“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:

 

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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 😦

“The rotation of the waist/pelvic region is like the turning of a wheel on an axle”

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I ran (ha!) across this article by Sam Wuest, thanks to the Steve Morris Facebook page. It’s a really interesting look at how Usain Bolt is the fastest man alive despite not conforming to accepted wisdom on running mechanics.

It turns out Mr Bolt makes clever use of waist rotation when he runs, in contrast to the normal admonitions to reduce rotational movement and increase forward and back movement you’ll get from a lot of running coaches.  By turning his waist in coordination with the running motion Mr Bolt is creating a longer lever to the floor, and everybody knows that longer levers create more power than shorter levers over the same distance.

There’s a famous line in the Tai Chi Classics that goes “The waist is like the axle and the ch’i is like the wheel“.  At one point in the article, Sam Wuest says

“The rotation of the waist/pelvic region is like the turning of a wheel on an axle. The hip joints are rotating around the imaginary centerline of your body parallel to your spine at about the elevation of the sacrum. It is not a perfect rotation, as the free leg hip will come through higher than the support leg’s hip if the lateral chain is firing correctly.  Perhaps it would be better described as a rolling rotation. Which brings us to reason #2 of why this piece of technique is important.”

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Reason #2 is interesting too:

Reason #2: Better Muscle Sequencing/Activation

Often, those that rotate better whilst sprinting will look smooth and relaxed. Their strides won’t just look longer, they’ll look more relaxed.  Think of Carl Lewis’ famously effortless stride.  This is how we are designed to move – the center moves first, then the extremities follow, much like a whip.

The muscles around the pelvis have high muscle-to-tendon ratios (force producers) while the extremities have relatively much more tendon and elastic structures (force amplifiers). In a correctly aligned body, a small movement of the waist can produce large amounts of force elsewhere in the body.

This sounds awfully close to the Tai Chi idea of the dantien as a nexus of muscular and tendon power in the body.

As somebody interested in muscle tendon channels and their effect on movement and silk reeling exercises from Tai Chi I can see the correlation here. Tai Chi uses the same principle of movement coming from the centre (the dantien) and that controlling the movement of the extremities through elastic tissue. We usually think of this sort of movement as having to be learned, rather than occurring naturally, however it appears to be exhibited in high-level athletes, as we see in the article linked to above. Are they just naturally doing it? Have they tapped into the way the body is designed to move? Have they stumbled upon it, or have they had to learn to move this way on purpose?

Hagakure – wisdom of the Samurai

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“Hagakure is the essential book of the Samurai. Written by Yamamoto Tsunetomo, who was a Samurai in the early 1700s, it is a book that combines the teachings of both Zen and Confucianism. These philosophies are centered on loyalty, devotion, purity and selflessness, and Yamamoto places a strong emphasis on the notion of living in the present moment with a strong and clear mind.”

Not being too familiar with Japanese writings I hadn’t come across this book before, but it was brought to my attention by a quote I stumbled across that I really liked:

“There is something to be learned from a rainstorm. When meeting with a sudden shower, you try not to get wet and run quickly along the road. But doing such things as passing under the eaves of houses, you still get wet. When you are resolved from the beginning, you will not be perplexed, though you still get the same soaking. This understanding extends to everything.” 

The book seems to be full of pithy, simple, wisdom like that.

I’m not familiar with which translation is the best – probably one you can buy on Amazon since that’s usually the way things work –  but there’s certainly a free version of the book you can read here.

 

Jack Dempsy in full colour

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Heavy weight boxing champion Jack Dempsy is one of those legendary old school boxers whose name is still talked about with reverence. He fought in the 1920s, when cars still looked like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Jazz was just becoming popular and the BBC started broadcasting public radio.

He wrote a book on boxing that is still regarded as a classic, Championship Fighting: Explosive Punching and Aggressive Defense and also co-authored How to fight tough.

A new video has been released showing him in full colour. One thing I always notice about Dempsy is his head and neck alignment. He’s always “pressing up the head top” as it says in the Tai Chi Classics. His neck is kept extended and (crucially) aligned with the direction of his spine, so that his chin doesn’t stick out. I think this is one of the keys to his legendary power. Have a watch:

Review: Possible Origins, Scott Park Phillips – Part 1

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I’ve been meaning to review Scott Phillips’ book on the origins of Chinese Martial Arts for some time now, but there always seemed to be something else for me  to read, or to do… Ok, I admit it, I’m just a terribly slow reader. However, the recent uproar over the fight between Tai Chi “Master” Wei Lei and MMA coach Xu Xiaodong that has dominated the Chinese Martial Arts scene has made me pick up Possible Origins, A Cultural History of Chinese Martial Arts, Theatre and Religion, and give it the attention it deserves.

