Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, 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 ~

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Happy Easter

First of all, I'd like to wish everyone a Happy Easter.

I would also like to thank and congratulate those who took part in the 2013 Lenten Challenge.

According to, I have completed 124 consecutive days of practice without a break.

To help close the 2013 Lenten Challenge off to a good well, I've included an excerpt from my ebook, Cook Ding's Kitchen: A Kung Fu Carry Out ( if you don't have a Kindle, you can download the FREE Kindle Reading App here) below. It's the second chapter on the value of having a practice.  Enjoy.

“Philosophy practiced is the goal of learning.” – Thoreau

There are numerous reasons why someone would want to practice a martial art: self defense, exercise, a social activity, carrying on a piece of history and many others.

For some people, the overriding reason that they practice a martial art is to study “the way;” a type of self improvement which may include those listed above but which overall is meant to bring the student into alignment with the elusive way of the world.

What do we mean by “a practice?” In an article by Steven Pressfield, the author of the Legend of Bagger Vance, Gate of Fire and many other excellent books, he writes:

What is a practice? A practice is a regular, daily application of intention. We might have a yoga practice, or a martial arts practice; we could have a practice in calligraphy or tai chi, or flower arrangement or Japanese swordfighting. Have you read The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakura? The brewing and serving of tea can be a profound practice.

A practice isn’t pursued for money. It’s not an ego trip. Humility is a prime virtue in entering upon a practice.

But a practice is not for cream puffs.  A practice requires fierce intention and the relentless commitment of a warrior. A practice needs killer instinct.

A practice is spiritual. Its technique is to use a simple physical act or skill as an avenue to access the higher aspects of the self. In Hatha yoga, the various poses are meant to take us beyond our bodies, into our breath and ultimately into a state of consciousness where we’re present in our flesh but are, at the same time, looking on from a higher, more detached plane. That’s the payoff (beyond easing our aching backs).

Practices take place within a sacred space. When we enter our martial arts dojo, we dress in traditional garb that shows respect for the discipline and its history, for our instructors and for our fellow students; we take off our shoes; we bow to the sensei. We’re quiet. We turn off our iPhones. We stop texting.

The great part about a practice is it can be learned. There’s a syllabus. It’s not a mystery. The teacher starts us at Square One. He guides us. We practice; we get better. Our understanding deepens over time. We had thought, when we started, that we were teaching the calligraphy brush to do what we want, but now we see that the brush is teaching us. It’s teaching us patience. It’s humbling our ego. We finally produce a masterpiece and our instructor throws it into the fire. We’re learning. The end is nothing. The act is everything.

Practice is more than putting in the proverbial 10,000 hours. It’s a deliberate study as well.

An excerpt from an article that appeared in 2007:

The Newest Mandarins

Lei Bo is a philosophy graduate student in China whose faith is in history, and by habit he considers the world using the thousands of classical passages that live in his head. Three years ago he was studying in an empty room in the School of Management at his university in Beijing when students began to amble in for their class on Sun Tzu's "Art of War," a work from either the fifth or the fourth century B.C. Lei Bo decided to stay. He had taken two courses on "The Art of War" in the philosophy and the literature departments, and was curious to see how students in business and management might approach the same subject. The discussion that day was on the five attributes of a military commander. Sun Tzu said in the first chapter of the book, "An able commander is wise (zhi), trustworthy (xin), humane (ren), courageous (yong) and believes in strict discipline (yan)."

The students thought that a chief executive today should possess the same strengths in order to lead. But how did the five attributes apply to business? Here they were stuck, unable to move beyond what the words suggest in everyday speech. Even their teacher could not find anything new to add. At this point, Lei Bo raised his hand and began to take each word back to its home, to the sixth century B.C., when Sun Tzu lived, and to the two subsequent centuries when the work Sun Tzu inspired was actually written down.

On the word yong (courage), Lei Bo cited chapter seven of The Analects, where Confucius told a disciple that if he "were to lead the Three Armies of his state," he "would not take anyone who would try to wrestle a tiger with his bare hands and walk across a river [because there is not a boat]. If I take anyone, it would have to be someone who is wary when faced with a task and who is good at planning and capable of successful execution." 

