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 ~

Friday, July 01, 2022

Ding Number Seven and the Origins of White Crane Boxing

Below is an excerpt from a fascinating article from Kung Fu Tea, which has to do with women in martial arts and the origin of Southern White Crane Boxing. The full post may be read here.

The historical records produced during the Ming and Qing dynasties contain a number of references to female martial artists.  These sources clearly indicate that they were massively outnumbered by their male brethren, but as a category they were never entirely absent either.  Of course “martial arts” as a conceptual category is a comparatively recent invention.  Most of these individuals were identified and discussed using different professional markers.  They were remembered as entertainers, vagabonds, criminals, healers, mystics, saints and in one memorable case even a rebel general.  The fighting arts (and their related body of traditional physical culture) might play a role in each of these professions.

There are far fewer cases in which a woman was explicitly identified as a full time martial arts instructor with a large number of students.  And I am aware of only a single a instance in which a historical woman was acknowledged by later male writers as the founder of area’s martial tradition.  

But before we can explore further we need to know something about the sorts of resources that are available to students of Chinese martial history.

“Gazetteers” are a fascinating historical resource for anyone interested in life in late imperial China.  

These records were by their nature both geographically bounded and technical.  They might focus on a region, a province, a county, a city, a temple or even an important waterway.  The ostensible point of a gazetteer was to gather the information that a busy outside government official or visitor might need to get up to speed on a new posting or assignment.  As such these books are a valuable historical resource which provide maps, community histories, economic discussions, biographies of notable citizens and local color.  

Members of the gentry were usually tasked with writing and editing the gazetteers.  This was considered a prestigious assignment as the editor of such a volume had the ability to shape the local social and historical record.  A review of these books shows that the families of the editors were inevitably remembered as “illustrious scholars” and “paragons of virtue.”  It is important to take the social history that one finds in these books with a grain of salt, but they remain a vital resource for understanding local history in China.
The editors of these volumes usually went to some effort to put their best foot forward and appear as orthodox and socially respectable as possible.  As a result gazettes often omit the sort of information that might be most useful to the historian of the martial arts.

Douglas Wile discovered a classic case of this while researching his landmark volume on the early Taiji literature (1996).  The Wu brothers, who had important careers as high ranking public servants, were also gifted literary scholars.  They put these skills to good use by editing the local county gazetteer after retiring from public office, as well as discovering, editing and preserving the oldest still existing manuscript tradition of what we now call the “Taiji Classics.”

In fact, all three brothers were deeply involved with and committed to, the practice of Taiji.  It is thus odd that the historical volume that they edited contains no references to Taiji, or to the brothers other very substantial military exploits.  Wile debates how we should interpret this silence.  Was it some hint of sedition?  Possibly.  But a simpler explanation would be that a public airing of such an eccentric interest in a “dignified” source would bring embarrassment to the Wu family.

Marnix Wells has fared better with the use of gazetteers in his research.  The county records that he dealt with in his investigation of Chang Naizhou not only preserved his memory, but it went into detail on the biographies of a number of other martial artists in the region.  This is really about the best scenario that you can hope for.  Yet in many cases these records simply pass over the martial arts in silence, not because they were actually absent, but rather because they were viewed as undignified or unorthodox by the volume’s editor.

The other difficult thing about gazetteers is finding and translating them.  Localities were supposed to update these records regularly.  Some did, while others were pretty lax.  Nor is there a central clearing house for this information today.  A few of these volumes (generally the ones for the more important areas) have been republished, but most of this information is still sitting in library stacks and private book collections in China.  Actually getting ahold of all of the information that you would like to see, and successfully translating it, can be a major feat of scholarship in itself.

Luckily for us the editors of the late 17th century gazetteer for Yongchun County, Fujian Province, had no moral objections to the martial arts.  We are also fortunate in that what he had to say was deemed important enough to warrant subsequent republishing and discussion, first by scholars in China, then by Stanley Henning in the United States.

Very often information about important martial artists (if any is included) will be found in the section on local biographies of noteworthy private citizens that most county gazetteers seem to have included.  The brief account quoted by Henning and others states that during the Kangxi era (1662-1735) a woman named Ding Number Seven moved to Yongchun with her husband.  Together they taught a number of individuals including 24 disciples.  The most important of these was an individual named Zheng Li.

Zheng warranted his own entry in the volume.  It focused on his immense strength and boxing skills.
The discussions of his feats included a stereotyped defeat of a water buffalo (which he pulled the horns off of) and a shaolin monk (who later became a friend and teacher).  Zheng was taught by Woman Ding, and he in turn provided instruction to most of the lineages that were still operating in the area at the time that the account was written.

So when does this account date to?  We do not have an exact date, but we do have some clues.  The list of southern gazetteers provided by James Tong indicates that Yongchun County did not update their records frequently (Disorder Under Heaven, 1992).  As such it looks like this account might date to the 1684 edition of the local gazetteer.   If these dates are correct than Ding Number Seven would have been active sometime between 1660 and 1680.  Given that the account indicates as least two generations of instruction have passed, this would indicate that she was probably teaching in the 1660s.

Of course this account is also interesting for what is left out.  We hear very little of her husband and his accomplishments.  One wonders if perhaps she was included because she was both a martial artist and a “virtuous widow,” a group that always enjoyed recognition in these lists (see the discussion in Victoria Cass, 1999).

Nor do we know the name of the style that she taught.  Today she is revered as the ancestor of Yongchun White Crane Boxing.  Yet neither avian nor geographic nomenclature are mentioned in the account of her teaching, just the size of her school.  Readers are also never told where she learned her art.  Was it from her husband?  Or possibly her father? 

While the biographical account of Zheng Li is full of exaggeration and folklore (the defeat of a bull-type creature is one of the classic markers of a martial arts legend, as is a confrontation with a Shaolin monk) his teacher’s life lacks any fantastic elements.  The account is all business, possibly too much so.

