The autumn leaves are falling like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are always two cups at my table.

T’ang Dynasty poem

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 ~

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Photo Essay: The Legacy of Huo Yuanjia

This came to my attention via the Kung Fu Tea blog.

Huo Yuanjia was a famous Chinese martial artist who was active around the turn of the 20th century. Some of his exploits were the subject of the Jet Li film, Fearless.

Huo was one of the founders of the Jingwu (Chin Woo) Athletic Association, which still exists today and remains his legacy.

Here is a link to a photo essay from Xinhuanet, which focuses on Huo Jing Hong, a fifth generation descendant and inheritor of Huo's system. Enjoy.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

The Third Option

Below is a post from Steven Pressfield's blog. Steven Pressfield is the author of books such as The Legend of Bagger Vance and Gate of Fire. 

While the post isn't specifically about martial arts, it applies. The full post may be read here.

The story of David and Goliath is one of history’s greatest reruns—played out on repeat in books and boardrooms and battlefields.

Big Guy goes after Little Guy.

Little Guy finds inner strength.

Little Guy taps into inner strength.

Little Guy fights Big Guy.

Big Guy falters.

Little Guy knocks Big Guy’s lights out.

The David and Goliath story is the story of the “win.” Think Luke against Darth Vader, Daniel Larusso against the entire Cobra Kai dojo, and pretty much any Disney classic (insert any princess or talking animal against any evil witch or demented talking animal here.).

The opposite—the story of the lose—plays out in two forms: Little Guy goes after Big Guy and is squashed by Big Guy (think of all the companies Gordon Gekko crushed before being sent to jail) and Little Guy hides from Big Guy, only delaying Big Guy’s deathblow (think George McFly and Biff Tannen before Marty went back to the future).

Then there’s a third option—when David ignores Goliath and Goliath moves on. And it comes with the realization that David and Goliath don’t always have to face off in order for someone to “win”—and that the definitions of “win” and “lose” aren’t so clear cut.


There are a million great lines in the movie Bull Durham. One of my favorites:

This is a very simple game. You throw the ball, you catch the ball, you hit the ball. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains. Think about that for a while.

Think about it. There’s always a third option.

Wednesday, May 08, 2019

Wudang Taijiquan

Cheng Tinhung was a real force in Hong Kong Taijiquan in the 1970's and 80's. He was known as a fighter.

In a nutshell, his Wudang Taijiquan seems to be branched off of the Wu Family style, but with an entirely different Neigong set.

One of

One of Cheng's most notable students was Dan Docherty, then a member of the Royal Hong Kong Police, who went on to win the South East Asian Chinese Martial Arts Championship, which was a full contact affair.

Docherty moved back to Scotland, taught many students and has overseen the Practical Tai Chi Chuan organization since.

Sunday, May 05, 2019

Testing a Calm Mind

If asked, I’d have to say that the main reason that I study taijiquan is to help cultivate a calm mind.

That it is also an excellent exercise for a man my age (61) which helps with leg strength, flexibility, range of motion and balance is also true, but secondary.

As a man my age has no business getting into fights, self defense isn’t really on the agenda for me anywhere.

The organization I work for was hosting an event over several days at a hotel. We had around 150 registered guests. After our closing banquet on the last day, we had opened a hospitality suite for our party.

As a member of the staff, I was one of the first ones there to make sure everything was going to go smoothly. A couple of our more prominent guests were there and I joined them. Everyone else was still in the banquet room.

I’m standing there talking to our guests when a stranger kind of bursts into the room like he owns the place, grabs a beer and just walks up to our conversation. It was clear that he was quite drunk. He was loud, but he was funny, so we humored him. My idea was to let him have a beer and ask him to leave before our people started showing up in any numbers.

Well, he was loud and sloppily spilling drinks. He started becoming abusive towards the bartender.

When he cracked open another beer, I told him that was enough. He wasn’t a part of our group and he had to leave. He didn’t like that.

So here I am, nose to nose with this guy who is a good twenty years younger and in far better shape than I am. He was really worked up.

I found that I was dead calm. I was firm and assertive. He couldn’t get a rise out of me.

Other people from our group started filing in now. The bartender had his hand on the house phone; to call security I suppose, if needed.

He kept flashing his credit card and a wad of money around. He couldn’t believe that I was kicking him out. He could buy and sell the whole lot of us he said. I wasn’t backing down.

Maybe he became embarrassed by getting faced down by an old man, but at this point, he finally left.

We could hear him at the hotel bar which was across the hall from us carrying on and learned that security had asked him to leave there a little later.

For cultivating a calm mind, I think taijiquan worked.

