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 ~

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Internal Strength Training

Below is an excerpt from a post that appeared at the excellent blog of Ellis Amdur, Kogen Budo. It is a guest post by Nigel Sutton and  has to do with internal strength training in taijiquan. The full post may be read here. Enjoy.

Note: During the writing of this piece Master Lee Bei Lei passed away. He was 86  years old. Rest in Peace, Shifu!

I first met Lee Bei Lei (aka Li Bian Lei/Lai) in 1987 on my first visit to Malaysia. My brother-in-law was secretary of the taijiquan group that he ran in Batu Pahat, a town in the southern state of Johor. As a ‘visiting fireman,’ who had participated and enjoyed some success in a competition in China, I was invited to perform in front of an audience of several hundred taijiquan aficionados. At that time Chinese in Malaysia were not allowed to visit China, so a foreigner who had been there and practised Chinese martial arts was something of a rarity. I strutted my stuff, the 48 step combined taijiquan form and a baguazhang form and afterwards, I was introduced to ‘The Master,’ Lee Bei Lei. My youthful naïve ignorance protected me from even being aware of the dread I should have been feeling. I had come to his training hall as a ‘celebrity,’ demonstrated in front of his students and basked in their applause! A traditional martial artist of Master Lee’s generation would see all of this as a challenge, literally an attempt  to damage his reputation. This to a man for whom challenges were an everyday occurrence, the very lifeblood and nourishment of his existence! But I knew none of that.

When he was introduced to me by my brother-in-law, I saw a huge man for a Chinese, with a very upright stance and a face full of amused disdain for me and all that I represented. He offered me  a huge index finger and asked me to grab it and bend it. I took the digit in my fist and strained with all my might, but I could not move it. Then, by seemingly just wagging the finger from side to side he was able, with ease, to disrupt my balance and move my whole body from side to side. He then instructed me to strike his stomach with my extended fingers, and with a dramatic expansion of what was already a quite substantial belly, he not only intercepted and nullified my strike, but also caused me some degree of pain.

This was not the first time that I had encountered the famed neigong methods of the Malaysian Zhengzi taijiquan school, and I was already sold. The various demonstrations–taking blows all over the body, being hit by telegraph poles or having chairs smashed over the back–were all impressive. What impressed me more, however, were the fighting exploits of the students of this style and the martial reputation of the school. These were men (and in rarer cases women) who walked the walk. Their taijiquan was a fighting art: this was what I wanted to learn.

Over the next few years, I became initiated in the Zhengzi lineage and learnt the neigong (internal strength) exercises that were the ‘inner teachings’ of the art, available only to those who had undertaken the formal baishi ceremony. I learnt these exercises from several different teachers. Although all of whom taught them slightly differently. the fundamentals were identifiably the same.

Each of the major teachers I learnt from had been drawn to Zhengzi taijiquan in the same way; already established as teacher or master-level exponents in other arts, they took part in challenge matches against a Zhengzi taijiquan exponent and were defeated. This, in every case, prompted them to do the gentlemanly thing according to the code of martial ethics, and become a disciple, if not of the man who defeated them, then of his master.

During my training time with these teachers I periodically encountered Master Lee, once at a competition where, unhappy with a refereeing decision made against one of his students, he challenged the panel of judges to a fight. These judges, all of them ‘masters’ in their arts, kept their heads down and would not meet his gaze, let alone his challenge. His outrage was vindicated when the committee that adjudicated such matters reviewed the referee’s decision and overturned it. Master Lee’s student went on to win the championship.

On other occasions, I was delegated to take visiting students from the UK to his club to engage in pushing hands bouts with his students. He was always polite and his students were welcoming but he never resisted the opportunity to ‘strut his stuff,’ to show the foreigners in general, and me in particular, how little we really knew.

Each of my teachers, although from the same lineage, approached the art in an individual manner. They always justified this with the claim that the way they practised was the unique way, taught to them alone by their teacher. There came a time when Master Lee and his teaching became the focus of my study. Given that I knew of his exploits as a fighter, why had I left him to later in my studies? The reason was that amongst the more ‘refined’ members of the Malaysian Zhengzi community, his reputation was that of a crude and unrefined brawler.  On the whole, taijiquan exponents pride themselves on the fact that their art is many levels raised above the ‘brute force and ignorance’ of other systems. At that time, it would be fair to say, my view of the art was not uncoloured by this elitist attitude.

Nevertheless there was no denying that Master Lee was a successful and very visible exponent of the fighting arts, and his art, as he loudly and proudly proclaimed, was taijiquan. Eventually, I made an approach to ask him to take me as an initiated disciple. This was facilitated by my brother-in-law’s continued service as club secretary and the fact that Master Lee had met me on a number of occasions over several years. His answer, however, was not immediate. In fact it was several days before I got a reply, in the form of an invitation, to visit the house where Master Lee was staying together with a number of his students. At that time they were all in the southernmost city of Malaysia, Johor Bahru, to attend a national level competition. My wife and I also happened to be there as she was also taking part in the competition.

The ‘entering the door’ ceremony took place at this house and gathered there as witnesses were many of Master Lee’s senior disciples and peers. Afterwards I was given an immediate taste of Master Lee’s unique style and the training methods he used. After engaging in a very short but painful ‘sparring’ session with my new mentor, I was immediately taught the first of his series of internal strength exercises.

At this juncture, it is worth considering just what the nature of internal strength training is within the Malaysian Zhengzi system, and also what it accomplishes. Historically, it is traced not to the Yang family, with whom Zheng Manqing most notably trained; but to Zhang Qingling, who although also a Yang family disciple, was in addition a member of a daoist lineage of internal martial arts. These he had learnt from his teacher, Zuo Laifeng. Within Zhengzi taijiquan, they are referred to as the ‘Zuo method.’ The effect of this training is to enable the exponent to receive force from an opponent and neutralise it by diverting the incoming power into the ground. At the same time s/he is able to take this force from the ground and return it in the form of devastatingly powerful counters. This is described in the taijiquan maxim:  “Neutralising is striking, striking is neutralising.” This training also enables the practitioner to use timing and distancing to render the opponent’s attacks ineffective, while magnifying any counter delivered. In addition, there is an emphasis on the development of tactile sensitivity at grappling range, which allows the exponent to be constantly unbalancing their adversary thereby making strikes even more devastating. The student of taijiquan also learns how to both ‘segment’ their body into various parts, in order to disguise their own centre of balance and gravity, and then how to reunite it in a whole so that the sum is much more powerful than the individual parts. This is described in another maxim: “In taijiquan there is no fist, the whole body is a fist.”

Training consists of several sets of standing and sitting qigong (‘breath/energy skill’), combined with pai da gong (‘slapping and striking skill’). The latter are self-striking exercises designed to condition the body. In addition, there are also a number of exercises designed to stretch what we would now refer to as the fascia, training exercises involving breath and sound, and various meditative practises, some involving the circulation of qi (‘vital energy’) and some not.

While the majority of these exercises were (and in some cases still are) kept secret, others are openly taught in other martial arts systems and schools of spirituality and meditation. Knowing these exercises, alone, however, is not enough. They have to be practised rigorously; in the first case for a minimum of 100 days. The full set of exercises which are supposed to be practised twice a day during this period, takes at least 90 minutes of training. Like most good things, especially when developing what the Chinese call gong fu, this is boring, repetitive and not without pain.

Furthermore, just developing the gong fu of these exercises is still not enough. Many other martial systems have the same things, but they can only be used when the taijiquan body has been created and the strategies and tactics of the art have become firmly embodied.

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