Subsequent versions of her story were more expansive and attempted to fill in these blanks.  Perhaps the best-preserved account from this era is found in the Bubishi.  This enigmatic work represents a Fujianese martial arts manuscript tradition dating from the last half of the 19th century.  The manuscripts in question were preserved in Okinawa (hence the Japanese title), and went on to influence the development of that island’s indigenous fighting traditions. 

The manuscripts included in the Bubishi are written in Chinese and include discussions of martial arts history, ethics, White Crane and Monk Fist styles, vital point strikes and traditional Chinese herbal medicines.  The manuscripts are sometimes heavily illustrated and often appear without any specific order.  An almost identical work entitled the Secret Shaolin Bronze Man Book was preserved by the Liu family in Fuzhou leading to the conclusion that the work was originally composed in China rather than Okinawa.

The volume begins its discussion of White Crane Kung Fu with the following story:

“In spite of his fighting skills in Monk Fist Boxing, Fang Zhonggong was no match for the scoundrels from a neighboring village who deceived and then viciously beat him while vying for control of his village.  The injuries Fang sustained during the altercation were so severe that he was unable to fully recuperate and fell gravely ill.  Attending to by his loving daughter and personal disciple, Fang Qiniang, his condition gradually deteriorated.  No longer even able to eat, he finally died.

Deeply troubled by the loathsome circumstances of her beloved father’s death, Fang Qiniang vowed to take revenge.  Although just a country girl from the rural village of Yongchun, Fang Qiniang was nevertheless a promising and spirited young woman.  She longed to vindicate her family name, but she had not yet mastered the fighting skills her father was teaching her.  She deeply pondered upon how she might find the power and strength to overcome such adversaries.

One day, not long after the tragedy, Fang was sobbing over the memory of her loss when suddenly she heard some strange noises coming from the bamboo grove just outside her home.  Looking out the window to see what was making such a racket, she saw two beautiful cranes fighting.  She noticed how the magnificent creatures strategically maneuvered themselves away from each others fierce attacks with remarkable precision.  In the midst of piercing screams, the vigorous and lethal pecking was well concealed.

Deciding to frighten off the creatures, Fang went outside and grabbed the long bamboo pole she used for hanging clothes to dry.  As she approached the cranes, Fang swung the pole but was unable to get close.  Each time she attempted to swing or poke with the pole, they sensed her proximity, and, before the pole could reach its intended target, the birds instinctively evaded her every effort and finally just flew off.

Reflecting deeply upon this incident, Fang concluded that it was a revelation and soon set about evaluating the white cranes’ instinctive combat methods.  If someone could fight the way the white cranes had, that person would be unbeatable.  After considerable time and study, Fang finally came to understand the central principles of hard and soft and yielding to power.  Fusing the central elements of Monk Fist gongfu with her own interpretation of the birds innate defensive movements she created a new style.

After three years of relentless training, Fang developed into an unusually skillful fighter.  Capable of remarkable feats of strength and power, Fang Qiniang was no longer the weak and frail girl she once was.  Her skills and determination finally gained her a notable reputation.  Undefeated in those three years, Fang’s innovative style ultimately became one of the most popular civil self-defense traditions in and around Fujian Province, and became known as Yongchun White Crane Boxing.”

The Bubishi demonstrates that within two centuries the creator of Yongchun Boxing had evolved from a historical person with a number of personal students to a full blown initiatory figure with a martial arts mythology of her own.  A comparison of the early account of “Ding” to the later stories of the woman “Fang” provides an excellent illustration of how it is that myths emerge and crystallize around the barest historical details.  Note also how the questions posed by the short biographical sketch are systematically answered throughout the later extended story.

Rather than coming to the county with her paradoxically quiet husband, she is now attached to a father capable to teaching her Monk Fist Style.  This certainly explains where Feng learned her art.  

Yet she did not teach Monk Fist to her students?  Instead her father conveniently dies at the hands of bandits and she is forced to innovate to avenge the family name. 

While the theme is a common one in martial arts legends, it still serves to introduce the vision of the fighting cranes that has been central to the development of martial arts in the Yongchun region.   

Further, Feng’s encounter with fighting cranes at her moment of greatest loss and despair shows an uncanny resemblance to Ng Mui’s later epiphany in the aftermath of the destruction of the Shaolin Temple. 

Of course this new account raises its own set of questions.  Did Feng use her new found martial prowess to carry out an act of bloody revenge?  And what of the missing husband?  Did she ever go on to marry? If not, why?  Lastly, who was Feng Zhonggong?  Given the abrupt start of the story it would appear that the Bubishi is only presenting a tantalizing fragment of what was once a longer narrative.

Current folklore, still in circulation among modern martial artists, has taken up each of these questions in turn.  It takes no great leap of imagination to see Fang Zhonggong as an escapee from the ruins of Shaolin.  This conclusion may even be implied in the 19th century fragment of the story that we still poses.  He is obviously not a monk as he has married and has a daughter.  Still, many lay Buddhists studied martial arts at Shaolin in both legend and fact.  This would certainly seem to explain how he learned Monk Fist style in the first place. 

His daughter’s use of the long pole in her attempt to scare off the noisy cranes is highly suggestive of the historic Shaolin pole fighting style.  Lastly, the Bubishi claims that Feng always taught that it was only through the cultivation of inner peace and harmony that true martial mastery could be achieved.  It also states that her ideas about this were handed down from the ancient past through her father and were not native to Fuzhou.

Modern readers have accepted this implied Shaolin connection without hesitation.  Ng Ho reports that in some versions of the story Feng Qiniang refuses to marry, becomes a Buddhist nun herself, and changes her name to Yongchun (Wing Chun in Cantonese).  In the end he concludes that from a folklore perspective “It is impossible to ascertain whether Fang Yongchun, Fang Qiniang and the nun Yongchun were one and the same person or three distinct individuals.”   I agree with this basic conclusion that the myth takes a single identity and reworks it into multiple stories.  To this list of overlapping stories we can also add the Abbess Ng Mui. 

