Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Off Balance

Below is an excerpt from a post over at Tai Chi Notebook. The topic is the mistaken notion in some internal martial arts circles that once you have taken your opponent's balance, the transaction is finished.There is more to it than that.

The full post may be read here.

I had an interesting chat with another Tai Chi teacher this week. Generally, Tai Chi teachers are nice people who have trained hard at something for a number of years and developed a lot of skill in it. They’re often not that into the martial side of the art, (even if they say they are), yet they’ve managed to pick up a lot of what I call “Tai Chi Miasma” along the way.

(If you want to know what a Miasma is, I do a podcast about the subject and how it reverberates through human history. Click the link above. A brief summation of Tai Chi Miasma would be, “a set of unconscious and often faulty assumptions about combat influenced by Tai Chi training”, but I’d also have to include a lot of Chinese miasma about yin and yang, qi and tao that was incorporated into Tai Chi by the influence of the Neo Confucian Zhu Xi amongst the intellectual class.)

For example, I find that there’s a pervasive belief amongst Tai Chi practitioners that the fight is effectively over once you have taken your balance. They’ll say things like, “once I’ve got you off balance I can walk you around the room”.

I’m sorry to break it to you (pun intended) but no, the fight is not over just because you have broken my balance!

It’s not over even if you get me off balance and whack me in the face, unless I’m unconscious or too hurt to continue by your deadly 5 point exploding palm technique.

Yes, I’m sure you’ve seen your master controlling people with the lightest of touches and walking them around the room in a wrist lock or arm control of some kind, but that’s happening in a controlled training environment. In real life, it’s not like that.

Just watch any combat sport with live training against resistance. Say wrestling or judo.

The players are in a constant state of flux. They are losing their balance and regaining it over and over. Often they willingly sacrifice their balance for a superior position.

They get thrown, they get taken down, they get pinned, but they fight their way back up and go again. The fight is not over just because one person takes the other’s balance, however skilfully or with the lightest of touches they did it.

“Ah!”, they say, “but once you get them off balance it’s easy to keep them off balance. ”

No, no it’s not.

Just look at MMA. MMA is an even better example than pure grappling arts because it involves strikes. Sometimes the strikes are controlled and orderly, but a lot of the time, especially after people get hurt and tired, there are wild punches being thrown looking for a KO, resulting in people falling all over the place, people slipping, kicks missing, etc.

Monday, August 10, 2020

Wing Chun Master Ip Man's Wooden Dummy

Over at Kung Fu Tea, there was an article about the history and evolution of the famous wooden dummy used by Wing Chun; particularly the innovations of Ip Man.

An excerpt is below. The full post may be read here.

Introduction: A Very Brief History of the Wooden Dummy in the Southern Chinese Martial Arts.

I have been shopping for a new wooden dummy (Mook Yan Jong).  Obviously Wing Chun has a long and fruitful association with the wooden dummy, but this training tool is used throughout the southern Chinese martial arts.  Southern Mantis and Hung Gar boxers occasionally use the dummy, as do Choy Li Fut practitioners.  In fact, Choy Li Fut employs a great variety of somewhat more mechanical complex training tools.

Nor is the use of the dummy restricted to martial artists.  Wooden training devices have been used by military forces from time immemorial.  Sima Qian, the brilliant ancient historian, is the first individual to discuss the wooden dummy.  In Records of the Grand Historian (written between the 2nd and 1st centuries BCE) he mentions that Emperor Wu Yi of the Shang dynasty (circa 1200 BCE) made “Ou Ren” (a wooden human figure) that could be used for Shou Bo (bare handed fighting) practice.

Scholars debate how much weight to place on Sima Qian’s early histories, but for our purposes the details aren’t actually all that important.  Whether their attested use stretches back 2100 or 3200 years, wooden dummies have long been used in traditional Chinese combat training.

Nor has this use been restricted to the military.  In more recent centuries wooden dummies became a feature of southern Chinese popular culture.  Stories of the southern Shaolin temple included its hall of diabolical mechanical dummies that a student had to defeat in order to “graduate” and leave the temple.

Much of this lore was conveyed through popular novels, stories, street performances and of course opera.  Cantonese Opera troops attracted large crowds with feats of martial prowess and “military plays.”  This made it essential that they have tools for training martial artists.  Wooden dummies, very similar to the sort still used today, helped to train performers.  The Cantonese Opera Museum in Foshan even displays an antique dummy along with the other artifacts of the industry’s 19th century past.

As a side note, I have always found it interesting that in translating their signage the museum refers to these training devices as “instruments” rather than “dummies.”  Obviously there are lots of percussive instruments in traditional opera, and dummies make a very distinctive set of sounds when struck.  In my lineage of Wing Chun we count a “movement” of the dummy form as being completed when the dummy makes a sound rather than when the martial artists move a limb. I don’t think it requires all that imagination to see the “instrumental” quality in all of this.

