Blog Archives

Learning to walk

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There have been a number of times over the last few years when I’ve thought to myself “How dumb can you be? How can you have reached the age you’ve got to without having learned to walk properly?”. I’ve actually been even embarrassed to mention it here! These moments came, of course, after yiquan training sessions, when I’d had some insight during the zhan zhuang, or the stepping exercises, and then I’ve spotted a specific postural problem that, when thought about, I’ve realized has been leading to me walking incorrectly for goodness know how long. I found it hard to believe that other people besides me also didn’t know how to walk properly…

I was rather glad, then, when I cam across this passage in Constantin Stanislavski’s Building a Character:

As I was walking home today I daresay the passersby in the street took me for a drunken or abnormal person.

I was learning how to walk.

But it was very difficult.

The instant when my weight was shifted from one leg to the other seemed especially complicated.

By the time I neared the end of my walk it seemed me that I had succeeded in getting rid of the jolt when I shifted my body from one foot to the other – let us say from the toes of my right foot to the heel of the left, and then (after the shifting movement had run along the whole plant of my left foot) from the toes of my left to the heel of my right foot. Besides, I came to realize from my own experience that smoothness and an unbroken line of forward motion depend on the correlated action of all the springs of the legs, from the harmonious co-operation of hips, knees, ankles, heels and toes.

I was in the habit of making a stop when I reached the Gogol Monument. As I sat there on a bench I observed the passers-by and their way of walking. And what did I discover? Not one of them took a full step right to the end of his toes nor remained poised even for the fraction of a second on the tip of the last one. It was only in one little girl that I saw a floating gait and not the creeping type of all the others.

Tortsov is indeed right, people do not know how to make use of the marvelous apparatus which is their legs.

So we have to learn. We have to begin from the beginning and learn – to walk, to speak, to see, to act.

I’m going to have a bit more to say about Stanislavski, his techniques, and his students….

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 πŸ™‚ (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!

Temples

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Since this is a “holiday”* weekend in China, I took the opportunity to visit temples in a part of Beijing I rarely go to.

I’d had an excellent time in the morning’s yiquan class; we covered new material, including the use of the voice to generate power. We also did a bit of staff work. In the tui shou session, I tried to apply the ideas I was talking about before (generating power from the kua) and it seemed to work. I also tried to use more footwork – switching angles relative to my ‘opponent’; that also worked pretty well. I think I might finally be getting somewhere!

For the afternoon, I decided it was time to finally visit the White Cloud Temple, outside the old city walls to the southwest. It was a beautiful sunny day, and it took me perhaps forty minutes to cycle there. As I got close, the path became unclear, as I got caught up in a tangle of curving roads coming down from the second ring road, which at that point is elevated and not open to bicycles. This took me out of my way, and as I cycled back towards the Temple I spotted a pagoda rising on the skyline.

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At first I thought it was the White Cloud Temple, but it became clear that it had to be something else, not marked on my map. I decided to take a look.

It turned out to be the thousand-year old Tianning Temple. It’s small, in terms of area; there are few courtyards. In fact, there really isn’t much there at all, except the pagoda.

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I found that this actually added to its charm. Outside the gate were shady trees with locals passing the day chatting or playing chess beneath them. Inside, there were very few visitors, almost equal in number to the guards and assistants, who seemed to be a small community in themselves. Maybe it was the sunny weather, but the temple seemed to have a sleepy, unhurried charm – but unlike other, busier, temples that I’ve visited in China, it seemed to be loved by the people who cared for it. For example, it’s one of the few temples I’ve been to where the carers have taken the trouble to polish the bells:

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The pagoda is, of course, the focus.

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It’s beautiful and must have been even more so before it was damaged, presumable during the Cultural Revolution. There are guardian figures on each side, but almost all of them are very severely damaged, and some are completely destroyed.

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The people there were really friendly. As I walked around the pagoda, the security guard – who was stretched out full length in the shade – called me over. At first I thought there was a problem, but he just invited me to sit down on the temple steps and pass a little time. We chatted to each other for a while about the usual things, and then he took me over to the temple shop to chat to the ladies in the temple shop. After a while, I tore myself away, as I still wanted to get to the White Cloud Temple! I left with regret, though; I was charmed by this tiny little temple, dwarfed by the factory and smokestack next door, and yet seemingly happy and peaceful within its walls.

