The title of this video is “94 Year Old Jack Has Been Practising And Teaching Judo For 67 Years”, which tells you everything you need to know.
Some humans are exceptional.
The title of this video is “94 Year Old Jack Has Been Practising And Teaching Judo For 67 Years”, which tells you everything you need to know.
Some humans are exceptional.
I posted this video of me doing Tai Chi in the rain back in 2012. This is a short form derived from the full long Yang form of Gu Ru Zhang (Ku Yu Chang) the famous “King of Iron Palm” from Hong Kong.
You see the famous picture of him breaking tiles without spacers quite a lot:
Gu Ru Zhang’s style of Tai Chi is still quite rare. It’s from the Yang family originally, but had some input from his friend Sun Lu Tang, and you sometimes see it incorectly called Sun Style.
Gu published a book in 1936 on Tai Chi called “Tai Chi Boxing”, which you can find translated on the Brenan Translation website.
I’ve done various different styles of Tai Chi, but I always come back to this form. It’s my favourite. Anyway, here’s my video:
Byron Jacobs has another video out in his XingYi series, this time focussing on footwork. If you’re after the basics of XingYi then this is the best place to start. I think footwork is especially important in XingYi as much of the defending is done not by deflecting things (like you find in Tai Chi) but by moving your feet.
“Chicken leg” forms one of the requirements of San Ti Shi, and refers to the ability to keep most of your weight on one foot so the other is free to move.
Take a look:
Byron also has another episode of his Drunken Boxing podcast out, also worth a watch/listen. This podcast is about what it’s like to actually live and train martial arts in China. This time he’s talking to Michael Ashley Wix, who is a student of Beijing Shuai Jiao Master Li Baoru (李宝如).
“Originally from New Zealand, Michael has lived in Beijing for 23 years learning various Chinese martial arts, including studying for 3 years at the Beijing University of Sport, and studying Yi quan for 5 years.
Michael was involved in the early development of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and MMA in China, and introduced Chinese wrestlers to the sport with champion Yao Honggang being one of them.
One of Michael’s missions is promoting and preserving Shuai Jiao which he used to do through the popular but now defunct website Shuaijiao.tv. Currently, he is working on publishing Master Li Baoru’s extensive body of books and articles.”
I had an interesting chat with another Tai Chi teacher this week. Generally, Tai Chi teachers are nice people who have trained hard at something for a number of years and developed a lot of skill in it. They’re often not that into the martial side of the art, (even if they say they are), yet they’ve managed to pick up a lot of what I call “Tai Chi Miasma” along the way.
(If you want to know what a Miasma is, I do a podcast about the subject and how it reverberates through human history. Click the link above. A brief summation of Tai Chi Miasma would be, “a set of unconscious and often faulty assumptions about combat influenced by Tai Chi training”, but I’d also have to include a lot of Chinese miasma about yin and yang, qi and tao that was incorporated into Tai Chi by the influence of the Neo Confucian Zhu Xi amongst the intellectual class.)
For example, I find that there’s a pervasive belief amongst Tai Chi practitioners that the fight is effectively over once they have taken your balance. They’ll say things like, “once I’ve got you off balance I can walk you around the room”.
I’m sorry to break it to you (pun intended) but no, the fight is not over just because you have broken my balance!
It’s not over even if you get me off balance and whack me in the face, unless I’m unconscious or too hurt to continue by your deadly 5 point exploding palm technique.
Yes, I’m sure you’ve seen your master controlling people with the lightest of touches and walking them around the room in a wrist lock or arm control of some kind, but that’s happening in a controlled training environment. In real life, it’s not like that.
Just watch any combat sport with live training against resistance. Say wrestling or judo. The players are in a constant state of flux. They are losing their balance and regaining it over and over. Often they willingly sacrifice their balance for a superior position.
They get thrown, they get taken down, they get pinned, but they fight their way back up and go again. The fight is not over just because one person takes the other’s balance, however skilfully or with the lightest of touches they did it.
“Ah!”, they say, “but once you get them off balance it’s easy to keep them off balance. ”
No, no it’s not.
