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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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The Blue Room


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I recently moved into a new place, as I described on my main blog.  It’s a small studio apartment slap bang in the middle of St. Petersburg. The walls are papered with a shimmery blue paper, and the curtains are also a pale blue. The windows face east and, as this is the period of the White Nights, when it’s only dark for a couple of hours, that means that the sun is shining into my room for much of the day. As a result, I keep the curtains closed, and the room fills with a tranquil blue light, as if it were an undersea cave.

My moving came just after the summer solstice when, by coincidence or not, I experienced a sudden new burst of optimism and energy. Consequently, all kinds of plans and practices which had been on the back burner have come back into play.

One of these is that I’ve started meditating again – for half an hour or an hour most days, using the mp3 files from my Vipassana retreats in Thailand. I’m already feeling the benefits, though there’s a lot of lost ground to be made up.

I also realised that I needed to start practising Chinese martial arts again. I’ve been starting to practice the Cheng Man Ching taiji form a bit; I knew that my yiquan teacher’s brother has disciples in Russia, so I Googled to see if there is anyone in St. Petersburg. There isn’t, but I found a wushu group, so I’ll start training xingyiquan with them. They have a teacher of bagua, but her classes are at a time I can’t make, unfortunately. I’ll write more about this in another post, but it seems like it’s time to bring this blog out of mothballs and back into active use…

Image Credits: Curtain Call by user tata_aka_T on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons Licence.

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Dojo Rat has just put up an interesting post about soft xingyiquan. I’ve never seen xingyi performed that way before although Lina, a colleague of mine when I first started work as an MBA intern during my Tsinghua days, showed me a soft form that was similar in some ways.

Anyhow, DR’s post led me to write this as a form of thinking aloud, since xingyi was on my mind anyway.

As I mentioned in a recent post, xingyi boosts the practitioner’s yang energy, being so aggressive. When Madam Ge started a xingyi class in Singapore, I was a bit leery about joining it, for precisely that reason. At that time my yang energy was very strong, and I was wary of boosting it further; during my days in politics, I’d learned what that could be like. As it was, I did join the class, and enjoyed it, though I didn’t take it beyond that introduction. Funnily enough, not long after returning to Wales, I went through quite a bad patch of low energy and low spirits; I found myself spontaneously trying to remember the 5 Elements linked set that Madam Ge had taught, as if my body knew how to boost my will and mental strength.

Not long after that, I was asked to recommend a martial art. An acquaintance, who is a teacher of meditation, was feeling that she was too nice, and people were taking advantage of her as a result. She wanted to try a martial art in order to boost her assertiveness. Of course, I had to recommend xingyi!

I was searching around for a resource to which I could direct her, and it took a while. This morning, I found this clip on YouTube:

Of course, there are lots of good clips of the 5 Elements form on YouTube, but few are suitable as a resource for a complete beginner. However, this clip is the trailer for a DVD, which actually looks pretty good – to the extent that I might order a copy for myself.

That’s in addition to Ken van Sickle’s DVD on the Zheng Manqing Sword Form, which I plan to get after my next pay cheque!

Actually, I’ve been spending a lot of money lately. More about that in my next post.

Animal mind

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I was practising zhan zhuang in the garden yesterday morning. Heavy but broken black clouds were low in the sky, allowing golden moments of sunlight to break through and illuminate the tops of the saplings I planted last month. As I stood, the blackbirds landed close by my feet, scraping caterpillars against the path to rub the hairs off. A robin came to investigate me, lost interest, and went to the next garden. A squirrel ran along the top of the fence at the end of the garden, paused for a short while to survey the territory, and then leisurely went back the way he came.

It occurred to me that this was the experience of those Daoists who developed the neijia styles. In their silent, stationary, meditations, they would have observed the life around them, just as I do; having stilled their minds, they project no emotion, no intentions, that would alert the beasts and birds around them. Thus, in the mountains, they would have seen the bears and the tigers, the storks and the snakes, going out their business with no fear of the observer.

That led me back to something I’ve mentioned before, the naming of taiji movements. In the West, names such as ‘Parting Wild Horse’s Mane’, ‘Fair Lady Works Shuttles’, ‘Stork spreads wings’ are regarded with amusement. How flowery! How poetic! But silly, after all; shouldn’t we give them names that explain how they’re used? What’s the, you know, practical application there, man? Of course, the answer is no, the names are perfect. They come from a close observation of nature, a clear understanding of the energies, the principles, the flow involved in that movement. It’s only our dysfunctional society, where children think milk is produced in factories, that is so alienated from the world of nature, that doesn’t get this.