Unfortunately we don’t have a lot of examples of really old dummies.  After all, these objects were made of wood and when planted in the ground they would eventually rot.  This must have been an issue in a climate as humid and wet as southern China.

The Foshan Period
Dummies likely started to disappear from the local landscape around the turn of the 20th century.  

Opera was being displaced by other forms of entertainment and the martial arts were decidedly unpopular in the years following the boxer rebellion.  Luckily these swings have a habit of reversing themselves.

By the 1920s there was increased popular interest in the martial arts.  Part of this was the result of efforts by reformers (such as the Jingwu Association) to promote the traditional hand combat styles as a distinct form of unique Chinese physical culture.  However, the growth of the economy and the transformation of the traditional teaching structures into market-based public schools also helped the martial arts to gain a following in middle class and urban areas where they had traditionally been frowned upon.  As the southern Chinese martial arts grew more dummies were produced and put into place.

Most of these dummies were of a type now called Dai Jong (Ground Dummies, also sometimes referred to as “buried” or “dead” dummies).  They were constructed from a log or tree trunk that was anywhere from eight to ten feet long.  Generally speaking the lower three and half feet would be worked into a thick square and buried in a stone or cement lined pit in the ground.

The still round main-body of the dummy would sit about three inches above the ground.  This was enough room to allow shredded rattan strips to be slipped into the spaces between the square base of the dummy and the side of the pit.  Packing the area in this way supported the central pole in an upright position, but it also allowed for a little give and spring when the dummy was struck or pushed.

Occasionally I see accounts stating that small rocks are gravel were used to line the hole.  I am not sure how widespread that practice was.  It certainly could have been done, and it would have provided a much firmer body.  Nevertheless, the resulting dummy would not have had much movement.

All of the surviving dummies of the pre-1940s era, including both the example at the Opera Museum and the Jingwu Hall in Foshan, are of this type.  The picture of the example at Jingwu is quite interesting because it clearly shows how the main body is reduced to a square cut, and how that is positioned in a hole in the ground.

Dai Jongs are still commonly seen in a number of places.  They are encountered in Guangdong province and appear to be fairly common in Vietnam, where at least some of them have been given a more exaggerated swinging motion.   Given the construction of the traditional one story home in southern China they could be planted either indoors or in an outdoor training area.

The preceding series of pictures, taken by Leung Ting and published in his book Roots and Branches of Wing Tsun, show Hak Min Nam (often called by his nickname Pan Nam, b. 1911- d. 1996) working a Dai Jong that has planted in his study.  This is a good real life example of the sort of indoor dummy which Donny Yen is seen working in the first Ip Man movie.  Master Kwok Fu, one of Ip Man’s original Foshan students, planted his dummy outdoors (presumably sometime after the Cultural Revolution) and was still teaching students on it in the 1990s.

This is the sort of dummy that Ip Man would have learned the form on.  Obviously Chan Wah Shun and Ng Chung So would have used this sort of device, and it’s likely that Ip Man owned one as well.  

In general traditional buried dummies seem to be larger than the latter sort, both in terms of their height and diameter.  This greater size might help them survive longer when buried in the ground and exposed to the elements.  It seems that most telephone poles in the US are good for 10-15 years and it is likely that this is how long a Dai Jong could have lasted as well.

Interestingly all of the early dummies seem to have relatively thick offset arms (rather than the parallel arms that are more commonly associated with the Ip Man lineage today) and smaller legs.  However, they seem to have roughly the same proportions as modern dummies.  In both cases the top arm of the dummy sits at about the level of the user’s shoulder.

Hong Kong Period: Ip Man Invents the Modern Wing Chun Dummy

While Ip Man probably owned a dummy in Foshan, our story does not really begin to get interesting until we reach the 1950s.  In 1949 Ip Man and a daughter fled to Macau and then Hong Kong in anticipation of the Communist conquest of Guangdong.  After a number of years of KMT sponsored anti-Communist campaigns it was probably no longer safe for him given his prior employment as the leader of a local police unit.  After spending a few months in Hong Kong Ip Man decided to take up the title of Sifu and become a professional martial arts teacher.

Of course there were a number of complications.  To begin with, he did not have a dummy.  More to the point he had yet to establish a local reputation, a pool of stable students or a location for a permanent school.  Ip Man would spend the first few years of his teaching career addressing each of these problems.

Yet by the middle of the 1950s things were looking up.  Ip was building a larger group of more advanced students and it was now time to consider installing a dummy so that their training could progress.  In fact he was already showing some his students sections of the dummy form which they were practicing like any other set.  In Wing Chun parlance this is called “using the air dummy.”  

