My first video interview! Scott P. Phillips and the God of War and Accounting

I’ve been thinking of doing a new series of video interviews with various people from the Tai Chi and martial arts scene, so when the opportunity to interview Scott Phillips, author of Possible Origins: A Cultural History of Chinese Martial Arts, Theatre and Religion came along I jumped at the chance.

I thought the interview went pretty well, so here it is in full. Please share it!

We jumped all over the place from Chinese history, the Boxer Rebellion, martial arts as theatre, Shaolin, Wudang, the origins of Xingyiquan, dealing with real violence, Rory Miller, Mexican drug cartels, child kidnapping in ancient China and more, including the superbly named Guan Gong, who was the “God of War and Accounting”!

I’ve uploaded it to both YouTube and Vimeo. I cut things short at the 1-hour mark but had the feeling we could have kept going for another 2 hours at least, so maybe we’ll do it again, perhaps with a little more focus on a particular subject.

Hope you enjoy.

YouTube:

 

Vimeo:

 

 

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Catch as Catch Can – The British Chen Taijiquan

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I listened to the Raspberry Ape podcast this morning on the way to work. It’s a BJJ podcast by Daniel Strauss, one of the UK’s leading competitors and BJJ personalities.  The episode I was listening to was with Danny Williams, who as well as possibly being the most tattooed man in judo is also a British judo Olympian and Commonwealth gold medalist.

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Danny Williams

After taking a while to get going, the podcast gets very interesting and they discuss things like Ido Portal, Conor McGregor, fads and fashions in the Judo and BJJ world. The thing that interested me most was when Danny mentioned that he’d been teaching some no gi techniques that he picked up from Russian Sambo last night at Daniel’s club in Mill Hill, London. Danny also mentions that he found the same techniques in a video he watched of a Catch wrestling seminar. It’s entirely possible that that’s where the Sambo guys got it from.

Catch is a wrestling style from the North of England. Its name “Catch as catch can” implies it is a more open style than the local variants it grew out of, and you could apply a submission hold (a “catch”) as and when it was available. Its origins are amongst the working class of the region. Despite never being that popular amongst the rest of the population it has gained a reputation for being brutally effective at international level. It reached the United States in the late 19th Century where it has gained a foothold, spreading through carnival wrestlers. In modern times practitioners like Eric Paulson and Josh Barnett, amongst others, have achieved a level of fame using it in the MMA world.

The big difference, of course, is that the Catch seminar Danny watched was attended by “two fat men and some kids”, while the local football pitch was probably full of men running around kicking a ball. The irony here is that in Britain we’ve got a truly remarkable indigenous martial art that has some of the most effective techniques in the world, and nobody is interested in it. Catch wrestling is dying in Britain. There’s probably a handful of people left that practice it. Why is that?

The most obvious answer is that it’s not attractive to people. Let’s look at some vintage footage of the famous Catch Wrestler Billy Riley at the Snake Pit, the home of Catch wrestling in Wigan to find out why:

 

“they’d meet in the pub and arrange fights, then fight in the fields the next day, not on mats”, “a small hut” – it’s not very glamorous, is it?

One wrestling style that has become incredibly popular in the UK is Brazilian Jiujitsu – if you look at what that’s doing right then you can see why it’s successful. Generally, BJJ gyms are clean, welcoming, and friendly places. It doesn’t matter if you’re 40 years old and never done anything before, if you join a BJJ gym, you can learn without much risk of getting injured. As a business model, it suits the customers and it’s been very successful.

So, what needs to happen for Catch to catch on? I think it’s going to take a major victory on a world stage (as BJJ had in the UFC) to bring back a revival of Catch, or maybe it needs somebody to come up with a more people-friendly version – a Catch Light – perhaps, that can be more popular amongst ‘normal’ people.

I don’t know what the answer is, but it’s a shame that we’re letting something that in China would be described as a “national treasure”, like Chen Taijiquan is, die out due to neglect. Catch as Catch Can is our Chen Taijiquan, and it needs to be protected.

 

Notes:

The Snake Pit in Wigan has its own website and is doing what it can to revive Catch.

Incidentally, Billy Robinson who died in 2014, and features in that earlier film can be seen here in this film, still teaching in old age.

 

 

 

Review: The Taijiquan & Qigong Dictionary (Angelika Fritz, 2017)

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It’s impossible to study Taijiquan or Qigong without butting up against a barrier of confusing Chinese terms like Yi, Jin and Qi. Frustratingly, they seem impossible to do without because they often don’t have a direct English translation, or because people simply like to keep a connection to the Chinese origins. This can make anybody’s initial attempts to read up on the new Taijiquan class they’ve just started a bit of a struggle. Of course, you can look these things up on the Internet in a matter of seconds, but The Taijiquan & Qigong Dictionary by Angelika Fritz is (as the name suggests) is a printed collection of all those terms, pulled together in one publication, so you have easy access to them without the need to be online.

