Today we have a guest post by Dr. Martin Boedicker. Dr. Boedicker is a senior student of Ma Jiang Bao, a Grandmaster of the Wu Family Style of Taijiquan.
Dr. Boedicker's blog is Tai Chi Chuan and Philsophy. There is always interesting reading there. Please pay a visit. Dr Boedicker is also the author of Taichichuan in the History of Martial Arts and The Philosophy of Taichichuan.
Dr. Martin Boedicker, born 1965, is training martial arts (judo, teakwood, aikido) since his youth. 1986 he started to learn Wu Tai Chi Chuan with Ma Jiangbao. After his phd in Chemistry he studied East-Asia-Sience opened his international Tai Chi-school and taught Tai Chi Chuan as a guest teacher at the University of Witten. Beside the teaching he concentrated on translating and commenting of chinese texts, connected to Tai Chi Chuan. These were published in German, English, Dutch and Indonesian. This became now the centre of his work.
From the Wikipedia page on Ma Jiang Bao:
Ma Jiang Bao (Chinese: 马江豹; pinyin: Mǎ Jiāngbào; born 1941) is a well known teacher of Wu-style t'ai chi ch'uan. He is the third son of Wu Ying-hua and Ma Yueh-liang. In 1986 he came with is father Ma Yueh-liang to Europe to teach Wu-style. Ma Yueh-liang returned home after four months. Ma Jiang Bao stayed and lives now in Rotterdam. He and his students are teaching in many countries, in Europe as well as in South Africa and Japan.
Now to the interview!
Questions and answers with Ma Jiangbao
Question: You are son of the Ma Yueliang and Wu Yinghua, the daughter of Wu Jianquan, creator of Wu style. I think many of us wonder how it is to learn Taijiquan with such parents.
Ma Jiangbao: My family has been a martial arts family for a long time. So for me, Taijiquan was always there. I can remember, when I was a child, the members of my family training a lot in our house and me watching them. There were not only my parents, but also my brothers and sisters and other members of the family like Wu Gongyi. Later I just joined, like a child, which is playing. When I was about 8 years old I finished the form. My parents were guiding my training, but I also trained a lot by myself. At about 16 I finished the weapon forms. Pushhands training was always there. I learned with my father and mother, but I also trained a lot with my two older brothers. At 18 my parents asked me to teach for the Jianquan Taijiquan Association Shanghai.
Question: It is said that Wu style Taijiquan is the one that most resembles the original Yang style. What are the similarities and differences?
Ma Jiangbao: The Wu family learned for three generations with the Yang family. So at the beginning, the styles were very similar, but after a while they diverged. But the patterns of the long forms are still very similar. Today I teach the forms as Wu Jianquan standardised them. Our tradition is also very rich in Pushhands techniques. Differences to the Yang style can be found, for example, in the forward inclination of the body in some movements and in the parallel position of the feet.
Question: Could you explain these features?
Ma Jiangbao: The forward inclination of the body means that the body is in a line from the heel to the top of the head. This posture fits with the parallel position of the feet and is very good for exerting power. You have an unbroken line from the heel to the shoulders and all parts of the body reflect the direction in which the power is exerted.
Question: It looks like the interaction of waist and hips in Wu style differs from other styles. Could you explain this to us?
Ma Jiangbao: This is connected to the last question. In the Wu style the feet are often parallel. If you turn in these postures from the hip, you will lose your central equilibrium. So we turn the body around the waist. In this way it is also easy to divert an attack and let it fall into the emptiness without losing your own central equilibrium.
Question: In Wu style the progression of movement is taught as hand–waist–feet. This seems to contradict the principles applied in other styles. Could you tell us about the mechanics of this?
Ma Jiangbao: Yes, in Wu style the progression of movement is tought as hand–waist–feet, but the whole movement finishes together. This is the best way to exert power and in the end, the whole movement becomes on. But if, for example the body moves first, the opponent can easily see this. It will be very simple for him to divert the attacking hand that follow after the body moved.
Question: In Wu style Taijiquan many forms are trained. In which order should the student learn them?