While good for a quick review, it is no substitute for the geometric discipline of the real thing.
Life in Hong Kong was very different from Foshan.  To begin with, people tended to live in tall apartment buildings, rather than in one story dwellings with flagstone floors.  And outdoor space was extremely limited in the city, just as it is today.

Our best source of information on the development of modern dummies within the Wing Chun clan during the Hong Kong era is Ip Ching and Ron Heimberger’s (2004) volume Mook Yan Jong Sum FatWhile this can be a difficult book to get a hold of, it has been a great help is assembling the following account.  Sometime in the mid-1950s Ip Man approached a carpenter and friend named Fung Shek.  He explained his basic problem and talked about what he wanted in a dummy.  He then commissioned Fung to devise some means for constructing a mounting system for a portable dummy (Ip Man moved frequently during this period) that could be used indoors.

There are any number of ways to mount a dummy, but Fung’s idea was both simple and innovative.  Rather than supporting the dummy at its base (the traditional method) he instead hung the jong on wooden slats that passed directly through the body.  The thin slats acted as springs.  By moving the supporting structure up the body, where most of the form was actually performed, the feel of the dummy was substantially changed.

Most Dai Jongs had a limited rocking motion, if they moved at all.  The new Gua Jong (Live Dummy) was different. It all had to do with the placement and strength of the slats.  When a student engaged the arms or leg of the dummy they were in effect loading a spring which would throw the dummy back forward in a more lifelike way the moment the pressure was released.

In effect a Gua Jong offers a degree of feedback on your movements that you simply could not get from a buried dummy.  Given that this instrument is often used as a sort of “silent training partner” every ounce of feedback you can squeeze out of it is valuable.  For instance, in Wing Chun students want to punch towards the opponent’s “center line.”  If you do that with a dummy, from practically any forward facing angle, you will force the body back onto the slats and then the recoil will return the dummy to its initial position.  But if your lines of attack are off and you are punching across the front of the dummy, or simply pushing at its arm, its body will slide along the rails, retreating from your incomplete strike.  Again, this is critical because it provides instant feedback to the students on the sorts of subtle pressures that must be “felt” to be understood.

Together Ip Man and Fung Shek fine-tuned the new creation.  The basic idea was sound but it took a bit of experimentation to work out exactly what sort of slats and mounting system yielded the best results.  The final product was a truly custom, and innovative, dummy for the young Hong Kong Wing Chun clan.

Fung Shek delivered his prototype to Ip Man in 1956.  While Ip Man worked with a number of different dummies over the years (as he moved from one school to the next) he always kept the Fung Shek creation with him.  It was his preferred dummy to set up in a school, and eventually in his own home.  In fact, this is the same dummy that used in the now famous series of photographs taken by Tang Sang in 1967.  It was always his personal jong.  It can now been seen on display in the Ip Man Tong in Foshan.

Some of Ip Man’s more senior students were starting to branch off and open their own schools in the second half of the 1950s.  Fung Shek, with his new indoor mounting system, was the sole source for dummies in this early period.  Unfortunately he does not seem to have been very prolific and we do not have many examples of his work.

In reality he was never actually produced that many jongs.  Ip Ching estimates that he only produced 10-12 dummies between the late 1950s and the early 1960s when he stopped taking orders.

Friday, August 07, 2020

Dojo Etiquette

Below is an excerpt from a post that appeared at The Shotokan Times on dojo etiquette and it's place in our budo training. The full post may be read here.

Karate Dō begins and ends with rei.
Gichin Funakoshi
Every Karateka is familiar with the first precept of Gichin Funakoshi – Karate Dō begins and ends with ‘rei’. Also probably nearly every Karateka agrees about the importance of this precept, putting rei at the very centre of their Karate practice. Yet many seem to forget, that rei is not only describing a mental attitude, but also a very concrete physical practice. Paradoxically, while rei as a mental attribute is emphasized, the physical manifestation of rei is often shunned upon by the very same Karate practitioners. They see seiza and bowing as something unpleasant and antiquated, only done to fulfill some kind of Asian tradition but with no real usefulness to Karate practice, let alone fighting proficiency.

This lack of appreciation often shows in sloppy reihō. Even advanced belts are struggling while getting up from seiza, glad that the unwanted part is over and the ‘real’ Karate practice begins. But why not staying true to Funakoshis precept and starting Karate practice (yes, I mean the actual physical training) with rei and not after it? You might ask why? Seiza and bowing have no real relevance in the western world, they don’t apply to your everyday life, let alone to physical Karate practice. Guess what: you’re wrong. 

Bowing in Rei

Did you ever drop something? Did you have to pick it up from the floor? Happens all the time, right? This is essentially bowing! The question is, did you pick it up correctly in a back sparing way? Or did you struggle somewhat, picking it up in an awkward position? Unfortunately many people tend to hurt their backs while picking up stuff.

