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Studying Liang-style baguazhang


Intermediate-Level-18 Palms











What can I say? I’m delighted with Liang-style bagua. As a system, it’s got everything I’ve been looking for. In fact… twelve years after I arrived in Singapore with a rudimentary knowledge of Cheng Man Ching’s taijiquan, a period in which I’ve always felt that I’ve been searching for something which nothing I studied quite gave me… this is it. This is what I’ve been looking for, the whole time. Wow.

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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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Red Queen

Wow, I’ve been busy lately. Definitely feels like I’ve been taking part in the Red Queen’s Race. Hopefully I’ll have a bit more spare time in the next few weeks and can train and blog more!

I did get to yiquan class on Wednesday morning. There were a group of lads up from Hong Kong, staying for a week and training intensively. I met some of them last year, when they did the same. Very nice guys, and some of them very experienced in yiquan. It was great engaging in tui shou with them; in that class we we practising Pi Fa Shi Li, and at first I simply couldn’t hold them back at all, nor could I break through their guard. They helped me out, though, and explained in English where I was going wrong, and what I was missing; for example I wasn’t pulling my palm back far enough when I was pressing, so I wasn’t getting maximum force at the point of contact. A very good lesson; I really enjoyed it. Don’t know they’ll be here this weekend; I’ll find out in a few hours!

My yang-style taiji sabre has been languishing in my office since I bought it, propped up in a corner. Due to problems with our computer system, I had to unexpectedly cancel a class yesterday and I decided to use the free couple of hours to take a look back at the xuan xuan sabre form I learned from Nam Wah Pai in Singapore. I’m very rusty, but I have a video of the form on my iPhone, and muscle memory still seems to kick in, so I made a bit of progress – though of course it’ll take time to be any good at it again. It was very interesting to note that, although I was taught this form using a normal dao, the hand positions are absolutely right for using the yang-taiji dao. The copy of Zhang Yun’s book that I bought in Singapore is going to be useful, I think. Spring finally seems to be reaching Beijing, so it’ll be easier to train outdoors. I haven’t worked on taiji for quite some time, and was a little taken aback again by the difference in the experience from yiquan – taiji giving a much more general, diffuse sense of energy activation; I noted that every cell seemed to be tingling with a gentle warmth, my skin seemed to be suddenly expelling toxins and my mind was much calmer, straight away. I think I do need to devote more time to the taiji.

I’ve signed up for a basic tuina course, as I want to develop at least some basic capability in a healing art, and this seems like a natural match with the meditation and martial arts that I’m already engaged in. It’s going to be two hours per class, two classes per week for the next month. Only eight students are allowed per class, so I’m hoping it’ll be a useful experience! First class is next week, so I’ll let you know how it goes.

I went to see the new 3D version of Alice in Wonderland last night. I must say, I was underwhelmed. I enjoyed the earlier part, which stuck fairly closely to the original setting, but then it turned into a generic fantasy action adventure, which didn’t seem faithful (IMHO) to the nature of the characters, especially the Hatter. I enjoyed the sheer over-acting of the White Queen, but was surprised at the severity of what happened to the Red Queen, which seemed excessive. The dance scene seemed to have been dropped in from another film altogether…. Two stars out of five.

Flashback to enlightenment

In the west of Cardiff (the capital city of Wales), not far from the road to Penarth, there’s a garage. I think I only ever went there once, probably in 2002, because my car needed new tires, it was a Sunday, and they were one of the few places open. Across the road, there is an old municipal pumping house that’s now become an antiques centre, crammed with all kinds of things. I went there for a couple of hours to poke about while the garage sorted my car out. It was an autumn day, I seem to recall, overcast, windy, rather chilly. I don’t think I’ve given that afternoon a single thought since.

Until yesterday. I was in my yiquan class, and we were practising fuan shili, which begins at 4min 12s in this clip:

The problem for me here is balance. If your weight isn’t properly sunk, you’ll tend to overbalance as you go forward in this move. To properly sink your weight, you have to be relaxed, so that your muscles don’t hold your weight further up. Furthermore, if your force is going to be properly transmitted out to your palms… you have to be relaxed; otherwise, stiff muscles will block the flow of power, and you’ll end up hurting yourself as your own force smacks into the area around the blockage.

So there I was in class, sending my attention to areas of pain; the pain coming from muscles that were either trying to hold my body weight when they shouldn’t (lower back; along the upper part of the spine on the right; stiff left pectoral preventing left shoulder from properly opening up, so causing pain on upper left back), or because they were acting as “energy dams”, blocking the flow of force. As my mind went to each one, seeking the muscle and trying to relax it, I got transported back to that gloomy autumn day in Cardiff.