Historically speaking, the faded memory of Ding, a real martial arts instructor in Yongchun Village, has inspired the foundation myths of both Wing Chun and White Crane, as well as the individual legends of the Yim Wing Chun, Fang Yongchun, Fang Qiniang, and most recently the Nun Yongchun or Ng Mui.  All four of these individuals probably represent different aspects of the same legendary figure.

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Taijiquan and Cross Training

Over at Thoughts on Tai Chi was an article on Taijiquan and Cross Training. An excerpt is below. The full post may be read here.

I have already written down my thoughts about cross-training and combining different styles in Tai Chi Chuan. One of my conclusions was that you need to be a bit careful and make sure that that the different things you practice compliment each other instead of obstructing each other.

But there are also other reasons to practice different styles and for cross-training that I didn’t address there. And this isn’t really limited to other martial arts styles, but to different kinds of practice and body movement in general. You see, exploring different ways of using your body is mostly good and there are very few exceptions when it’s not.

There are so many ways you can explore your own body movement. You really don’t need to practice different martial arts styles to do this. Many Tai Chi Chuan practitioners try Yoga, meditation, and of course different types of Qigong comes close to what we do in Tai Chi. Different forms of dance and other types of body movement arts are good in order to reach a better understanding of your own body. A better understand of your body always means better body awareness which is something that can greatly enhance and deepen your tai chi practice.

You will find similar principles used in Tai Chi body movement also in fine arts, as in Chinese calligraphy and painting, ceramics and in different types of music and handicraft. Many Tai Chi practitioners practice things as juggling, learning balance tricks and magic with cards and coins. Many sports where you coordinate different tools and objects are great to learn from. The first sports I myself come to think about are Bowling and Pool games, sports where you coordinate an object in very specific ways.

From all of these things you can better understand different ways of coordinating your own body, different ways of using hand movement, using leverage handling tools etc. etc. Some things that you can practice and combine with your tai chi with, will deepen your understanding of your own body, so it will enhance your solo practice. Other forms of training that teaches you how to use tools in different ways, can help you to better understand things as angles and leverage for push hands and applications training.

You might not believe that you need something “extra” or that your own body movement is limited in different ways. But the truth is that we are all limited in different ways, and that it is very hard to look at ourselves from the outside. Sometimes, teachers try to tell us things and correct what we do. But still many people have a hard time to listen and accept what a teacher or others tell them. We do have a hard time to understand where we lack or need improvement. Often, we just don’t want to accept them.

Teachers are good, preferably teachers who are very tough and not afraid to tell you right in your face that you suck, and in details explain why. But still better is often to understand by trial and error. Here we can learn from ourselves without having the ego standing between us and a teacher. This is why trying different body methods and developing different body skills is good. Your own body will not lie or try to be kind to you.

I remember when I was about 19 years old. It was in the last year in high school and I participated in a theatre class. We had a weekend course, I don’t know the english name, but it was an old physical theatre and comedy tradition with an origin from medieval times. We did things as acrobatics and juggling.

I really thought that I would be the best to learn juggling fastest in the group. After all, I had already studied Tai Chi for a long time, many years. And Tai Chi body movement is based on coordination skills. Oh, so wrong I was. In fact, I was the worst and had most trouble in the whole group learning it. Why? How was this possible? I just couldn’t separate my arm movements from my feet, hip and waist. When I throw up the balls, I would use whole body movement. My waist and hip turned, so that the juggling balls would go too far to the left and to the right, making it very hard to catch them.

I tried many times, I sucked. And it took a long time for me to understand what I did wrong. Moving with my whole body together was the most natural way to move. But now I found that I had even lost the ability to separate my arm movements from the rest of the body!

There are many ways to understand your own limitations and to learn better what you need to improve. One of the best ways is to find types of body movement which are completely opposite to how you are used to move your body. You can practice things you know that you are bad at. But still, where you don’t know you lack, it might be very hard to realise the limitation. If you have never seen the color red, you would not know that it exists.

If you don’t know about a limitation, you don’t know that it exists. So to test different types of exercises, and ways to use your body to come to a better understanding of your own limitations, often needs an approach with a certain kind of randomness. So learning and testing different things with an open mind randomly, just because “you can”, is a very good approach.

The things you explore can either be larger sets of exercises, or isolated skill sets for specific body parts. It doesn’t matter much what you practice as long as you learn and study your body in a way you feel rewarding. And here comes the part of cross-training, or practicing different martial arts styles.

You don’t need to become good in different styles, or learn much from them at all. But you can take out different things from different arts, exercises, sets, methods, and treat those things just the way you would treat an isolated skill set as juggling, or any other isolated skill sets for a specific type of body movement. 


Saturday, June 25, 2022

Train Like Herschel Walker

Previously, I posted an article on Masahiko Kimura's training routine. Kimura was just a beast at Judo; one of the best ever. Similarly, Herschel Walker is just a beast of an athlete.

Below is an excerpt from a post that appeared at The Art of Manliness, on Walker's daily routine. The whole post may be read here.

Can you keep up?


With our archives now 3,500+ articles deep, we’ve decided to republish a classic piece each Sunday to help our newer readers discover some of the best, evergreen gems from the past. This article was originally published in July 2016.

As a boy I followed the Dallas Cowboys, and one of the players I really admired was Herschel Walker. He was a beast, but the guy could move like nothing else.

A few years ago I read somewhere that Walker’s legendary, granite-like physique was built not by lifting weights but through bodyweight exercises — lots of them. On the order of 2,000-3,000 push-ups and sit-ups every day.

Talk about an intriguing regimen! I wanted to learn more about it. How and why did Walker develop this program for himself? What underlay his fitness philosophy? Were sit-ups and push-ups all he did, and if not, what other kinds of exercises did he do?

