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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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Working on the basics

As I was standing in the garden yesterday morning, a flight of wild geese flew over the treeline, not all that far above my head. There were about twenty of them, honking to each other in a leisurely conversation, on their way somewhere…

As it turned out, I was in the garden quite a lot. Two sessions of zhan zhuang: one early afternoon, with the sun warm (for once!) on my face, the other approaching midnight, with a full-ish moon and the stars clear and bright. I also spent a while planting herbs on the bank of the garden; once they’ve taken, I should be able to do my meditations and standing practice with their scent in the fresh air… I remember vividly what it was like to stand in zhan zhuang when I visited Qingbiankou in Hebei Province, with the herb-scented breeze flowing down from the hills… Quite an experience… Finally, I lifted the first of my potatoes… A rather disappointing crop so far, but I bet they’ll taste nice this evening…

Not what you’re expecting from a martial arts blog, perhaps… But wait…

There was a car boot sale behind the town hall yesterday morning, and I strolled down to take a look. I ended up buying a bunch of books, and four chili pepper plants. I’m not sure what type they are, but the peppers look as if they’ll be rather small, which suggests they’ll be hot! (Oh, and I ordered some sichuan pepper bushes from an online garden supplier; give it a year or two, and I’ll be able to prepare my own ma la mix with entirely home-grown ingredients!). Anyway, as I walked down, I found myself being greeted by shopkeepers standing in their doorways and passersby… People I went to school with, or I regularly shop with, or who drink in the same local pub as me, or even just are faces I see regularly… It was a good feeling.

What’s this got to do with anything, you may be asking. Well, it’s been a crazy week, world-wide, hasn’t it? The US downgraded; even so, things will get worse there, because there’s no money left. As I’ve mentioned several times before, in the US, government at every level is broke, and will have to stop its operations. In Euroland, there’s no respite as governments try to find a solution to sovereign debt – but they won’t, because there is no good solution. And, in London, the cracks started to show, as the streets burned, and the police barely held the line. It’s all quiet again now, but the problems are not going away.

Behind all this lies resource scarcity. Oil, food, water, minerals, whatever. It’s all costing more than it did, and that’s only going to get worse. In London, Minnesota, the Middle East, Africa, China… those who have nothing are finding it hard to cope as the costs of living rise… Those who have something will become ever more desperate to hang on to it…

So, it’s a good time to go back to examine basics. The targets I set myself, and described on this blog, a year or so back are proving to be sound ones. I’m re-establishing myself in a strong community, where people know and look out for each other. I’m getting familiar with how the garden works; reading my books to learn about the medicinal values of herbs and spices, so that I can decide which to plant… And working on the martial arts and meditation, to build mental and physical resilience…

At the top, the photo is of London Sikhs, who gathered to protect their gurdwara from the mob; standing on the steps with swords, axes, and sticks. Perhaps that kind of thing will become more common.


Yesterday, I drove up to the Hay Festival of Literature and the Arts for the day. Hay-on-Wye is an interesting place, a small town full of bookshops. It’s separated from my part of Wales by the Brecon Beacons, which makes it a lovely drive.

When I left home, the weather was cold, very windy, and raining; a pattern of weather that we’ve had for a few weeks now, and which has finished off most of the sunflowers I’d planted. I think my sweetcorn and French beans are in danger of going the same way 🙁 Once I’d crossed the Beacons, though, it was quite different – beautiful sunshine all day!

I almost immediately bumped into a couple of old friends, which was great. I moved on into the town to browse for books. I picked up a few that are really interesting, including Primitive Revolutionaries in China. A Study of Secret Societies of the Late 19th Century by Fei-Ling Davies. Published in 1971, it’s a fascinating insight into the society and power structures of Qing-period China, in which the poor and/or low-status professionals and merchants combined to protect themselves. It also inspired an article, Tong Aesthetics, by Hakim Bey who, as you’ll see from the About page, has been an inspiration of mine for quite some time.

The reason for going up to Hay was to catch a talk with Colin Thubron, the travel writer. He was discussing his latest book, To a mountain in Tibet (review, review). The mountain in question is Mount Kailas, sacred to three religions. I’ve been fascinated by this mountain for years. During my MBA, I dated a Chinese girl, a Han who had grown up in Xinjiang. During her teens and early twenties I gather she’d been a bit of a tearaway, and had travelled around Western China and Tibet with friends, hiking and moving around in the backs of trucks, drinking around bonfires in the desert… In the course of her adventures, she had circumnavigated the holy mountain, and was obviously moved by the beauty of Tibet. She recommended Kekexili to me, as it reminded her of the Tibet she knew. I really should watch that again soon.

Thubron did this journey when he was 70. travelling into Tibet from Nepal with “a sherpa, a cook, and a horse”. It was really fascinating to hear his account of it all. It really was a spur-of-the-moment decision to go, having just bought a ticket online that morning. For some reason, it wasn’t sold out, but it deserved to be! When I collected my ticket at the box office, someone mentioned that Julian Assange had just been added to the speakers for next weekend, so I quickly bought a ticket for that. The modern jianghu…

Long pig


Not too much to report at present. Sometimes when wake up at night, my fingers hurt from being tensed during zhan zhuang. I’ve started using the steel rings on my wrists in some postures.

The pair of blackbirds nesting nearby are getting pretty used to me now, especially the female. She darts around my feet while I’m practising the ba mu zhang (slowly, of course). She’s even coming within a few inches of me while I dig up the lawn to become a vegetable plot, hopping here and there in search of fresh, juicy worms. The male is more cautious, and won’t come near. This evening, the female landed right in front of me, and pulled a large worm halfway out of a large clod of earth, held it for a while, and then hopped off. She was looking at the male, perched nearby on the ridge of the greenhouse, as if to say “Look, it’s OK! It’s safe, and there’s good eating!”. I think she’s mentally classified me as strange but useful type of livestock; good at churning up earth, but not dangerous. A pig, perhaps.