Moreover, the ability to observe that nature, and the ability to express these energies in one’s own body… that comes first and foremost from control of one’s mind. To achieve that stillness. To know the body from inside. To understand how that flow of energy moves the human body to achieve that end… It’s the mind. All in the mind.

For me, I got that through yiquan, though of course I had a background in taijiquan before I got to it and, of course, I had completed several meditation retreats. For me, yiquan and taijiquan complement one another; the exact same principles, but expressed with yang energy in yiquan, and yin energy in taijiquan.

Thus, I agree with an awful lot that Tabby Cat writes about on this topic. I don’t agree that CMC-37 is the best, though of course I do also practise that form. He’s lucky, in that he found a teacher who led him to this insight. Not everyone gets that luck, and for them that form is not better than yiquan is for Tabby. For myself, it was with yiquan that I had the breakthrough. Horses. Courses.

But he’s right, though: it’s all about the energy. It’s all about the mind.

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Once again, not a huge amount to report; have been head-nodding tired of late, so off my practice a bit. Today’s energies have been directed at clearing a long-neglected greenhouse of bindweed and thistles; the earth inside is now ready to be dug over and manured ready for the tomatoes, basil and chili… Also got a frame half-full of compost, with the remainder to be topped up with manure, and that’s for mushrooms 🙂

CMC Book Cover

A day or two ago, I was looking at Mark Hennessy’s translation of Zheng Manqing’s book “Master Cheng’s New Method of Taichi Ch’uan Self-Cultivation“. Not for the first time, by any means – I’ve had this book for years – but I haven’t read it for quite some time, and maybe the tiredness made me look at it from a different angle.

The thing about the Zheng Manqing form is… why 37?

The translator, Hennessy, notes that in Zheng’s various books the forms are counted differently, and yet always add up to 37 movements:

In every book Cheng himself published, he manages to count the postures differently and yet makes absolutely sure that the final count is thirty-seven. (p x)

In the next paragraph, we are told:

The question remains as to why Cheng labored in fitting his simplified Form into an uncompromising thirty-seven-posture model. He never wrote of any reason, nor alluded to the possibility of a correlative cosmological interpretation. […] We can only assume that if this question was important he would have left us a clue.

What struck me as curious, though, was this, in a later part of the book, Discussions:

There are three distinctions of ch’i. The first is inside your body – blood ch’i; this is our foundational ch’i and it must be kept at thirty-seven degrees Celsius. The second form is outside your body – air ch’i; this is the stuff we breathe and it can be connected to the tan-t’ien, the so-called Sea of Ch’i, or Room of Stored Essence. Nourishing your ch’i by sinking your breath to the tan t’ien warms your essence ch’i into the third form of ch’i – yuan ch’i. This ch’i connects the body’s membranes and permeates the bones. (p22-23)

Now, I’d be the first to admit that this is a tenuous link, but there we are: the only place where Zheng mentions thirty-seven in any context other than the length of the sequence. In the context, it’s actually unnecessary to mention it at all, to be honest, since “body temperature” would have been as easy. (Of course, perhaps this is what the original says, and it’s only a translator’s phrase – but I don’t think so, since I gather the translator is American, and the Americans don’t use the metric system…).

In a way it makes complete sense: 37-degree blood qi is the foundational level of qi, the 37-sequence form is the foundational level of self-cultivation…

I’ve googled it, but I don’t find this hypothesis anywhere. Has it been discussed to death and discarded so that no-one talks about it now? Is it crazy? Let’s bear in mind that Zheng is not exactly shy and retiring in his style of writing; it would seem perfectly in keeping for him to make an analogy between his new taiji style and the fundamentals of life…

Your opinions?

Category: Cheng Man Ching, Taijiquan

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Opening and closing the gates


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More on the tuina soon.

Happy holidays


For those of you in the West: happy Easter! To those in the Chinese cultural zone: happy Qing Ming!

This is my third Qing Ming in China, wow. And I only planned to be here for four months….

