A pilgrimage to Miao Feng Shan (Marvelous Peak Mountain)

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Miao Feng Shan Goddess Temple

Here’s a really good article over at Kung Fu Tea on the relationship between martial arts, religion and cultural practices that’s worth your time reading.

It’s about an old film from 1920s by Sidney D. Gamble showing a trip to Miao Feng Shan (Marvelous Peak Mountain), a popular Daoist pilgrimage site.

“Dedicated to the worship of the Goddess Bi Xia Yun Jun (Princess of the Clouds Before Dawn), the temple was located on a hill about 25 miles northwest of Beijing. Most worshippers made the arduous three-day journey in the spring. Pilgrims went either in groups organized by guilds or temple societies, or on their own as individual penitents. Although the primary purpose of the journey was religious, Gamble’s visual record illustrates that these pilgrimages also served a lively social function. Upon his return to America, Gamble edited the footage shot on one of his trips into a short 16mm documentary. We have re-edited his film slightly, retaining his original titles, and adding music.

Here’s the film (15 minutes)

And here’s the short edited highlights, showing the martial arts demonstration:

Once again, it highlights how hard it is for us, living in the present day, to connect what we know as martial arts practices with the way the people in this film understand martial arts practice. The Kung Fu Tea article makes a great point:

It may seem paradoxical, but the most important books out there for anyone attempting to understand the Chinese martial arts usually have very little to say about these fighting systems. The martial arts have many functions, and personal or village defense is certainly one of them. But on a more fundamental level these things are a type of social technology that allow individuals or groups to achieve their aims, more broadly defined. We will never understand how this technology functions if we remove it from its (always moving) cultural context and attempt to fix these techniques under ahistorical glass. As my friend’s teacher reminded me, dinner must come before dessert. Context comes before understanding.

Incidentally, the pilgrimages have been restarted in recent years. Here’s a film of a performance from 2016:

 

 

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The legend, BJ Penn

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Really nice article by Jack Slack on MMA and Jiujitsu legend BJ Penn.

There have been few falls from grace as ugly and lengthy as that of BJ Penn. Nobody who knows the game is hung up on his 16-10 record, he has nothing to prove to anyone who knows their onions in that regard. It is simply that Penn spent so many years being in many ways remarkable, in a few ways wanting, and continued to drag out his attempts to find the mythical ‘motivated BJ Penn’ rather than addressing the actual issues in his game.

“You’re really tight” is meaningless

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I found this article recently that I thought was pretty interesting. It’s about massage and the often used phrase “you’re really tight” by therapists.

Statements like “you’re really tight” are a bit of a verbal tic, something automatic — even expected — that massage therapists to say to pass the time and make conversation with clients. Tightness doesn’t even actually have a clear meaning.3 In this context, it is trivial and harmless.

Being “Sung” (translated as “relaxed”) is one of the things we get told to do all the time in Tai Chi, and it’s open to a lot of misinterpretation. Really, what it’s talking about is not overly tensing muscles, so that the power of an incoming force can be directed to the ground without the muscles taking the load. If you can get the ground to take the load then your muscles are free to do other things.

 

January forms challenge!

New Year, new form

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Due to a nasty training injury, I’ve had to lay off the “rough stuff” for a while, which means I’ve got more time to spend on forms practice than usual. The latest little project I’ve been amusing myself with is learning the start of a different Taiji form than the one I know.

I’ve picked Chen style, since this is the oldest style, and pretty different to my Yang style form.

It’s often hard to see the connection between Yang and Chen style since they look so different, but as I’ve discovered, if you start to learn the beginning of one after already knowing the other it’s very easy to see how they have the same root. This has already provided lots of insights into my regular form by looking at how Chen style treats familiar movements.

To be clear, I’m just learning the first few moves of the form. Probably I’ll get up to the Crane Spreads Wings move (or whatever they call it in Chen). After that, I think the law of diminishing returns starts to kick in and the time spent working on a new form and remembering it starts to outweigh the benefits you get from practising it.  I already know a long form, so I don’t think there’s much to be gained by undergoing the arduous process of learning another one.

This little project has made me think about a few side issues, which I’d like to go over below:

  1. Learning from video

There’s this unwritten rule in martial arts that learning anything from a video is bad, or so the conventional wisdom goes. Learning from a real person is preferable, but not always practical. If you’ve got enough experience in an area then I think you can learn a lot from video. Also, let’s not forget, that there are videos on YouTube of recognised experts, like Chen Xiao Wang, doing the form, who are doing it a lot better than any local teacher you’ll find.

