Interview series with Jarek Szymanski

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Jarek Szymanski’s website, China from Inside was one of the first and best resources on the web for the history and practice of Chinese Martial Arts, written by a European living and working inside China. It was particularly good for finding out how internal martial arts, like XinYi, XingYi, Bagua and Taijiquan were actually practiced in their native environement.

I remember reading his website back in the 1990s, and it’s still there!

Nick at Masters of the IMA has been working together with Jarek over the last few months on recording some of his experiences in China back in the 90s – how he came to end up living in China, his experiences investigating the history of various CMA, etc.

He’s posted the first parts of the interviews on his website, and it’s well worth a read. You can find out all about his experiences on Mount Wudang and Beijing, and get his opinions on how modern Chinese martial arts related to the older traditions, and how they differ. I really liked his insights into places like the Shaolin temple and Mount Wudang (see part 5) and how they’ve changed over the years compared to his visits there in the 90s.

It’s well worth a read.

Jarek Szymansk interview part 1

Jarek Szymansk interview part 2

Jarek Szymansk interview part 3

Jarek Szymansk interview part 4

Jarek Szymansk interview part 5

Jarek Szymansk interview part 6

Fun quote:

“When we got there, we saw some Shaolin monks (wuseng) giving performances not in a stadium, but just in an open space outside the temple. As far as I can tell they were demonstrating some forms and hard qigong, iron shirt (tie bu shan), etc. My Polish friend and I had great fun ‘testing out’ the iron shirt guy – when he invited members of the audience out to test his iron shirt, I don’t think he was expecting to be punched full force in the stomach by two 6-foot Polish guys (laughter). It was at that point that I realised so-called iron shirt is not that special, most demonstrations of iron shirt are just a combination of timed breathing and muscle contraction, similar to what I had practiced in my early karate years.”

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Book review: Internal Body Mechanics for Tai Chi, Bagua and Xingyi, by Ken Gullette

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Anybody who has attempted to learn Tai Chi in any depth instantly realises that the choreography of a form is just that – choreography – and that the devil is in the details. Internal Body Mechanics is all about the details: How you move, what you move and where you move it to.

It’s author, Ken Gullette is a veteran of the Internal arts, having started with Yang style Tai Chi way before China opened up to the West and before the Internet appeared. Over the years he’s trained with some of the best, especially in Chen style. He’s interested in the practical use of the internal arts as actual martial arts, rather than a method of communing with the universe, feeling your Qi or healing your body. While he’s been presenting this information in DVD and video format for years via his website kungfu4u.com, this book is his first attempt to capture the “body mechanics” of the internal arts in print.

Like most Western Tai Chi enthusiasts who started when Tai Chi was just breaking into the West, Ken inevitably ended up going down many dead ends before he could find good quality instruction, which is why he’s written this book. Ken’s ambition is to write a Tai Chi book that is all killer, no filler, which immediately sets him apart from 99% of Tai Chi teachers out there, whose books usually give you a lot of boring history and then try to teach you a form, which is impossible to learn from a book in the first place.

Instead, Ken is going straight to the meat of the matter, for which he deserves recognition and praise. Internal Body Mechanics covers 6 core principles of the internal arts:

  1. Centred stance and Ground path
  2. Maintaining Peng Jin
  3. Use whole body movement
  4. Use spiraling movement of silk reeling energy
  5. Internal movement and the Kua
  6. Dantien rotation

The book is structured so that one chapter leads naturally into the next, so once you’ve grasped one principle you are ready for the next one. The chapter on the Kua, how to open and close the kua, and what it is, is especially good. This is a tricky subject to convey in text and Ken does it through telling stories of training with Chen Xiaowang and quoting what he said to him during form corrections. I felt like I “got it” immediately. So much so, in fact, that when Ken used the posture “Sweep the rider from the horse” to demonstrate how Chen Xiaowang was saying people close the Kua “too much”, I immediately put the book down, tried out the posture and realised I was making the same mistake. There you go Ken – you got me! It’s not often you can instantly improve your Tai Chi and correct your form from reading a book, but Internal Body Mechanics proves it is possible.