We all look like really folded cashews.
Jean Couch

This is were we can learn from other cultures. Use your hips! Ever heard about using your hips in Karate training? Do it properly while bowing, too. Bending at the hips engages the hamstring muscles and takes the pressure off the back muscles, sparing your spine and possibly preventing back pain.[1]

A correct bowing will change your body!
Tatsuya Naka

Monday, August 03, 2020

Cheng Man Ching and the Five Excellences

Below is an excerpt from an article that appeared at Taiji Forum on Cheng Man Ching and the Five Excellences. 

It was Cheng's fame as a painter that brought him to New York in the first place, not taijiquan. In fact, according to my own taijiquan teacher, who was a student of Cheng's in New York, he didn't consider himself to be a martial artist, per se. He was an artist, period. His artistry imbued whatever he set his hand.

The full article my be read here. Enjoy.

Professor Cheng Man Ching was a very remarkable man. He maintained the old Chinese cultural tradition whilst China was changing under the influence of the western world, Japanese warfare and communism. Cheng Man Ching still wore his traditional clothes in Taipei and even in New York City.

As an artist he became famous in five traditional arts where most people only managed to practice one or two. In these arts again he was loyal to the old tradition. As a doctor he practiced an old form of herbal medicine. He was called “Cheng of the one or two prescriptions”, which means that Cheng Man Ching in general only prescribed one or two doses of the medicine to his patients. Some of his direct students tell of the surprise of the local Chinese pharmacy:

“Oh, this is a very old prescription, nobody is using this anymore”. Nevertheless Cheng Man Ching was very successful in his traditional medical approach. In Tai Chi Chuan he became so skillful that he was invited to teach at three military academies in China, where he developed his Yang style short form. Eventually his Tai Chi Chuan spread out over the whole world except for mainland China.

Calligraphy was taught by him in a very traditional way indeed: Hours of trying to draw straight lines on paper, then the same with drawing circles. He was isolated in the art of poetry, especially in New York since only a few people could speak Chinese and writing poetry the old fashioned Chinese way is difficult.

Cheng Man Ching seemed to enjoy painting. He did not need a model, everything he painted was already there in his head. Ed Young, one of his translators who is also a painter, told me a story which illustrates the skilful ease of his painting: “I was with Cheng Man Ching in Taipei in 1971 and came into his room and talked to him. Cheng Man Ching was busy with a brush and it looked as if he was cleaning the brush on a piece of paper. I kept on talking to him until he showed me the painting which was a beautiful flower”. Ed apologised: ” I am so sorry that I kept on talking while you were painting”, Cheng Man Ching answered: “It’s alright, since the painting is already in my head.” Ed realised that Cheng Man Ching did all his painting this way – no corrections, no hesitation, it just flowed out of his brush. Cheng Man Ching had one-man shows of his paintings in Paris, New York and Taipei.

Living in his traditional way he managed to survive in such a modern city as New York City. 

He even choose to teach an open class where all students could come, including Western students. The Chinese community in New York tried to keep Cheng Man Ching to themselves and closed the door of the training hall in Chinatown but Cheng Man Ching could not accept this restriction and opened a school on Bowery street.

Some people told me that Cheng Man Ching was a pretty good Chinese chess player and he could also ride a horse. Katy, his daughter, mentioned that once there was a very wild horse that nobody could ride. Her father however, through talking to the horse, was able to tame the horse and ride it! It looks like Cheng Man Ching was an early horse whisperer, subduing the animal by softness instead of force.

There is also a story of a monkey who suddenly appeared in the courtyard of their house in Taipei and everybody was afraid of the animal. Cheng Man Ching went to the monkey and after some time they were eating peanuts together and Cheng Man Ching even let it drink a little wine.

Robert Smith tells a story in which Cheng Man Ching meets a tiger on a narrow path in the mountains in China. Cheng Man Ching got a little out of the way by leaning backwards over the mountain ridge and letting the tiger pass.

Maybe we should say that Cheng Man Ching mastered 7 arts or maybe even 8 for he was very well versed in Chinese philosophy especially Taoism, Confucianism and the I Ging. In the West Cheng Man Ching is most known for his expertise in Tai Chi Chuan. He learned the art from Yang Cheng Fu, one of the most famous teachers in China within the Yang style. In the exercise called pushing hands it becomes evident to what extent one understands the internal principles of tai chi chuan. Cheng Man Ching was able to effortlessly push his opponents far away. It is striking that many of his students reported that they could not feel how they were being pushed. This is called softness in Tai Chi Chuan.

Cheng Man Ching would use the wall as a stopping means in pushing hands over one or two metres distance. Students talk about being launched in the air, bumping into the wall and then landing on their feet. The push felt like nothing, or cotton, or like a cloud. Other people talked about being completely cornered with nowhere to go until launched into the air.

