether we shouldn’t be seeking to become more like them. After all, they can feed themselves, and if the internet vanished tomorrow, it wouldn’t hurt them: they have the skills to survive. I, on the other hand, would be screwed. I’m an e-commerce guy; what other valuable skills do I have that could be traded for food and shelter once peak oil arrives, and the internet has to compete with other essential energy needs? Fortunately, the day won’t come for a while yet, so I have time to prepare.

I’m thinking, as a result, of emulating Twigger. I could work one more year, save more money, and then switch to part-time work that would cover food and rent. Then, I could spend a year training hard, almost full-time, in yiquan, baguazhang, qigong and Chan meditation. The aim would be to be qualified to teach by the end of that year. I could also get some basic grounding in TCM. I wonder if anyone would pay me to write a book about it…

The Druid’s Journey

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The Piper guys were kind enough to give me the nickname “The Druid”, which I’ve been musing on lately. Of course, I’m not really a Druid – I haven’t been elected to the Gorsedd of the Bards of the Island of Britain, nor am I ever likely to be! I suppose it’s possible that one day I might try for the language qualification and become an Ovate, an entry-level Druid as it were, but…. probably not!

Obviously, coming from Wales, I’ve always known about Druids. I don’t know what your mental image is when I use the term. Some people, I guess, will imagine them as Caesar described them, bloody to the elbows in entrails; others will think of Wicker Men, stuffed with captives waiting for the torch. Yet more will think of the neo-pagan movement and OBOD.

Me, I have a rather different conception of them. I see the Druids as observers and thinkers, heirs to the tradition of insight that goes back into the Neolithic period. Since the dawn of humanity, people were looking sitting on mountain tops, or venturing out to sea in tiny ships, and observing…. Observing the vast natural world, and pondering our place in it – and what makes us different. This was the slow thought, over years and decades, which gradually pieced together the great cycles of the stars and allowed the building of the megaliths and stone circles. I notice with interest the possible etymology of the name itself – most books will tell us that it’s somehow connected with the Celtic word for ‘oak’, but the Wikipedia entry suggests that it may rather have roots that mean “clear-vision” or “rooted knowledge”, something like that, which resonates with me.

I used to go solo up into the hills, back in the days when I lived in Wales. There’s something about being on a long ridgetop, with the bowl of the sky above you, the endless sea below on one side, the mountains receding to the distance below on the other, that clears the mind, that is so far beyond the reach of the mind, that the gates of comprehension are broken open and the fire of inspiration rushes through from the other side. When this energy is channeled into the grooves of practice and discipline, that’s when poetry and philosophy are created. It’s also the root of prophecy – when our knowledge is freed from the shackles of “I want”, or “I’m afraid”, and the truth of events can be seen – to the astonishment of those who won’t let themselves see….

In Welsh, we have a word for this, “Awen”. I’ve felt it on occasion; for example, there have been times when I’ve given an impromptu speech at Toastmasters, and felt the spirit take me; afterwards, people slap me on the shoulder and congratulate me on a great speech – but I really can’t remember what I said; the words just passed through me, not from me, it feels.

It was probably this sense of the Celtic poet/seer/Druid tradition that led me to adopt Thufir Hawat as one of the heroes of my teen years. Hawat, a character from Frank Herbert’s novel, Dune, was a Mentat-Assassin. A mentat is someone trained to use the full power of their mind. As Wikipedia puts it,

Mentats are not simply calculators. Instead, the exceptional cognitive abilities of memory and perception are the foundations for supra-logical hypothesizing. Mentats are able to sift large volumes of data and devise concise analyses in a process that goes far beyond logical deduction: Mentats cultivate “the naïve mind”, the mind without preconception or prejudice, similar to the contemporary practice of Zen, that can extract the essential patterns or logic of data, and deliver useful conclusions with varying degrees of certainty.

That, combined with martial arts knowledge? Wow! The Mentat Master of Assassins was a great role model!

It isn’t such a great step, either, from the mentat to the “Scholar Warrior”, the wuxia hero who cultivates mind as well as martial skill.

A Geordie girlfriend once complained to me that she thought the mountain-tops meant more to me than she did. She was right. She left the scene soon after, with no hard feelings on either side; my love for the hills still endures. Every now and again I get reminded that once I saw the truth; that once I had the clear vision, and deep-rooted knowledge. Time passes; material things and attachment cloud my sight, but I still know where the truth lies, when I’m reminded.

I’m writing this to remind you, the reader, and myself why it was that I got engaged in martial arts. Of late, I’ve been more and more focused on practical application – to the extent of losing sight of the bigger picture. To paraphrase Wang Xiangzhai, it’s an essential step – but only the first, and lowliest step.

Meditation, on its own, gives a lot of insight and detachment; it’s another route to that state of “no-mind”. I also need to work harder on my meditation! However, meditation is easy when you’re sitting comfortably on your cushions, safe in your home, with chanting or music on the mp3 player…. What about when you’re up against it, when things are not going your way, and the tide of the world is against you? This can happen on the mountain – the mist comes down, the storm rolls in, and suddenly you’re reduced to the most basic struggle of survival. Sometimes, one can transcend thought in these situations; the focus on finding your way out becomes a state of no-thought, no-mind, calm concentration on the task. Usually not, though… and even so, it’s not something we can organize or structure!

Martial arts, though… That’s the way… The internal martial arts have meditation built in; to keep one’s mind calm and empty, to loosen the grip of fear and attachments as someone actively tries to take you down… that is the way to develop strong meditation and detachment, calmness and freedom of mind and body, while under pressure. Furthermore, it’s something one can schedule, repeat, and learn from – unlike storms!

At the end of the day, that is why I’m studying martial arts. That is the journey that this blog is trying to chronicle!