So, I moved on. The White Cloud Temple probably needs no introduction; it’s a famous Daoist Temple where TCM, qigong, and martial arts are still practiced. Frank Allen and Tina Zhang, for example, always take students there to study during their annual trip to Beijing.

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This temple seemed almost TARDIS-like – much bigger on the inside than it appeared from the outside! There are many small courtyards, most with one or more shrines to gods of the Daoist pantheon.

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There didn’t seem to be many areas that were closed to the public, and I walked past many buildings which were clearly living areas; some perhaps for the Daoist monks, and others for lay people, some of whom I suppose may be staying for treatment at the TCM clinic.

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Each small shrine had a monk attendant in charge. Most of these were reading, studying texts of one kind or another. One, however, was without any doubt practicing yiquan! I watched him for a while, thinking that perhaps he was just engaged in some other form of zhan zhuang, but after seeing how he was moving his weight, and the movements of his hands, I’m convinced that it was yiquan. I did actually ask him, but he didn’t acknowledge me.

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Soon afterwards, I took a while to sit down in a small garden, and watched a sparrow as he perched on a tap, while rival birds squabbled in the trees overhead. It was one of the few peaceful spots I found in this temple. Even on a quiet day like yesterday, there were lots of people passing around; the monks all seemed very business-like. Of the two temples, if I get a free day with good weather, I think I would be much more inclined to return to the Tianning Temple to doze in the shade, knowing that this temple is a real part of the neighbourhood community.

In any case, after that, I cycled up to the Drum and Bell bar at Houhai, for a couple of much-needed cold beers. On the way, I passed some things you wouldn’t necessarily expect to see…

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Sitting on the bar’s rooftop, I watched the flocks of pigeons circling, returning to their roosts on the roofs of hutong homes, and remembered how people apparently used to train them to fly into the imperial granaries, returning home with their crops full of grain…

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It was a good day, yesterday. Beijing is changing dramatically, but it’s still possible to feel a connection to the life of the city that stretches back to the Liao, and to Genghis Khan….

* I put “holiday” in quotes because in China, when a public holiday falls on a Thursday, Friday also becomes a ‘day off’. However, Friday’s work duties are moved to the following Sunday, which becomes a normal work day. Thus, we get three days off in a row, but the next working week becomes six days long. No doubt there is a logic to this, but it isn’t clear to me.

We can rebuild him


How do you generate the essential power of the Chinese internal martial arts, fa jin? Occasionally I get it; usually, I don’t. In other words, I don’t understand it well enough to reproduce it consistently. Slowly, slowly, my understanding improves…

Recently I’ve been attending yiquan classes in the mornings, once or twice a week, since my schedule allows that. In fact, I should be there now, but it’s the Duanwu holiday, and my body clock evidently decided that sleep was more important. Maybe it’s not a bad thing; I went yesterday morning and we spent a couple of exercises working on just a couple of static “testing force” exercises. As we repeated the moved over and over, I gradually realized – thanks to a demonstration and explanation by Master Yao – that if I turned my rear hip and thigh this way instead of that way, then I had the ‘springy’ isometric tension that’s such an important part of yiquan technique. Aha! So, I focussed my attention on that for the rest of the class; it’s going to take a lot more practice before I can do it either well or consistently, but I wanted to fix familiarity with the sensation and action into both mind and muscle memory.

Two problems – firstly, by concentrating on the hip/leg feeling, I lost focus on what my hands were doing (I’m not so great at multi-tasking!). Master Yao repeatedly came over to correct me, and I couldn’t explain what I was trying to do. I must say, though, that he never shows any impatience or frustration! He’s really dedicated to helping us progress, even at a snail’s pace if that’s the best I can do!

Second problem – I was beginning to see how to generate power. Once generated, it had to be transmitted, and ouch, I am not as relaxed as I need to be for this to happen… I could feel it being dispersed as it passed through my lower back, and through my shoulders – although these areas are far more relaxed than they were before I started yiquan. The biggest problem was my forward leg, the right leg in the stance I was using. I’ve grown accustomed to thinking of my left leg as the weak one, ever since I really hurt the Achilles Tendon in 2005. However, after lots of therapeutic massage (plus, I am convinced, the benefits of practicing taiji and bagua), that’s pretty much fixed now. Not 100%, I gave it a painful jar when I missed a step yesterday, but functionally it’s fine.