I searched online, and while I couldn’t find more details, I discovered that Walker was an even more impressive athlete than I had imagined and a true fitness renaissance man: he had excelled in both track and football in college, earned a 5th degree black belt in taekwondo, competed as an Olympic bobsledder, and even danced with the Fort Worth Ballet. Oh, and he’s continued his insane bodyweight workout into his 50s, in addition to training for MMA.

Now I really wanted to know the full nature and motivation behind Walker’s unorthodox training program. I was able to finally discover it by getting my hands on a copy of Basic Training, an out-of-print book he wrote in the 80s along with Dr. Terry Todd, an Olympic weightlifter and conditioning expert. The book remains so sought-after that thirty years after its publication, used copies continue to command a crazy premium.

Below you’ll find the background on how Walker developed the unorthodox bodyweight training program he’s been doing for over forty years, as well as details as to what it consists of. The Walker Workout is definitely not for everyone, but its exercise components are in many ways the least interesting thing about it. Walker’s story and overall fitness philosophy — one that eschews excuses and convention, and prizes autonomy, improvisation, experimentation, and consistency — offer interest and inspiration for all. 

The Origins of Herschel Walker’s Bodyweight Workout

Walker grew up on a farm in rural Johnson County, Georgia along with six siblings. While his family didn’t have a lot of money, they got by, and his household was filled with plenty of love and support.

As a boy, Herschel had a speech impediment, was short and chubby, and didn’t seem destined for athletic greatness. In running races with siblings and playing games with friends, he was slow and uncoordinated, struggled to keep up, and felt lacking in the confidence and endurance to really push himself. In elementary school, he was bullied and beat up by his classmates, and thus often chose to stay inside during recess rather than going out to play.

After finishing the sixth grade, Walker decided he wanted to turn things around for himself. He approached a track coach who had mentored his older brothers and told him he “wanted to get bigger and stronger and faster and be better at sports.” As Walker remembers, the coach responded that “it was simple but I had to work hard at it. He said to do push-ups, sit-ups, and sprints. That’s all he said. But it was enough.”

Herschel went home and got started on his new bodyweight program straightaway; his parents had always taught him that “you can’t make excuses in life, you’ve got to get it done,” and he thus made do with what was available:

There weren’t any weights then at school, of course, and we sure didn’t have any out in the country, but I used what I had, and that was the living room floor and the dirt road that ran from the highway out front up the hill to our house. I did my push-ups and my sit-ups on the floor most of the time, and I did all my sprints up that hill out front.

Herschel’s commitment to his workouts was religious — he never missed a day. He would crank out his push-ups and sit-ups during TV commercial breaks at night, and did his sprints on the hills and fields near his home — even in the summer, under the hot Georgia sun. He particularly liked to run when his father had recently plowed up the ground, as the consistency of the dirt became like heavy sand and added an extra challenge. He’d also chase and run alongside the family’s horse and bull, changing direction as the animals did in order to develop his agility and reaction time. There was a chin-up bar out back and he added chin-ups and pull-ups to his routine as well.

While push-ups, chin-ups, sit-ups, and sprints formed the core of Walker’s workout, they were hardly the only exercises he did. Herschel did different bodyweight exercises like squats and dips, loaded hay and performed other chores around the farm, wrestled with his brothers, took up taekwondo, played tennis with friends, and even practiced for and entered dance competitions with his sister. He later theorized that this diversity of activity contributed greatly to his athletic success (something that’s been born out by recent research):

I think I developed as well as I did because I did so many different things — so many different kinds of exercise. I can’t prove it, but I think when you hear someone telling a young athlete to specialize and concentrate on only one sport you’re hearing someone give bad advice. I believe just the opposite. I believe variety is best…any kind of movement can help you learn about lots of other kinds of movement. That’s why I do so many things myself and that’s why I believe all young people ought to do as many different sports and types of exercise as they can.

Walker in fact didn’t play his first organized sport – basketball — until 7th grade. He started doing track and field in 8th grade, and only began playing football in 9th. He continued all three sports throughout high school, while still continuing to do his personal bodyweight workout each day on his own.

(It’s worth noting that while Walker was committed to athletics, he was equally diligent about succeeding in school, strictly setting aside at least two hours a night to do his homework; for his efforts, he became valedictorian of his high school and president of its honor society, an accomplishment, he says “I was as happy about as I was about the good things that happened to me on the football field.”)

Willing to put in 110% effort day after day, Walker filled out, got faster, and improved his athletic skill; it wasn’t long before he was excelling in all three sports and beating the kids who had formerly surpassed him:

What a good feeling that was, too, to know all that hard work was paying off, and to know that even though I wasn’t all that good to begin with, I could get better. I remember a bunch of kids I grew up with who had a heap more talent than I had but who never trained much or tried very hard. I’m not saying they didn’t try at games, but almost anybody’ll try hard in a real game. What matters is how hard you try before the game, especially when nobody is watching you. That’s what’s important. If you can bear down and really train and try hard before the game, the game’ll take care of itself.

Walker was a versatile, standout athlete in high school. In track, he won the state championship in the shot put and the 100- and 220-yard dash, and anchored the victorious 4X400 relay team. In football, he rushed for 3,167 yards his senior year and led the team to their first state championship. 

This dual success continued at the University of Georgia, where he became an All-American in both track and football, helped the Bulldogs win the Sugar Bowl as a freshman, and won the Heisman Trophy as a junior.

Walker played sixteen seasons of professional football, the first three with the now-defunct United States Football League. In the NFL he racked up massive rushing yards (18,168 all-purpose yards, the ninth all-time best) while playing seven different positions. Combining those yards with those he garnered in his years playing for the USFL would put him first on the NFL’s career rushing list.

In 1992, while Walker was still playing pro ball, he competed in the Olympics, placing 7th in the two-man bobsled competition.

In more recent years, he’s tried his hand at MMA, winning the two bouts he participated in by TKO. Walker felt his MMA training left him in better shape at age 50 than when he was playing football in his early 20s.

