New Year thoughts: Empty and solid, the Tai Chi classics and UFC207

Happy New Year!

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Just browsing through the Internet on a lazy New Year day’s morning I noticed once again how my feeds tend to bring together the old and the new in one continuous stream of “Internet”, showing me videos and writing that are almost 100 years apart, yet seem to be talking the same language.

For example, we’ve just had UFC 207 in which (warning, SPOILERS) Ronda Rousey made her come back for a not-so-glorious 48 seconds, and was hit with 27 punches from Amanda Nunes (that connected) without landing a single blow back and was saved by the referee from further damage. She looked totally outclassed in the striking department. This was further highlighted by the previous championship bout between Cody Garbrant and Dominic Cruz, which was like an exhibition match, showing incredible timing, footwork and striking ability over 5 truly glorious rounds. The belt went to Cody via decision in the end, but Cruz fought like a warrior and his footwork was as outstanding as ever even if it occasionally left him open.

The two matches couldn’t have been more different; one a display of how bad footwork and poor defence meeting strong striking results in total domination, the other a display of perfect timing and offence mixed with defensive footwork on both sides resulting in a game of inches.

I don’t know how long these links will last but here are the full fights:

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Ronda vs Nunes

Youtube

MMA: UFC 207-Garbrandt vs Cruz

Cody vs Dominic

Youtube

And here’s the ‘old’ I talked about at the start: this morning I received a notification that there’s a new Brennan translation out. Here it is:

FURTHER TAIJI DISCUSSION FROM WU ZHIQING

Brennan translations are free translations of old Tai Chi manuals. This is one from a Yang Cheng-Fu student published in the 1940s. I’ve skim read a few parts now of this new one, and I really like it, and the translation is done in a way that you can read it without being perplexed at obscure phrases.

For example, here’s a good quote:

“Every movement in Taiji Boxing is always half empty and half full, and is like a round sphere. This is not only the case for large movements, but also for the smallest movement of any part of the body. From beginning to end, movement is continuous, like the ceaseless movement of the universe through the sky. Taiji Boxing uses the abdomen as the axis of the whole body, so that whatever way your are moving – forward and back, side to side, up and down, or reversing direction – the limbs and trunk are all being moved from the abdomen, going along with its movement like the stars following the setting sun. Therefore Taiji Boxing is an exercise that conforms very much to naturalness.”

Ok, stars don’t strictly “follow” the setting sun, but I think it gives a nice poetic metaphor.

In particular, I like chapter 7, in the manual “SEVEN: METHODS OF PRACTICING EMPTINESS & FULLNESS” Personally, I think getting an understanding of empty and full, as a strategy, is key to applying all martial arts in a live situation.

In chapter 7, it says:

“Empty to defend, then fill to attack. This is the key to the art.
If you spot the moment to become full and yet do not issue, the art will be difficult to master.
There is emptiness and fullness within emptiness and fullness.
When your “fullness” is really full and your “emptiness” is really empty, you will attack without missing.”

And right away I’m reminded of the fights this weekend at UFC 207. Dominic Cruz is a master of this principle. He creates a fullness, enticing the opponent to strike him, then as the strikes come, takes that fullness away and gives them only emptiness to hit – usually thin air, but at the same time (and this is the key to making it really successful) hitting them with a ‘full’ strike from somewhere else. To be fair, Cody Garbrant displayed some equally good demonstrations of this concept, but he did it more by bobbing and weaving on the spot, while Cruz displayed his rare talent for doing it while moving in and out, which makes it even more exciting to watch.

In contrast, Ronda had none of this. Her footwork was plodding, her body movement stiff and she continually met the fullness of Amanda Nunes’ punches with the fullness of her own face, with predictable results.

As Wu’s book goes on to say:

“Practitioners of martial arts have to study the principle of emptiness and fullness. It is not only a feature of Taiji Boxing, all other martial arts have it too.”

Indeed – it’s not really a Tai Chi-specific concept I’m talking about there, but it is part of Tai Chi Chun as a martial art. Indeed, the concept of emptiness and fullness forms the title and theme of chapter 6 in the classic military text, Art of War, by Sun Tzu.

Wu goes on to explain the two key phrases:

“Empty to defend, then fill to attack. This is the key to the art.
If you spot the moment to become full and yet do not issue, the art will be difficult to master.”

As:

“These two phrases form the theory of how to apply emptiness and fullness. When it is time for emptiness, defend, and when it is time for fullness, attack. “Empty to defend. Fill to attack.” This is an unchanging rule of attack and defense in martial arts, the highest skill. If the opponent attacks with fierce power (i.e. fullness), I do not resist him directly, instead I avoid his main force to let it dissipate. Once he has missed and switches his fullness to emptiness, I immediately enter while he is empty. To “spot the moment to become full” means that when he empties, I fill. But if I do not attack at that moment, the result will be that I have let opportunity pass me by. To “not issue” in such a moment indicates that you are unable to determine emptiness and fullness, and the techniques will naturally be difficult for you to master.”

It seems to me that a lot of what has been preserved in the Tai Chi classics is a distillation of many popular martial arts sayings, and not phrases created specifically for Tai Chi Chuan. In this case they come from Sun Tzu in the 5th century BC. And, as the fights from UFC207 at the end of 2016 prove, they’re as relevant today as they were thousands of years ago.

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5 thoughts on “New Year thoughts: Empty and solid, the Tai Chi classics and UFC207

  1. Happy New Year 2017 to you all , Empty and Full an excellent article on Tai Chi as a martial art , for me it has encapsulated the art in simple way that I can understand . The Germans used the same tactic in the battle of the Somme putting up soft defence (empty )allowing the Allied troops to gain ground and then the Germans would send storm (full )troopers in to retake the ground taken . Empty defence full attack has been used over the centuries in battles , so it makes sense in hand to hand fighting the same tactic would work on an individual basis .

  2. Mike – it seems most likely that the tai chi classics are a grab bag of wise old martial art sayings. Probably similar to the Tao Te Ching, which is also most likely a grab bag of wise old philosophical sayings.

  3. Adam – I believe they have both taken the decision to settle this on their feet. They want to see who has the best stand up. Partly I believe they want to make this a crowd pleasing show, but also, they’re both striking specialists. There are no attempts at taking this to the ground by either man.

  4. Wang Zongyue is supposed to be the source of some of the “Tai Chi Classics”, but there is no real record that such a person ever existed. Professor Douglas Wile searched diligently through the Chinese gazetteers and could find no records of Wang, but he discovered in his research that the sayings from Wang Zongyue were actually copies of sayings by a famous martial-artist, Chang Naichou. Chang did not study or do Taijiquan, yet his principles are to be found Taiji and many other arts. In other words, many of the sayings associated with Taijiquan are associated with most Chinese martial-arts.

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