The book also comes with a website containing videos of all the techniques and demonstrations that are pictured. Obviously a video is superior, but I found the pictures sufficient to get the points being made… except for the large silk reeling chapter of the book – that is where you’d really need to access the videos to ‘get it’ – especially if you’ve never done silk reeling exercise before. But the videos are not free – you have to pay an additional one-off fee to access them.

Qi and Jin

When you get down to the heart of the matter with Internal arts, I find that you are dealing mainly with two things: Qi and Jin. Because these are initially obscure Chinese terms, that don’t translate easily into English and require thought, experimentation and good teaching to master, they become the initial stumbling blocks for all Tai Chi practitioners. Ken spends a lot of the book dealing with the subject of Jin – with chapters on the ground path and Peng Jin specifically. He covers it really well. There are lots of partner exercises to try out that are illustrated with photos from his DVDs. Jin often accounts for the overly-theatrical demonstrations that Tai Chi ‘masters’ like to do on their overly compliant students at seminars, where they send them bouncing away at the slightest touch. Once you understand how Jin works you can see what is really going on, and it stops being so mysterious. Ken’s book will give you that kind of understanding.

It’s on the subject of chi/qi that I find I depart a little from Ken’s thinking. Ken has little time for mystical thinking on qi. By the time Ken gets to his Dantien rotation chapter he is slaying sacred Tai Chi cows like he works in an abattoir and the concept of qi takes a bolt through the head early on.

“As a 21st-century college educated American who applies critical thinking skills and expects evidence before I cling to a belief, there is no evidence whatsoever that our bodies contain Chi or a Dantien…”  – Ken Gullette

I’d agree with him on the critical thinking, but there’s always the danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater when this staunchly non-mystical approach is adopted. Especially when it comes to qi.

Is qi a mystic substance in our bodies, as some would like us to believe, or is it just a term that the ancient Chinese used to describe parts of the body that is still functionally useful when learning how to move in non-standard ways?

Ken sees the use of Qi and Dantien as merely useful mental visualization tools, so that’s the approach adopted in the book. He also dismisses the idea that you must control your fascia to control your dantien as “poppycock”. This pleases me, and I raised a wry smile as I’ve got into similar arguments with fascia fanatics on the Internet, who attribute almost magical powers to it. He’s right, of course – you cannot consciously control the movement of your fascia or skin, only muscles (let’s not get into the sticky issue of consciously making the hair on your arms stand on end or subconscious control of body functions). However, you can use your muscles to stretch both skin and fascia (and tendons and everything else)  to create a feeling of connection, and that feeling of connection can be slowly built up into something tangible that you can use to manipulate the body from the dantien area. To me, this is the real meaning of Qi, and means it still deserves its place in the creation of whole body movement.

So, while Ken’s Dantien rotation chapter is purely about manipulating the musculature in the area of the lower abdomen, which of course, it is, I’d also add in that you can also use it to connect to the arms and legs via this “qi” connection, which you can build up over time. I went over this idea in my video series, but anyway, I digress.

Conclusion

Ken’s approach is not that of an almighty Tai Chi teacher who is imparting precious wisdom to you, his lowly disciple, from on high, but rather, a healthy attitude of “we can all learn together” flows through the pages. You never feel like you are being preached at. Instead, you encounter a fellow traveler on the path who is as curious as you are to see what lies ahead. Most importantly, he wants you to avoid the dead ends he’s ended up in.

So, while I find myself at odds slightly with Ken on the issue of how Qi relates to internal body mechanics, I don’t find that stops me enjoying the book and learning from it. In terms of practicing Tai Chi as a martial art, grasping the idea of Jin and how to use the power of the ground in your techniques, not local muscle, is the most important thing, and Ken’s book excels in this respect.