Cheng Man Ching could do these things also in a real fight. He was considered by many to be the best internal martial artist in Taiwan. Wong Chia Man, who is a master of northern Chinese martial arts and a real fighter (known from his fight with Bruce Lee), said to Peter Ralston before Peter became a world champion free fighter, that he should always learn from the best. Wong claimed to be the best in what he was doing, but recommended to Peter that he should learn Tai Chi Chuan from Cheng Man Ching, since he considered him to be the best in Tai Chi Chuan.

Students saw many black belts in different martial arts being easily defeated by Cheng Man Ching. Although all these fights were friendly encounters, it is remarkable that a man in his seventies was able to push them.

I saw one challenge on video, a student said to Cheng Man Ching, “we are always so friendly to each other in pushing hands but what happens if we start hitting?” Cheng Man Ching invited the student to hit him. The student gave his all but Cheng Man Ching took the punches on his body with a smile and then pushed the student while he was hitting him. William CC Chen also has this ability to take punches. I have punched him several times with and without boxing gloves and I never had the feeling that I could damage him. My last encounter was when he was sixty years old. I punched him about ten times in his face with boxing gloves with William saying: “no not right, do it again, do it again”. Ben Lo is known for winning exchanging chops to the forearm.

Another story is of a student who hid behind a door and attacked Cheng Man Ching from behind. He was pushed the instant he attacked. Cheng Man Ching became upset with the student because in a situation like that, the natural response of the returning force could have badly damaged this student. The student was sent away from the school. This story illustrates the level Cheng Man Ching attained in Tai Chi Chuan. The returning force is always present. Techniques are spontaneous, not like “if you do that then I will do this”. The response is there without thinking. Cheng Man Ching loved to do swordplay. In films about Cheng Man Ching you can see him smile and laugh while moving around lively doing a kind of pushing hands with the sword. In my interviews with direct students of Cheng Man Ching 

I have heard different accounts of how it felt to do swordplay with Cheng Man Ching. Some talked about a very light touch from which there was no escape, others reported a very heavy sword but again no escape. In some way his sword was always coming towards you, there was nowhere to go but backwards. Disengaging his sword to attack him was impossible because his sword would have caught you before you could attack. The highest level of swordplay according to Cheng Man Ching was to cut somebody while moving defensively. Ken van Sickle told me that most swords in the training hall had been broken (and glued back together) at their weakest point at the guard because Cheng Man Ching loved to disarm his opponent and the sword would break on impact with the ground.
  • To be as relaxed as possible was the most important point.
  • Becoming aware of the air around you is a sign of relaxation.
  • Swimming in air and feeling the resistance of the air as if you are in water is a recurring phrase in the notes that I have seen, taken in his classes.
  • To move from the center.

Friday, July 31, 2020

The Philosopher of Kendo

Over at Kenshi 24/7, there was an article about one of the seminal works regarding the theory and philosophy of Kendo, the One Hundred Keiko. An excerpt is below. The full post may be read here.

Following on from my last post I’d like to introduce to readers my favourite kendo (note-like) book: Ogawa Chutaro’s epic “hyaku-kai keiko” = “one hundred keiko.”

I have written a little bit about Ogawa Chutaro (1901-92, hanshi kyudan) in a couple of articles before. Just to remind you, he was:

“…  a kendo student at Takano Sasaburo’s Shidogakuin/Meishinkan before being taken under the wing of Saimura Goro (and later Mochida Seiji) and attending the newly founded Kokushikan (he eventually taught kendo there as well as at Keishicho). Right from the beginning, his teachers noted that he wasn’t the usual type of kendo student, that there was something different about him. He came to believe that there was something deeper to be had from kendo than mere fighting with sticks.
He studied zen and kenjutsu, and placed emphasis on the process of shugyo more than anything else. In the early 1970s, when most of the older generation of kenshi were complaining about the shiai-centricity of post-war kendo, he was charged with re-defining what “kendo” was by the ZNKR. The result, published in 1975, was The Concept and Purpose of Kendo.”
Ogawa sensei was – in my considered opinion – the only real kendo philosopher (a sort of public kendo intellectual) in recent kendo history. In the same vein as Yamaoka Tesshu or Naito Takaharu, he looked beyond the mere physicality of kendo itself and into deeper spiritual (even mystical) realms. His background in kenjutsu – rather than the new “pure kendo” of the vast majority of his peers – gave him a deeper historical and cultural understanding as well, allowing him to remain more “grounded” in tradition than he might have otherwise. 

Since his death I have yet to hear about, read books by, meet, or talk to anyone who comes close to his intellectual stature in the kendo community.