And all along, up until the present day, he’s kept up with the bodyweight workout he first starting doing in junior high. In fact, he didn’t start lifting weights until several years into his professional football career. It’s not that he had anything against it, but he had seen improvements in his strength and speed every year since high school, and figured he’d only start lifting once those gains ceased. After his football days were over, he returned to a bodyweight-only program, as he believes it protects the joints and promotes fitness longevity.

So what exactly was included in a program that allowed Walker to become a standout high school athlete, one of the best college football players of all time, and a leading rusher for the NFL, as well as spend his career nearly injury-free and maintain his fitness into his 50s?

Let’s take a look.

The Philosophy & Elements of the Walker Workout

Even though Walker didn’t lift weights in college, when the team did a bench press test, he hoisted an astonishing 375 lbs (the most, his coach said, anyone had lifted on the BP at Georgia up until that time), and did 222 lbs (his body weight) for 24 reps. While Walker has always denied being born with superior talent, saying all his abilities were due to hard work and his unique routine, he very likely possesses a stellar set of genes. Still, he did a ton to maximize that potential, utilizing a program that incorporated the following elements and underlying philosophy:

Massive reps. From middle school up through middle age, Walker has done thousands of push-ups and sit-ups nearly every day. Such a massive number of reps isn’t typically recommended to build strength, as your body adapts to the exercise, but Walker found a way to keep on making gains in his fitness by infusing his workouts with a whole lot of:

Variety. From martial arts to dance, Walker engaged in a wide range of physical activities and exercises throughout his life, and continues to do so. As he told, “I was doing CrossFit before they gave it a name.”

He also was constantly looking for different variations of individual exercises to try, in order to keep them challenging:

I was always trying to find some new way to sprint or some new way to do push-ups or sit-ups to keep my interest up and to make my body work in different ways so it would get strong from every angle.

Oftentimes, Walker simply made up his own variations himself, because he was a fitness renaissance man who constantly liked to:

Experiment. Walker was never one to take conventional advice; instead, he enjoyed trying his own experiments, and seeing exactly what exercises worked uniquely well for him:

The way I usually do things is to try something new and then check it out real good as to how it feels. If it feels good to me — if I think it’s really working me hard — then I’ll add it to all the other exercises I do. But if it doesn’t seem to work the way I want it to, I’ll just let it go. By doing things this way I only do exercises that feel right for me. Everybody ought to try different exercises, too. Just keep experimenting.

Thus Walker freely created his own exercises and workouts — simply going at it ‘til his muscles burned — and assessed their efficacy based on how they made him feel, and the results they garnered.

While those who stick to strict, standard programs might think his routine is nuts and ineffective, Walker simply doesn’t care. Even now, he maintains unorthodox habits: sleeping for just five hours a night, waking up at 5:30 a.m. to do scores of sit-ups and push-ups, eating only once a day (and sometimes fasting for several), and consuming a diet that consists largely of soup, bread, and salad without worrying about his macronutrients; he figures if the “farm strong” men he grew up with never thought about how many grams of protein they were eating, he doesn’t need to either. He just completely does his own thing, treats himself as an n=1 experiment, and lets the results speak for themselves.

Given this level of autonomy, it’s no wonder he’s remained so motivated throughout his life. As Walker put it, “I try, with all my workouts, to make them fun. I like to experiment with different things, and I think that trying new exercises helps to keep you fresh and mentally ready.”

Consistency. Even though Walker is a freethinker when it comes to fitness, his commitment to it is positively dogmatic. He believes in doing some kind of exercise every day and has hardly missed a single workout since he started doing his bodyweight routine as a young man. Consistency, Walker says, is like funding an investment in your body and mind:

I did a lot of the things I did because I loved to do them or because I thought they’d help me get better in the things I thought I could be good at. Basketball was great because I loved it, but I also knew it helped me physically for football. All my other stuff — my exercises and all that — I did because I knew it was good for me. And after I’d work out real hard I always had a good feeling because I knew I’d done what I needed to do to make my body improve. I used to think training was a lot like putting money in the bank. And I don’t say that because I get paid now to run with the football. I say it because of the feeling I got — and still get — from doing my exercises. It makes me feel good about myself, just like you feel when you put away a little money every week and watch it build up.



Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Musashi's Portrait

Over at Ichijoji, there was a post about Musashi's famous portrait and comments made by notable people. An excerpt is below. The original post may be read here.

 The Shimada Museum of Art in Kumamoto is the the place to go if you want to see works of art by Miyamoto Musashi, as well as other objects closely connected to him. (You can read about my visit there almost ten years ago here). Most of the items are on permanent display, and the small, intimate scale of the museum means that you will probably be able to stay and look as much as you like. Among the works on display is the famous ‘self-portrait’ of Musashi – a striking piece that is imbued with the spirit of the master.


Amongst the portraits of Musashi, (there are several other works based on this one) and, indeed, Japanese historical portraits in general, this one stands out for its power and the unique insight it gives into the subject’s personality and his (martial) art. This one was passed down in the Terao line of Musashi’s teachings and is traditionally regarded as a self portrait. 


It has been used as a standard model for the depiction of Musashi, both for paintings during the Edo period and for more recent works, such as the statue of Musashi on the Yodobashi (Bridge) over the Yoshino River and the signboard in the Musashizuka Park in Kumamoto showing the kamae of Niten Ryu (see below).


In all likelihood, it was not painted by Musashi, but that only slightly lessens its interest. It has drawn commentary from a number of well-known authorities in the Japanese martial arts, some of which make for interesting reading. As is so often the case, these may say more about the writer than the painting (or the subject). Before getting on to them, let’s take a look at what the Shimada Museum has to say:


Portrait of a Master Swordsman
Highlights include a famous portrait of Musashi in the last years of his life. It is known to be a posthumous portrait because the subject is painted with the left side of his face facing the viewer. According to the conventions of Japanese painting, this generally indicates that the subject is deceased. The artist seems to have been familiar with the real Musashi and his philosophy. The swordsman’s facial expression and posture are captured at the moment of confrontation with an enemy, just as described in the “Water” chapter of Musashi’s Book of Five Rings. 