Ma Jiangbao: One starts with the slow form. The slow form is the foundation of Taijiquan. After that one learns the saber form and then the spear form. Once proficient in these, you can go on to the fast or sword form.
Question: Is there a reason for this order?
Ma Jiangbao: Firstly, there is the basic idea of finding stillness in movement. For this purpose the slow form is the best. Furthermore the slow form allows you the opportunity to work on your movements to a very deep level. Basic skills can be acquired and postures can be corrected. After that there is the more dynamic training of the weapon forms. The weapon forms are more demanding on the body, because the weapon has weight and the form is performed faster. Therefor thorough preparation in the slow form is necessary. The fast form tests the skill and fitness of the student. It requires the use of power and high speed where even small mistakes can cause damage to the body. Before learning the fast form one should have worked intensively on any problems in the slow and weapon forms.
Question: How long would it take to learn a form?
Ma Jiangbao: If you are training very hard, you can learn one form in a year. But for that you also have to work hard at home. One year of learning should be followed by one year of training. Only after that the student should start a new form. If the student is not training so intensively, progress is of course slower.
Question: Is it permissible to learn two forms at the same time?
Ma Jiangbao: This is not a wise decision. Many students come only once a week to the class. In this way it is impossible to learn two forms at the same time. I have noticed that even if students are coming more than once a week, one form loses its quality as soon as they start learning the next one. That is not good. Before you learn a new form, the old one should be mastered very well. That means not only the sequence,but also the finer details of the movements.
Question: Is there a didactic structure when learning the forms?
Ma Jiangbao: Yes, first you learn the main postures of the form. Once you have mastered these, you learn to connect the postures with movements. Here you have to know the direction of the movement as well as the timing. When the postures and the movements are mastered you have to combine them together to develop a certain flow (depends on the form) to the form.
Question: So there are three steps in learning a form. Do you have any tips for training at home?
Ma Jiangbao: At home, you should not always play the whole form. You should regularly train single postures and movements. Through this, you develop an understanding of the finer aspects.
Question: Should one hold postures for a long time.
Ma Jiangbao: Standing in a posture for a long time is in general not wrong. But it can be easily a problem or lead to seriously problems, when you have known or unknown orthopedic problems in your body. So I advise people, especially, when a bit older, not to do it or not to do to much of it and if so, just with a teacher watching and correcting you carefully
Question: As you said above, apart from the best known slow form, Wu style also includes a fast form. Can you tell us about it? How do the slow and the fast form complement each other?
Ma Jiangbao: In old times there were only faster forms. From about 1920 the Taijiquan masters started to teach in public. At that time many people who wanted to learn Taijiquan were not used to martial arts. So the masters at that time developed completely slow forms to introduce those people to Taijiquan. These forms became very popular and today nearly all Taijiquan forms are slow. In Wu style we have retained the old fast form. The Wu style slow form has developed out of the fast form. They have the same pattern and sequence of movements. This means, for example, that when at a certain point in the fast form you do the cloud hands, you do them in the slow form as well. Although the pattern of the movements is the same, the movements themselves are not. The slow form is not the fast form simply slowed down. For example, jumps and hard twists of the body are left out or are changed to a softer way.
Question: If one has studied with several teachers of Wu style Taijiquan, how should one write his or her Taijiquan curriculum vitae?
Ma Jiangbao: Today a lot of students study first with a teacher near to where they live. Later they go to one of my top students or to me to learn more or to improve. If a student wants to write his or her Taijiquan curriculum vitae, they should certainly mention all teachers who have had an important influence on their development.
Question:How is pushhands taught and perfected in Wu style?
Ma Jiangbao: First you have to find a good teacher. This is one of the main problems. Then you have to look for good partners which suit your needs. In the beginning, it is a good idea to train with only a few partners. Then you can get used to each other and you can train new techniques very well. During this time you should place a lot of emphasis on training the ability of feeling (tingjin). If you train like this, after a while you will develop naturally the ability of understanding (dongjin). After you have reached a certain level, you have to look for as many different partners as possible. This will greatly increase your technical abilities and your tingjin and dongjin.