So now, it’s the right leg, but here I’m addressing deeper issues. I’ve noticed that my right foot always tends to twist out about 45% when I’m in zhan zhuang, etc, and I’ve mentioned before that the knee/kua tend to cave inwards. Thinking about it, I can place these issues in my memory at least as far back as primary school, which means I now need to correct a life-long postural problem. Doh! It’s very important, though; as I issue force from my hips, I found that it wasn’t moving forward, down my leg, and into the ground in a clean, straight manner, the way it was meant to. Rather, it was spiralling down, wrenching my knee and ankle on the way – which means pain today! This can be fixed, but it’ll be a slow process of keeping my awareness in the muscles and tendons, gradually reshaping them so that my foot is properly aligned. A daunting prospect, but one that once again convinces me of the advantages of the internal martial arts – this is, as far as I’m concerned, an excellent example of the way neijia‘s focus on relaxation and awareness of qi, and the small physical sensations inside the body build and nurture health as well as martial ability into old age.

By the way, speaking of old age and the likelihood of me reaching it, I had a near miss recently. Lately, I’ve been cycling everywhere in Beijing; using the bike rather than public transport has totally changed my understanding of the city’s layout and psychogeography! Anyway, I was cycling home a few nights ago, along the Second Ring Road (the innermost ring, following the line of the old city walls). I was approaching an off-ramp, and was having to turn my head a lot, looking for a gap in the traffic to get past the exit… Going fast, I went straight into a pothole that I hadn’t seen in the dark! Arrgh! I was thrown forward, over the handlebars, losing my grip on them… I saved myself by clinging on to the basket on the front of the bike…. My feet, somehow still on the pedals, kept pedalling frantically, as I sailed passed the exit with my backside pointing to the heavens… Smooth, real smooth… I suppose I can thank martial arts for my balance, which meant that at least the bike stayed upright and I didn’t pitch down onto the tarmac! I regained control, but found the next day that my back had really been jarred, with lots of muscles stiffened up… Heh…

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Many of the stories about Chinese martial arts masters of the past – in other words, what many would consider the ‘golden age’ of kung fu – describe the way the master in question defended his home village against overwhelming number of bandits… In fact, the general lawlessness of imperial China was the whole reason behind the development of whole schools of martial styles, each one optimised for its physical environment, and the anticipated skills of opponents.

That’s the past. In more contemporary times, I’ve been fascinated by a couple of news reports in the last week. The first is an NPR report about a university undergraduate student who has become the mayor of her village in Shaanxi province. Using her family’s money, she built a road that helped the villagers in their farming. Alas, it didn’t go smoothly:

Bai says one of her most frustrating moments was when residents from a neighboring village built a house, blocking the road she was building. She tried to negotiate, but her fellow villagers lashed out in anger.

“By the time I got there, they had destroyed about half of the building,” she recalls. “I tried, but couldn’t stop them. The crowd was enraged and had lost all reason. The situation was out of control.”

The residents from the neighboring village later tried to beat her up, she says, at the instigation of the local township party secretary. Her villagers protected her.

Meanwhile, on the southern island/province of Hainan,

One person died and nine others were injured in clashes between Gancheng and Baoshang villages which started Monday in Dongfang City. […]

The two villages, each with a population of over 10,000, have been feuding for more than eighty years over land and because of gambling houses.

The recent trouble started Monday night, when angry villagers gathered at the township government building to protest the government’s response to a fight between a student from Gancheng village and another from Baoshang.

The protest became violent when their demands were not met. The office buildings of the township government, the police station and a local inn were smashed and burnt. Damages were put at more than one million yuan.

Spontaneous clashes between the villages since then had resulted in one death and nine injuries, according to the information office of the Dongfang City government.

More than 1,000 policemen are now in the villages to maintain order. The bridge connecting the two is now under the control of the police to prevent further clashes.

Even so, people remain scared. Fruit and vegetable dealers are not coming to Gancheng.

Baoshang resident Zhang Mingyong said he had not gone to his farm since Monday in fear of a revenge attack by Gancheng villagers. As a result, he had no choice but to let his mature capsicum rot in the land.

On Thursday night, more than 100 residents holding knives from each village conducted their own patrols to prevent attacks.

Even now… it’s medieval out there!

Finally, looking forwards, with police in the UK predicting a “summer of rage“, and the global recession seemingly deepening into depression… there will be a lot of hungry and angry people out there. Learning to fight suddenly looks much more useful….. I grant you, I really study martial arts as a tool for insight and a meditative path. However, to quote a contemporary yiquan master, Cui Rubin, “Although Master Wang Xiangzhai said that β€˜combat is the lowest skill’ (jiji nai moji), […] in order to become a great master you must at the very least possess this ability”. That’s taken from an excellent, and very long, interview with Master Cui that I found recently. I highly recommend reading the whole thing!

