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Systema again

It’s been an interesting couple of weeks. Lots of food for thought.

As I write, the muscles between and around my shoulder blades are only hurting a bit, having been very painful for the last couple of days. That’s the result of Thursday night’s systema class! As I wrote in my last post, I’d decided to get back into gear and start attending systema classes again, the classes this time being led by Jeff Faris.

When I went the week before last, Jeff was away, attending a seminar in Europe. Not many people were there: two of his students, myself, and a newcomer who’s never studied any martial arts before, but had got interested from seeing clips onYouTube. I gathered that the two students hadn’t been studying systema for long either, but we started off with some of the exercises that were familiar to me from Mark Winkler’s classes, and then moved on to striking exercises. This was very interesting: Nick, the student who’d taken charge, introduced this in terms of theory – looking at the position of your opponent’s feet, and directing your strike towards ‘the third point of the tripod’ to break your opponent’s balance. He also mentioned the helix and the wedge, which I’ve previously only heard mentioned by Matt Powell’s Pramek, though I know it comes from the Kadochnikov system. This kind of simple but effective theory is something that I haven’t encountered before, and is one of the things that has really attracted me to systema Kadochnikova.

Later on, another student arrived, and the session went up a few gears. This was a guy from Latvia (I’m guessing from accent etc that he’s one of the Russian minority population there), and has clearly trained extensively in systema. He got us working with exercises in soft power, unbalancing our training partner simply through redirecting their force. With my background in taiji and yiquan, I’m fairly good at this sort of work, but I have to say: this guy stood in front of me, put his hand very gently on my chest and, with very little pressure indeed, had me flying backwards. It was very similar to what you see taiji masters doing…

The same guy was there last Thursday when Jeff came back from his travels. Jeff had us doing a lot of hard striking work, using punchbags and pads. That’s why my shoulderblade and back muscles are hurting! We did quite a lot of work striking double pads; I did my best to use the big muscles of back and leg to generate power, and it worked fairly well. The muscles that are aching are those that are loaded when I’m standing in zhan zhuang properly, though I plainly haven’t been doing enough of that lately. We also did a lot of work on ‘crowd scenes’ with five-on-one work, either simultaneously or in procession. When we were all attacking simultaneously, it was interesting to note that the target rarely had to deal with more than one or two at a time, with the rest standing off to look for an opportunity and/or getting in each others’ way.

We finished with work on some of the more esoteric aspects of systema. Jeff introduced us to ‘social distance’ – for example, the space between an individual and a hostile group at which the individual’s actions aren’t yet definitely an interaction with the group (eg a change of direction, going through a shop door – is it an attempt to escape, or something that has nothing to do with the group?) He also demonstrated how to introduce a new social distance – eg, as members of the group approach, seeming to respond to someone in the distance behind them.

Very briefly, Jeff then mentioned distractions (eg clapping hands) and changing the rhythm of your movement to confuse an opponent; I was rather reminded of Piper by the way he showed this! I asked him after class, though, and he’d never heard of Piper, so there we are.

We then moved on to no-contact force, using psychological cues to get an opponent to stop, or even fall, through gesture, eye contact, and projection of will. This was right at the end of the session, so I didn’t get deep into it – but of course, the no-contact aspect of systema (not to mention taiji’s lin kong jing) is pretty controversial. I don’t think it needs to be, since it works according to fairly clear principles – but, I suspect it needs a great deal of self-knowledge and self-awareness before it can be used. My impression so far is that it depends on identifying where the opponent has mental and/or physical blockages. It’s easier to do this if you are aware of your own, and of how they were expressed in your movements and facial expressions, for example; have that knowledge, and you can spot it in someone else. The trouble is, it also works better when you are familiar with the opponent; in my case, if my opponent expresses the intention to punch, I’m much more likely to freeze up and respond (by stopping or, indeed, recoiling and even falling over) if I’ve trained regularly with him and know how much that punch would hurt! This is why we see ‘lin kong jin experts’ getting into trouble on YouTube when they face up to a stranger; they’ve become used to training with the same people.

So: my first two weeks getting into systema have been fascinating. I’m really enthused, and have learned a heck of a lot. Can’t wait for the next class….

The roots of Piper


As you’ve probably understood by now, I’m back in Beijing. Whenever I fly, I want something to read. I have many books of my own, but I’m a bookworm: I read, and re-read my books, and so for a long-haul flight I tend to want something new, and always buy something from the airport bookstore. On this occasion, I picked up a copy of Ross Kemp’s Pirates – partly from a Jianghu-inspired interest in Pirate Utopias, and partly from something mentioned in William Gibson’s Spook Country… It was interesting, but blah, didn’t tell me anything I didn’t know from reading the news, you know?

