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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Is Taijiquan Taoist?

I wrote a blog post the other day in which I mentioned that the Taoist origins of Tai Chi are historically unproven, yet the similarity in ideas is obviously there.

I got an interesting comment back on Facebook from somebody linking to a book I wasn’t aware of:

“Roel Jansen: Your information on the origins of Tai Chi is outdated. Please read ‘Tai Chi – the true history & principles’ by Lars Bo Christiansen to get up to date with the latest findings on the daoist origins of Tai Chi.”

So I looked the book up and it exists – it’s on Amazon.

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You can read a lot of the book on Amazon’s “look inside” feature. It’s about the newly found Li family manuscripts from which the author draws some pretty wild conclusions, one of which is that the Taoist link to Tai Chi has now been proved beyond doubt.

The book author has a website too, which contains his main arguments in the QnA:

I thought something seemed a bit ‘off’ with the whole thing, so I looked around and found the eminent Douglas Wile, who wrote two books on the Tai Chi Classics that are very good, and that classic essay on Chan Sang Feng, had written a massive article on these Li manuscripts, (and Lars’ book) which is here:

https://mas.cardiffuniversitypress.org/ … /download/

It’s a mammoth read, but looks at the whole thing from a more balanced perspective, including all the political leanings.

The TL;DR version is: It’s complicated. The verdict is still out :)

Here’s a pertinent quote:

The question of whether taijiquan is the product of Daoism creating a martial art or a martial art absorbing Daoism is a critical issue in Chinese martial arts historiography. If anything, Daoism is an even more slippery term than taijiquan itself, but the issue has become highly politicized, which is understandable in the context of Chinese history and culture. However, for a Western scholar to stumble into this minefield bespeaks a certain naiveté. The assertion of Daoist origins has become associated with cultural nationalism and the search for Chinese identity, often called ‘Chineseness’. Chinese scholars have built entire careers out of championing either Zhang Sanfeng or Chen Wangting, but it is very unseemly for Western scholars to insert themselves in this politicized process of roots-seeking and competing attempts to identify origin, creator, or birthplace as ‘transient points of stabilization’
[Laclau 2000: 53].

I think there are other questions that need to be asked about the whole question of “Is Tai Chi Taoist?”

For instance how many of the concepts we associate with Taoism, like the Tai Chi symbol, the I-Ching, Wu Xing and Bagua are actually Taoist in origin? Chinese Folk Religion, is actually the largest religion in China, and makes use of many things that we in the West think are “Taoist”.

As HotSoup on the RSF forum posted recently:

“There is an opinion that asking a CIMA practitioner from the beginning of the nineteenth century whether his art was “Buddhist” or “Taoist” would make as much sense, as asking a medieval fence teacher whether his fencing was “Catholic” or, say, “Juwish”.

Byron Jacobs: incovenient truths in “Da Dao Taiji” documentary

My Facebook friend Byron Jacobs is the Technical & Events Manager and Technical Committee Member at International Wushu Federation in China. That’s a pretty high up in Chinese Martial Arts for a guy from South Africa 🙂

This is a YouTube video about him:

As you can see from the video, he’s fluent in Chinese and lives in China. He trains Xingyiquan under his Sifu, Di Guoyong.

Recently Byron appeared in an episode of the Chinese TV documentary “Da Dao Taiji” in which he was interviewed about traditional Chinese martial arts, its utility in the modern age and the problems it is facing both in the mentality of practitioners and their methods today.  I don’t think they were quite expecting such a frank interview!

Unsurprisingly, it was edited quite heavily, and they only kept some of these “inconvenient truths” in the documentary.

The good news is that here on Tai Chi Notebook you can view his whole interview, complete with subtitles. It may have been too hot for Chinese TV, but nothing is too hot for you, my dear readers!

(As an interesting sidenote, the new laws in China were passed last year prohibiting people with tattoos from being shown on TV, so they had to smudge out his tattoo for the aired version of this!)

Enjoy the inconvenient truths video:

 

And here is the entire episode 2, as it appeared on Chinese TV:

Wu Wei – the art of doing without doing

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The connections between Tai Chi and Taoism are at once obvious (the Tai Chi symbol is used extensively in Taoism) and also sketchy at best (there is no historical lineage connection).

You see a lot of Taoist priests (or at least Chinese people wearing Taoist priest robes) on Wudang mountain, which has traditionally been associated with Taoism, teaching people Tai Chi, Xing Yi and Bagua (the internal arts) in the lineage of Chang San Feng, the mythical Taoist who is traditionally associated with the origins of Tai Chi Chuan, but whose historical existence seems difficult to prove.

However, how long these modern days Taoists have been there teaching people martial arts I’m not sure. The fact that their ‘ancient’ martial arts look remarkably similar to the modern “wu shu” versions created in Beijing makes them seem highly suspect to me…

But while a direct connection between Taoism and Tai Chi may be difficult to prove, they clearly employ the similar ideas. Take for instance the idea of Wu Wei – the ever elusive “doing without doing” of Taoism.