Smiles, styles, secrets, friends.

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A new semester has started, and I’m far happier at work now than I was during the previous six months; I’m noticing that as a result, I’m much more motivated to get off my backside and do stuff… including martial arts.

My friend H. came along to the yiquan class yesterday. She has a background in Northern Preying Mantis, and (after I suggested it to her) she attended Master Yao Chengguang’s academy for a month last summer before going back to the UK for 9 months. Now that she’s back she wanted to check out my school: partly because I’m there and it’s good to train with friends, but more because Master Yao Chenrong’s Academy is rather more female-friendly, and there are a number of women training there. She really enjoyed the class, and will be attending every Saturday, which will be nice.

We were comparing plans for the coming semester (she teaches English) and we both have a scary number of objectives. In fact, we both want to do more than is realistic! So, some pruning is needed…

I have to say that the chance conversation I had with Carlos last year has had a profound impact on my interest in martial arts…. If it wasn’t for that, I wouldn’t have started yiquan… which would have been a great shame! As I’ve mentioned before, I’m getting fantastic results and insights from the yiquan I’ve studied with Master Yao Chengrong, and this weekend has kind of led me to a decision. Since I came back from Wales, every yiquan class has been really fruitful; I’ve had great insights into posture, breathing, power and movement – and let’s face it, that’s no small potatoes! I can’t see that I have any other choice but to focus on yiquan as my main style, now. That means I’ll be doing very little baguazhang, except some maintenance on some of the styles I’ve learned to date. Here’s an example of the yiquan training methods:

This means the fulfilment of a prophecy… Last summer, before I started at Yao Chengguang’s wuguan, I met up with a Chinese friend of mine, who trained at Shaolin for 20 years, and now runs a martial arts school in Beijing. He said firstly that I should train with Yao Chengrong and not Yao Chengguang, and secondly that if I started yiquan I would give up bagua. At the time, I didn’t believe either would happen. Well… I wouldn’t say that I’m giving up bagua… I’ll go back to it in a while. I don’t think I’ll be attending the Liang-style school for some time though (in any case, I hear that it’s moved again – the old warehouse space is due to be demolished, so apparently they’re on a university campus now, according to taichibum).

The yiquan is also making me think far more about the use of the body than most previous schools or classes have done. As an example, Master Yao pointed out the other day that my right kua tends to collapse in, taking the knee inwards with it. Once I started paying attention to this, it completely changed my posture, and even the way I walk. How come nobody every noticed this – or at least, drew it to my attention – before now? I’m beginning to relax my back a lot more, which is having a big impact on the stiffness in my left shoulder and lower back – which, if you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you’ll know is a big deal!. As I loosen up, I’ve become more and more interested in systema.

I’ve been bowled over my the generosity of a reader (who wishes to remain anonymous), who gifted me 14 DVDs and 2 books on systema. I am really grateful, mate – you know who you are! I’ve been watching the DVDs a LOT since they arrived, and there’s a lot in systema that I recognize from bagua and yiquan. More than that, though, there’s something about systema when I see it performed by Vladimir Vasiliev that looks absolutely right, as if this is the way I’ve always thought that a martial art should be done. It’s something about the softness, stillness, and fluidity of it… particularly against multiple opponents…

The way that Systema is described by the author of Let Every Breath, Scott Meredith also seems that it fits perfectly with the goal I’ve been searching for for the last few years: an effective martial art that is thoroughly integrated with meditative and spiritual aspects (although Systema specifically claims a connection with Russian Orthodox Christianity, there’s nothing I’ve seen or read that’s incompatible with my Buddhism). So even though I’ll just be self-teaching from DVDs around the yiquan, you should probably expect to hear a lot more about Systema in the future. When I spoke to taichibum, it turned out that he’s trained a bit in systema before, so now that the spring is on the verge of arriving in Beijing (touch wood!) I may suggest an occasional get-together with him to work on it… The gf’s return from Siberia has also focussed my attention on my need to lose a few kilos so who knows, perhaps I’ll take up cossack dancing for an aerobic exercise πŸ˜‰ Seriously, though, I think that yiquan and systema are extremely compatible…

While I’m on this note, I’ve also been invited to take part in another martial arts project – but, for the moment, I’ve been asked not to talk about it πŸ˜€ It’s unlike anything I’ve done before, and should be pretty interesting… Once I can, I’ll let you know more, but it won’t be soon…

Back in harness

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I may have had to admit, rather shamefaced, to Carlos and Yiming that I’m not doing much independent practice at the moment, but I have started going to yiquan classes again – yesterday and today.