(Kumamoto Official Guide: Shimada Museumof Art)

Sunday, June 19, 2022

Are You Tough Enough

Below is an excerpt from an article that appeared at The Art of Manliness on what constitutes toughness and what you can do to cultivate that trait. The original post may be read here.

As a little boy, I was scrawny, weak, and prone to illness (much like a certain former president). For a long time, I thought I was just doomed to be pathetic, until my dad took me canoeing. In the mucky, hot, poorly maintained trails and portages of the Boundary Waters in the north woods of Minnesota, I learned that I could be tough, scrappy, and indomitable. I took a brutal pleasure in carrying the heaviest pack I could over long and steep portages, willing my toothpick legs to take one step, then another, then another, until I saw the blue expanse of the next lake peeking through the trees. That was all I had to work with: a willingness to push myself harder than anyone else, to charge headlong into the roughest terrain, and to ignore cold, rain, heat, bugs, and my own internal discomfort.

With the popularity of high-intensity workout programs, military-inspired training, and brutal adventure races, mental toughness is in the spotlight. The gold standard of a hardcore athlete is how much pain they can tolerate. But what about simple, plain old ruggedness? What does it mean to be physically tough, as well as mentally tough? Is it enough to simply be strong, or is there something more to it?

Strong But Weak

I will always remember the day I dropped in on a CrossFit class and went out for the warm-up jog with no shoes on. One of the other guys there, massively strong and musclebound, was shocked and asked me if it hurt or if I was scared of broken glass. I explained that I’d toughened up my feet over the last few years and it didn’t bother me at all. If I was caught shoeless in an emergency, the few seconds I needed to put on shoes could make the difference between life and death. It didn’t matter how fast I could sprint if my feet were too tender to handle the asphalt.

I see that reaction all the time: big guys with lots of muscles who wince as soon as the shoes come off or who insist on wearing gloves whenever they lift weights. They are immensely strong within their particular domain, but have very strict limits on their comfort zone. As soon as they are forced out of it, their performance drops drastically.

Defining Toughness

Men in particular often confuse toughness with strength, thinking that being strong is automatically the same as being tough, when in fact the two are distinct qualities. As Erwan Le Corre, founder of MovNat, says, “Some people with great muscular strength may lack toughness and easily crumble when circumstances become too challenging. On the other hand, some people with no particularly great muscular strength may be very tough, i.e., capable of overcoming stressful, difficult situations or environments.”

Toughness is the ability to perform well regardless of circumstances. That might mean performing well when you are sick or injured, but it also might mean performing well when your workout gear includes trees and rocks instead of pull-up bars and barbells. “Toughness . . . is the strength, or ability, to withstand adverse conditions,” according to Le Corre.

Being able to do that requires both mental and physical toughness. No amount of mental toughness alone will keep you from freezing in cold temperatures, but if you’ve combined mental training with cold tolerance conditioning, for example, then you’ll fare much better.

Toughness Is a Skill

It is a myth that you’re either born tough or you’re not. The truth is, toughness, both mental and physical, can and should be trained and cultivated, just like any other skill. There are certain mental techniques that help you cultivate an indomitable will, patience, and the ability to stay positive and focused no matter how bad things look. There are also certain training techniques you can use to condition your body to withstand discomfort and tolerate environments that would normally cause injury.

Mental Toughness

Mental toughness boils down to how you respond to stress. Do you start to panic and lose control, or do you zero in on how you are going to overcome the difficulty?

Rachel Cosgrove, co-owner of Results Fitness and a regular contributor to Men’s Fitness, stated in an article on mental toughness, “World-class endurance athletes respond to the stress of a race with a reduction in brain-wave activity that’s similar to meditation. The average person responds to race stress with an increase in brain-wave activity that borders on panic.”

Similarly, the biggest determining factor in whether or not a candidate for the Navy SEALs passes training is his ability to stay cool under stress and avoid falling into that fight-or-flight response most of us drop into when we’re being shot at. Developing ways to counteract the negative response to stress helps us stay in control of our bodies so that we can maintain the high performance needed to do well in any situation. That is real mental toughness.

Another way to look at mental toughness is willpower. When everyone else has decided they are too tired, you decide to keep going. In sports, this is called the second wind, when an athlete determines that they don’t care about their fatigue and decides to push harder despite it. When a football team is behind two touchdowns but picks up the effort anyway, determined to win despite all signs to the contrary, that’s an example of willpower in action. They may still lose, but they are much more likely to make a comeback with this approach.

So, how can you cultivate mental toughness?


Thursday, June 16, 2022

The Changing Nature of Classical Budo

Below is an excerpt from a post at The Budo Bum on growth and change in Budo/Bujutsu training. The full post may be read here.

I was talking with a student and teacher of classical Japanese martial arts, and the all too-common myth - that the teachers and students of these centuries-old ryuha practice exactly as their creators taught them in the first generation - came up.  We both laughed. It’s a compelling story, but it’s a myth - one that is dangerous for the students, and for the arts themselves. Whether you do something called a way ( “do” ). An art (“jutsu” ), or a style or school (“ryu” )the story is the same.

These are all arts that have survived centuries of use and application. The thought that hundreds of years ago someone discovered a principle and created techniques for applying it that were perfectly formed and are still perfectly suited to the world they are in credits the founders with a level of genius that I cannot imagine. I can imagine them realizing principles that can be applied to an ever-changing environment, but I can’t stretch that to the founders also creating techniques that perfectly apply that principle no matter how the world has changed.