It should also be noted that if you’re a fan of “martial” Tai Chi (like me) then you’ll love this book. It doesn’t teach you any martial techniques (that’s Ken’s next book, apparently) but everything is looked at through a lens of why this body method is useful for combat. I actually find that more valuable.

There’s not much Xingyi and Bagua presented in this book really, so while I appreciate the catch-all requirement of the title will widen the book’s appeal, it’s really focussed on Tai Chi, and Chen style in particular. Sure, the body mechanics of Tai Chi cross over into XingYi and Bagua, but the sayings of Chen Xiaowang to the author are repeated frequently through the book and this is really a detailed explanation of his Tai Chi teachings so I would have been happier if that had been reflected in the title.

Don’t let my minor points of contention put you off. This is one of the most practical books on Tai Chi on the market right now and you need to get it. It annoys me that there aren’t more Tai Chi books like Ken’s around that actually deal with the mechanics of movement that you need to develop for Tai Chi, and I hope that Internal Body Mechanics is the first of a turning tide, because the world needs more Tai Chi books like this one.

Ken’s blog: www.internalfightingartsblog.com

Amazon link on US and UK.

Podcast: Byron Jacobs on what martial arts in China are really like

 

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I’ve blogged about my friend Byron Jacobs before – he’s a Westerner deeply immersed in Chinese culture and martial arts and living in China at an interesting time.

We’re currently in the era where Chinese martial arts are opening up to the West in a way they’ve been prevented for doing for a long time. MMA and Jiujitsu (BJJ) is finally making an impact and people are starting to realise that modern training methods offer something that traditional methods are lacking. It will be interesting to see how the future plays out for Chinese martial arts, and what happens to traditional arts and skills.

Byron has just recorded an episode of the Real Fake Swords podcast where he addresses these issue and tells you what it’s actually like in China when it comes to martial arts. It’s fascinating (and probably different to the way you think it is) and well worth a listen. (If you are pushed for time start listening at around 15 minutes in.)

I hadn’t heard of Real Fake Swords before, but it looks like a good podcast series. I notice they’ve got episodes with other interesting martial arts personalities.

 

 

Thoughts on an interview with Wang Yan, head coach of the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School

Born in 1990, Wang Yan became head coach of Cheng village training centre in 2013 and is as a Taiji fighter as well as a coach, not to mention an expert in forms. He was one of the “nine tigers” – the best nine students of Chen ZiQiang. There’s an interview with him in English on Chen Taijiquan blog, with some great pictures from his private collection. The interview is pretty long, but there are lots of really interesting insights into his daily training, San Da competitions training and how exhausting it all was!

I’ve cherry-picked a few quotes below:

from:

https://chentaijisi.wordpress.com/2018/03/07/if-you-give-more-you-receive-more-an-interview-with-wang-yan-head-coach-of-the-chenjiagou-taijiquan-school/

On his own training:

“Our daily routine started in the morning with running and warming-up excercises. In the first morning class we studied forms, in the second class we did strength excercices, in the third class we did push hands exercises, kicks, punches and other self defense techniques, and during the last evening class we were again doing push hands exercises, and sometimes weight lifting.”

“When a student grows a little older, reaching his late teens and early twenties, then the school starts putting much more attention to learning taolu (forms).”

“When I was a young student, the training was more strenous then now. The approach has changed nowadays towards a somewhat softer way. Students now come from more comfortable backgrounds and are, generally speaking, often more interested in computer games than in serious training.”

 

“Some of us developed more in the direction of Taiji fighting, while the others became the very best in various Taiji forms.”

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Competition training:

“To develop stamina we would practice frog jumps, running in a crouched position, running while carrying someone on our shoulders etc., until the point where I would be absolutely exhausted.

One method of practicing tuishou was, for example, being in a circle of about twenty students, who would challenge you one after another. When I knock the first one down, the next one would attack, and so on till the last one, after which the circle repeats itself. I also practiced the same circle exercise blindfolded in order to sharpen body sensations. Sometimes during wintertime, shifu would take us outside, dressed just in trousers, to train in the snow. One of exercises was to hold each other by the legs while ‘hand walking’ on the cold or frozen ground.