The quite-chunky book “One hundred keiko” consists of note like entries written by Ogawa Chutaro between the 16th of November Showa 29 (1954) and the 5th Of November Showa 36 (1961),  a 7 year span. The entries chart the one hundred times Ogawa practised with Mochida Seiji – what he was working on, how the sparring unfolded, what he felt, the advice he was given, etc. It also includes copious amounts of Buddhist terminology as well as discussions on kenjutsu theory and its application to kendo.  

Mochida, a graduate of the Bujutsu Kyoin Yoseijo, was a direct student of Naito Takaharu and – like Saimura Goro – followed his sensei’s teachings: large strikes from a far distance and lots of kirikaeshi and kakari/uchikomi geiko. A highly skilled kendoka with a modest character (a rarity then as now!), he was a highly popular and respected teacher.

In 1929, while he was teaching kendo on the Korean Peninsula (in Pyongyang), he won the first of the three Showa Tenran-jiai. After this success, he was recruited by Noma Seiji the following year to teach at his dojo in central Tokyo, Noma dojo.  It was there, via the introduction of Saimura Goro, that Ogawa was to meet and start doing kendo with Mochida. 

It wasn’t until after the war in 1954, however, that Ogawa started his one hundred keiko project. At the beginning of the process Mochida was 69 years old and Ogawa was 53.

As noted above, this book of notes is my favourite kendo book. Some of the entries are small, many are long. Not a few use very complicated terminology including deeply difficult Buddhist terms. It is a book that I will pick and re-read multiple times over my life. Today I want to pull out, translate, and share a small handful of interesting passages. 

If there was one kendo book that would inspire me to study Japanese if I didn’t already know it, this is it.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

The Three Hands of Taijiquan

Adam Mizner is a well known taijiquan teacher of the Huang Sheng Shyan version of the Cheng Man Ching form. Below is an excerpt from a post he wrote about levels of expertise in taijiquan. The full post may be read here. Enjoy.

Within my training and teaching of Tàijíquán, I emphasize two primary areas that must be developed and balanced. On the one side we have technical skills or ‘Quan’ – born from ting, timing and having trained the correct responses to different situations. The other side of the coin is power or the development of Gong Li. In practical application, these two aspects must not only be balanced but also be simultaneous and in harmony. Some of my teachers have emphasized skillful application of technique and while others have focused more on the development of Gong Li.

With regards to the technical skills, in ones personal development, we must pass through 3 specific stages to achieve a high level of in Tàijíquán:
1. Stupid hands
2. Smart hands
3. Mysterious hands

We all start out with ‘Stupid hands’ and its a sad truth that most of the taiji world never graduate beyond this level. One of the famous sayings of Cheng Man Ching is “Don’t resist, Don’t insist” – stupid hands are characterized by insisting and resisting. When one insists on what they want to do and resists what their partner is doing, it is impossible to develop the skills of stick, adhere, join and follow, which after all, is the primary purpose of training in pushing hands.

Knowing that we all start out and are often stuck on the level of stupid hands does not help us – we need a method to transcend this level and move onto the level of ‘Smart hands’. The transition from stupid hands to smart hands is mainly accomplished by training drills to familiarize yourself with the ‘eight gates’, and learning how and when to apply them in a pushing hands situation. The eight gates are the four orthodox hands of Peng/ward off, Lu/roll back, Ji/squeeze and An/press down, and the four corner hands of Tsai/pluck, Lieh/split, Zhou/elbow and Kao/shoulder.

I remember when I first met one of my teachers, Sifu King, I had already developed some good root and fajin, as well as what I thought was a good arsenal of techniques. When we met and began to push, I quickly found myself insisting and resisting, as I simply could not answer all the questions he was throwing at me. Compared to my Sifu, I had very stupid hands and at that moment I knew that just having good ting and gong li was not enough – I needed to develop smart hands.

In every movement our partner makes, it is as though they have asked us a question – the essence of smart hands is in having the correct answer. We must learn to use different combinations of the 8 gates to answer our partners tactical questions. In this way, an accomplished push hands player is like a skilled debater. He or she can ask a skillful question, knowing the answer the opponent will give – and they can then respond in a way that makes the opponent vulnerable. It is a game of tactics and subtlety governed by Ting jin / listening.

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Shigeru Egami: the Hidden Karate Master

Shotokan is one of the most widely practiced styles of karate. Shotokan as we know it today was created after Gichin Funakoshi passed away and some of his senior students decided to make some changes that would widen the appeal of Funakoshi's karate, which led to the formation of the Japan Karate Association, ie Shotokan karate.

But not all of Funakoshi's students bought into this. They didn't think a wider appeal was necessarily the best thing. They wanted to stick to the way they themselves were taught.

Chief among them was Shigeru Egami, who practiced what he called "Shotokai" karate, which is largely a throwback to the way he was taught by Master Funakoshi.

Below is an excerpt from an article about Master Egami that appeared at Finding Karate. The full post may be read here. Enjoy.