There are times when I’m standing in zhan zhuang, maybe in the morning with all different kinds of birds flying about, and the sun just creeping into the corner of the garden, or in the evening with the mud from the garden drying on my fingers, when I simply don’t want to do anything else. I think of the hermits that Red Pine met in China, and I think to myself, this is how they live. Meditation, martial arts, growing their own food, close to nature and in harmony with the wildlife. Could anything be better?

Well, that isn’t an option for me at this time, but I’ll tell you what: these sessions of practice, morning and evening – nothing else comes close…

Talkin’ ’bout a revolution

For those who’ve been as gripped by events in Egypt as I have, here’s a terrific mini-documentary from Al-Jazeera about the April 6th student movement. They use the internet to build up resistance to the Mubarak regime, trained by the Serbian OTPOR movement that led the anti-Milosovic popular uprising. Though the contexts are extremely different, I can’t help but be reminded of The Battle of Algiers – fantastic film that’s a must-see if you haven’t caught it yet.

Video night in the Jianghu


Here are a few clips that have entertained me or provoked thought lately.

I think of this one as A Dream of the Red Junks. I linked recently to a post of John Robb’s, in which he advocates the development of your own tribe; a train of thought that he followed up here and here. I see this being an important train of thought since, by the time I’m 70 or so, I expect that the world to be very different indeed from what we know now, and support networks will be essential. That being the case, and looking at the skill sets that I either possess or am trying to acquire, the Red Junks look like a reasonable role model – people will always need entertainment…

So, that brings us to “The World’s Most Talented Man”, found via the Emptyflower forums:

What an entertainer!

Here’s a video of that Systema seminar in Kuala Lumpur that I mentioned in my last post:

Systema instructors all seem to understand the value of showmanship… 😉

For fun, here’s a bit of parkour in Beijing:

And to get you thinking… How is it that all these urbanites get fed?

Oh, and by the way, rising temperatures have pushed major Antarctic glaciers past their tipping point, which is not good if you live in a low-lying coastal area… This particular source isn’t one that I would regard as academically reputable but this post does tie together a number of issues that have flashed up on my radar over the past few months: Will 2010 Be The Year The World Runs Out Of Food?Don’t say you didn’t see it coming“.

Baby steps


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!

Those who forget history


What can I say? FAIL. This is relevant to something that’s coming up in the ongoing “What’s it all about” series, but I want to put it up now. Sad, very sad.

Look at the two lead headlines, and think about what it means.

Privacy fail 1

State to track every call, email and internet click

For added joy: US pressure distorted oil figures, says whistleblower.International Energy Agency official claims world is much closer to running out of oil than official estimates admit.

Category: Jianghu

I’ve been thinking about Mr Kurtz a lot lately.

In Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the reader follows the quest to find “the inestimable Mr. Kurtz”. Kurtz is the finest product of the Belgian Empire: a scholar, a musician, a poet, a politician. Kurtz is the ideal product of imperial-era European civilization. Amongst the elegant salons of the capital, he charmed and impressed the national elite with his artistic skill, his eloquence and, above all, the power of his intellect.

But Kurtz was sent to the Belgian Congo, King Leopold’s private fiefdom, which was the source of the Empire’s wealth, the foundation of all the culture and civilised behaviour of which he was the exemplar. What he found there was horror.

Kurtz was faced with the reality that his elegant, refined, cultured civilisation depended on the utmost brutality and human degradation for its existence – slavery, torture, and ruthless exploitation of the African population. The foundations of all that he believed in rested not on sand, but on piles of skulls.

Kurtz is an interesting lesson to all of us. What should any intelligent person, what should you, I, do if we come to realize that our way of life is based on unsustainable, indefensible, exploitation?

Kurtz could have rejected it. He could have refused to participate – and would, no doubt, have been unable to rejoin a society that had no desire to face the nature of the truth.

Instead, he accepted it. He accepted the fact of the source of his society’s wealth, and used his skills to do it better, more efficiently, more honestly than any of his competitors, who hid their methods with hypocrisy and proxies. In this he revealed himself as a ‘hollow man’, a facade lacking any moral centre. He went alone into the jungle, became – through force of personality married with superior firepower – a terrible god to the local people, and ringed his ivory factory with human heads on stakes, a technique that in later days, with later methods, (but the same purpose) would come to be known as “shock and awe”.

Kurtz, almost to the end, was perfectly sane. He was just doing what needed to be done. It was the society that produced him that was insane. Kurtz didn’t invent the methods he used; he merely refined and purified the existing tools of empire. The problem was that in so doing, he exposed the nature of those methods and tools in a way that could no longer be ignored or winked at. And, at the very end, perhaps his moral sense revealed itself once more and with his last breath he acknowledged the horror of the system he had served too well.

Kurtz has his parallels today; people who know exactly the human cost of their actions, but simply don’t care so long as the profits keep flowing. Tears, after all, have no place in the balance sheet, or the profit and loss statements. I met these people during my MBA, and their kind appear daily in the headlines about Wall Street.

If you are too squeamish, if you cannot bring yourself to join the ranks of the amoral profiteers, what other choices do you have?

Kurtz was a hollow man, because at his core he was empty. I want to look at some other people who also realized that something was wrong, that either they were crazy or their society was, and made other choices, becoming other kinds of hollow men. To be continued.

I should make a poster of this…

From XKCD, Dreams.

Go visit the link.

Category: Jianghu