Addendum: they told me at the hotel that this guy got into a fist fight with someone else later and was  evicted from the hotel. He was there with a work group, apparently and I imagine will have some explaining to do.

Thursday, May 02, 2019

Contemporary Duelling

One of the reasons that I enjoy the book The Secret History of the Sword, is that it contains recounts of real duels both in English and translated from other European languages. It's a little easier to wrap one's head around than translations from Eastern languages.

It seems in some German universities, there has been a tradition that goes back a couple of hundred years, of intra mural fencing with sharpened swords.

The rules are rigid. The fencers must maintain their position on a line. Protective eyewear is worn, but little else in the way of facial armor. Basically, the goal is to scar the opponent's face.

Do you know the famous Heidelberg Scar? That.

The author of the book took part in one of these duels (and drank beer afterwards).

Below is a short video on the phenomenon. Enjoy.

Friday, April 26, 2019

Gerta Geddes and the Dawn of Taijiquan in the UK

Gerta Geddes was if not the first, one of the first westerners to teach Taijiquan in the UK. She was a contemporary of Sophia Delza, who was one of the first in the US. Below is an excerpt from an interview that was conducted with her at TaijiForum. The full interview may be read here.

Gerda Geddes was the first person who ever studied and taught Tai Chi in the UK, she began training in Shanghai at a time when very few women of any nationality were able to study the art. For nearly 60 years Tai Chi played an integral part in her life and she remained actively interested and open in her heart and mind right to the end. She passed away on Saturday 4th March 2006 at age 89.

Having studied tai chi chuan since 1981 I was, of course, aware of the name of Gerda Geddes although I’d never personally experienced her approach to the work. In early 2002 I was teaching a qigong seminar in the east coast of Scotland village of Anstruther, when, much to my surprise and curiosity, I saw her name on the list of participants. On arrival she introduced herself and quietly found her way to the back of the class where she practiced the exercises, blending into the background. Over lunch we chatted about her past experiences and I subsequently arranged to travel to her home in north-east Scotland to conduct this interview.

Over the years of our connection we, became friends and regularly exchanged several telephone calls and letters. She twice attended Tai Chi Caledonia as a special guest, where she enthralled the participants with her quit grace and dignity, epitomising inner qualities of tai chi.
Ronnie Robinson
Can we begin by looking at what led you to study Tai Chi?

At the time we moved to Shanghai in 1948 I had spent many years studying dance, working with exercise and movement on a daily basis. I worked with contemporary dance and I worked a lot with looking at the circularly quality of movement and also thinking about all the circles you had in your joints, and in your body; how it comes from the inside and outside.

Aside from the work I had done with dance I also worked with Wilhelm Reich as a psycho-analyst. I liked his way of thinking. He worked very much on a physical, as well as on a psychological level. Reich had talked about muscular armouring, how trauma and anger can create memory in the muscles which are held on to. He encouraged you to listen to yourself and try and find your own inner rhythm. He also taught a great deal about diagnosis: how should you look at a person, how should you judge somebody. He always said that what you say is not all that important but it is how you say it. What happens in your body, what happens in your face, does it get stuck in your diaphragm, or does it flow thorough? Reich was already into the same kind of thinking that you get in Tai Chi. I had also been working with patients for several years, using psychotherapy. When I had children I didn’t do this kind of work anymore as I felt that spending so much time and energy working with the sick and unbalanced took too much out of me. I really wanted to live more for my own good health to be as healthy and as balanced as I could be for my own children. This was what became most important for me. With this work and with my work as a dancer I very much looked at people’s bodies, and how they used their bodies. I also used the methods of Alexander Lowen who worked with Bio-Energetics which was a therapeutic technique to help a person get back together with his body and to help him enjoy, to the fullest degree possible, the life of the body.
I had also worked in theatre using this movement work with actors and dancers. So when I went to China, I went with this background of using, and observing the use of movement on a number of levels.


Can you tell me a little about the structure of training you had? I’d also be interested in knowing about the fact that you were the only western women being taught and how you were dealt with in this context?

I never went to a class, I was taught privately and I know that he was very bewildered to begin with, probably thinking, “How on earth am I going to tackle this woman?”

He tested me out before he would accept me as a student. I had to show him the movement work I had done. I had choreographed a dance with, rhythm and sound, which was about my first impressions of China.

Once he had identified that you would be someone that was worth investing some time with, in teaching, what was the training schedule?