If you take a look at the Tai Chi Classics you see that while they don’t mention the phrase “Wu Wei” itself the strategy of the art described fits it like a glove. Take the following quotes from the Treatise on Tai Chi Chuan:

It is not excessive or deficient;
it follows a bending, adheres to an extension.

When the opponent is hard and I am soft,
it is called tsou [yielding].

When I follow the opponent and he becomes backed up,
it is called nian [sticking].

If the opponent’s movement is quick,
then quickly respond;
if his movement is slow,
then follow slowly.

It seems Taoism is having something of a resurgence, as this article reveals, as a philosophy for dealing with the anxiety-inducing modern world. Even the rock star intellectual de jour, Jordan Peterson, is getting in on the act.

 

From Alan Watts back in the ’60s to Jordan Peterson in the modern age, the Western intellectual has had a recurring fascination with Taoist thought. Particularly with the concepts of Wu Wei and the Tao Te Ching. In fact, the book that first got me interested in Tai Chi years ago was The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff.

I think all this interest in Taoism again is generally a good thing. Let’s see where it leads.

 

What is the Tai Chi form for?

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There are things you can only work on in your Tai Chi training if you already have a certain amount of practice under your belt. Take for example the concept of continuous movement.

The original Classics say Tai Chi Chuan is “like a great river rolling on unceasingly.

Sure, that’s easy to say, but is it easy to do?

The way Tai Chi Chuan is taught you inevitably learn the form as a series of individual movements linked together, with inevitable stops and starts. Then, after you get better at them, you can start to practice the form as one continuous flowing motion, the same way a piece of Chinese calligraphy is meant to be one continuous brush stroke (disclaimer: I known nothing about calligraphy, I’m just assuming this to be true).

In Tai Chi, the practice of learning to move so that everything is connected together smoothly at a constant rate, without speeding up or slowing down, is a skill in itself. If you can do it you still aren’t “doing Tai Chi” yet, not by a long shot, but you are learning one of the important pieces to the puzzle. Without having done enough form practice to not have to worry about what comes next, or about forgetting where you are, this skill simply cannot be developed.

Tai Chi forms are usually pretty long, so memorising an entire form, and then being able to perform it at a constant rate, without breaks or imperfections to that movement, is a significant undertaking. Add to that the fact that a lot of the body skills you need for Tai Chi are better worked on as repeated individual exercises (silk reeling exercises for example), and you find the idea of practicing a long, often difficult, form is slowly falling out of favour.

I see this a lot. The modern idea (which I think has a lot to do with influence from the ever-growing field of sports science) is that you really don’t need to practice a form at all. In fact, your time would be better spent on individual conditioning exercises.

So why do we have a Tai Chi form in the first place? That’s a good question to ask.

 

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Chen Fa-Ke performing his Tai Chi form.

 

 

Why do we have a form?

The first thing to notice about the Tai Chi form is that it is designed to be performed. It has a start, a middle, and an end. This has led some people to think that its origins might lie in other performance arts, like ancient Chinese religious rituals, which were used for all sorts of reasons (banishing spirits, pacifying the ancestors, blessing the crops, etc) since these were often done as a type of performance at annual festivals, and also contained movements that were martial in nature, often done by priests carrying swords. In ancient times when war was fought using steel weapons these rituals would be performed before battles, to summon the spirits of ancient warriors to help assure a victory.

 

 

One of the leaders in this particular field of inquiry is Scott Phillips, who has written extensively about these performance aspects of Tai Chi and speculated about its origins in his book Possible Origins. Of course, others reject his theories entirely, I think mainly because none of the famous Tai Chi families, like the Chens or Yangs, share the same ideas on the origins of Tai Chi, and also because I just don’t think that people who are practicing Tai Chi as a martial art like the idea that its origins might lie in something that doesn’t feel very pugilistic in nature. Or maybe they just have an irrational fear of dance 🙂

 

Perhaps, the reason why we had a form in the first place, doesn’t really matter. The thing is, it’s here now, and it is still thought of as the defining thing that makes Tai Chi, Tai Chi. Just ask the average person “what is Tai Chi?” and they instantly think of “that thing that Chinese people do in the parks” while moving their hands in a mystical way.

As anyone who has learned a Tai Chi form knows, it’s as much a test of memory and determination as anything physical. So why is the form so long? I can only assume that the effort you have to expel to learn the form is part of the training. Also, as we’ve mentioned already, once the movements are under your belt you get the chance to practice something else with them and develop skills that can’t be practiced without them.