Before tuishou competitions I always have to control my weight, so during preparation time I would eat less and avoid spicy and very greasy food. Finally, after hard training, it is also important to have a proper rest.”

 

Training:

“There is a saying: “By missing one day of practice, your skill regresses for three days”. So, I make sure that I practice every day.That means that I go at least through forms. And when I have some more time, I do also some fitness exercises like running and weight lifting.”

It really does sounds beyond what most people could have physically and mentally endured at a young age, and more extreme than the training is in Chen Village these days.

There’s a lot of controversy in Tai Chi circles about the role of weight training in internal arts. It’s often dismissed as either unnecessary or worse, damaging to progress. It sounds like the antithesis of the frequently heard advice to relax more. Yang Cheng Fu’s “10 important points” essay is often read as a warning of the dangers of following an “external” path. (I think people often miss the meaning of that text though, so I’ll return to it at a later date.)

When the Chen Tai Chi masters teach seminars to Westerners they keep the focus on traditional conditioning exercises, like silk reeling, or zhan zhuang and forms, which do not involve weights, and emphasize things like relaxation and internal conditioning. Traditionally of course, training with heavy weapons would have been a form of weight training, and village farmers would have naturally been very strong people from all the physical labour, but there still seems to be a contradiction between the methods espoused to Western students in seminars and the content of the syllabus for training young fighters in Chen village itself.

There are also the ‘internet famous’ pictures of Chen ZiQiang doing weight training, and looking very ‘cut’ that spark off these debates, for example:

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So, it’s interesting to read the above interview, where Wang Yan makes clear the role that weight training played in training his generation of Chen village teachers, especially when preparing for San Da competition. It’s also interesting to note that they may be the last generation to be trained like that, as “Students now come from more comfortable backgrounds and are, generally speaking, often more interested in computer games than in serious training.

That’s an interesting point in itself, that makes me wonder if that generation was a kind of high point for martially trained Tai Chi fighters from Chen village. “May the children of your enemies live in luxury!”, as the famous Cynic philosopher Antisthenes said; a quote that echoes the famous poem/meme:

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Of course, it’s all a matter of perspective. The people Wang Yan is training now are probably working a lot harder than most people could tolerate, even if they’re not doing wheelbarrows in the snow in winter wearing only their trousers 🙂

Full-time training

If I was training full time to be a fighter and I had a fight coming up in which somebody was going to try their best (under the rules) to hurt/beat me, then you can bet I’d be weight training too! You can’t fake fitness. And no matter how good your Tai Chi skills, if you get out of breath in a fight and your conditioning fails then you can’t fight back. Also, extra muscle mass doesn’t stop you from doing internal movement, although speaking realistically I don’t think that would have been the focus of training going into a fight.

Wang Yan was training as a full-time athlete. As well as doing all the hard physical training he would have been training in traditional Chen family methods at the same time. One does not preclude the other. While some might look down on all that physical training, it appears that the Chen village plan is to develop physical attributes first in its young people, including fighting skills, and later the more subtle Tai Chi skill is focussed on.

Here’s a video of Wang Yan doing some traditional Chen forms:

And here he is looking pretty good in a San Da match from 2013:

He’s a great inspiration for all Tai Chi practioners everywhere.

Tai Chi vs BJJ in China

It’s all in Chinese, but I believe this video is a Tai Chi guy entering a BJJ competition in China… or maybe it’s a challenge match. From the way everybody is watching this one match, in particular, I get the feeling this is a special challenge.

Here’s the video. The match starts at around 8.30.

 

I can’t understand what is being said, but based on what I can see the “Tai Chi” guy showing a terrible lack of respect – he keeps hitting the BJJ guy, which is against the rules, then saying sorry to the audience, apologising profusely, then just doing it again. There’s lots of drama. The “Tai Chi” guy tries to walk off at one point when he realises the way things are going. Well done to the BJJ guy for keeping his cool.