It’s an auspicious weekend: SPRING has finally arrived! At last! (Cue manic laughter and many exclamation marks). The trees around the lakes at Houhai are starting to put out flowers; soon we should see the first faint fuzz of green, and this unusually long and bitter winter will slip away into memory…

Only one of the Hong Kongese guys was still around yesterday, not one that I’d trained with on Wednesday. It turned out to be a really good session. The second hour was all tui shou again. First I partnered with a new person whom I haven’t seen before. He’s obviously trained in yiquan before, so he must normally go to one of the larger group classes. Chinese, young, pretty strong but not yet subtle. He was pretty keen to have a go and attack, which was ok with me. I didn’t have too much difficulty deflecting his power and spinning him, but there were times when he was pressing hard, and I was soaking up the force in my qua and the tendons of the arm…. and he suddenly took his arm away; with his force released, my arm just sprang forward, so he got smacked in the mouth. Going to have to watch that…

Afterwards, I partnered a German guy – also young and very strong, plus much taller than me. I was pleased about that, because as I posted recently, I rarely get the chance to try out tui shou with people who are not my own height or shorter. On this occasion, we were fairly evenly matched.

Oddly, after an hour or so of vigorous tui shou, my muscles weren’t acheing. Even today, there’s not really any stiffness… Maybe it’ll hit me tomorrow…

Master Yao ended the class by reminding us how the yiquan training system works: first you work on the standing techniques, thinking about what you feel. Then you practice the testing-force exercises on your own, mentally working out the applications. Then you train with a partner, to see whether you were right, and identifying where you’ve got things right or wrong. Then you go back to the beginning.

After class, I took my sabre and cycled down to Zhongshan Park. I forgot to take photos, doh! It was a lovely spring afternoon, with quite a lot of people about. I found a quiet corner looking across the moat towards the red walls of the Forbidden City, and practiced my taiji. I worked on the first quarter of the sabre form, going through that about a dozen times, and also on the ZMQ-37 set, doing that five or so times. All I’m going to say is that it was great to practice on it outside, and there is significant room for improvement!

A good day.

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…

A busy weekend

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I spent a lot of this weekend interviewing university applicants. They have to go through a whole series of tests and examinations, but one small part of the procedure is an English-language aptitude test, so many of us foreign lecturers are roped in for this. We are paired with a local member of staff, and interview the applicants one by one, with an average of six minutes for each. The standard of English varies enormously, from near-fluency to complete inability; most are able to sustain a simple conversation about their lives and aspirations. (Note to self: that’s better that your standard of Mandarin – get this sorted out).

It’s tempting to get bored by this constant stream of stumbling, inarticulate youngsters. Still, many of them are still in shock after the dreaded gaokao; many of them have spent years in preparation, only to be disappointed. In addition, it’s a real opportunity to learn something about the lives and aspirations of China’s young people – easier in a way than with my own students, since there’s a culture that encourages maintaining a distance (correctly so, in my opinion). Many of them are vague about why they are applying and what they want to do – but really, was I any different at that age? I decided to make it an exercise in compassion, if that doesn’t sound too precious, and to try to find something interesting in each one. I’m glad I did; many, who were incredibly nervous and could barely speak at first, relaxed and talked passionately once the right question was asked. Not all of them will succeed, of course. Still, I know that these were extremely important interviews for them, and the experience will have marked them; I hope each one left feeling that someone was genuinely interested in them.

Anyway, moving on. I met up with Master Liu Jing Ru’s disciple Kong Cheng on Saturday evening. We first met when I trained with Master Liu back in 2007; he’s the one who took me out to visit Dong Hai Chuan’s grave. He’s recently returned from a tour of Europe, where he was teaching bagua and TCM in a number of countries. We chatted about bagua and other martial arts, and he didn’t dismiss my ‘theory’ that bicycling is a great CIMA training method 🙂 (Hey, but don’t the classics say that one of the hardest joints to relax is the ankles? And can’t pedalling really focus your mind on the flexing and movement of the ankles? And there’s also the alignment of hips, knees and feet…) Hehehehehe. Anyhow, we discussed training, as (as I previously blogged), I was thinking of re-starting bagua. I’m not sure that I can go back to Sun Ru Xian Lao Shi, as I don’t live near him any more, and the language is an issue (but let be clear that I really like and respect him – his skill is fantastic, and he’s an incredibly warm and generous guy). The Liang-style teacher has moved location, and my contact with him, Taichibum, seems to have vanished. Kong Cheng suggested that I train with him, and I think that’s probably what I’ll do, although not until after I’ve gone back to Wales for break.

And on the topic of going back to Wales, I see that there’s a systema school near my hometown, so I’ll try to get a couple of private classes if I can, just to finally get a taste. Via Twitter, I’ve also found that one of Cheng Man Ching’s students lives fairly close as well, and it would be cool to catch up with him if I can.