Just look at MMA. MMA is an even better example than pure grappling arts because it involves strikes. Sometimes the strikes are controlled and orderly, but a lot of the time, especially after people get hurt and tired, there are wild punches being thrown looking for a KO, resulting in people falling all over the place, people slipping, kicks missing, etc.
In grappling sports, people spend a lot of time training what to do after the balance has been taken – or “finishing moves” if you like. That’s where 80% of the training is, because they know it’s not easy and they want to secure the win.
In contrast, Tai Chi partner work seems to be 80% about balance taking and 20% about what to do afterwards… if you’re lucky.
That’s fine if you are aware of that, but not fine if you then start to make grand pronouncements about what would happen in a combat situation because you’ve been told about what should happen next in the method you are teaching, rather than your direct experience.
Yes, I’m making a huge generalisation, and I’m sure it doesn’t apply to YOUR school. [wink emoji for sarcasm] But allow me the exaggeration to make my point.
By the way, I’m sure I have my own martial arts miasma too. We all do, but what I’m saying is that we should be aware of it.
Catch yourself saying these things about what should happen next, or what would happen next, if you can. Let your actions speak, not your words.
There’s nothing wrong with focussing on balance breaking. It’s fun, and skilful, and nobody is getting hurt, but also make it a point to spend significant time sparring with resistance.
It keeps you honest.
Here’s a very nice video from actor, comedian and all-round philosopher guru person, Russell Brand, about getting his blue belt in Brazilian Jiujitsu from the Roger Gracie school. There are no shortcuts for celebrities in BJJ (or at least there shouldn’t be), so just like everybody else he’s had to work hard for this. This is a great example of hard work paying off. Well done Russell!
In the video, he talks a lot about the community feel of BJJ.
What he’s talking about in the video (I believe) is the gap in modern society that used to be filled by either religion or secret societies and mystery religions – the idea of a brotherhood (and sisters too) that is created in a group where people are no longer viewed by the labels that society creates for us – father, doctor, immigrant, lawyer, builder, student, etc… but by what we have achieved on the matt.
“We all come through the door for different reasons, but we are all the same once we’re inside”.
It’s a very valuable thing to be viewed without societies cultural baggage weighing us down.
BJJ especially seems to fill that void in modern life. Other martial arts do too, but I don’t think they create quite the same sense of brotherhood as BJJ for a variety of reasons – perhaps it’s the close physical contact, where we’re constantly almost killing each other but paradoxically helping each other succeed.
In BJJ you see the huge changes in people’s personality happen before your eyes, they become more humble, warmer, and you feel it happen to yourself too.
Whatever this process is I just think BJJ does it better than other martial arts, and is more accessible than the old fashioned secret societies which don’t really exist in the same way in our more secular society where mainstream religion is a lot more tolerant than it used to be.
Anyway, he talks about it here:
Byron Jacobs, who produced the excellent XingYi San Ti Shi primer I posted recently, has launched a new podcast that’s well worth checking out.
In the first episode, Byron talks to Marin Spivak, Chen Tai Chi disciple of Chen Yu, about what it’s like going to live and train gung fu in Beijing as a Westerner back in the 1990s and 2000s. Both Byron and Marvin made the jump to live and train in Beijing, so they have a good insight into Chinese culture, and particular gong fu culture.
I really liked the discussion of the tangled network of gong fu culture a prospective student has to find their way through in China, and which the average western student has no idea exists at all.
He’s the ‘Marmite‘ of the Tai Chi world (well, one of the Marmites anyway, you could argue the Tai Chi world is made up of Marmite personalities all the way down 🙂 ), but this free article is a nice neat summation of Scott Phillips’s theory of Taijiquan as dramatic storytelling.
It’s easy to dismiss Scott as “he’s just a dancer”, but to me those Chen style movements he’s talking about look so stylistic and deliberate that they’re clearly not just martial movements. If you’re arguing that Tai Chi is just a martial art and nothing else then I think you’ve got a lot of explaining to do. It’s pretty easy to see what fighting looks like these days, since sport fighting is on TV every weekend.
I think the idea that ‘Ok, this might be true, but does this matter?’ has much more validity. If Scott is right and he’s tracked down the origins of Tai Chi, then it clearly been forgotten over time, and Tai Chi these days has become something else.