I think that after watching a lot of systema recently, something has clicked. In these two classes I’ve found that I’m getting my shoulders and hips relaxing and moving in unison, which I had problems with before; plus, I’m finding much improvement in the way I add my body weight into movements. Speaking of which, a friend was asking about this stuff on Friday night, and I managed to use a one-inch punch to knock him off his feet (onto a sofa, I hasten to add). It’s really not so hard, is it? I wonder why people make such a fuss about it? (Joking!)

The class has been quite big this weekend; I think there must have been about a dozen yesterday, and seven or eight today. Master Yao actually called me on my handphone last weekend, just after I flew back in from Wales, to check when I would be coming in to class – he keeps contact with his students, it seems.

The atmosphere is very relaxed; he was chatting away with the Chinese students as we all went through our shi li exercises, mostly about different kung fu styles and masters, I think.

It’s probably something for a different blog post, but I was amazed at the amount of traffic that was generated by my last post! Right here, though, I should say that I’m really pleased with the training I’m getting at this school, Master Yao Chengrong’s Beijing Zhong Yi Wuguan.

As many readers will know, I first got a taste for yiquan at his brother’s school. You’ll find the posts elsewhere on the blog, but the reason I (and others) knew about it was largely because of Tabbycat’s blogging. Tabby responded to my last post with a blog post of his own, giving his own thoughts. I can’t compare the teaching of the brothers; I didn’t see much of Master Yao Chengguang and was taught by his main student. All I can say is that at my current school, the training has a lot of explanation of practical usage, and (in the week evening classes, rather than the weekend afternoon classes I attend), regular sparring. The training hall is well-lit and reasonably large, there’s no smoking, and there are a fair number of female students… Perhaps Tabby would like to give it a go next time he’s in Beijing πŸ˜‰

Tough times for wuguan

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I was in a bar down Nanluoguo Xiang last night, catching up with my friend H, who’s back in Beijing after being away for nine months. When she had to pop to the bathroom, I idly picked up a copy of Beijing Today that was lying around. It’s edition 402, dated Feb 13 2009. There was a full-page article inside with the title “Hard days for wushu schools”, which featured Yiquan Master Yao Chengguang rather prominently. The article, by Jackie Zhang, isn’t online, and I don’t want to type the whole thing, but there are some interesting points.

Talking about his wuguan (where I studied briefly last year), the article says:

Since the wuguan was established 15 years ago the number of students has remained at around 40. With each course costing 300 to 400 yuan, the money the school makes is barely enough to keep going. “We have to rent houses and employ coaches. Some students are from places outside Beijing and we have to provide them accommodation and food,” Yao said.

To make more money, Yao created yiquan instructional manuals in print and video. “The financial situation is now better; we only have to worry about next month,” Yao said, adding that wuguan who are doing well can be described the same way.

In the past, wuguan flourished because owners also ran other businesses at the same time. “They ran businesses that took advantage of their wushu skills. […] But that business model cannot work any more. “I’m busy with the daily affairs of the wuguan” Yao said.

The article continues to say that many wuguan used to receive sponsorship from businesses whose owners are wushu enthusiasts, but that this is drying up as businessmen seek clearer financial returns for their money, as well as the global economic downturn affecting them.

Master Yao is quoted as saying that most wuguan were forced to close or go underground during the Cultural Revolution.

China’s economic reforms that began in 1978 gave wuguan new life. “Wuguan started opening again, but years of lying dormant made it difficult to repopularize the martial arts”, Yao said.

Wuguan are regarded as folk organizations, so they do not get support even from wushu associations

“Wuguan are not our business, a woman surnamed Lian from the Beijing Wushu Association said. She said the role of the association is to sponsor meetings of directors of each of their 57 wushu research organizations and to disseminate information about wushu competitions and policies”.

The article goes on to discuss the difficulty of motivating Chinese students to take up wushu; they are offered taekwondo in school, and those who try Chinese wushu often give up when they discover that it takes hard work, and that they won’t acquire movie-style super fighting skills. Finally the article mentions that wuguan see hope in attracting more foreign students; it talks about Master Yao’s Polish disciple Andrzej Kalisz (although not by name), and the spread of Yiquan wuguan to other countries.