Principles don’t change. That’s the nature of principles. They are fundamental ways of understanding the world and how it operates. In budo, sometimes principles are expressed and learned through physical practice, such as that discovered by following the Shinto Muso Ryu directive “maruki wo motte suigetsu wo shire “丸木を持って水月を知れ””holding a round stick, know the solar plexus”. Others are clearly expressed philosophical concepts, such as Kano Jigoro Shihan’s “seiryoku zen’yo” 精力善用 (often translated as “maximum efficiency, minimum effort”), which is the short form for “seiryoku saizen katsuyo” 精力最善活用 “best use of energy”.Jigoro Kano, Mind Over Muscle, Kodansha, 2005). Usually shortened to “maximum efficiency minimum effort,” Kano’s maxim  refers to  a broader principle than just the physical technique. It’s about the best use and application of energy, mental and physical. These core principles of different arts haven’t changed since they were first expressed.

Principles, by their nature, are universal. If they can’t be applied universally, they aren’t principles. I can apply the principle implied by the jodo maxim maruki wo motte shigetsu wo shire in a variety of ways and situations. I can even apply this principle without a stick in judo randori, to pick an example outside of Shinto Muso Ryu. Kano Jigoro was an evangelist for the idea of seiryoku saizen katsuyo and its usefulness outside the constrained world of the dojo. He wrote extensively about the principle and why everyone should apply it, whether they practice judo or not. These principles haven’t changed since they were first understood.

How they are applied and expressed changes all the time however.  Not because the principles change at all, but because the environment in which they are being applied changes. Judo is nearly 140 years old. Shinto Muso Ryu has been around for more than 400 years. For all of these arts, the world has changed dramatically since they were founded. The world of combat in Japan slowly changed as weapons and tactics evolved, and then was transformed by the introduction of firearms in the 1500’s, followed by the enforcement of peace by the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1603. Shinto Muso Ryu, essentially military police tactics, was born into the first years of unsteady peace during the Tokugawa Era. The samurai class was still on a war footing, with the Tokugawa victory only a few years earlier. Weapons of war and people skilled with them were everywhere.

A little over 250 years later the wearing of swords in public was banned. Clothing styles in Japan changed from traditional kimono and hakama to European dress. The tools of combat increased in number and power. People still study Kodokan Judo and Shinto Muso Ryu and other koryu arts. The arts are still seen as relevant to this age that would have been unimaginable when they were created. 

The people who study Kodokan Judo still practice many things that Kano Jigoro laid down as part of his art. They do a lot of things that he didn’t include in his pedagogy for the art. I find Kodokan Judo principles being applied not just in competitive matches with people wearing traditional dogi, but in no-gi matches and even professional MMA fights. More interesting to me is the way Kodokan Judo’s principles continue to be applied in and out of the dojo. It’s still seen as an effective form of physical education, and the principle of seiryoku zen’yo, along with the principle of yawara (softness, pliancy, flexibility, suppleness), is taught as having far more than just martial applications. The whole of Kodokan Judo manages to offer a very complete set of principles for interacting with the world physically and intellectually nearly 140 years after its founding. It hasn’t stopped growing and adapting. In addition to the official kata of Kodokan Judo, many practitioners develop their own, unofficial, kata to practice and explore the principles in situations that are not focused on in the official curriculum.



Monday, June 13, 2022

Remembrances of Taijiquan Master Ben Lo

Master Ben Lo was Prof Cheng Man Ching's first student in Taiwan and achieved great stature in the art himself.


Here is a link to a list of resources about Ben Lo.

Here is a link to a list of articles written by Ben Lo, as well as some useful websites.

Here is a link to a website where stories about Master Lo by some of his students have been collected.



Friday, June 10, 2022

Culture and Community in Martial Arts Schools

Over at Kung Fu Tea, there was an interesting article on the common culture and community found within a martial arts school, which is reinforced by the formal precepts for training that would normally be posted and maybe recited by students every day. In Japanese martial arts, this would be the dojo "kun."

Below is an excerpt. The full post may be read here.


The Wing Chun Jo Fen and the Definition of Community


There is another way in which communities are defined and expectations are cultivated. Rather than relying only on the intuitive and unspoken norms that arise in the course of training, most martial arts communities also propagate explicit rules. These codes of conduct, usually written, are supposed to govern life in the community. The number of rules and their content can vary immensely from one tradition to the next, but the basic impulse is widely shared.

Such formal lists are quite common in the martial arts of southern China. However, in my limited experience, they are often observed in the breech. Students know that they exist, but they don’t generally get discussed all that often. This seems to be particularly true in Wing Chun. Early in his teaching career in Hong Kong Ip Man propagated a set of nine rules, collectively referred to as the “Ving Tsun Jo Fen.” In the case of Ip Man’s list, they tended to be suggestions of what proper behavior should be rather than overly detailed admonitions or prohibitions. Nor, when reading the historical accounts from the 1950s and 1960s, is it always clear how the behavior of his young and unruly students related to these rules.

Still, the fact that the Jo Fen were given, and that they are now commonly reproduced and displayed in Wing Chun schools around the world, seems to indicates that we should give some thought to how these guidelines have been read and helped to shape the Wing Chun community. After all, these statements come as close to a formal philosophy of personal behavior as anything in the Ip Man lineage. And it is interesting to note that the Jo Fen describe not just proper behavior in the school, but within society as a whole. By explaining how a student should comport themselves in relation to the broader community, they offer valuable hints as to the social milieu that gave rise to the early Wing Chun community.

Before we delve into a discussion of the Jo Fen there are a couple of puzzles that need to be addressed. The first is their ultimate date of origin. It is known that Ip Man wrote down and displayed the basic set of rules that are used today in his school in Hong Kong during the 1950s. However, it is not clear if these rules were entirely his own creation or if some of them were inherited from an earlier instructor (Chan Wah Shun and Ng Chung So would both be good candidates). For reasons that we will discuss later I suspect that these rules are really a response to trends and pressures from the 1920s-1930s. Even if Ip Man first wrote them down in the 1950s, the Jo Fen appear to be a thoughtful response to a conversations that had been happening decades earlier.