A bit of background to the current situation: Xu (who had to go into hiding after the fight once the government got involved) had started to make a name for himself as the debunker of Kung Fu masters who he claimed lacked the skills required for actually fighting while charging students large sums of money to learn these (nonexistent) skills. He wasn’t particularly respectful in his debunking either – in fact, his profanity filled rants were uncomfortable to watch and hard to follow, but his point was simple.

Wei, the subject of a documentary on Chinese television about his Tai Chi powers,  took umbrage to the implied insult and challenged Xu in an effort to defend the honour of traditional martial arts. It sounds like the plot of every kung fu movie, but it actually happened. Anybody who has seen the fight (which lasts about 10 seconds ending with Wei’s face being ruthlessly pummeled on the ground by Xu) will have realised that Wei was utterly delusional about his fighting abilities. Even after his beating, in his post fight interview, Wei still seemed to be delusional about his fighting ability, proclaiming that he was only hit after he “tripped’ and fell”. In reality he was knocked to the ground by a punch which revealed him to be a bumbling amateur in the realms of pugilism.

You can easily make the argument that Wei was never a proper Tai Chi Master anyway, so his poor performance is irrelevant, but a lot of people obviously did think he was a legit martial artists. What’s interesting to me is how we got here.  How did we end up with a generation of Kung Fu (especially Tai Chi) masters who think they can fight, but can’t? If you went to a boxing coach in Glasgow to learn how to box, he’d teach you how to box, and regardless of how good or bad you were, you’ll at least end up with some fighting skills. But if you go to a Tai Chi master in Taiwan, asking to learn to fight, he’ll teach you a lot of fancy arm-waving stuff, mystical qigong and forms, but after several years you might actually be no different from an untrained person in your fighting ability. In fact, you’ll probably be worse.

Nothing ushers in a period of self reflection like a catastrophic failure, so it’s at this point that we should turn to Possible Origins to see how we got here.

Scott’s book at least proposes some answers to this curious situation that Chinese Martial Arts finds itself in – which is to embrace it. His basic premise is that once upon a time in China, martial arts, theatre and religion were all one thing. Over time, and due to various political and cultural shifts they became separated out, but never truly lost their connection to each other, even if the arts lived on as a pale reflection. The book examines how that process happened, why it happened and what we can do about it. In a way it’s a call to arms for the reader to embrace parts of their practice that have hitherto remained untapped and to restore these connections.

I know plenty of people amongst the martial arts that I know who just laugh at Scott’s theories. (“Oh, no, not that guy…”)*. They tend to be practical people who are more interested in how something works than why it is the way it is in the first place. That’s fine, and there’s no reason to go ‘backwards’ in martial arts. I think it’s equally valid to not worry about any of this, and just focus on what you can do with what we’ve had handed down to us. But the book does open a door to a fascinating world of demons, spirits and ancestors that we’ve left behind. You’d also be surprised by how much evidence there is for his interpretations. He can’t be conclusive about anything (hence the title) but I’ll be damned if he doesn’t present a wealth of information to support his case.

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Martial arts originated so long ago that almost everything about that time is lost to us, and survives only in fragments. I think the strongest ‘evidence’ Scott has for his theories is the Boxer Rebellion of 1899, which happened relatively recently, and was a kind of a last gasp of the old world where martial arts, religion, theatre and ritual were all tied up together. There are documented cases in the Boxer Rebellion of martial arts practitioners combining martial arts techniques with spirit possession and mediumship to help overthrow foreign powers. Unfortunately it turns out that invoking the spirits of demons to give you fighting ability doesn’t, in fact, stop bullets and the Boxers were wiped out, and many of the ‘old ways’ and knowledge with them. Further cultural, political, and repressive regimes buried them deeper and deeper until today we’ve lost all concept of why we do what we do in Chinese Martial Arts.

Besides all this, Possible Origins is a damn good read, and an entertaining, book in its own right. It’s not an academic tomb, it’s an easy to devour. I’m halfway through and loving it. Even if you don’t agree with Scott’s theories, you’ll learn a lot about things you never even knew existed from Possible Origins.

Everybody who practices a Chinese Martial Art should read it.  I’ll post a ‘part 2’ follow up when I’m finished.
Links: Scott’s blog. Scott’s video

* In case you were wondering, Scott’s martial arts lineage is actually legit, and explained in the book.

Fist Under Elbow, and natural posture

Here I want to discuss what a natural posture means in Tai Chi Chuan. I was working on the posture we call ‘Fist under elbow’ with a student today. The posture looks like this:

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Fist under elbow – Yang Cheng-Fu

The word translated as ‘fist’ could also mean ‘punch’, so you could equally call the posture, ‘Punch under elbow’. It looks a bit like the Judo Chop I talked about recently, but it’s not done like that at all in application. Instead of a chopping, downward, movement it’s a forward and outwards, palm strike done with the left hand. You can see this immediately when you see it done in motion. Here’s Yang Jun, the grandson of Yang Cheng-Fu who is pictured above, teaching the movement in his family’s style of Tai Chi.