The article ends with a quote from Xiao Bing, vice-chairman of the Foshan Wushu Association:

There is potential for the renewal of Chinese martial arts. Every little attempt brings hope for the future”.

Update
This reminds me of my recent post about the decline of Chinese martial arts in Singapore for much the same reasons. Very sad.

Musings


In yesterday’s yiquan class, I was talking to Karula, the German girl who’s been staying in Beijing for a month. She studied taijiquan in Germany, and came to China specifically to study yiquan. She’s been training every day, and has the bruises on her forearm to prove it. She speaks better Mandarin that I do, and mentioned that I’d misunderstood what Master Yao said last week: it seems he said I can use his brother’s book to help me understand what is going on, I just need to be careful of some differences. That’ll be useful.

We practised a couple of the more unusual yiquan postures: ban fu shi chengbao zhuang (bending over expanding-embracing post) and xiang long zhuang (landing dragon combat post). The first is standing, but bent forward with the arms and forehead resting on a support, and is apparently good for the intestines. The second is a long stance, with 70% of the weight on the forward leg (it’s usually 70% on the back), arms raised, and the torso twisted so that you’re looking backwards… It needs reasonably good balance, and is developing waist power, I think!

Karula and I tried some tui shou, as the the German guy who’s usually with her wasn’t at class. I thought they’d come together from Germany, but it seems he actually lives in Beijing, is a long-term student of Master Yao’s, and was just helping to translate. Anyway, something interesting occurred, as I was pretty tired: as Karula tried to press me, I deflected her force and – in that slightly dreamy state you get when you’re tired – I found my hands “sticking” to her arm and going almost automatically into taiji’s “cloud hands”, which demonstrated that it is an effective joint-breaker. Hmm. Of course, I didn’t break her elbow, but it became clear that it could be done! It made me think about my views that sparring practice is necessary in training: yesterday, that application of cloud hands emerged spontaneously – but I’m not sure it would have been so clear, or at all useful, if that had been a real fight rather than a training session….

Speaking of training and sparring, a Serbian girl lives downstairs from me. She started attending wushu classes for the first time shortly after I moved into my apartment, and showed me some of what she’s learned. Even though she and her fellow-students are all novices, her teacher has already got them started on the short staff (bian gan), similar to what I studied for a short while with Sun Lao Shi. She’s already way better than me! There’s many possible reasons for that of course πŸ™‚ but one is certainly that they train the form in class, but then also do free-form sparring, learning to apply what they’ve just studied – so learning to improvise, improve reflexes, and so on! Of course, it helps that she’s fluent in Mandarin!

I was planning to go out with friends to have dinner last night, but it got cancelled at the last minute. That left me at an unexpected loose end, so I headed down to Houhai to see what was up. I’ve noticed that since the Olympics there are many more touts – in some sections, almost every bar has a young guy or two outside trying to lure in passers-by, plus lots of “lady bar” pimps. They’re getting a lot more aggressive as well; I think a lot of people invested heavily in bars for the Olympics and, when the visitors didn’t arrive in the numbers that were expected, found that they are not recouping their money. That’s just my theory, but it’s a fact that these guys are barely stopping short of physically dragging people off the road and into their bar! One of these lads got particularly in my face last night, well beyond what I thought was acceptable, and it led to a bit of a scuffle and name-calling. Nothing more serious! I should, of course, have let it pass but I notice that since I started training yiquan I’ve got a bit more of a temper. I expected this – those of you who knew me in Singapore may recall that I said for quite some time that I didn’t want to study xingyi, because I was worried that xingyi is by nature pretty brutal, and I was concerned about the effect it would have on my temperament. Well, yiquan is derived from xingyi and, yes, I’m finding that its directness and ferocity are having an effect. I’m going to need to start balancing my training with meditation – which would be a good thing to do anyway.

Heh, on the topic of aggression on the streets, this is of course one reason why I want to develop my ability to protect myself if need be! Dragoncache thinks I’m being over-stressed about this, and he’s probably right but… on the other hand…. there’s a recession coming, and hard times with it. China’s a pretty safe place, of course, but on the other hand, you know, there are a lot of people here who have got used to an ever-improving economy, and may not be prepared for the money drying up. At the back of my mind, I recall the TV scenes of the riots in Indonesia in ’97….