The second paradox is how one should read the Jo Fen. This is a critical issue for Western Wing Chun students looking for guidance in living their art. For instance, when we are commanded to “Keep sacred the Martial Morality” (Wu De; Cantonese: Ma Dak) are we being sworn to uphold the marginal and criminal behavioral codes of the “Rivers and Lakes”? The individuals who inhabit these marginal social zones often have quite strong opinions on proper behavior under “Wu De,” and have even created an entire subaltern set of cultural values. Boretz does a great job of illustrating this worldview in his carefully crafted ethnography, Gods, Ghosts and Gangsters: Ritual Violence, Martial Arts, and Masculinity on the Margins of Chinese Society (University of Hawaii Press, 2010).

Yet Ip Man was a highly educated individual who clearly held Confucian values. During his younger life he was in no way a marginal figure. The circles that he moved in were quite different from those that Boretz described, and so were his cultural values. He had both a classical Chinese and Western education. He owned land and businesses. His personal values tended to be somewhat conservative and influenced by his Confucian education. So what exactly does such an individual really mean when he exhorts his students to remember “martial virtue?” This is probably not the martial morality of the Triads.

Nor does it seem to be the same as the revivalist ideals promoted by Jin Yong in his novels. These novels have dominated the popular discussion of Chinese martial values from the 1950s to the present. In fact, Jin Yong is probably the most widely read Chinese language author of the entire 20th century. While it seems likely that these books had an impact on the expectations of many of Ip Man’s younger students, the old master’s views on these matters were probably already set well before he started teaching in 1950.

In the west we tend to read these suggestions through our own cultural lens. Ron Heimberger, in my own lineage, once produced a small volume titled Ving Tsun Jo Fen: Expectations and Guidance from the Ving Tsun Tradition (Ving Tsun Ip Ching Athletic Foundation, 2006). It’s an interesting book to think about. The author makes a conscious attempt to bridge the two, at times very different, cultural traditions that are at play. Yet in the end his interpretations of the Jo Fen always seem to reflect a home-spun American ethical perspective rather than traditional Chinese culture. The author actually warns us that this will be the case in the introduction to his book. The central problem, as he saw it, was to make the Jo Fen meaningful to modern, English speaking students.

It is an interesting project, and on some level I suspect that this is the direction that we must go. Translation is always as much a cultural as a linguistic issue. But I suspect that such exercises are still missing something.

This suspicion brings us back to the central question of the post. How should we, as informed students, read the Jo Fen of Wing Chun, or any other southern martial art? How would these rules have been read by a student in either the 1930s or 1950s? What sorts of unstated frames and contexts, familiar to his own students but alien to modern western ones, was Ip Man relying on when he put these guidelines for living to paper?

To answer that question we are going to need compare this document to other (much better known) contemporaneous texts. This exercise will suggest some ways in which we might want to read the Wing Chun Jo Fen. It will also shed some light on how Ip Man understood the community he was trying to create, and the norms of behavior that he wished to codify.

A rainy day at the Ancestral Temple in Foshan. In the distance the old neighborhood behind the temple is being demolished to make way for a new urban development project. Ironically the new neighborhood is being designed to “look traditional” and capitalize on the area’s important “history.” 

Translating the Wing Chun Jo Fen


The original text of the Wing Chun Jo Fen still hangs at the Hong Kong Ving Tsun Athletic Association (VTAA). As such it is well attested. More difficult is settling on a suitable English translation. For our purposes I am providing two translations of the text below. I think it is useful to compare and contrast at least two different versions of the Jo Fen to get a better sense of what points the original is driving at. Neither translation attempts to be a pure mechanical rendering. Both translators made some editorial decisions in how they rendered the Jo Fen corresponding to their understanding of the meaning of the text.

The top line of text (marked SK) is a translation by Samuel Kwok, originally published in his book Mastering Wing Chun: the Keys to Ip Man’s Kung Fu published with Tony Massengill in 2007. Generally speaking this is my preferred translation. The second translation (marked RH) is taken from Ip Ching, Ron Heimberger and Eric Myers, Ving Tsun Jo Fen: Expectations and Guidance from the Ving Tsun Tradition published in 2006. This is also a clear translation with some interesting readings of the text. Together these two different approaches provide a comprehensive look at the original.

Figure 1: Ip Man’s Wing Chun Jo Fen

  1. (SK) Remain disciplined – uphold yourself ethically as a martial artist
    1. (RH) Discipline yourself to the Rules: Keep Sacred the Martial Morality
  2. (SK) Practice courtesy and righteousness – serve the community and honor your family
    2. (RH) Understand Propriety and Righteousness: Love your Country and Respect Your Parents
  3. (SK) Love your fellow students or classmates – be united and avoid conflicts
    3. (RH) Love Your Classmates: Enjoy Working Together as a Group
  4. (SK) Limit your desires and pursuit of bodily pleasures – preserve the proper spirit
    4. (RH) Control Your Desire: Stay Healthy
  5. (SK) Train diligently and make it a habit – never let the skill leave your body
    5. (RH) Work Hard and Keep Practicing: Never Let the Skill Leave Your Body
  6. (SK) Learn to develop spiritual tranquility – abstain from arguments and fights
    6. (RH) Learn How to Keep the Energy: Quit Inciting a Fighting Attitude.
  7. (SK) Participate in society – be conservative, cultured and gentle in your manners
    7. (RH) Always Deal with World Matters with a Kind Attitude that is Calm and Gentle.
  8. (SK) Help the weak and the very young – use your martial skill for the good of humanity
    8. (RH) Help the Elderly and the Children: Use the Martial Mind to Achieve “Yan”
  9. (SK) Pass on the tradition – preserve the Chinese arts and its Rules of Conduct
    9. (RH) Follow the Former Eight Rules: Hold to the Ancestors’ Rules Sincerely.