Don’t put power into the form, let it naturally arise from the form

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I don’t know if this is a famous quote from a master of old, or if it’s just something that Wayne Hansen thought of himself, but he uses it in his signature, and I was musing on this phase recently:

Don’t put power into the form let it naturally arise from the form

It’s such a great quote, because it’s absolutely true!

I was reviewing somebody’s form recently and the big thing I noticed was that they were trying to put power into the movements, rather than just accepting that the movements on their own are powerful, and don’t need anything extra to make them work. In fact, when you try and make Tai Chi movements powerful, it just messes them up, because you inevitably revert to tense, isolated muscle use, instead of a smooth flow of connected power, like a river.

(I think I should mention here that I’m not talking about the explosive bursts of power you typically see in Chen style forms. These are different. Instead, I’m talking about the general movements found in Tai Chi, typified by Yang style and it’s variations, which opt for a smooth form with an even pace throughout).

What that quote doesn’t do however is explain how it’s done. Tai Chi is full of these mysterious sayings, with very little explanation, so let’s break this one down and see where we get.

Fang song

Firstly, in Tai Chi we are frequently admonished to Fang Song or “relax” as we would say in English. We all instinctively know that a relaxed body can be a powerful body.  Think of how heavy a small child can make themselves if they don’t want to be picked up by going all floppy. Similarly, a baby’s grip is surprisingly powerful, but not tense.

Being too tense results in a kind of rigid and brittle strength. It’s strong, but it’s not deep. It tends to lie on the surface, like ice on a lake, but break through the surface and it’s nothing but water underneath. Relaxation can be more like thick sea ice all the way down.

But to be powerful a relaxed body needs to be a coordinated body. On a purely mechanical level that means moving so that the coordinated power of the body arrives at the right place at the right time. There’s no point punching with just the arm, but if you can coordinate your body so the legs, hips, torso, and arm are all working – arriving – together it creates a kind whole body power that doesn’t rely much on tension at all. But that’s still not the whole story.

That sinking feeling

This sort of whole body power on its own is not enough. The next stage is to get used to sinking into the movements. This sinking – dropping the weight of the body down into the ground through relaxing – paradoxically, enables power from the ground to come up into the hands. It generally moves in an upward and outwards manner, which is the Peng Jin that Tai Chi is famous for. All the movements of Tai Chi need to contain this Peng Jin.

I often read people who critique this method, thinking that “pushing from the legs” will just be too slow, but frankly, they just don’t know what they’re talking about 🙂

True, the legs are very much involved, but when you effectively sink – drop the weight down – it’s not a physical movement. It’s an internal movement. And the power of the ground arrives in your hands instantaneously, so there’s no delay. It’s not too slow to use.

Once you get used to doing this sinking you can feel it. It requires practice, probably daily practice to get it. But that’s why you do the form every day. Every day you are practicing movements where you drop the weight and put the power of the ground in your hands.

Remember, the movements themselves are powerful – you don’t need to add power in. Instead you need to learn to relax, coordinate and sink your ‘energy’.

Just look at that picture of Yang Cheng Fu above.

He’s got it.

 

 

 

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Henan Village Chang family Xiao Luohan

I was reading through this excellent interview with Matthew Polly, author of American Shaolin, (a book which has somehow has escaped my bookshelf – a situation I should rectify promptly), when I came across this video of a man performing Chang family Xiao Luohan in a rural village in Henan.

It’s a great little video for a number of reasons. The first is that this is something old and precious that is in danger of dying out as people lose interest in WuShu in modern life. The second is the authenticity of the presentation – it really does look like a rural villiage where he has lived all his life. The third is – it’s a really good performance!

These are the sorts of “old school” martial arts skills that are in danger of dying out in China. To quote from the Matthew Polly interview above:

“As I mentioned in American Shaolin, the idea of chī kǔ (吃苦 ), eating bitterness, is central to the Chinese understanding of learning martial arts, and the value of suffering. And the way in which that contrasts with the western idea of trying to avoid pain in any way. We have an entire society built around the idea of alleviation of pain. We have an opioid crisis because we’re trying to avoid all sorts of pain. I admire progress and evolution in the way mixed martial artists do, but I have a nostalgia and sentimentality for tradition and the way that old man practised the same form for 60 years. There’s something beautiful about that and a sadness in seeing that wiped away as MMA goes like a bulldozer through the traditional kung fu and karate world.”

Chang family boxing is one of the precursors to Taijiquan, at least in terms of martial arts theory, although there are several similar postures to Chen Taijiquan found in its boxing sets, so the connection may be more literal than just in terms of theory.

I think research into Chang family boxing would reveal more about the origins of Taijiquan than wondering if it was Taoist. Luckily this research has already been done by Marnix Wells in his book ‘Scholar Boxer: Cháng Nâizhou’s Theory of Internal Martial Arts and the Evolution of Taijiquan‘. Again, another shocking omission from my bookshelf, but by all accounts, this is a very deep piece of research. According to Jess O’Brian (author of Nei Jia Quan: Internal Martial Arts) – “For those interested in the theory, history and practice of the internal martial arts, this book is going to blow your mind.”