So on that note, a couple of links:

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not walking the streets in fear! China is very safe πŸ™‚

And as for that scuffle with the tout… I felt bad afterwards that I’d let myself be provoked. When I sat down later, though, I started reading my copy of The Compass of Zen, which I had in my bag, and it opened to the page about the Avatamsaka Sutra, and I read:

The Avatamsaka Sutra teaches that everything is truth. In Hinayana Buddhism, for example, getting angry and then acting on that anger is not such a good state. But the Avatamsaka Sutra displays Mahayana Buddhism’s extremely wide view: like everything else in this universe, anger is also truth. For example, a child misbehaves and plays in a dangerous street. The parent sees this and becomes very angry. The parent scolds or even spanks the child. “How many times have I told you not to do that?”. The child’s behaviour is the truth: it is not good or bad. The spanking and the scolding are also neither good nor bad, and they are also the truth. Whereas the Hinayana view is to try not to act on anger, in this view – the view of the Avatamsaka – the anger and the scolding and the spanking are meant to prevent the child from causing harm to himself and others. They are simply truth.

I’m going to think about this.

The Yiquan Academy: Review

4

Right, this is coming quite a bit later than I expected due to unforeseen events; sorry if you’ve been waiting. I’ll try to keep it brief.

I attended classes at the Beijing Institute of Yiquan almost every weekday for three weeks. On most of these days I was there twice, from around 10:30am to 12:00pm, and 5:00pm to about 6:45pm. I studied the equivalent of four modules from their syllabus.

Yiquan

I knew almost nothing about yiquan before I started. I knew that it was derived originally from xingyiquan, with elements incorporated from baguazhang, taijiquan, and western boxing. What attracted me, though, was that it did not have set forms, as almost all other martial arts do, but seemed to develop strength and sensitivity through the use of standing postures. I really wanted to learn more about this because:

  • My research into internal martial arts was increasingly convincing me that if I want to make progress, I need to work hard at standing techniques to develop strength and endurance. Most of my teachers have taught me forms but not standing, and I felt I needed to correct this.
  • My time is very limited. I wondered whether there was a martial art that could combine effective training with effective meditation. It seemed that yiquan’s techniques might be the opportunity to do this.

My conclusion – such as it can be after only three weeks – is that yiquan really is superb. After many individual sessions, I really came out feeling that I had had a fresh insight into posture and physical structure. I am absolutely certain that continued study of yiquan will rapidly undo years of bad posture, relax chronically tight muscles, and overall generate the physical ‘softness’ that’s at the heart of the internal martial arts.

Starting from these crucial foundations, the yiquan curriculum rapidly moves on to work on combat techniques, all of which seem to my unqualified eye to be extremely functional and effective.

As I said in one of my posts: yiquan rocks! I am deeply impressed.

The school environment

The school is in a street very close to Chaoyangmen subway station. It isn’t what I’d expected from the web site; it’s a basement apartment, not a traditional courtyard building. Training in the park only happens on Sundays, although I wasn’t able to attend any of these sessions.

Although based in a modern apartment building, the school is very much as I imagined traditional schools to be. The apartment’s main room is where students train, and there are two rooms connected to it where a number of students live full-time. It’s a completely different environment to the kind of “evening classes in a gym” that most of us westerners (and I include Singaporeans in that!) would usually have experienced. I found it a really cool experience. The more experienced students would sometimes go outside, and train in the street. I was the only foreign student during the period I attended the school. Most of the Chinese students were very friendly, and helped me out if they saw me doing something wrong. A couple spoke English, but most didn’t. The apartment was pretty hot and airless, given that it was summer, but with fans blowing it was quite tolerable.

The teaching experience

As you would expect in a traditional environment, I was – as a new student – taught by the senior student, Li Xin, not by the head of the school. In fact, I didn’t see Master Yao Chengguang very often after the first few days. However, he did keep track of what I was being taught; when he arrived late in the evening session, he would check with Li Xin what I had been taught that day, observe me practising and correct mistakes, and generally kept an eye on my progress. I really respect and like him, and overall found him to be very concerned about his students and his art.

Li Xin doesn’t speak any English, but he was very good at explaining the techniques and demonstrating what he wanted me to do. My limited Mandarin, and the excellent explanations in the supporting books, helped to clarify any issues.

The website gives the hours as Monday to Saturday, 8:30 – 11:30am and 3:30 – 7:30pm; this differs from my experience, where I was told I could attend 10-12 and 5-7 Mon-Fri. I wasn’t able to go on the weekend in any case, so I didn’t ask about these. As it turned out, I rarely attended even these hours fully; even given the shorter hours I spent there, I felt that it was plenty of time!