I worked with Choy Hok Peng for about two hours a day, every day for a period of six months. He taught me the Long Yang Form. The method of teaching was very unusual for me, coming from the background I had. There was absolutely no physical contact between us. When he eventually came to correcting me he did it with only one finger, keeping his body very far away from me. I got the feeling that we were sort of measuring each other during this time. I had to unlearn, which was one of the most difficult things for me, all my dance technique. My body had been very well trained in a particular way of moving and I had to re-thing everything. It was like learning to walk again and it took a long, long time to get accustomed to the method of movement. He wanted me to just to copy his movements and I remember him saying, “Look see Missy, look at my foot, see it.” I was very hard work but when I realised that I had to unlearn my previous patterns of movement I then realised that I just had to let go. This letting go and re-thinking my whole body was the best way for me to learn Tai Chi.

Before Choy Hok Peng died he instructed his son to continue teaching me. His son, Choy Kam Man, had a great interest in sports, which he performed with an influence from his tai chi training. When he first came to work with me he was very scared as I was an older Western woman.

Were there different methods of teaching between the father and the son?

The son had a much softer approach. The father was more trained in the martial side of Tai Chi. Comparing the father with his fellow student Cheng Man-ching I would say that Cheng was more intelligent and more cultured and scholarly. My teacher was more a fighter.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Yim Wing Chun and the Creation of a New Tradition

Below is an excerpt from a post at Kung Fu Tea. The full post may be read here.

We all know the story (and those who do not may want to quickly review the most popular version of it here). With the destruction of the Shaolin Temple at the hands of a fearful imperial military and a corrupt bureaucracy, China’s martial arts heritage (skills that had come to the service of the state in years past) was threatened. Luckily five elders survived the cataclysm. One of them, the Buddhist nun Ng Moy, fled to the far south west of the nation where she refined and perfected her fighting system after an encounter with a mysterious crane.

At the same time the Yim family of Guangzhou faced a crisis. In addition to being a single father, Mr. Yim was accused of some crime. Rather than taking chances with the vagaries of Qing justice, he took his daughter and fled to the far south west of the country, to the base of White Crane Mountain. Here the two established a tofu shop and rebuilt their lives in exile.

Yet White Crane Mountain was no ordinary neighborhood. In kung fu stories the edge of the empire has always represented a dangerous liminal zone. It is a place where the constraints of the state are far away and the underground institutions of the ‘Rivers and Lakes’ can find their fullest expression. For the Yim family these primal forces were personified in two visitors to the local marketplace.

The family had the good fortune of making the acquaintance of Ng Moy who occasionally visited their tofu shop on her travels around the region. Yet like many rural market towns this one had a problem with local bullies who harassed the shop keepers. One in particular took an interest in Yim Wing Chun and announced his intentions to “marry” her.

With the intercession of Ng Moy an agreement was reached. In one year a public match would be held in the marketplace. If the bully won he could marry the young girl. If not she would be free of his advances. The Yim Wing Chun spent much of the remaining year with Ng Moy training on the mountain, learning her new method of kung fu. Needless to say she was victorious in the challenge match, thus demonstrating the genius of her teacher’s fighting methods.

Freed from the prospects of a forced marriage to a local bandit, Yim Wing Chun was eventually able to return to Guangzhou and marry her original fiancé, a traveling salt merchant. Yet before she left she received the charge to “oppose the Qing” and to pass on what she had learned from her teacher.
This is the last that we generally hear of Yim Wing Chun. At this point she vanishes from most discussions in the style. Rather than passing the art to her children (whose existence most of the old folklore is silent on) it instead falls to her husband to teach her system to individuals involved with the Red Boat Opera Companies. After that it entered the Foshan’s busy martial arts marketplace (under the tutelage of Leung Jan and Chan Wah Shun) and from there it went to Hong Kong and the rest of the world. This is, in abbreviated form, the story of Wing Chun’s creation as it is normally related within the Ip Man lineage.

Yet as we think about this story a few things should start to become evident. This is not really a story about “Shaolin kung fu” as Ng Moy does not attempt to restore the old tradition. Rather she is looking to do something new.

Nor is it really the story of Yim Wing Chun. She slips into and then out of the narrative after playing her part in a larger drama. We never learn much about her origins or her ultimate fate.

This is a story about the creation of a new tradition.

Like all Chinese martial arts, Wing Chun is more than the technical transmission of data. It is also a social institution embedded within in (and forced to negotiate with) an ever changing social and political landscape. This last point is critical.

More than anything else, what we have just read is the story of a moment of crisis in southern China’s imagined past. Wing Chun is explained as a vehicle designed to navigate a social world stumbling under the weight of government corruption, gangster capitalism and incipient revolution. All of these problems demand a solution that preserves the primordial essence of southern Chinese culture while moving forward into the future.