For instance, here’s the renowned Taijiquan expert Chen Zheng Li doing the Chen Lao Jia Yi Lu form in a nice relaxed pace that’s easy to follow:

Of course, there will be fine details I’ll miss by copying him, but I’m doing this more as an exercise in personal exploration, rather than in trying to get the Chen form perfect. In fact, I’ve already modified one move I felt would work slightly better in a way I’m more familiar with. (I’m a heretic, I know)

2. Distinguishing ‘energy’ from ‘moves’

Taiji uses the four primary directions of Jin – Peng (upwards), Ji (away from the body), Lu (towards the body) and An (downwards) in various combinations. It’s often hard for people to separate this ‘energy’ direction from the physical movements themselves. So, a “ward off” posture is one thing, but the energy that you usually use with it – Peng – is another. Confusingly, Peng is often translated as “ward off”, so the two become conflated. By doing a new form with different moves, you get to see how the same ‘energy’ is used in a different arm shape.

For instance, in Yang style the ‘ward off’ movements tend to have the palm pointing inwards towards the body, while in Chen style, they are pointed outwards, away from the body.

 

3. Spotting similarities

So, while a Chen form may look very different to a Yang form, once you start thinking in terms of which of the 4 energies you’re using, you start to see the similarities, even if the postures look different.

For example, both forms start with a Peng to the right, a step forward, another Peng forward, a splitting action, then another Peng to the right, then into the Peng, Lu, Ji, Lu, An sequence known in Yang style as “Grasp Birds Tail” in Yang and “Lazily tying coat” then “Six sealing four closing” in Chen style. (Apparently, the Yang naming came from a mistranslation of the original Chen name, but this matters not to me).

(Note: In some performances, of Chen style – like the one above by Chen Zengli, he misses out the “Lu then Ji” move of the sequence. In others, like this one by CXW below, it’s in there. I don’t know why. Personally, I like to put it in, because it connects me to the Yang style I know.)

Doing Peng in a different arm configuration than you’re used to is, frankly, good for your practice, because it helps you break out of the mould a bit, into a freer execution that is not dictated to by the conventions of your particular style.

The New Year Challenge! Do it yourself

I’d like to challenge you to do the same thing in January. If you’re a Chen stylist, then learn the start of the Yang form up to White Crane Spreads Wings. If you’re a Yang stylist, then give the Chen form a go. Alternatively, investigate the opening sequence of Sun, Wu or Wu(Hao) style. Give it a go!

Here’s a video of Yang and Chen forms done side by side that I’ve posted before because it helps show the similarities:

 

5 BJJ techniques a Kung Fu or Tai Chi student should know

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While BJJ is known for its ground techniques, each match starts standing up, and there are a few interesting throws and submissions that you can pick up from the art that work well for a Kung Fu practitioner.

I wrote this article for Jetli.com so long ago I’d forgotten about it, but now it’s just been published, so here it is – 5 BJJ techniques a Kung Fu or Tai Chi student should know.

If you like that one you might also like another article I wrote recently there about the throwing techniques that made Ronda Rousey famous in the UFC and also this post on starting in Tai Chi and then taking up BJJ

 

 

Invisible Systema

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I recently came across these “invisible Systema” videos, and I thought they were so well made they were worth a share, but I thought I’d also say a few words about Systema first.

Having met lots of people who have trained with Vladimir Vasiliev now, some for quite a period of time, the description I always get of him is that he’s a world-class martial artist. You can see in these clips the natural, unhindered way he’s moving through his attackers as if they’re not there. It’s beautiful to watch.

People often equate Systema with Tai Chi because it is relaxed movement, but I really can’t make that connection beyond a kind of superficial understanding. Sure, they both involve relaxed movement, but Tai Chi is (or rather Tai Chi is supposed to be…) about generating movement from your centre, with a connection to the ground through which you can generate Jin (a kind of ground force) to the point of contact with an opponent. Systema (to me) seems to involve much less of these “rules” about how you are supposed to move or fight. It looks freer.

If anything, these “Invisible Systema” videos, where the movement of Vladimir and Mikhail is analysed in detail to reveal the “hidden” moves, really highlight the differences between Systema and something like Tai Chi.

The other point I’d like to make is just how many little strikes, controls or attacks you fail to notice the first time you watch any of the techniques in these videos.  Both the Systema masters shown here also seem to be masters of deception. These are the same skills you find in experienced street performers, stage magicians or actors. And again, this brings me back to Chinese Martial Arts connection with Chinese theatre and magic. 

Enjoy the videos, and remember – the hand is quicker than the eye!

You might also enjoy my review of Vladimir Vasiliev’s book Strikes – Soul meets Body.

 

 

“The teachings of Li CunYi on XingYi’s 5 Elements” – a new translation.

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Paul Brennan of Brennan Translation has completed a new work, that’s worth a look if you’re a XingYi practitioner. It’s called “The teachings of Li CunYi on XingYi’s 5 Elements“, which are said to be the oral teachings of the famous XingYi boxer, Li CunYi as recorded by Du Zhitang of Guangzong [in Xingtai, Hebei]. There’s no date on the manual, but 1916 is a good guess.

The manual covers the 5 Elements of XingYi (Pi, Zuan, Beng, Pao and Heng) together with a “continuous boxing set”, which is a linking form, where the techniques are linked together in one continuous flow.

The linking form presented in the book is very close to this one:

 

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:

 

 

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.