Given this good quality of instruction, I felt that I learned a lot very quickly. However, there were times when I felt that I was being pushed through the curriculum quicker than I was comfortable with, and that I was not given enough time to work properly on some techniques. This is not something that applies to me: a friend who attended the school on a different occasion said the same thing, and comments I’ve seen online suggest that other people also felt this.

Supporting materials

Master Yao has developed a series of books and DVDs to accompany the syllabus. They’re not cheap by any means, but they are one-off purchases. The books are excellent; they are extremely clear, and helped me understand the purpose of each exercise along with the mental visualisations that I should use. I haven’t had the time to watch the DVDs yet, so I can’t comment on them.

Pricing

The price per module is 600RMB. I finished four modules in three weeks, and would have done more if I hadn’t deliberately slowed the pace down. When you consider that I was there for between three to four hours every day, that’s extremely reasonable for Beijing!

The four English-language books are CAD $75 each, and the set of 8 DVDs is CAD $300. These are Western prices.

I referred to cost quite a bit during my posts, so I need to clarify that this is a personal blog and reflects my personal situation. I try hard to keep it neutral and informative, but nevertheless, I have no obligations to write about what “a typical student” would experience. So, I complained about costs at times because it’s an issue for me, and so I’m going to write about it. However, to be clear, I’m not a typical Western student; I’m earning a local salary, and furthermore, I attended this course during the University holidays, when I have no income whatsoever. Bear that in mind; most foreigners who wish to attend the Academy won’t have such issues.

Overall

Yiquan is superb. I really do hope to carry on with it. I really liked the school environment, I found the teaching and support good, and the people are great. Would I recommend them to other people? Yes, as long as you’re clear what you’re getting into.

As I’ve mentioned, the school seems to me to run on very traditional lines. That’s great, but it can be very different to what many wushu students from overseas may be used to, which might lead to some misunderstanding over expectations. Also, if, like me, you don’t speak much Mandarin, you may find that there are communication problems (such as when I arrived to find the doors locked and no-one there).

As for the pace of the lessons, there are two points of view being expressed here. The way the school works is to take you through the material very fast. Andrzej explained this in a comment: the intention is to help the student get the overall idea of how the different element – health and combat – relate to each other. The material is then repeated several times, in increasing depth. This works, I think, very well – as long as the student has committed to yiquan, and is intending to spend a long time learning in-depth. However, for people in my situation (and my friend’s, and – I suspect – some of the others whose comments I’ve read online) we’re not there yet; we aren’t really sure about yiquan, we want to learn more, and we want to be sure we understand what we’re shown before we move on. When we’re pushed through faster, we remain unconvinced that this is really what we want, and we feel rushed, that’s the truth. Pointing this out isn’t a criticism of anyone; I’m just, again, highlighting an issue arising from different expectations. I’m lucky that Andrzej has been reading my blog, and has taken the time to explain where the school is coming from; I think other people who haven’t been so lucky may have left feeling a bit less satisfied.

Finally:

  1. I began the three weeks knowing almost nothing about yiquan. I am now highly impressed, and had more than a few major insights while I was learning some yiquan techniques. It’s very, very good.
  2. I really enjoyed my time there. The atmosphere was friendly and supportive, the teaching was good, and Master Yao is knowledagble and very committed to his school and students.
  3. Was everything perfect, from my point of view? No. Mostly, these are due to my personal situation, and shouldn’t be of concern to most readers. Some issues are due to differences in expectations, and the Academy could make some changes to their marketing, but the quality of the art, the teaching, and the Academy are not issues here, and are all very high.
  4. Would I recommend the Academy to readers who are curious about yiquan? Absolutely, yes.
  5. Will I be carrying on with yiquan at the Academy? This is more tricky, due to personal factors. I do want to carry on learning yiquan. The Zongxun Academy is not convenient to get to, for me. Even after I move into Old Beijing later this month, by the time I’ve commuted back down from where I work, I’ll still be on the other side of the city. In fact, by coincidence, the other Yao brother, Yao Chengrong, has his school a few minutes’ walk away from my apartment, and it makes far more sense for me to try that. We’ll see. That’s just a practical matter, though: I would happily recommend Yao Chengguang to anybody.

OK, this has taken me a long time to write; I lost a draft and had to start again, so there’s perhaps lots more I could have written, but this is enough. Feel free to ask questions or respond in the comments!