“Even though I can search and find anything online these days”, says Angelika in the introduction, “I like to have a real book in my hands”.

That’s the essence of The Taijiquan & Qigong Dictionary. It’s a slim volume at 132 pages, and quite small at 140x210mm (it’s P5 size, which is a Canadian paper size similar to A5 in the UK ), which makes it handy to put in a bag to carry with you.

You’ll find it contains names of Taijiquan moves in both English and Chinese, like “Hidden Thrust Punch/Yan Shou Gong Quan”, names of famous practitioners of the art, like Fu Zhongwen and parts of the body mentioned in connection to QiGong, like the Gallbladder, which don’t have a medical description, just  “Yang organ associated with the element wood”.

The definitions are straightforward and to the point, but perhaps too straightforward at times. For instance, the aforementioned Fu Zhongwen is described simply as “one of the creators of the Taijiquan 24 form”, which is true, but he was more famously a disciple of Yang Cheng-Fu. Perhaps the brevity cuts down on the possibility for conjecture to creep in though, as it’s hard for anybody to agree on anything in the Taijiquan world.

I’ve found The Taijiquan & Qigong Dictionary really useful to have next to my computer when writing blog posts and I need to double-check the spelling of a Chinese word. Fuller explanations of the terms would have been welcome, but as a quick reference, it’s hard to beat.

You can buy The Taijiquan & Qigong Dictionary on Amazon. (I earn no money from the link).

Angelika runs the Qialance blog.

 

Mike Sigman on basic Jin

When you see videos of Chinese martial arts masters bouncing people back a fair distance with a very light touch (YouTube is full of them) then unless the opponent is just taking a dive (as usually found in Aikido) what you are seeing is usually an example of ‘Jin’. Jin is not unique to internal Chinese martial arts like Tai Chi Chuan – all Chinese martial arts use Jin to greater or lesser extent. Or perhaps they had it at one time, and it was lost over time. Inevitably, things get lost over time.

It’s got to the stage now that if somebody shows Jin skills then it’s assumed they have been added in as a new “internal” version of said martial art by a special master. When you see somebody who is now doing an ‘internal’ version of martial art X (Wing Chun seems a popular choice at the moment) what the master usually shows is basic Jin done with very little explanation.

So, what is basic Jin? This and other questions like it will be answered by Mike Sigman in this handy video.

The eagle has landed.

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After finally making some headway in my friend’s Woven Energy podcast on Shamanism, I find this episode of Tribes, Predators & Me fascinating. Firstly, you get to see a lot of what is being talked about in terms of Mongolian culture and animism. Secondly, there’s the timing of the release of the bird. If you’ve been following some of the exercises for Amsgar in the podcast then this element will be familiar to you, even if it’s not been picked up on by the programme producers, or the guy in it 🙂

Even if you’ve got no interest in Shamanism, it’s a great episode to watch – utterly fascinating.  You can watch it on the BBC iPlayer.

 

 

 

Walk like an Anglo Saxon

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I do enjoy Roland Warzecha’s high-quality videos on medieval weapons and their usage. I’m not entirely sure how to feel about this one, however. He’s suggesting that medieval people walked with a different type of step than us modern humans, because of the different footwear. The old way (he suggests) was to land on the ball of the foot first (but put the whole foot on the ground, not just the ball) instead of heel striking first. In a way it’s similar to the type of stepping you find in the Chinese martial art of Baguazhang.

I just tried this way of walking on a little trip around the office and I did notice that it was possible to walk around like this, and it definitely works the calves in a way that ‘normal’ walking does not. For me it’s still a big ask to believe that people used to do such a fundamental human activity, like walking,  in a very different way to the way we do it today. Either way, it’s interesting. Have a watch and see what you think:

Roland also has some great videos on medieval posture and fighting with weapons that are also worth watching if you haven’t seen them before:

The thrusting posture does look odd, especially for combat,  but I can see what he means about it developing different muscles in the back.

This video about Viking arts is also a good watch:

Taoist Baduan Jin (8 section brocade)

This set of eight exercises is a popular Qi Gong exercise in China, probably the most popular. There are hundreds of different variations. This one I particularly like because although the reeling movement she’s doing is hidden to the point of invisibility, the arm movements are being used very obviously to enhance the subtle tensioning from fingers to toes throughout in a way you can see. Very nice.