This actually happens a lot in yiquan class. Very often, for some reason, I get flashbacks to the filling station in Llanrhystud; I suspect there’s a lot of subconscious emotional attachment to that because it was a sign that I was getting out of Aberystwyth and heading somewhere fun. The Cardiff garage, I suspect, flashed up because I was getting the car ready for sale, because I was about to leave Wales for Singapore (not that I realized then that I would be gone for seven years and counting…).

I’m pretty certain that I never got this kind of random flashback when I lived in Wales. It began when I was about to go to China for the first time, in early 2004. I was learning the xuanxuan taiji broadsword form at Nam Wah Pai. Because the scheduled course didn’t finish until a month or so after I was due to leave Singapore, I was going to the school four nights a week, training three hours per night, in order to learn the form before I left. In the last few weeks, I started getting a lot of flashbacks to moments of intense emotion from my life. I was really getting worried by this. Luckily, I didn’t go straight to Beijing; I’d booked myself in to a 10-day Vipassana retreat in Thailand, my first encounter with meditation. There I learned that this kind of flashback is entirely normal in meditation, and is a good thing, as long as you’re prepared for it. In the Theravada school of Buddhism, this is seen as a sign that you are clearing out the seeds of future karma, weakening their ability to shape future lives – and, when they are all finally, once and for all, gone, and all your attachments to past actions are broken… Well, congratulations, you’re off the wheel of rebirth!

It’s therefore only to be expected that yiquan and taiji can be vehicles for meditation. In Vipassana, the meditator focusses first on the breath, and also the muscle pain caused by prolonged sitting, to clear the mind, and to practice letting thoughts, emotions, and sensations pass by without comment or attachment. Similarly, training in neija requires a focus on the muscles in order to become soft, and that kind of transient focus on muscles, moving the mind around the body without thought or attachment, achieves much the same effect.

Hehehe, quite a pleasing little flash of insight… A recent email exchange got me thinking about this. Yiquan doesn’t talk about qi at all, where taijiquan does (and especially the taijigong taught by Sim Pern Yiau of the Nam Wah Pai Association in Singapore). And yet, the need for softness is the same in both, and the way I was describing the search for softness in my yiquan practice sounds to me very similar to the way we think about freeing the flow of qi in taijiquan (and, curiously, what I’ve read about breath in systema, but that’s a topic that I don’t want to open!). There have certainly been times when I’ve been standing in zhan zhuang in class, and felt heat as my lower dantian opened.

Anyhow, I said when I first went to try out yiquan in 2008 that I was interested in giving it a go because it seemed to have the potential for combing martial and meditative effectiveness, and that really does seem to be the case.

A little red dot ahead


Here’s a quick review of my recent thought processes.

Not so long ago, I decided that I would work one more year and then switch to spending most of my time on training in martial arts while working part-time. Key point: I decided to put my passion above job/financial security. Hmm. Well, these are uncertain times to be doing that but while I was in Wales, I talked to a number of people whom I’ve known for many, many years. I was surprised by how many people wished that they had followed my kind of life. They’d got the houses, and the pension schemes, and the money in the bank – but also the dread of paying the mortgage, hating their job, missed dreams, and infidelities… One conversation I had fell into the realm of tragedy, someone who had ‘done what was expected’ all their life and now felt that it was all for nothing. That person made me realise that following my dreams is the only way to go.

Another insight: while I was in Wales, I realised that (perhaps because I’m getting older), I treasure the sense of being ‘home’. Wales is home: it’s where I’m from. All the more so because of the effort I put into making it my home – I’m not a native speaker of Welsh, so the effort I put into learning it, and becoming a part of the Welsh-language community was real gong fu and ‘eating bitter’, believe me! Singapore is also home, as I realized over the past week. I love the smell of incense in the streets, the ethnic and cultural diversity, the greenery and birdsong. I felt at home from the moment my plane touched down. It was also a chance to re-connect with what I now see is a pretty diverse set of social networks – I know a lot of people in Singapore, particularly now that a large number of my oldest friends from Beijing have moved there! Beijing… I love Beijing, I really do, but it’s not home and never will be. There are great people here, but it’s like a university town on a vast scale; almost no-one is going to put down roots here. In addition, as I commented a short while back, I have this sense that China is starting to close down a little – political control is being stepped up, censorship is increasing, and for someone like me whose professional area is e-commerce and (especially) social media, that’s not good professional news.

One other thing about Beijing – there’s almost no spirituality here, and that lack is becoming more significant for me. In Singapore, I helped out as a volunteer in the kitchens of a Buddhist temple, and loved it. I was told last week that the Abbess and others still ask after me, and you know what – I’d really like to go back. In Singapore I was mixing with Buddhist monks and Daoist spirit mediums. Most people don’t realize just how much is going on behind the scenes in Singapore! In Beijing, there are no Dharma talks, whereas in Singapore I could go to Bright Hill for that.