Question: In Wu style pushhands there are one-person exercises. What are the differences between these exercises and the form?
Ma Jiangbao: The one-person exercises are the same as the two-person exercises in pushhands, only done alone. In this way you can concentrate much more on the precision of the exercise. You have time to concentrate fully on your own movements. After a while, you will be able to do the exercises well. Then you can start to train them with a partner. Because your own movements are correct, you can then concentrate on adjusting your movements to the movements of your partner.
Question: If an advanced student is training pushhands with a beginner how should he do it?
Ma Jiangbao: As a beginner of pushhands you need full concentration to coordinate your own movements. Though the advanced one should not correct to much. Instead he should keep care of his own movements and try to imrpove them. If one train with a beginner this is a good oppurtunity to deepen one owns ability.
Question: Why do we lift the tip of the foot in xubu?
Ma Jiangbao: There are two reasons. First, this makes you to shift the center of gravity really back. Second, this will strenghten the muscels of the front of your legs. In Pushhands, we often keep the tip of the foot down. The student should now be able to control his weighting center. And a lifted foot could be dangerous to the partner. After a good technique he could be fall over the foot.
Question: Let's come back to the weapon forms. Why should one learn weapon forms in modern times?
Ma Jiangbao: Not all friends of Taijiquan train weapon forms, but there are three good reasons to do it.
1) Taijiquan is a traditional martial art. In China, traditional martial arts always had weapon forms. Taijiquan as part of this tradition offers to the student several types of weapon forms. If one is interested to follow the tradition and to learn a complete system, weapon forms are an important part.
2) The weapon forms are trained dynamically; this means there is the interchange between fast and slow, hard and soft. This promotes the athletic development of the student and demands high levels of skill in body control. Therefore the weapon forms are an ideal compliment to the slow form.
3) The athletic activity and the more demanding bodywork increase the health effect of Taijiquan. Because you train the weapon forms alone, you can control the physical demands to suit your constitution.
Question: At what speed should one practice the weapon forms and the fast
form as a beginner?
Ma Jiangbao: This question is very important. The weapon forms and the fast form have a special rhythm. It applies: Hard and soft support each other. Fast and slow are in harmony. It is very important to practice these aspects right from the beginning. One does make the movements a little bit slower as a beginner, but the rhythm must remain. There exists no case where these forms are practiced slowly and evenly as the slow form.
Question: Are there sword forms in Wu style (for example the double sword form) which are created just for women.
Ma Jiangbao: No, the sword forms are for men and women. But it transpired, that the women really love the sword forms and that they train them therefore intensively. That is also the reason; why in demonstration often women are seen demonstrating the sword forms.
Question: How does one breathe in Wu Tai Chi Chuan?
Ma Jiangbao: Proper breathing is very important. The main aspect of breathing is naturalness (ziran). When you do the form, you should breathe as normal. You should not artificially connect the breathing to the movements. This is the wrong way. It is the opposite way around. If the movements are light and without stops the breathing will naturally became deep and slow. But if the postures are wrong, for example shoulders or elbows are lifted, this will have a bad influence on breathing. When speaking of body postures, it is very important to have an erect head, an empty neck, to sink the shoulders, relax the elbows, straighten the spine and relax the waist. If you concentrate on correct body postures and the lightness and smoothness of the movements, the breathing will become deep and harmonious. Then after doing the form you will feel relaxed and refreshed.
Questions: Why are there no shouts in the Training of the forms of Wu Tai Chi Chuan?
Ma Jiangbao: A central point in the training of the forms is the development of naturalness (ziran) in the breathing. One tries to development a natural deep breathing by correct postures and not-interfering with the breathing. Shouts are no part of the training of the forms
If you train the faster forms more intensive or small exercises with hard attacks, you will breath out naturally stronger. Because of the strength of the with the movement coordinated breathing, there will be a sound like "ha". This is fully in concordance with the naturalness, but one should not artificially make the body stiff to increase the effect.
Foto 1 and 4: Courtesy of Manos Meisen