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Tao Te Ching, chapters 8 and 61

 

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I was giving the Tao Te Ching the cursory glance I occasionally give it recently. I’ve got the copy shown above. I usually flick to a random chapter, read it three times and ponder it deeply. Well, as deeply as I am able to. I landed on chapter 61, and the next day I landed on chapter 8. These two seemed to be linked in theme, so I thought I’d say something about them.

Incidentally, I really like the Stephen Mitchell translation. I’ve no idea how accurate it is compared to the Chinese, but all translation seems to involve some interpretation, and I like the way he’s done it.

Here’s chapter 61:

61

When a country obtains great power,
it becomes like the sea:
all streams run downward into it.
The more powerful it grows,
the greater the need for humility.
Humility means trusting the Tao,
thus never needing to be defensive.

A great nation is like a great man:
When he makes a mistake, he realizes it.
Having realized it, he admits it.
Having admitted it, he corrects it.
He considers those who point out his faults
as his most benevolent teachers.
He thinks of his enemy
as the shadow that he himself casts.

If a nation is centered in the Tao,
if it nourishes its own people
and doesn’t meddle in the affairs of others,
it will be a light to all nations in the world.

 

and chapter 8:

8

The supreme good is like water,
which nourishes all things without trying to.
It is content with the low places that people disdain.
Thus it is like the Tao.

In dwelling, live close to the ground.
In thinking, keep to the simple.
In conflict, be fair and generous.
In governing, don’t try to control.
In work, do what you enjoy.
In family life, be completely present.

When you are content to be simply yourself
and don’t compare or compete,
everybody will respect you.

 

So, firstly let’s look at the imagery of water, one of the classic symbols of the Yin side of the Taiji diagram. Both chapters use water as a metaphor for the correct way of acting or being in the world.  It’s a theme that repeats through the Tao Te Ching, and also throughout the history of Asian martial arts, even in modern times. I’m thinking of Bruce Lee in the infamous interview where he says “Be water, my friend!”

 

I was reading another article about Wing Chun today by Ben Judkins, which also expanded upon this idea of softness overcoming strength, and how this idea has permeated Asian martial arts:

Early reformers in martial arts like Taijiquan (Wile 1996) and Jujitsu sought to shore up their own national identities by asserting that they brought a unique form of power to the table.  Rather than relying on strength, they would find victory through flexibility, technique, and cunning (all yin traits), just as the Chinese and Japanese nations would ultimately prevail through these same characteristics.  It is no accident that so much of the early Asian martial arts material featured images of women, or small Asian men, overcoming much larger Western opponents with the aid of mysterious “oriental” arts.  These gendered characterizations of hand combat systems were fundamentally tied to larger narratives of national competition and resistance (see Wendy Rouse’s 2015 article “Jiu-Jitsuing Uncle Sam” .

but as the author notes, the situation is often muddied

Shidachi appears to have had little actual familiarity with Western wrestling.  It is clear that his discussion was driven by nationalist considerations rather than detailed ethnographic observation.  And there is something else that is a bit odd about all of this.  While technical skill is certainly an aspect of Western wrestling, gaining physical strength and endurance is also a critical component of Judo training.  Shidachi attempted to define all of this as notbeing a part of Judo. Yet a visit to the local university Judo team will reveal a group of very strong, well developed, athletes.  Nor is that a recent development.  I was recently looking at some photos of Judo players in the Japanese Navy at the start of WWII and any one those guys could have passed as a modern weight lifter.  One suspects that the Japanese Navy noticed this as well.

But while the idea of the soft overcoming the hard has already fallen to the level of a cliché, especially when it comes to martial arts, and mixed with political ideas, should we ignore it as a way of being in the world?  I’d say not. It does point to a truth.

Anyone with any familiarity in martial arts is aware of the feeling of having to ‘muscle’ a technique to make it work, as opposed to executing a clean technique based on good leverage. This points towards what I think these chapters of the Tao Te Ching are talking about.

When it comes to Tai Chi one of the hardest things to grasp about the techniques exemplified in the forms is that they shouldn’t necessarily feel powerful to you as you do them. My teacher often uses this phrase: “…if you feel it then they don’t – you want them to feel it, not you“.

If you can give up the need to control and struggle with a situation, then you can relax and access your own inner power. See what acliché that statement sounds like already? It sounds like one to me as I wrote it, but I guess all cliches were probably based on something real, otherwise, they wouldn’t be a cliché.

In Chinese martial arts that sweet spot between doing and not doing (to bastardize some more Taoist terminology) is called Jin. I’ve written a bit about that before:

The 6 directions and Jin

Rickson Gracie using Jin

Mike Sigman on basic Jin

Jin in Chinese martial arts (and tennis)

 

 

 

 

 

 

“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:

 

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.