No one ever put Confucius in charge of an army, said Lei Bo, and Confucius never thought that he would be asked, but being a professional, he could expect a career either in the military or in government. And his insight about courage in battle and in all matters of life and death pertains to a man's interior: his judgment and awareness, his skills and integrity. This was how Lei Bo explored the word "courage": he located it in its early life before it was set apart from ideas like wisdom, humaneness and trust. He tried to describe the whole sense of the word. The business students and their teacher were hooked. They wanted Lei Bo back every week for as long as they were reading "The Art of War."

Scores of men and women in China's business world today are studying their country's classical texts, not just "The Art of War," but also early works from the Confucian and the Daoist canon. On weekends, they gather at major universities, paying tens of thousands of yuan each, to learn from prominent professors of philosophy and literature, to read and think in ways they could not when they were students and the classics were the objects of Maoist harangue . Those inside and outside China say that these businessmen and -women, like most Chinese right now, have caught the "fever of national learning."

There is reading, and there is study.

From Pressfield and Chins’ articles, it becomes clear that you can’t take an art by force, although you must be diligent. Theory will inform your practice but is not a substitute. The unsaid element is submission. You have to submit to your practice; to allow yourself to be shaped by it. 

“The mind and body reflect one another.” – Kushida Sensei, Yoshokai Aikido
Here are a couple of examples of being shaped by ones practice. The mind and body indeed reflect one another. We can work on one by working on the other.

In this day and age, I think the main reason for most of us to train in martial arts isn't to fight, but to cultivate a calm, clear mind.

I am 55 and haven't been in a fight since my early 20's. I do however find that I have an opportunity to show the advantage of a calm, clear mind nearly every day.

Take the other day for example.

I was on the freeway with my family driving back from visiting some relatives in Ohio. I was in the left lane passing a truck. There was a SUV behind the truck.

Just as I was pulling alongside the SUV, he decided to change lanes sharply. I dodged as far to the left as I could without driving off the pavement and into the median.

It wasn't far enough. When he finally saw me, he hit my car and went back to his own lane. I didn’t go into the median.

The highway patrolman said that if he had hit me a little differently, my car would have spun out; a very bad thing. If he had hit me much harder at all, I would have ended up in the median and rolled over.

As it was, the damage is superficial. No one was hurt and all's well that ends well.

I didn’t panic when this happened. I didn’t freeze. I focused on what I was doing and rode out the situation. I kept my car on the pavement, my passengers (relatively) calm, didn’t go into the median and I was calm and level headed when I exchanged information with the other driver after we pulled over.

I owe this to my training.

As for being shaped physically, I have recounted elsewhere how I used to train pretty diligently in Yoshinkai Aikido under Kushida Sensei as a young man. When it came time to raise a family and build a career, I hung up my dogi for a while always knowing that I would come back to martial arts training in some form. Martial arts practice is a lot like gravity in that once it gets hold of you, you may think you can escape it for some time but eventually it pulls you back in.

When my late mother was in an assisted living home, then later a nursing home, I got to see and spend time with a lot of human train wrecks up close. The criteria I would apply to determining how I would go forward with exercise in general and martial arts training in particular began to crystallize.

I would want to practice something that I could physically carry into my dotterage. It had to be intellectually engaging. I wanted to do something I could practice effectively as a solo practice and have no need of special equipment or location; that is, self contained and portable.

About 12 years ago, I began some of the fundamental exercises of Yiquan. The standing practice really resonated with me and I have continued it in one form or another to this day.

Five years ago, I began studying Wu style Taijiquan. Beginning 3 years ago I began to focus on the small frame square form from the Wu style.

This was all a very Yin practice though. To burn some calories, keep up some cardiovascular capacity and muscle tone I felt I needed to supplement this. Alongside those practices I also used a treadmill (which I wore out and replaced with an elliptical machine) and weight machine (which I eventually set aside in favor of body weight exercises; the weights made my joints sore).

From my youth in the 70s's from reading the books of Robert W. Smith, one of the martial arts that I have been fascinated by was Xingyiquan. I started learning the Five Elements forms from some videos to add some Yang flavor to my practice.

I wanted to see how Xingyiquan would physically shape me, so I dropped the elliptical machine and the body weight exercises to see what would happen. 

Aside from my "soft" practices, the only regular physical exercise I get other than Xingyiquan is the stuff I do around the house (and the Mrs has no shortage of Egyptian Pyramid slave labor projects she'd like to see me complete) and of course, walking the dog.

I've always had quick results when I've done physical exercise. My usual development would be a big blocky chest, biceps, thighs and calves. I've never been successful in building size or definition in my forearms.