Shigeru Egami has been described as fearsome and possessing both physical and psychological strength. Although not commonly recognized in the West, Egami is considered Gichin Funakoshi’s one student who most closely followed his Principles, especially in the believe that Karate was not just a physical pursuit.
Egami was born on the 7th December 1912 in Omuta, Fukuoka Prefecture, Japan. Like most children of the time his first experience of the martial arts was in Judo, starting at the age of 13.
By the time Egami entered Waseda University in 1932 he had been practicing Judo for a number of years. He had also been practicing Kendo and Aikijutsu, an early form of Aikido.
At Waseda doing some form of sport was a requirement to obtaining a degree. Karate was still fairly new in Japan, having only being introduced ten years earlier by Funakoshi. As a way of promoting the art, Funakoshi taught the art in several universities. Formed in 1936 the Waseda University Karate club is one of the oldest in Japan.
Egami joined Waseda’s Karate club, training under Takeshi Shimoda, Funakoshi’s assistant. Shimoda is often considered to be Funakoshi’s most talented students, having trained with him since 1922. Motonobu Hironishi, who would go on to become President of the Shotokai organisation, also started at the Karate club at this time.
Shimoda died in his early thirties from pneumonia. Some sources state he died in 1932. However the common consensus is that he died in 1934. His teaching duties were taken up by Yoshitaka Funakoshi.
Yoshitaka Funikoshi was Funakoshi’s third son. Much of the advancement in Shotokan Karate can be attributed to him. He introduced the characteristic Shotokan long stance and also various kicking techniques. His dynamic style made him popular among the younger students.
The 1930s saw Egami travelling around Japan with Yoshitaka Funakoshi, giving various Karate demonstrations. The aim of these trips were to promote Karate. Also 1935 saw the formation of the Shotokai association, which brought together all of Gichin Funakoshi’s students.
After graduating from university Egami had the option of getting a good job through his father’s connections. However he worked as a waiter so that he could continue his Karate training.
In 1937 Gichin Funakoshi appointed Egami to the Shotokan Committee for evaluation. He was the youngest instructor to be given the honor. A little after this time he was called up for active military service. However, he was released after only four day as it was found that he was suffering from pulmonary tuberculosis.
In 1939 Egami worked for the Department of of War at the Nakano School, an institute for the training of elite forces personnel. Yoshitka Funikoshi and Tadao Okuyama were also teaching with him.
The period of 1941 to 1945 was mixed for Egami. He was married in 1941 and by 1945 his wife had given birth to two of his three sons. Between 1942 and 1945 many of his peers and Gichin Funakoshi’s students were killed during the Pacific conflict of World War Two. 1945 saw the destruction of the Shotokan dojo during a sustained bombing of Tokyo. The dojo located in Zoshigaya had been the first Karate dojo built in in Japan, in 1936. During the bombing raid his house was destroyed. He and his family had to live in the ruins. 1945 saw the death of his teacher and friend, Yoshitaka Funakoshi, from gangrene of the lungs.
After the war many of Gichin Funakoshi’s students who had had survived wanted to resume their pre-war Karate training. However, through lack of training some of those students’ technical skills had declined. To address this decline of technique the Nippon Karate Kyokai (Japan Karate Association) was formed in 1949. The aim of the association was to gather Karate knowledge. Funakoshi was named Technical Director of the JKA. It should be noted that a few years earlier Egami had become his assistant, helping him with teaching duties.
In 1948 Egami’s third son was born. In that same year he opened a dojo in Mitsui Miike factory.
The 1950s saw Egami increase his teaching duties. At Waseda University he was manager of the Karate club. He was also a lecturer in Physical Education at Chuo, Toho and Gakushuin universities.
Egami’s health began to suffer when he was in his forties. Between 1956 and 1957 he underwent two operations for stomach ulcers. He also suffered a heart attack which resulted in him being dead for almost ten minutes. The illness led to a curtailment of his personal Karate training, but not his teaching duties.
On 26 April 1957 Gichin Funakoshi died. At the hospital his close family were present. Egami was his only student present at his bedside.
Following the wishes of Funakoshi, the Shotokai was reformed by a group of individuals, including his family and various university groups. The aim of the organisation was to take car of his funeral arrangements. However, a disagreement occurred between the Shotokai and the Japan Karate Association (JKA). The JKA believed that the should be organizing the whole funeral and would not participate once the Funakoshi family declined the offer.
After the funeral Shotokai continued as an organisation. Several of the university groups however decided to leave the organisation. Egami and Hironishi remained with Shotokai. Egami became the Chief Instructor with Hironishi eventually becoming president of the organisation.
1957 saw the JKA and Shotokai eventually part ways. The JKA under Chief Instructor Masatoshi Nakayama were beginning to follow a more sport-oriented approach to Karate. The Shotokai believed in following a more traditional approach, in keeping with Funakoshi’s teachings.
Since the early 1950s Egami had been looking at new ways in which striking could be improved in Shotokan Karate.He believed that the body should be more relaxed prior to striking. He also believed that makiwara (striking post) practice should be lessened. Egami also believed that the perception of Karate was of a martial art used for violence. He wanted Karate to develop more in line with Gichin Funakoshi’s Principles.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Mastering Mental States

Below is an excerpt from a very good article that appeared at Zen Habits. While the author is writing of a life skill and it certainly is, I think it is relevant to our particular study of martial arts. The full post may be read here.