The reason why the art has the name “Tai Chi Chuan” is because it is a physical embodiment of the Yin/Yang symbol – as you go through the form your body goes from open to close to open to close and so on – from yang to yin, to yang to yin, and on and on. Rather than just going through the same movement sequence to practice this, knowing a form gives you the chance of practicing all sorts of variations on this open and close sequence. Perhaps, before you can really understand something, you have to know it inside and out and with all sorts of variations.

That’s what the form is for.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Labels like ‘internal’ do matter in martial arts

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It’s quite ‘Zen’ and deconstructionist to talk about labels not mattering. But over long years I’ve come to the conclusion that labels (for martial arts) exist in the world because they do matter. If they didn’t matter (to whatever extent) then they wouldn’t exist.

I was reading recently (an idea from Mike Sigman) that the best way to view a martial art with regard to the question of “How internal is this?” is as a sliding scale of 1 through 10 from just using local muscle on the left (0-1), through to external martial arts in the middle (5) that use Jin (ground force) to some extent, on to internal martial arts at the end (10 being the highest) that use full dantien control of movement.

I’d put things like Wing Chun or Karate that go beyond just using basic movement in the middle of the scale. These things often get called the true ‘internal’ versions of the arts, but they don’t really use the dantien. The official version of Yang style Tai Chi that you see done by Yang Jun I don’t think is a full 10 either – it just doesn’t use the datien for full control all the time. I think Chen style Tai Chi would be a 10 – of course, that’s the theory. Most practitioners would be bottom to middle of the scale at best.

There was some talk recently on internal aspects in arts like BJJ. I think BJJ and Judo have the potential for being in the middle of the scale – some Jin usage. Often this is what you see termed as ‘invisible jiujitsu’. I think that’s exactly what you need for groundwork (and for fighting generally) – beyond that it’s a case of returns vs time spent. If you want to make your living as a pianist you don’t need to become a master of the very hardest pieces of classical music. It’s almost irrelevant. Of course, if you want to devote your life to it then, it’s your life and it’s a world of discovery.

“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.

 

Review: The Taijiquan & Qigong Dictionary (Angelika Fritz, 2017)

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It’s impossible to study Taijiquan or Qigong without butting up against a barrier of confusing Chinese terms like Yi, Jin and Qi. Frustratingly, they seem impossible to do without because they often don’t have a direct English translation, or because people simply like to keep a connection to the Chinese origins. This can make anybody’s initial attempts to read up on the new Taijiquan class they’ve just started a bit of a struggle. Of course, you can look these things up on the Internet in a matter of seconds, but The Taijiquan & Qigong Dictionary by Angelika Fritz is (as the name suggests) is a printed collection of all those terms, pulled together in one publication, so you have easy access to them without the need to be online.

“Even though I can search and find anything online these days”, says Angelika in the introduction, “I like to have a real book in my hands”.

That’s the essence of The Taijiquan & Qigong Dictionary. It’s a slim volume at 132 pages, and quite small at 140x210mm (it’s P5 size, which is a Canadian paper size similar to A5 in the UK ), which makes it handy to put in a bag to carry with you.

You’ll find it contains names of Taijiquan moves in both English and Chinese, like “Hidden Thrust Punch/Yan Shou Gong Quan”, names of famous practitioners of the art, like Fu Zhongwen and parts of the body mentioned in connection to QiGong, like the Gallbladder, which don’t have a medical description, just  “Yang organ associated with the element wood”.

The definitions are straightforward and to the point, but perhaps too straightforward at times. For instance, the aforementioned Fu Zhongwen is described simply as “one of the creators of the Taijiquan 24 form”, which is true, but he was more famously a disciple of Yang Cheng-Fu. Perhaps the brevity cuts down on the possibility for conjecture to creep in though, as it’s hard for anybody to agree on anything in the Taijiquan world.

I’ve found The Taijiquan & Qigong Dictionary really useful to have next to my computer when writing blog posts and I need to double-check the spelling of a Chinese word. Fuller explanations of the terms would have been welcome, but as a quick reference, it’s hard to beat.

You can buy The Taijiquan & Qigong Dictionary on Amazon. (I earn no money from the link).

Angelika runs the Qialance blog.

 

Mike Sigman on basic Jin

When you see videos of Chinese martial arts masters bouncing people back a fair distance with a very light touch (YouTube is full of them) then unless the opponent is just taking a dive (as usually found in Aikido) what you are seeing is usually an example of ‘Jin’. Jin is not unique to internal Chinese martial arts like Tai Chi Chuan – all Chinese martial arts use Jin to greater or lesser extent. Or perhaps they had it at one time, and it was lost over time. Inevitably, things get lost over time.

It’s got to the stage now that if somebody shows Jin skills then it’s assumed they have been added in as a new “internal” version of said martial art by a special master. When you see somebody who is now doing an ‘internal’ version of martial art X (Wing Chun seems a popular choice at the moment) what the master usually shows is basic Jin done with very little explanation.

So, what is basic Jin? This and other questions like it will be answered by Mike Sigman in this handy video.