The regular Xingyiquan practice has changed that. My chest is flatter, like a boxer but well defined. I still have strong biceps but the muscle tone seems longer than big. My forearms are getting meaty (for me) and are not only picking up definition, but the insides of my arms are getting defined as well. 

Like my biceps, my thighs and calves have a longer quality to them. My lower back; the area that would be covered by a weight lifting belt if I wore one, DOES feel like I'm wearing one of those support belts. Finally, I am becoming aware of a lot of little muscles in my shoulders and back.

“I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” - Michelangelo

We went to a wedding last month. A couple of weeks before the wedding, the Mrs suggested that I try on the new suit I bought last spring. The jacket was too tight. The jackets of all my old suits were too tight. I had to buy a new one.

At 55 I feel like I am in as good shape as I was in my 20s when I was going to over a dozen aikido classes a week. I am nearly as strong as I've ever been and I can't think of a time when my stamina has been better. I had already lost most of the weight I was going to lose from my peak three years ago by the time I started learning the Five Elements, but my weight is generally a few pounds lighter than a year ago. Altogether, over the last 3 years, I've lost 40 lbs.

My “shape” has changed in many ways. My head is clear and my body is strong. I feel great. The path leads, I follow.


Thursday, March 28, 2013

Nine Dragons

The Chinese believe nine is a lucky number and the number nine is often associated with dragons. Indeed Kowloon, an area of Hong Kong means "nine dragons." There are nine forms of the dragon and the dragon has nine offspring. Only the Emperor could wear nine dragons on his clothes. Click here to see the Nine Dragon Trident form from Choy Lay Fut kung fu.

Also, when practicing internal martial arts, one of the key characteristics is moving the body from the core. The foundation of moving from the core is the pelvis area.

Michael Buhr, the author of the Internal Gong Fu blog has written an eBook on working the pelvis to improve one's martial arts practice.  There is a huge amount of information available for a very low price. It is available for the Kindle. Please check it out.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Taiko Drums

How is everyone who is participating in the Lenten Challenge doing? This should get you on your feet ...

Friday, March 22, 2013

Supercharge Your Training

A long time ago while filling a contract position, I found myself seated next to a Chinese PhD. He took an interest in me because of my interest in Asian things.


He once told me a saying; I don’t remember exactly how it goes, that when you have tried everything you can think of, but just can’t seem to get anywhere – change. Change your point of view, your methods; anything, everything. Change.


Whenever I find that my practice has been interrupted for some reason such as illness or injury; I am idle and I can’t do anything about it, I take the opportunity to really examine what it is that I am doing and why. I tear by practice down and build it back up so that when I am able to practice again, I can hit the ground running to achieve something new. 

I can't tell you how many times I've stopped what I had been doing and began again a different way. Some times I'd return to an older way I had trained, but with a new insight.


Do you find yourself training hard; putting in the time, but not getting the results you are striving for? Then maybe you need to change something. Below is an article that appeared in The New York Times. I think it resonates really well with article published a few months ago on Deliberate Practice. The original article may be read here. The article is a foretaste of a book and a link to the book is at the bottom.

Secret Ingredient for Success

David Chang’s experience is instructive.

Mr. Chang is an internationally renowned, award-winning Korean-American chef, restaurateur and owner of the Momofuku restaurant group with eight restaurants from Toronto to Sydney, and other thriving enterprises, including bakeries and bars, a PBS TV show, guest spots on HBO’s “Treme” and a foodie magazine, Lucky Peach. He says he worked himself to the bone to realize his dream — to own a humble noodle bar.

He spent years cooking in some of New York City’s best restaurants, apprenticed in different noodle shops in Japan and then, finally, worked 18-hour days in his tiny restaurant, Momofuku Noodle Bar.

Mr. Chang could barely pay himself a salary. He had trouble keeping staff. And he was miserably stressed.

He recalls a low moment when he went with his staff on a night off to eat burgers at a restaurant that was everything his wasn’t — packed, critically acclaimed and financially successful. He could cook better than they did, he thought, so why was his restaurant failing? “I couldn’t figure out what the hell we were doing wrong,” he told us.

Mr. Chang could have blamed someone else for his troubles, or worked harder (though available evidence suggests that might not have been possible) or he could have made minor tweaks to the menu. Instead he looked inward and subjected himself to brutal self-assessment.

Was the humble noodle bar of his dreams economically viable? Sure, a traditional noodle dish had its charm but wouldn’t work as the mainstay of a restaurant if he hoped to pay his bills.