The irony is that Wing Chun, as a publicly taught martial art, actually did come of age under exactly those conditions. Ip Man began to practice the art in the wake of the disastrous Boxer Uprising. He traveled to Hong Kong to attend high school just as revolution was putting an end to the Qing dynasty. When he returned to Foshan during the Republic period he found Wing Chun being taught in the back rooms of opium dens and often coopted by more powerful social forces. Yet this very real moment of crisis bears only scant resemblance to the mythological drama that unfolds in the creation myth that most of us are familiar with.

Why is that? Why does this martial arts system (like so many others) claim to emerge from a primitive and overtly romanticized mountain landscape? Why do concerns about banditry and marriage dominate how this story is told, even though they play little part in the actual coming forth of Wing Chun as a fighting system? And how should we understand the growing popularity of this narrative in the current era?

Many discussions of the Yim Wing Chun legend begin by treating it as a factual event or looking for the “kernel of truth” that lies at the heart of the narrative. As I have argued in multiple other places, this view is simply mistaken. The central figures in this story are literary creations rather than historical persons. The nun Ng Moy appears in no reliable historical records (this is a problem as all Buddhist officers had to be licensed by the state) and instead makes her first appearance as a villain in an anonymously published Kung Fu novel in the 1890s. She was not re-imaged as a heroine in martial arts stories until the 1930s.

Likewise, the Southern Shaolin Temple is best understood as myth rather than history. While multiple local governments are currently promoting their own reconstructed “Southern Shaolin Temples” in an attempt to capture tourist dollars (and there is evidence that a number of real temples in the early 20th century thought of themselves as carrying on this heritage), the specific sanctuary named in both kung fu and Triad lore seems to have its origins in mythology and fiction rather than history.

When we approach the story the Yim Wing Chun we are engaging in popular culture analysis rather than archeology. The object of our study is not just the folklore of the Wing Chun clan, but also the elaborate discourse of wuxia novels, oral stories, popular operas and even radio programs that surrounded and supported it. It was within this field of popular culture that the creation story of Wing Chun kung fu took on social meaning and became a powerful marker of group identity.

To better understand this story on its own terms, the current essay turns to arguments advanced by Rey Chow (later modified by Paul Bowman). She argues that we can understand this type of narrative through the concept of “primitive passion.” This is a specific type of story-telling that emerged in China during moments of social crisis.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

The Lenten Challenge is OVER And The Tang Dynasty Poems, #71: A Song of Unending Sorrow

First of all, the Lenten Challenge is Over! Congratulations to all of those who managed to complete it.

Now to regular business. 

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 #71: A Song of Undending Sorrow.