In fact, it had become something else over a hundred years ago. China has gone through several major political and cultural shifts over that time that changed their society completely (often resulting in the deaths of millions of people and associated trauma). The Boxer Rebellion, the 1912 Chinese Revolution, the Communist rise to power, the Cultural revolution and the current rise of nationalism under the guise of Communism, etc…
Anyway, the article is in-depth and it’s worth a read if you have an interest in the possible origins of Tai Chi:
“The Zhang Sanfeng Conundrum Taijiquan and Ritual Theater”— from The Journal of Daoist Studies at Academia.edu.
You can still buy the paper version from Three Pines Press.
The article is on page 98.
Want more? Scott writes books…
…and makes videos too.
Is there a secret to Tai Chi? To martial arts? To life? If there is I think it might be encapsulated in the two words, “Don’t try”.
Famously offensive American poet and author Charles Bukowski had “Don’t try” written on his gravestone:
It makes you wonder what he meant. Did he mean just give up? I don’t think so. Underneath “don’t try” is a picture of a boxer, indicating a struggle.
Mike Watt in the San Pedro zine The Rise and the Fall of the Harbor Area interviewed his wife Linda about, “Don’t try”:
Watt: What’s the story: “Don’t Try”? Is it from that piece he wrote?
Linda: See those big volumes of books? [Points to bookshelf] They’re called Who’s Who In America. It’s everybody, artists, scientists, whatever. So he was in there and they asked him to do a little thing about the books he’s written and duh, duh, duh. At the very end they say, ‘Is there anything you want to say?’, you know, ‘What is your philosophy of life?’, and some people would write a huge long thing. A dissertation, and some people would just go on and on. And Hank just put, “Don’t Try.”
As for what it means, it’s probably best to let Bukowski tell us:
“Somebody asked me: “What do you do? How do you write, create?” You don’t, I told them. You don’t try. That’s very important: not to try, either for Cadillacs, creation or immortality. You wait, and if nothing happens, you wait some more. It’s like a bug high on the wall. You wait for it to come to you. When it gets close enough you reach out, slap out and kill it. Or if you like its looks, you make a pet out of it.”
– Charles Bukowski
Now that’s starting to sound like Tai Chi to me…
I was working on an application of diagonal flying yesterday. The one where you get underneath their shoulder, arm across their body and lift them up and away. There’s a sweet spot as your shoulder goes under their armpit where you have leverage. Where they move easily. You go an inch or so in the wrong direction and you lose it. The technique doesn’t work.
Compared to wrestling and judo I think there are different factors to consider in making a Tai Chi throw work.
You have to think more about your posture. Say, your chest position (is it sheltered? Are the shoulders rounded?) and if you are sunk and in contact with the ground correctly. Is your butt sticking out? Are your legs bent enough?
All these factors matter more in Tai Chi than in Judo and wrestling because Tai Chi is a less physical art. (Whether that’s a good thing or bad thing is debatable, but it either way, it just is.)
With a less-physical art it’s much easier to notice when you’re having to “try” more to make a throw work. Having to “try” too much is a sign you’re muscling it, not letting posture, correct position, leverage and Jin (power from the ground) do the work. Judo and wrestling incorporate these elements too, but Tai Chi relies on them. And without them it just falls apart.
In BJJ I also really like the philosophy of “don’t try”.
For example, if I’ve got the knee on belly position on my opponent I love to go for the baseball bat choke:
The problem is that once you set your grips up on the classic baseball bat your opponent doesn’t just lie there – he defends. He grabs your arms, shifts his hips and generally does everything he can to prevent you from getting the finish.
Now the video shows you three ways to do this – they’re clever little counters to his counters. (I really like the last one actually – I’m going to try that).
But I tend to prefer a slightly different approach. Rather than think of each technique in isolation I like to think of them as being paired. Quite often when I go for a baseball bat choke I set up my grips and immediately my partner has cast iron grips on both my hands. Now sure, I could fight through this – ie. “try” to make the choke work – or I could just go, “you know what? The way he’s defending this means he’s lifting his far elbow – I’ll use that instead”. I give up the baseball choke entirely, but before you know it I’ve spun around and I’ve got a successful kimura grip. He defends the kimura and guess what? It leaves his neck open, and I go back to the baseball choke, so on.