Mr. Chang changed course. Rather than worry about what a noodle bar should serve, he and his cooks stalked the produce at the greenmarket for inspiration. Then they went back to the kitchen and cooked as if it was their last meal, crowding the menu with wild combinations of dishes they’d want to eat — tripe and sweetbreads, headcheese and flavor-packed culinary mashups like a Korean-style burrito. What happened next Mr. Chang still considers “kind of ridiculous” — the crowds came, rave reviews piled up, awards followed and unimaginable opportunities presented themselves.

During the 1970s, Chris Argyris, a business theorist at Harvard Business School (and now, at 89, a professor emeritus) began to research what happens to organizations and people, like Mr. Chang, when they find obstacles in their paths.

Professor Argyris called the most common response single loop learning — an insular mental process in which we consider possible external or technical reasons for obstacles.
LESS common but vastly more effective is the cognitive approach that Professor Argyris called double-loop learning. In this mode we — like Mr. Chang — question every aspect of our approach, including our methodology, biases and deeply held assumptions. This more psychologically nuanced self-examination requires that we honestly challenge our beliefs and summon the courage to act on that information, which may lead to fresh ways of thinking about our lives and our goals.

In interviews we did with high achievers for a book, we expected to hear that talent, persistence, dedication and luck played crucial roles in their success. Surprisingly, however, self-awareness played an equally strong role.

The successful people we spoke with — in business, entertainment, sports and the arts — all had similar responses when faced with obstacles: they subjected themselves to fairly merciless self-examination that prompted reinvention of their goals and the methods by which they endeavored to acheive them.

The tennis champion Martina Navratilova, for example, told us that after a galling loss to Chris Evert in 1981, she questioned her assumption that she could get by on talent and instinct alone. She began a long exploration of every aspect of her game. She adopted a rigorous cross-training practice (common today but essentially unheard of at the time), revamped her diet and her mental and tactical game and ultimately transformed herself into the most successful women’s tennis player of her era.

The indie rock band OK Go described how it once operated under the business model of the 20th-century rock band. But when industry record sales collapsed and the band members found themselves creatively hamstrung by their recording company, they questioned their tactics. Rather than depend on their label, they made wildly unconventional music videos, which went viral, and collaborative art projects with companies like Google, State Farm and Range Rover, which financed future creative endeavors. The band now releases albums on its own label.

No one’s idea of a good time is to take a brutal assessment of their animating assumptions and to acknowledge that those may have contributed to their failure. It’s easy to find pat ways to explain why the world has not adequately rewarded our efforts. But what we learned from conversation with high achievers is that challenging our assumptions, objectives, at times even our goals, may sometimes push us further than we thought possible. Ask David Chang, who never imagined that sweetbreads and duck sausage rice cakes with kohlrabi and mint would find their way beside his humble noodle dishes — and make him a star.

Camille Sweeney and Josh Gosfield are the authors of the forthcoming book “The Art of Doing: How Superachievers Do What They Do and How They Do It So Well.”

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Tang Dynasty Poems: #48, A Farewell to my Friend Chen Zhangfu

The Tang Dynasty was a high point of culture in ancient China. Especially esteemed were poems. 

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.

 Li Qi


In the Fourth-month the south wind blows plains of yellow barley,
Date-flowers have not faded yet and lakka-leaves are long.
The green peak that we left at dawn we still can see at evening,
While our horses whinny on the road, eager to turn homeward.
...Chen, my friend, you have always been a great and good man,
With your dragon's moustache, tiger's eyebrows and your massive forehead.
In your bosom you have shelved away ten thousand volumes.
You have held your head high, never bowed it in the dust.
...After buying us wine and pledging us, here at the eastern gate,
And taking things as lightly as a wildgoose feather,
Flat you lie, tipsy, forgetting the white sun;
But now and then you open your eyes and gaze at a high lone cloud.
...The tide-head of the lone river joins the darkening sky.
The ferryman beaches his boat. It has grown too late to sail.
And people on their way from Cheng cannot go home,
And people from Loyang sigh with disappointment.
...I have heard about the many friends around your wood land dwelling.
Yesterday you were dismissed. Are they your friends today? 