When the  “Tai Chi” guy inevitably gets submitted the ref separates them and then he tries to attack the BJJ guy after the match has ended, at which point the ref restrains him with a choke hold and chaos ensues.

Only in China 🙂

In a world where you can self-identify as anything, anybody can claim to be a “Tai Chi guy”, but apparently the guy is Zheng Jiakuan, known as the apprentice of Ma Baoguo, and the BJJ guy is a blue-belt player Zhang Long from Alliance.

Ma Baoguo produced this famous video which he claims showed the effectiveness of his techniques… while the MMA fighter claims otherwise.

 

Anyway, I think that says it all.

I don’t really know what the Tai Chi guy expected to achieve by entering a BJJ tournament, but by behaving so badly he’s ended up looking even worse than you’d expect. All the traditional Chinese values of respect are all displayed by the BJJ guy.

A better video for “Tai Chi vs BJJ” is the video of Marcelo Garcia against a Taiwanese push hands champion. Of course, lots of people don’t think these push hands champions are doing Tai Chi either, but at least respect was shown:

 

Chen village has grown

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I found an interesting post on Slantedflying.com about Chen village and how it’s grown. There’s a video in it that shows an aerial view of the village and the massive training hall. It’s more like a small city than a “village” now!

It’s incredible how the popularity of Tai Chi has transformed this “rural backwater” (as I’ve often heard it described) into a bustling, modern, mini-city.

Here’s the video:

 

 

Wing Chun (Ding Hao) vs MMA (Xu Xiao Dong), in China

After his fight with the “Tai Chi master” Wei Lei, which rocked the contemporary martial arts scene in China, Xu Xiao Dong, the MMA fighter on a mission to expose “fake masters” is back on the scene this time showing his skills against a Wing Chun fighter.

China doesn’t have the sort of government regime which tolerates people who rock the boat, so I’m pleased to see that Xu is no longer under detention, as I feared we may never have seen him again after what happened last time.

Here’s the fight:

 

It’s a pretty ugly fight. Here are my takeaways:

  • Ding Hao clearly lacks realistic sparring experience, as he falls apart pretty quickly. His grappling was non-existent.
  • Xu Xiao Dong is pretty much a ‘stand and bang’ type fighter. Or maybe he felt so unthreatened by Ding that he didn’t feel the need to do much of anything else.
  • The ref makes some daring saves!
  • Why are they wearing such different clothing? Ding has shoes on! Only Xu is wearing gloves. Xu is grabbing Ding’s clothing to throw and control him. It’s a mess.
  • Why are they fighting on what looks like a red carpet used for movie premieres or award shows?
  • If you watch Ding throughout the fight you can see him try to adapt as he realises what he is doing isn’t working. He starts off looking very much like classical Wing Chun and ends up looking more like Jeet Kune Do. It’s like watching the evolution of Bruce Lee in microcosm!

Here’s some background about Xu Xiao Dong and his fights and detention by police in China:

 

Fight against Wei Lei:

 

 

 

Asian Boss: What do Chinese people think of Blackface?

As China makes more entries onto the world stage elements of an isolated culture are clashing full on with a global culture that has, how shall we say? Moved on a bit… There was a recent incident of Blackface appearing on a popular Chinese show, the Lunar New Year TV gala, where Chinese people dressed up as African people for laughs. The show was watched by 800 million people. 800 MILLION PEOPLE! Those numbers are staggering.

The following video about the show is interesting, especially if you watch past around the 10-minute mark where a black lady living in China gives her view on daily life in China and the sort of casual racism she encounters.

My general impression from watching the video is that it’s coming from a position of ignorance, not of hate. I can’t help but see the parallels to how the UK used to be when my grandparent’s generation were running things. Blackface used to happen regularly on British TV, most famously the Black and White Minstrel Show in the 1960s. Things will move on.

 

Also: Reviews of Black Panther from China.