The problems with being a teacher

 

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This is something I’ve seen happen a lot in martial arts. After a period of being a “teacher” or a “coach”, you somehow start to believe your own hype, and end up as an “expert”, or you allow others to see you as such (i.e. you become complicit even if you don’t announce yourself as the expert). Of course, you might legitimately be an expert. There’s no problem with that, or with acknowledging somebody’s skill at something (belts in martial arts have their uses), but for your own development, taking on the mantle of ‘expert’ can be an absolute dead end to your progress. Let me explain.  

You start out at something, and get pretty good at it. After a while people start asking you for advice and you end up as the teacher. After a lot of experience of teaching you get pretty good at that too and you go and turn what you’ve got into a system(™), online course (™) or book (™) and whatever you’ve produced ends up being codified, systemised, named, labelled and becomes a kind of law. Maybe you even develop followers (also known as customers these days) who go around championing your cause. I’m pretty sure that Jesus (if he existed) didn’t start out with the aim of having followers or producing the Bible. In fact, he wrote nothing down! (Well, that we know of anyway).

That’s all great until you are faced with some new information, far too late into your career, and realise that you’ve got something terribly wrong. Or perhaps you meet a real expert, and find that your knowledge isn’t as all encompassing as you thought it was. What do you do? Suddenly your ‘fame’ means nothing. You can’t go back to all the people that have invested their time, their money and their belief in your system and tell them ‘“sorry guys, I got it wrong, we’re going to start again with this new idea and take it from there…” Well, I mean, you could, theoretically, but very few people in human history have ever done that. Instead what usually happens is you either reject the new information, because it doesn’t fit your model, or you try and incorporate it into your world view, when in fact, it doesn’t fit that either, because it contradicts what you’ve previously been saying, and you end up with this sort of bastardised half truth…

The people I most admire in martial arts are the ones who are happy not to have everything all worked out. The ones who are constantly open to new ideas and retain a kind of ‘beginner’s mind’.

So what should we do? Yes, we should have ideas and theories. But we should always be testing them against nature, against resistance and against each other. We should never end up ‘locked in’. Unfortunately, as soon as you hit the publish button on your course, your video, your article or your online course, you are, effectively, locked in.  

Having said all that, I publish blog articles, I make videos and fully intend to write a book about this stuff one day, I’m just going to make sure (at least in my head) I have a massive disclaimer at the start of anything I do along the lines of ‘Warning! Some of these ideas may not reflect reality’ 🙂

 

How silk is actually reeled, by hand, in China

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In his chapter on silk reeling, in the book on Chen Style Tai Chi Chuan (1963) (A snip at only 828 pounds on Amazon in the UK!), Shen Jiazhen writes:

…Tai Chi Chuan movements must be in a shape like pulling silk. Pulling silk [from a cocoon] is done by a circular motion, and because it combines pulling straight and circling, naturally it forms a spiraling shape, which is the unification of the opposites of straight and curved. Silk reeling energy or pulling silk energy both refer to this idea. Because in the process of unreeling, extending out and pulling back the four limbs likewise produce a sort of spiraling shape, therefore the boxing manuals say that whether in large, extended movements or compact, small movements, one must absolutely never depart from this type of Tai Chi energy which unites opposites. Once one has trained in this thoroughly, this silk reeling circle tends to become smaller the more one practices, until one gets to the realm where there is a circle but no circle is apparent, at which point it is known only by intent. 1 This is why the third characteristic of Tai Chi Chuan is that it is an exercise which unifies opposites with silk reeling, both forward and backward.

Thanks to Jerry K for the translation. If you’re interested he’s also translated other chapter of the book – like this one on Empty and Full.

With this in mind I thought it would be beneficial to investigate exactly how silk is pulled from a cocoon. The Chinese have cultivated silk worms for more than 5,000 years. Here’s video showing how silk is cultivated today in Shanghai:

 

Like any industry, silk production has been automated, but you can still see how people did it using a hand reeling machine in some parts of China:

 

I’m guessing that the initial spiralling action of her hand she uses to get the starter threads off the brush is where the analogy starts to happen with what you’re doing in silk reeling exercises in Tai Chi Chuan? It reminds me of the way you can play with an elastic band in your hand. With 5,000 years of silk production in China I’m pretty sure the hand reeling machines would have existed at the time Chen style was creating these exercises, some 300-odd years ago, but without a machine then you’d have to be doing it with your hands in that manner.

Either way, I don’t think the silk worm gets out of this alive 😦