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Skillful and Entertaining Aikido

An entertaining demonstration by Ando Sensei from the Yoshinkan. A lesson from Shoji Seki, 7th Dan Aikikai on side strike all direction throw and pin, and side strike write throw and pin.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Seven Samurai

Seven Samurai, perhaps Akira Kurosawa's most famous film, is not only one of the best samurai movies ever made, but one of the great movies of all time. Below are some clips. Enjoy.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Traditional Martial Arts

So how did "traditional martial arts" come to be regarded as that? What does it really mean?
In a series of articles about perhaps one of the most influential martial artists of the 20th century, Sun Lu Tang, Kung Fu Tea examines those very questions. Below is an excerpt from the first article in a series about SLT and the whole article may be read here.

Introduction: Why Sun Lutang?

One of the persistent problems that I see in amateur discussions of “Chinese martial studies” is a lack of understanding of how broad the traditional martial arts really were, and the variety of life experiences that they encompassed.  In fact, rather than discussing China’s martial culture in the singular, it would probably be better to think about these cultures in the plural.  The martial arts never were just one thing, and our experience with the modern “traditional” arts tends to seriously skew our perceptions of the past.

To counter this trend I have been compiling a series of short biographies on important and interesting martial artists from the 19th and 20th centuries.  So far we have seen the martial arts used as a revolutionary philosophy by a cross-dressing political terrorist, as a means of economic and political advancement for a poor boy from the country, and as an natural outgrowth of southern China’s intensely commercial marketplaces.  All of our previous martial artists have pursued very concrete economic, social and political goals.  With the exception of Qui Jin’s use of martial imagery in some of her revolutionary poetry, none of them have viewed the martial arts as an overly philosophical or spiritual endeavor.

I believe that this accurately represents the life experience of the vast majority of China’s 19th century martial artists.  Most of these individuals were relatively uneducated youth from the countryside.  They sought out the martial arts either as a means to better paying employment (perhaps as a caravan guard) or as a source of entertainment and personal cultivation during slack periods of the agricultural year.

Yet this is not how most western martial artists view the Chinese styles today.  Discussions of the “traditional” martial arts (in both China and America) are prefaced with the assumption that these practices are “really” about health, weight loss, qi cultivation or mental peace.  I think that these often heard assertions would come as something of a revelation to most of China’s 19th century boxers.  It is not that they did not value the health benefits of regular exercise.  In an age without modern medical care they certainly did, and “Qigong-esque” exercises have been around for a long time.  But that was never why they braved social condemnation to practice these arts in the first place.

Still, since the late Ming dynasty there has been a small minority of individuals who did practice and advocate the study of boxing as a form of “self-cultivation.”  Meir Shahar, in his masterful study of the evolution of the fighting arts of Shaolin, has demonstrated that in the late 1500s at least one group of monks at the temple started to abandon the study of battlefield weapons in favor of unarmed boxing mixed with Daoist longevity practices and traditional medical philosophy.

It is not a mystery that small groups of monks might find the mixture of strenuous physical training and philosophical mysticism intoxicating.  These individuals were, after all, monks.  Self-cultivation and the attainment of altered states of consciousness through strenuous esoteric activities was their day-job.  This was just a new technology to accomplish the goals that monks in many religious traditions have always sought.

What was surprising was Shahar’s finding that the growing popularity of this strange brew was not confined to the nation’s Temples, but that it was spreading quite rapidly throughout the lettered classes in the late Ming and early Qing period.  At exactly the point in time when one might have expected elites to be the most interested in serious military study, they were instead turning their attention to more mystical pursuits.

So we know that this interest in Daoist philosophy, medicine and longevity practices has been an undercurrent in certain corners of the Chinese martial arts world for some time.  Probably over 400 years.  Depending on how you interpret the story of the Maiden of Yue (a Bronze Age fencing master who showed a keen interest in philosophy) maybe a lot longer.  But we lack the literary evidence to say much about the pre-Ming period.

Still, this view remained a minority one.  It was the sort of thing that was mostly taken up by the few educated elites who had any interest in Boxing, and it did not have a huge impact on the goals and military aspirations of ordinary martial artists.

This basic social pattern started to undergo a fundamental shift in the wake of the Boxer Uprising (1899-1901).  In the modern era (dominated by firearms) the original military applications of the martial arts started to look outdated to a number of educated social elites.  Actual military and police personnel had reasons to continue to be interested in unarmed defense, but these sorts of concerns rarely bothered arm-chair reformers or “May 4th” radicals.  In fact, many of these reformers and modernizers wanted to do away with traditional hand combat.  To them boxing was an embarrassing relic of China’s feudal and superstitious past.