China's Emperor, craving beauty that might shake an empire,
Was on the throne for many years, searching, never finding,
Till a little child of the Yang clan, hardly even grown,
Bred in an inner chamber, with no one knowing her,
But with graces granted by heaven and not to be concealed,
At last one day was chosen for the imperial household.
If she but turned her head and smiled, there were cast a hundred spells,
And the powder and paint of the Six Palaces faded into nothing.
...It was early spring. They bathed her in the FlowerPure Pool,
Which warmed and smoothed the creamy-tinted crystal of her skin,
And, because of her languor, a maid was lifting her
When first the Emperor noticed her and chose her for his bride.
The cloud of her hair, petal of her cheek, gold ripples of her crown when she moved,
Were sheltered on spring evenings by warm hibiscus curtains;
But nights of spring were short and the sun arose too soon,
And the Emperor, from that time forth, forsook his early hearings
And lavished all his time on her with feasts and revelry,
His mistress of the spring, his despot of the night.
There were other ladies in his court, three thousand of rare beauty,
But his favours to three thousand were concentered in one body.
By the time she was dressed in her Golden Chamber, it would be almost evening;
And when tables were cleared in the Tower of Jade, she would loiter, slow with wine.
Her sisters and her brothers all were given titles;
And, because she so illumined and glorified her clan,
She brought to every father, every mother through the empire,
Happiness when a girl was born rather than a boy.
...High rose Li Palace, entering blue clouds,
And far and wide the breezes carried magical notes
Of soft song and slow dance, of string and bamboo music.
The Emperor's eyes could never gaze on her enough-
Till war-drums, booming from Yuyang, shocked the whole earth
And broke the tunes of The Rainbow Skirt and the Feathered Coat.
The Forbidden City, the nine-tiered palace, loomed in the dust
From thousands of horses and chariots headed southwest.
The imperial flag opened the way, now moving and now pausing- -
But thirty miles from the capital, beyond the western gate,
The men of the army stopped, not one of them would stir
Till under their horses' hoofs they might trample those moth- eyebrows....
Flowery hairpins fell to the ground, no one picked them up,
And a green and white jade hair-tassel and a yellowgold hair- bird.
The Emperor could not save her, he could only cover his face.
And later when he turned to look, the place of blood and tears
Was hidden in a yellow dust blown by a cold wind.
... At the cleft of the Dagger-Tower Trail they crisscrossed through a cloud-line
Under Omei Mountain. The last few came.
Flags and banners lost their colour in the fading sunlight....
But as waters of Shu are always green and its mountains always blue,
So changeless was His Majesty's love and deeper than the days.
He stared at the desolate moon from his temporary palace.
He heard bell-notes in the evening rain, cutting at his breast.
And when heaven and earth resumed their round and the dragon car faced home,
The Emperor clung to the spot and would not turn away
From the soil along the Mawei slope, under which was buried
That memory, that anguish. Where was her jade-white face?
Ruler and lords, when eyes would meet, wept upon their coats
As they rode, with loose rein, slowly eastward, back to the capital.
...The pools, the gardens, the palace, all were just as before,
The Lake Taiye hibiscus, the Weiyang Palace willows;
But a petal was like her face and a willow-leaf her eyebrow --
And what could he do but cry whenever he looked at them?
...Peach-trees and plum-trees blossomed, in the winds of spring;
Lakka-foliage fell to the ground, after autumn rains;
The Western and Southern Palaces were littered with late grasses,
And the steps were mounded with red leaves that no one swept away.
Her Pear-Garden Players became white-haired
And the eunuchs thin-eyebrowed in her Court of PepperTrees;
Over the throne flew fire-flies, while he brooded in the twilight.
He would lengthen the lamp-wick to its end and still could never sleep.
Bell and drum would slowly toll the dragging nighthours
And the River of Stars grow sharp in the sky, just before dawn,
And the porcelain mandarin-ducks on the roof grow thick with morning frost
And his covers of kingfisher-blue feel lonelier and colder
With the distance between life and death year after year;
And yet no beloved spirit ever visited his dreams.
...At Lingqiong lived a Taoist priest who was a guest of heaven,
Able to summon spirits by his concentrated mind.
And people were so moved by the Emperor's constant brooding
That they besought the Taoist priest to see if he could find her.
He opened his way in space and clove the ether like lightning,
Up to heaven, under the earth, looking everywhere.
Above, he searched the Green Void, below, the Yellow Spring;
But he failed, in either place, to find the one he looked for.
And then he heard accounts of an enchanted isle at sea,
A part of the intangible and incorporeal world,
With pavilions and fine towers in the five-coloured air,
And of exquisite immortals moving to and fro,
And of one among them-whom they called The Ever True-
With a face of snow and flowers resembling hers he sought.
So he went to the West Hall's gate of gold and knocked at the jasper door
And asked a girl, called Morsel-of-Jade, to tell The Doubly- Perfect.
And the lady, at news of an envoy from the Emperor of China,
Was startled out of dreams in her nine-flowered, canopy.
She pushed aside her pillow, dressed, shook away sleep,
And opened the pearly shade and then the silver screen.
Her cloudy hair-dress hung on one side because of her great haste,
And her flower-cap was loose when she came along the terrace,
While a light wind filled her cloak and fluttered with her motion
As though she danced The Rainbow Skirt and the Feathered Coat.
And the tear-drops drifting down her sad white face
Were like a rain in spring on the blossom of the pear.
But love glowed deep within her eyes when she bade him thank her liege,
Whose form and voice had been strange to her ever since their parting --
Since happiness had ended at the Court of the Bright Sun,
And moons and dawns had become long in Fairy-Mountain Palace.
But when she turned her face and looked down toward the earth
And tried to see the capital, there were only fog and dust.
So she took out, with emotion, the pledges he had given
And, through his envoy, sent him back a shell box and gold hairpin,
But kept one branch of the hairpin and one side of the box,
Breaking the gold of the hairpin, breaking the shell of the box;
"Our souls belong together," she said, " like this gold and this shell --
Somewhere, sometime, on earth or in heaven, we shall surely
And she sent him, by his messenger, a sentence reminding him
Of vows which had been known only to their two hearts:
"On the seventh day of the Seventh-month, in the Palace of Long Life,
We told each other secretly in the quiet midnight world
That we wished to fly in heaven, two birds with the wings of one,
And to grow together on the earth, two branches of one tree."
Earth endures, heaven endures; some time both shall end,
While this unending sorrow goes on and on for ever.