Still, it got me curious about what else this actor had done after he turned to journalism (given the adverts inside the cover of the book), especially since he seemed to have done a lot of programmes about gang culture around the world. After checking the relevant Wikipedia page, I searched YouTube… ANd found the programme that Kemp filmed about the Cape Town prison where Piper’s roots can be found….

It’s far from perfect – there’s a lot of metropolitan English attitudes that annoy me. For example, in the first episode, Kemp treats (it seems to me) some of the prisoners as stupid because they can’t understand him and he can’t understand their Afrikaans accent. This continues throughout the programme; the prisoners are always subtitled. Well… dunno – I can understand them with no problem, and it’s over 20 years since I was in South Africa but there we are…

There’s also a moment (in the second clip) where he describes a hardened criminal as “looking like a 12-year-old child”. WTF? You watch it, and tell me if that guy looks 12 years old!!! I just can’t understand why he says that….

Anyway, here is the program. Lots of good background on where Piper comes from.

Category: Piper

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It seems that the US Government has a need for Combatives Training. I haven’t read the details but… are you listening, Piper?

Piper in Singapore


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 😉

Getting to the point

The extra practice I put in last week seems to have paid off, and yesterday’s pan guan bi lesson made some real progress.

When I went to Master Sun’s apartment, I was greeted by my teacher from Singapore, Madam Ge Chun Yen. She’s in town for a while because her father is ill. We chatted briefly, and then I went outside for class with Master Sun and Mi Lao Shi; Madam Ge stayed inside.

The lesson was good. Mi Lao Shi corrected me on a number of fine details, and is particularly trying to get my performance to flow more smoothly. When we learned this set in Singapore, it was in poor light, and with a big class, so everything was broken down into small steps; I’m still mentally counting “yi, er, san, si, wu, yi, er san si” etc as I go through the stages, and I’m tending to stop at the end of each move rather than flow seamlessly into the next. My arm movements also tend to be stiff and cramped, rather than sweeping and expansive. Lots to work on; for the first time, I’ve used my phone to record Mi Lao Shi doing some moves, and then asked her to film me so that I can contrast the two. Hopefully that will help my solo practice; should have thought of it before!

Master Sun seems to have decided that I’ve made enough progress that he’ll get more actively involved, and for the last ten minutes or so we started to work on some applications; he showed how to block some attacks, and respond with strikes to pressure points in the arms, throat, and shoulders. Of course, I found that under pressure, I couldn’t remember the specific moves – I need to practice more, to get this ingrained and automatic! Heh, it was very cool, though; this is what I’ve been aiming for. Mentally, my challenge for myself is to get good enough that I could use the bagua judge’s pen against the Piper system – some hope, eh?

What a weekend…


I need a holiday to recover, how am I going to face work tomorrow…?

As I mentioned, the Piper guys were passing through town for a few days; I managed to catch up with them on Thursday night at a seminar they gave at a local school, and then again on Friday night – after my class with Master Zhou – as they explored Chinatown. Very, very nice guys. More on that in a later post.

Yesterday was taken up with a small part of the seemingly endless preparations for my move to Beijing, followed in the evening by Ch’an meditation. Our sifu instructed us in the different kinds of meditation, and their purposes. I am still hung up on the koan of “What is a butterfly?“. Katz!

Today was the second in my interview series as I sat down over lunch with Madam Ge, and asked her about the Beijing wushu team, life in the movies , and the future of Chinese wushu. Many, many thanks to her for her time – and even more to my gongfu brother Jono, for translating.

A bonus was meeting up with a visiting Taiwanese master, Mr Liu Pang Yao. We had much difficulty understanding each other, but it turns out he’s expert in at least Cheng Man Ching taijiquan and Cheng-style bagua (and probably much else besides). He gave a few demonstrations of applications, which were very, very cool – and which I will appreciate a lot more once my back and shoulder return to normal 😀 Very, very, effective, let’s put it that way! He gave me a few flyers for the World Cup Tai Chi Chuan Championship, to be held in Taipei in October this year. Email tccass at ms35 dot hinet dot com for more info.

Now, it’s home again, and settling back into paperwork before work tomorrow…

Piper demo in Singapore

A quick note for anyone who’s interested but didn’t notice Lloyd’s comment on the old blog: the Piper guys will be in Singapore for a few days. They’ll be giving a demo of their Urban Shield system on Thursday; it’s a private event, but they’ve extended an invitation to me – should be very interesting!

Category: Piper, Singapore