For the martial arts to succeed in the 20th century they would need to transition.  They had to be made appealing to increasingly educated and modern middle-class individuals living in urban areas.

It would be hard to imagine a group more different from the rural farm youths that had traditionally practiced these arts.  But this is the task that the early martial reformers of the 20th century dedicated themselves too.
We have already briefly discussed the Jingwu Association (created in Shanghai in 1909) and their pioneering efforts to reform and save the Chinese martial arts (as well as the nation).  However, there were a number of other reformers in the same era.  And while the traditional martial arts did survive, the systems that we have today are in many ways quite different from what the Jingwu, and later Guoshu, reformers envisioned.
Sun Lutang is a seminal figure in the history of the early 20th century Chinese martial arts.  While best known in Neijia and Taijiquan circles (where he is credited with the creation of Sun style Taiji), his vision of what the Chinese martial arts should be is still being perpetuated today.  In fact, he did more to promote the idea that the martial arts are fundamentally about health and self-cultivation than any other single figure.  Through his ground breaking publications in the 1910s and 1920s he codified a set of ideas about the nature of the Chinese martial arts that we continue to carry with us.
In some senses I am hesitant to write on Sun Lutang.  I do not practice Sun style Taiji, Xingyi Quan or Bagua.  For that matter I am not particularly sympathetic to the view that the Chinese martial arts should be about health and self-cultivation.  I am much more familiar with the local histories of southern China and Cantonese culture.  I come to this question as an outsider.

Yet the influence of Sun Lutang’s ideas and reforms have stretched far beyond his homeland in the “central plains.”  His theories continue to influence popular perceptions, in both the east and west, about what the Chinese martial arts are and what they should be.  With his triple dedication to hand combat, Daoist longevity and classical Chinese philosophy, he has become the perfect “little old Chinese man” that all other martial arts teachers are subsequently judged against.  In short, it is necessary for the field of Chinese martial studies to address the contributions of this dynamic writer and thinker on a more fundamental level than any specific contributions that he may have made to popular lineages of Taiji or Xingyi Quan.

The next three posts comprise a brief discussion of Sun Lutang and his contributions to the traditional Chinese martial arts.  The remainder of this post provides an overview and timeline of his life.  The information in this review is based on the introductory essay (by Tim Cartmell, 2003) in A Study of Taijiquan (1921) by Sun Lutang.  Cartmell drew on a variety of sources when assembling his biographical sketch, including extensive interviews with Sun Lutang’s surviving daughter Sun Jianyun.  A skilled martial arts teacher who worked with her father, Sun Jianyun was able to fill in many of the gaps and paint a more accurate picture of her father’s day to day life.

The second post in this series will focus on Sun Lutang’s association with other martial artists and hand combat institutions.  In fact, one of the most interesting elements of Sun Lutang’s life is the window that it opens onto the transformation of late Qing hand combat traditions and the development of modern martial arts culture in Northern China.  While the brief biographical sketches that we present below cannot always flush out the social importance of events in his life, we hope to be able to expand on some of this material in the second post.

With a better understanding of the factual and social foundations of Sun Lutang’s life, the third post will turn to a discussion of his lasting impact on the traditional Chinese martial arts.  While Sun Lutang lived most of his life in Northern China, his ideas have spread around the country, and even around the globe.  What impact did his synthesis of philosophy, medicine and hand combat have on the development of the southern Chinese martial arts?  To what extent did he provide the intellectual and philosophical foundations that allowed the Chinese martial arts to become a middle class phenomenon outgrowing, in large part, their origins in rural poverty?  Do we see his hand in the emergence of the Qigong craze on the 1990s, and the subsequent “medicalization” of the Chinese martial arts?  Lastly, when I deal with students who want me to tell them that Wing Chun is really an “internal” art, to what extent are they responding to ideas and hierarchies that were first developed by Sun and promoted by his students?

Kennedy and Guo have called Sun Lutang the most important Chinese martial artists of the modern era (2005 p.182).  I don’t think that this assertion is an overstatement.  Of course saying that someone has had a huge impact on the development is not the same as saying that they were the most talented practitioner to ever live.  If nothing else his books have clearly had a transformative impact on all the literature that has come after them.  Still, it seems that relatively few modern martial artists (outside the Neijia community) really have much of an idea of who Sun actually was or what he accomplished.  He is lionized by members of his Taiji lineage and ignored by pretty much everyone else.