As for the yiquan… well… something’s happening. Last week, I went to a morning class, and really made progress, I felt, with the basic health movements and testing-force exercises. Everything just seemed to work, and I went home feeling stretched, with the tendons in my wrists and hands feeling energised after force had rippled through them. Master Yao commented that I’ve relaxed a lot since I started his classes – which I agree with, and I put it down entirely to the yiquan training methods! I couldn’t go on Saturday, due to the interviews, but I made it yesterday. To be honest, for most of the class I was just feeling tired, but towards the end we had a tui shou training session. I was paired up with one of the new students, who’s about my age, I think, very strong but very tense. I found that the more he pressed, the easier it was to slightly redirect his force and neutralise it, without me needing to use muscular strength. Then the “something’ happened – I found I was able to ‘bounce’ him. I don’t really know what I did, but he was thrown backwards and upwards, with both feet off the floor. As soon as he touched down, I was able to do it again. This really didn’t take any strength on my part. I could have carried on, I think, but I was a little bit freaked out, and broke contact. Hehehe, the whole class was speechless. There was a long discussion about it, which of course I couldn’t follow. Master Yao I think pointed out that I still tend to go through tui shou in a taiji way rather than the way yiquan does it, which is probably true – I tend to be passive and wait for my opponent, rather than moving to take them down. I also haven’t mastered yiquan’s quick, uprooting methods. I’ll work away at it, though. Master Yao told the class that I had real gongfu, though, which of course I’m very pleased about!

Hehehe, I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: yiquan rocks!

Musings on motivation


Master Sun Ru Xian is out of town, so I didn’t have class with him today. I did plan to get up early as normal, and just practice solo, but I woke up feeling lousy and decided to stay in bed. The headache’s lasted all day, I hope I’m not coming down with something.

There’s building work going on just outside the university walls. Typically, no-one warned us that the water supply would be affected. The block where the staff laundry is located has had no water for three days now. My block is OK, so my bathroom still has water, but there are some staff living in the laundry block, and they’re suffering. For me the worst of it is that I’m handwashing all my clothes in my bathroom. It’s not my forte, no matter how much I visualise Once Upon a Time in China II….

I did get out to practice this evening. After 20 minutes of zhan zhuang, the CMC-37 set must have been one of the best I’ve done so far. Today, the standing practice didn’t hurt at all, instead just striking the right balance of resilient softness… I’ve had a bit of a breakthrough on Snake Creeps Down, and have made adjustments so that it doesn’t pressure my knees so much. I followed that with a set of the xuan xuan broadsword, but my mental blank with that is still around. No worries, it will pass eventually – I’m confident it’s all still there in muscle memory, I just need to empty my mind enough to tap into it.

I spent most of the next hour working on Master Zhou’s wuji set, and I think I’m making good progress there; it’s coming back reasonably quickly, although many details remain fuzzy. I finished off with a bit of work on the ba da zhang, topped off with pan guan bi.

I attracted the attention of a moth again. What is it that they want? Do they like the salt in perspiration, or something?

By this time, it was past 9pm, and I was feeling pretty low on energy. My favourite dumpling shop outside the west gate stops taking orders at 9:30, so I hopped on my bike and went straight there – no time to go home and change, as I normally do. My arrival with broadsword slung over my shoulder, then laid on the table, caused a bit of a stir – more than I’d anticipated. The younger waiters all wanted to play with it. I really hadn’t expected it to be so strange for them – perhaps I’ve been spoiled by my experiences in Singapore! No matter what else I might say, it was a wonderful thing to live in a really old-school part of “Old Singapore”, full of wuguans (is that right?), temples, and so on, where the sight of people wandering around with swords and spears didn’t raise an eyebrow. I rather suspect that by the time I get back in August (for a visit only, my plans have changed…) a lot of that will already have gone. Singapore is losing its roots, sigh….

I spent some time this afternoon revisiting Tabby Cat’s older blog, the one describing his intensive yiquan course last year. This is the same that I hope to take a year after him – August 2008, compared to August 2007 for him. I’ve learned a lot since I originally read this, and have met Master Yao, so I am seeing different things this time round. Like Tabby (or should that be TC? No, then I only see childhood cartoon characters… Top Cat… heh…) I’m a firm believer in soft over hard; the CMC-37 set was the first taiji style I learned, and it’s still my favourite… I’ve seen for myself that the atmosphere in the Yiquan Academy can be pretty macho; not really my preferred environment… and yet I really think there’s something there that I can use to improve my taiji and bagua, as well as the inestimable value of the yiquan itself… I hope it all works out – fingers are crossed…