The big mental breakthrough I had while I was on the flight from Beijing to Singapore was to accept that I’m not going to learn Mandarin. Like I said above, I’ve already gone from nothing to fluency in one language, so I know the time and effort involved in that – and I can’t do it again under current circumstances. I like my job, but it takes a huge amount of my energy; after the last semester ended, I was essentially a zombie for three weeks, and I know that the coming semester is going to be even tougher. Without Mandarin, there are very few alternative jobs, though. In Singapore, even though the economy’s suffering now, there are many more opportunities (including part-time).

As for the topic that most readers here will want to know about… martial arts… what then? Well, as I mentioned before, I would like to master at least one martial art to the level that I can teach. As I’ve frequently written, I’ve been willing to take my time in order to find out what’s right for me. I’ve studied some great styles, and I’m had the great fortune to learn from world-class teachers, including some legends. In the end… I keep coming back to taijiquan. I love bagua. Yiquan absolutely rocks. And yet… when I’ve had some kind of success in an encounter, it’s been because I’ve used a taiji technique. Language is also critical here – I don’t feel that I’ll ever truly master yiquan or bagua, because I can’t understand the fine points that my teachers make in class.

In Singapore, I could study taiji in English. I’ve trained in two schools there, in some depth: Master Rennie Chong teaches the Chen Man Ching style, while Sim Pern Yiau teaches the Wu Tu Nan line of Taijigong. Of the two, the Wu Tu Nan form is actually more what I’m looking for. Probably that’s for a future blog post.

That’s the basis for my decision to move back to Singapore next year. Like everyone else, of course, there are other factors in my life that affect my decisions, and some of these are not for this blog!

Tropical warmth


I’m in Starbucks, just next to City Hall MRT station in Singapore. I’m reading Tabbycat’s latest post, about running, the running shoe industry, etc; as it happens, I’m wearing a pair of the Vibram Five Finger Shoes that I mentioned a short while ago. I bought them yesterday, and so far I’m finding them to be really, really comfortable. I may even buy a second pair.

I’m having a great time in Singapore. I feel really relaxed 🙂 It’s been great to hang out and chat with good friends. I’ve had long conversations recently with Carlos, and Pern Yiau, and tonight I’m meeting a group of my old fellow-students from Madam Ge Chun Yan’s bagua class. Oh, I think I forgot to mention – Madam Ge was on the same flight as me, from Beijing to Singapore! We had a chat for a while, but we still don’t have a language in common!

There’s a lot of background here which I haven’t shared on the blog, but for a number of pretty compelling reasons I think I’ve decided for certain to move back to Singapore in early 2010. In a way, this is a sudden decision, in that even as late as last week, I was still thinking in terms of a couple more years in Beijing. I couldn’t sleep, though, on the overnight flight from Beijing, and as the hours passed and I thought things over, I realized that moving back is the right thing to do. That was a few days ago, and nothing has occurred to me to change my mind. The main difficulty will be finding a job, but… well, fortune favours the brave, right?

If I make the move, I’ll probably commit to studying the Wu Tu Nan line of taijigong with Pern Yiau until I get up to a level where I can become a teacher myself.

This isn’t set in stone; there are people I still need to talk to and whose advice I want, but it’s looking likely….

Three questions


OK, here’s a few questions that I’ve been wondering about lately. I wonder if anyone out there knows the answers…?

  1. Going back some time, on the old version of this blog, I linked to an article in Kungfu magazine that discussed policing methods in the new Chinese cities. My focus then was on something else, but I am curious now about something else that was mentioned: the use of cords.

    Chinese police are well versed in restraint-tie techniques. The restraint tie, really little more than a simple length of cord, is one of the most common tools for a Chinese cop, also one of the oldest and most traditional. It has been used for dynasties, so a vast arsenal of techniques exist. Beyond the basic procedures for quickly ?hog-tying? a suspect, there are methods for neutralizing knife or baton attacks. In the right hands, a rope is all that?s needed to subdue an armed assailant.

    Does anyone know anything about this? What’s the name of this art? Are there any online resources?

  2. Are there any traditional Chinese styles that focus on the dagger, or small knife? If so , which ones? If not, why not? Google didn’t suggest any…
  3. Does your martial art train you to take a punch? Of course no-one wants to get hit, but even the best defender has a bad day. So, I’m not talking about practicing blocks, evasions etc; I’m not even talking about just getting used to it via sparring – I mean, do you train specifically to receive a punch and keep on going? I’ve seen videos of Vladimir Vasiliev doing this in his systema classes, and Sim Pern Yiau of Nam Wah Taijigong gave me a demonstration of using Taiji softness to yield so that a blow’s force is dissipated. How about your teachers/styles?