My review of Sun Lutang’s life will have little to say about his specific martial teachings or contributions to Taiji.  Instead I hope to promote a broader appreciation of this figure in the field of Chinese martial studies.  His life is a fascinating case study that illustrates a key era in the transition of the Chinese martial arts.  Further, the ideas that he authored or popularized continue to shape how many people approach these fighting styles to this day.  Even the practice of people who will profess to have never studied Sun is often profoundly marked by his writing.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Update on the 2013 Lenten Challenge

I thought that I'd make an update on my own progress on the Lenten Challenge and on life in general.

First of all, since just before I kicked off the Advent Challenge back in December, I began tracking some of my activities at According to the reckoning kept there, today is my 100th consecutive day of working out!

Until we got the new puppy, it was pretty easy once I established the habit. Since Mabel has been with us, it has been more of a challenge. Like having a baby in the house, it's taken her a while to sleep though the night. This was a temporary situation though, and I just soldiered through it. Eventually, the routine achieved a new normal. The next milestone for Mabel is becoming housebroken.

Bella and Mabel are very attached to each other. They play constantly and don't like to be out of each other's sight. Mabel can't keep up with Bella when we go for a walk yet, and the cold weather has been harder on her, so for a part of our walks, I stuff her into my coat while I continue to walk Bella.

It seemed like just yesterday that my youngest shipped off to college. Next month she is graduating with a degree in Management Information Systems.

I had mentioned before that I had bulked up quite a bit because I was doing a lot of repetitions of the Five Elements forms from Xingyiquan. At that time I was doing around 1500 repetitions a day to sort of "burn" the gross movements into my body and I was still carrying a lot of tension with me as I was doing them. The result was clear to see. I got bigger.

Since then, I've stopped focusing on repetitions and have been concentrating instead on time, trying to make each repetition razor sharp and correct. I've also become a lot more relaxed as I do them.

The result is that I've shrunk! In fact, my family is now complaining that I'm too skinny. While my stamina is fine, I can tell that by moving furniture around and whatnot that I am not as strong in the lifting in carrying sense.

I've thought about doing some body weight exercises again to try and bulk up a bit, but I don't want to take time away from practicing, so I'm just going to continue as I am and see how my practice shapes me. 

Monday, March 04, 2013

Follow the Feeling

I recenty read an outstanding book on the topic of personal self defense. I am referring to The Gift of Fear by Gavin De Becker.

Mr. DeBecker is a security consultant. A central topic is his theory is that there are dozens of tell tale signs that a violent episode is about to occur, but that our logical minds are too slow to sort through all of the data and reach the appropriate conclusion. 

Instead, he says that we should let our unconscious sort through it all and let the conclusion bubble up through was we call our "intuituition," and pay attention to it.

This falls in line with a concept found in both classical and modern Japanese martial arts; at least I am familiar with the terms from JMA. I am referring to "kan" and "ken." Feeling and seeing.

I am in a customer facing role and I know that when I've been training both regularly and well, I just have a knack of reading a room a whole lot better. 

Rather than do a poor job explaining these concepts myself, I am going to post a short excerpt from a post that has already appeared on the internet at The Classical Budoka. The full article may be read here.

38. Ken and Kan: Seeing and Feeling

November 4, 2011

There are many philosophical, mental and attitudinal elements in learning traditional, classical budo. More so, I think, when learning a koryu, which is much more intricately tied to traditional Japanese culture.

One of the concepts I think many of my own students still have a hard time wrapping their heads around is the notion of ken and kan, or literally translated, “seeing” and “feeling.”

To elaborate: in learning a traditional Japanese art, such as a koryu, there are things you can learn by “seeing,” i.e., through a visible, clear, rationalistic learning process, and things you need to learn to intuit, or “feel.”

Most of modern budo, although not all and not all teachers of modern budo, are often very good at the former teaching pedagogy. They take apart a kata or a method and in clear, logical terms, talk about the physical and technical structure of the movement and the results thereof. In large part, this rationalism is a reaction against what was perceived as a haphazard, archaic way of training that stereotyped the koryu when the modern budo were formulated.

To a degree, such criticisms of koryu might have been valid. But I have to wonder, after decades of training in both koryu and modern budo, if it’s a matter of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. There’s something to be said for developing a sense of intuition in martial arts.