I’m not trying to make anything work, I’m just going with what he gives me. And eventually all the pieces fit together like a jigsaw and it’s done.
I don’t always get it right. More often than not I get it wrong, but that’s what I’m aiming for. If you’re going to adopt this attitude you have to have a really flexible mind. You can’t get fixated on one thing. In fact, you can’t think too much. Just go with what you feel is available.
What I’m talking about is getting off the baseline and onto the middle and top lines. For a full explanation of what this means you’d need to listen to the Woven Energy podcast, but in a nutshell, it means you stop using the thinking, rational part of your brain and just use direct feedback from nature (your partner in this case, who is as much a part of nature as you are) and that gives you access to the midline (body) and topline (spirit).
In Chinese culture the topline, midline and baseline form a trigram, which can have broken or unbroken lines, as so:
And since we’ve returned to China we should note that the Taoists were all about this “Don’t try” philosophy. They called it Wu Wei – to do by not doing.
From the Tao Te Ching chapter 2:
Therefore the Master
acts without doing anything
and teaches without saying anything.
Things arise and she lets them come;
things disappear and she lets them go.
She has but doesn’t possess,
acts but doesn’t expect.
When her work is done, she forgets it.
That is why it lasts forever.
Or as Yoda put it, “Do or do not, there is no try”.
And to return to the topic of Tai Chi, it is also exemplified in the short but concise classic on push hands:
Song of Push Hands (by unknown)
Be conscientious in Peng, Lu, Chi, and An.
Upper and lower coordinate,
and the opponent finds it difficult to penetrate.
Let the opponent attack with great force;
use four ounces to deflect a thousand pounds.
Attract to emptiness and discharge;
Zhan, Lian, Nian, Sui,
no resisting no letting go.
And to finally return to Bukowski, he might be a strange role model, but I kind of like the old guy. His poems aren’t beautiful, but at least they are honest. He was always, exactly himself. He didn’t need to try.
I don’t really enjoy push hands. I used to, I used to enjoy it much more when I saw it as a medium for exploring arm locks, takedowns, wrist locks, throws. In short, when I saw it as a way to practice techniques. I used to love it.
In more recent years I’ve reframed my view of what push hands is. Partly this is because I took up BJJ, and found I got more than enough scrapping in my diet to satisfy my craving to try out locks, throws and sweeps. That’s essentially what we do in BJJ, we practice locks, throws and sweeps over and over until we get very good at them and can do them under full resistance.
Inevitably the BJJ player ends up going one of two ways over the years. Either he (or she) gets softer and more flowing. So, when the other person is pushing you should be pulling, and when they’re pulling you should be pushing. By learning to flow with the dynamic movement between two people you learn to blend, yield and overcome. Or they end up getting very good at smashing people. Whatever is in front of them they can just smash through it using precise, accurate bursts of speed and power.
Inevitably all BJJ players tend towards the first approach as they age, if they want to keep training, that is. Or they give up either through injury or changing life circumstances.
But back to push hands. Once I had found a way to get my regular fix of fighty, I found I could step back and view push hands as something else. Perhaps what it was originally intended for.
Now when somebody pushes on my arm I don’t immediately think “how can I lock this arm?”, I am thinking, “where is his force going?”. Is it going to my feet? If not, I try and send it there, turn and yield. When it’s my turn to push back I ask myself where I’m pushing from. Is it the ground? If not, why not? What am I doing that’s stopping that? Where am I tense?
Pushing hands like this might not be as much fun, but I think overall, it’s more satisfying.
Proper push hands lacks the thrills of the fighty approach, but it instils qualities in you that make your fighty better.
That’s a difficult concept to really understand, and even harder to do when the other person just wants to fight. If the other person wants to fight then I sometimes just fight back. Inevitably I slip into BJJ mode and we end up in some armlock on the ground, and it’s fun…
…but it’s probably not what we should be doing.
San Ti Shi is the basic stance used in Xing Yi. This helpful new video by Byron Jacobs takes you through the stance, the positioning of arms and legs and what to do as you stand.