The Discipline of Mastering Mental States

By Leo Babauta

I’m far from mastering this skill, but one thing I’ve been playing around with is how important mental states are to our productivity, happiness, focus, health habits and more.
For example, if you’re tired or feeling down, there’s a good chance you’re not going to focus on your meaningful tasks, and instead will look for distractions and comfort.
If you’re feeling frenetic and in quick-task mode, you’re not likely to focus on deep work, but instead will look for easy busywork to do.
Mental states will usually affect whether we do our exercise, eat healthy, binge watch TV shows, drink alcohol, eat junk food, or are open-hearted (or rude) with the people we love.
So it’s really important to monitor mental states. It’s also an incredible skill to be able to move yourself into the proper mental state to do focused work, to create, to meditate, to exercise, or do whatever you find meaningful.
In this article, I’ll share some ways to get better at moving into the mental state you need to be in to do that meaningful work. But I’ll also share an advanced skill — being able to do what you need to do, no matter what your mental state. I think of this as an “antifragile” skill (in the terminology of Nassim Nicholas Taleb).

Getting Good at Moving Into a Mental State

Let’s say you want to do some writing (or other focused work) … and to do that, you want to be in a calm, focused, energetic, positive mental state.
But right now, you’re feeling frazzled and distracted. How do you move from one state to the other?
First, you have to recognize that you’re in the wrong mental state. It’s not likely to lead to calm focus. It will lead to you doing busywork or seeking distraction.
Second, you have to experiment to find a set of actions that can help you move into the right mental state. This is going to be different for each person, even for each different mental state that you’re in or that you want to get to. But with some experimentation, you can discover things that work for you.
For example, some common actions that often help move into a better mental state:

  • Meditation
  • Go for a walk
  • Get up and move around
  • Talk to someone (if you’re worried about something)
  • Having a cup of tea
  • Taking a power nap
  • Having a cup of coffee (differs for each person)
  • Getting into a quiet, uncluttered environment
  • Turning off your wifi router
  • Using full-screen writing apps
  • Playing calming music
  • Reading an inspirational quote or article
  • Talking to someone (including a therapist, if needed)
  • Bringing playfulness to the task
There are many other possibilities, of course, but you get the idea.
Another idea is to look at whether you’re feeling discouraged or encouraged. If life has conspired to discourage you from a project, a habit, doing a meaningful task … you’ll want to find ways to encourage yourself. The power of encouragement to change your mental state can’t be overstated.
This is a skill you can practice every single day. Throughout the day. Bring mindfulness to your current mental state, ask yourself what you’d like to be doing and what mental state would help you do that, and then experiment until you find a way to move into that mental state.
Practice and experiment until you get good at moving into the right mental state. Mastery will take daily practice, and constant play.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

The Tang Dynasty Poems, #76: A Song of a Girl from Loyang

The Tang Dynasty was a high point of culture in ancient China. Especially esteemed were poems. There was no home coming or leave taking; no event too small to not be commemorated with a poem.

Some of the best poems of that period have been collected into an anthology known as The 300 Tang Dynasty Poems. A online version of the anthology may be found here. Today we have #76: A Song of a Girl from Loyang.

There's a girl from Loyang in the door across the street,
She looks fifteen, she may be a little older.
...While her master rides his rapid horse with jade bit an bridle,
Her handmaid brings her cod-fish in a golden plate.
On her painted pavilions, facing red towers,
Cornices are pink and green with peach-bloom and with willow,
Canopies of silk awn her seven-scented chair,
And rare fans shade her, home to her nine-flowered curtains.
Her lord, with rank and wealth and in the bud of life,
Exceeds in munificence the richest men of old.
He favours this girl of lowly birth, he has her taught to dance;
And he gives away his coral-trees to almost anyone.
The wind of dawn just stirs when his nine soft lights go out,
Those nine soft lights like petals in a flying chain of flowers.
Between dances she has barely time for singing over the songs;
No sooner is she dressed again than incense burns before her.
Those she knows in town are only the rich and the lavish,
And day and night she is visiting the hosts of the gayest mansions.
...Who notices the girl from Yue with a face of white jade,
Humble, poor, alone, by the river, washing silk?