You might ask why your other hand is punching under the elbow. I was always taught this was a hidden technique, where you’d turn the left hand into a deflection of the opponent’s attack and punch them with your right, but in the Tai Chi form it wasn’t show explicitly, and the punch was hidden away under the elbow… In application, it looked a lot like a little bit of Wing Chun Kung Fu.

I always have doubts about the validity of these sorts of explanations though. Firstly, I don’t know why you’d want to hide a technique like this? Who are you hiding it from, and why? And it’s not an especially deadly technique, so it’s not like it is dangerous for people to see it. There are much more dangerous techniques shown openly in the form. And secondly, if you don’t actually practice it then you’ll never actually be able to do it under pressure, so hiding things away is not an ideal practice method.

I think it’s much more likely that the posture itself has special cultural significance (as say, part of a religious ritual, or maybe it relates to Chinese cosmology), so was included in the Tai Chi form sequence, or perhaps it’s something of a signature move that was handed down over the generations from an older martial art, and has lost its original meaning, but remained as a kind of nod of respect to the forefathers.

Either way, it’s in the Tai Chi form now, and shows no sign of being removed, so we might as well get on with learning it properly.

My point in writing this article was that I find students generally don’t perform this posture particularly well. Perhaps it’s something to do with the arm position being slightly uncomfortable unless you can relax sufficiently, but it seems particularly suited to making mistakes. Maybe it’s because it looks a bit like an “on guard!” posture, but if you ask a student to take up this posture they will invariably hunch the shoulders, or make their leading arm too stiff and aggressive, or get the angle of the hand and fingers all wrong.

Here’s an example of what I mean. Look at how tense this guy’s arms are:

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He’s holding up his right elbow instead of letting it drop. His left arm is almost locked straight and both arms are too high: Instead of ‘sinking the chi’ he’s letting it rise up, which makes him unsteady.

In Tai Chi the shoulders should naturally round and the elbows should drop – this makes your posture softer and more relaxed – ‘sung‘, as we say in Tai Chi.

If I was to walk up to the person above practicing on the beach and at the moment they formed their Fist Under Elbow I was to slap their arm away at the elbow then the chances are that I’d severely compromise their structure and balance, possibly knocking them over, giving me ample room to attack.

In comparison, if you look at the picture of Yang Cheng-Fu above again, then you can see he is much more relaxed and comfortable in his stance. You get the feeling that if you tried to slap his arm away he’d be able to just let his arm go with your motion, and let it swing back around and slap you in the face! (This was exactly what happened to me the first time I got hands-on with my Tai Chi teacher, so I can talk from experience!)

Yang Cheng-Fu’s more natural posture means that his centre of gravity is within himself in the area of the dantien. And because mind and body are linked, it’s more likely that his mind is focussed and aware of what’s happening. Once your physical centre of gravity starts to shift out of your base, so too does your mental focus. And equally, if your mind is all over the place when you’re doing your Tai Chi form then, more than likely, your physical balance will suffer for it.

In an ‘internal’ martial art we try to harmonise what’s happening between the external and the internal parts of the body. That’s what I’m trying to do in each posture of the Tai Chi form – become more centred,both mentally and physically. I want to have a more natural body that is free from artificial posturing. Postures that look ‘held up’, as if from invisible wires from the ceiling, are not as useful for combat as natural, rooted, aware postures that can meet the demands of the moment.

(A quick tip for getting a more natural posture is to take up a posture from the Tai Chi form, put your arms in what you think is the correct position, then take a big breath in, all the way up to your shoulders then let it all out in one big gasp. Let your arms settle to where they need to be, rather than holding them up. That relaxed, sunk, posture you now have is what you should be looking for in Tai Chi Chuan.)

As it says in the Tai Chi Classics:

“The postures should be without defect,
without hollows or projections from the proper alignment;”

“Stand like a perfectly balanced scale and
move like a turning wheel.”

“The upright body must be stable and comfortable
to be able to sustain an attack from any of the eight directions.”

A Tai Chi reading list

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I just learned that Scott P Philips recently created a new Facebook page, and as I browsed it I ended up on his Books page, which is like leafing through the most comprehensive Tai Chi/Chinese Martial arts section of Waterstones that will ever exist, but never will.

He’s linked reviews in the descriptions of several of them, too, which is a nice touch.I’ve got a lot of these books, but there are way more here than I’ll ever have time to read.

If you’re after some reading material on Taijiquan or the martial arts culture from which is arose, then there are some great ideas here.

 

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

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MMA: UFC 207-Garbrandt vs Cruz

Cody vs Dominic

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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.