The longer I train, the more I realize that there’s an ineffable, intuitive, inexplicable aspect to budo. I don’t mean the woo-woo mystical “wave your hands and the guy will fall down” mumbo jumbo. I mean aspects of a koryu martial art that are really, really hard to explain in logical, verbal terms, aspects that cannot quite yet be captured and exposed clearly in digital media such as videos, books or photographs. It’s a feeling. A mood. A kind of tension, timing and subtle movement, spacing and distancing that can best be felt, but not yet explained easily in words.

“Ken” comes from another way to pronounce the Japanese verb “to see,” miru. Seeing with one’s eyes is symbolic of logical, rational thought processes. You see a technique, you try to repeat it overtly with your own body movements. It’s all there in front of you to see.

In contrast, “kan” comes from the verb “kanjiru,” or “to feel, to sense.” In koryu, it’s not just a matter of physical aping. It’s a matter of understanding very subtle body dynamics, spacing, timing, rhythm, distancing, breath, angle of entry and evasion. I can explain these terms individually, but putting them all together into one seamless whole requires not just rational cognitive learning skills, but also a “sense” of how they fit. This calls for intuition, “feeling.”

This is not to denigrate the ability to see what’s in front of you clearly. It is to emphasize that the ability to learn rationally and empirically is just one component of the mental training process. The other necessary part is learning to develop one’s intuition.

It may be that the ability to ken and kanjiru are two sides of the same coin; the two are actually fluid terms, and the rational and intuitive need to flow one into the other, like the Yin and Yang of Taoist philosophy complimenting each other. You need both.

Indeed, I’ve seen where students have a hard time grasping the essentials; the basic, signature movements of the koryu school. If you can’t process which foot goes ahead of which foot, then all the intuition and “feel” in the world won’t help you. You need the rational, step-by-step essentials.

But I’ve also seen cases where I’ve seen some students in my school and in other koryu demonstrate, and I’d turn to an acquaintance and we’d agree, “That guy has got the moves and order right, but he still hasn’t got it.”

–“IT” being that underlying “feel” of a true practitioner of the style, who can MOVE like a Takeuchi-ryu person, or a Shinto Muso-ryu Jo person, or a Tenshin Sho Katori Shinto-ryu person.

Each koryu has a particular kind of fun’iki, or “feel,” and if you watch the really good practitioners, no matter how their own body morphology and personal character shapes their movements, there’s something about their kata that is imbued with the style. They got it. It’s in their heart as well as mind.  The person who doesn’t get it may have used half his brain to learn the moves, but he hasn’t used his other half of his brain to intuit the “feel” of the style.


All of this also resonates with what Malcolm Gladwell wrote in his excellent book, Blink. From the Wikipedia article:

The author describes the main subject of his book as "thin-slicing": our ability to gauge what is really important from a very narrow period of experience. In other words, this is an idea that spontaneous decisions are often as good as—or even better than—carefully planned and considered ones. Gladwell draws on examples from science, advertising, sales, medicine, and popular music to reinforce his ideas. Gladwell also uses many examples of regular people's experiences with "thin-slicing."

Gladwell explains how an expert's ability to "thin slice" can be corrupted by their likes and dislikes, prejudices and stereotypes (even unconscious ones), and how they can be overloaded by too much information. Two particular forms of unconscious bias Gladwell discusses are Implicit Association Tests and psychological priming. Gladwell also tells us about our instinctive ability to mind read, which is how we can get to know what emotions a person is feeling just by looking at his or her face.
We do that by "thin-slicing," using limited information to come to our conclusion. In what Gladwell contends is an age of information overload, he finds that experts often make better decisions with snap judgments than they do with volumes of analysis.

Gladwell gives a wide range of examples of thin-slicing in contexts such as gambling, speed dating, tennis, military war games, the movies, malpractice suits, popular music, and predicting divorce.

Gladwell also mentions that sometimes having too much information can interfere with the accuracy of a judgment, or a doctor's diagnosis. This is commonly called "Analysis paralysis." The challenge is to sift through and focus on only the most critical information to make a decision. The other information may be irrelevant and confusing to the decision maker. Collecting more and more information, in most cases, just reinforces our judgment but does not help to make it more accurate. The collection of information is commonly interpreted as confirming a person's initial belief or bias.

Gladwell explains that better judgments can be executed from simplicity and frugality of information, rather than the more common belief that greater information about a patient is proportional to an improved diagnosis. If the big picture is clear enough to decide, then decide from the big picture without using a magnifying glass.

Here is an archive of articles Mr. Gladwell has written for the New Yorker Magazine, some of which he further developed into books.

I would be remiss if I didn't close this topic with an appropriate music video: