My first video interview! Scott P. Phillips and the God of War and Accounting

I’ve been thinking of doing a new series of video interviews with various people from the Tai Chi and martial arts scene, so when the opportunity to interview Scott Phillips, author of Possible Origins: A Cultural History of Chinese Martial Arts, Theatre and Religion came along I jumped at the chance.

I thought the interview went pretty well, so here it is in full. Please share it!

We jumped all over the place from Chinese history, the Boxer Rebellion, martial arts as theatre, Shaolin, Wudang, the origins of Xingyiquan, dealing with real violence, Rory Miller, Mexican drug cartels, child kidnapping in ancient China and more, including the superbly named Guan Gong, who was the “God of War and Accounting”!

I’ve uploaded it to both YouTube and Vimeo. I cut things short at the 1-hour mark but had the feeling we could have kept going for another 2 hours at least, so maybe we’ll do it again, perhaps with a little more focus on a particular subject.

Hope you enjoy.

YouTube:

 

Vimeo:

 

 

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Catch as Catch Can – The British Chen Taijiquan

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I listened to the Raspberry Ape podcast this morning on the way to work. It’s a BJJ podcast by Daniel Strauss, one of the UK’s leading competitors and BJJ personalities.  The episode I was listening to was with Danny Williams, who as well as possibly being the most tattooed man in judo is also a British judo Olympian and Commonwealth gold medalist.

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Danny Williams

After taking a while to get going, the podcast gets very interesting and they discuss things like Ido Portal, Conor McGregor, fads and fashions in the Judo and BJJ world. The thing that interested me most was when Danny mentioned that he’d been teaching some no gi techniques that he picked up from Russian Sambo last night at Daniel’s club in Mill Hill, London. Danny also mentions that he found the same techniques in a video he watched of a Catch wrestling seminar. It’s entirely possible that that’s where the Sambo guys got it from.

Catch is a wrestling style from the North of England. Its name “Catch as catch can” implies it is a more open style than the local variants it grew out of, and you could apply a submission hold (a “catch”) as and when it was available. Its origins are amongst the working class of the region. Despite never being that popular amongst the rest of the population it has gained a reputation for being brutally effective at international level. It reached the United States in the late 19th Century where it has gained a foothold, spreading through carnival wrestlers. In modern times practitioners like Eric Paulson and Josh Barnett, amongst others, have achieved a level of fame using it in the MMA world.

The big difference, of course, is that the Catch seminar Danny watched was attended by “two fat men and some kids”, while the local football pitch was probably full of men running around kicking a ball. The irony here is that in Britain we’ve got a truly remarkable indigenous martial art that has some of the most effective techniques in the world, and nobody is interested in it. Catch wrestling is dying in Britain. There’s probably a handful of people left that practice it. Why is that?

The most obvious answer is that it’s not attractive to people. Let’s look at some vintage footage of the famous Catch Wrestler Billy Riley at the Snake Pit, the home of Catch wrestling in Wigan to find out why:

 

“they’d meet in the pub and arrange fights, then fight in the fields the next day, not on mats”, “a small hut” – it’s not very glamorous, is it?

One wrestling style that has become incredibly popular in the UK is Brazilian Jiujitsu – if you look at what that’s doing right then you can see why it’s successful. Generally, BJJ gyms are clean, welcoming, and friendly places. It doesn’t matter if you’re 40 years old and never done anything before, if you join a BJJ gym, you can learn without much risk of getting injured. As a business model, it suits the customers and it’s been very successful.

So, what needs to happen for Catch to catch on? I think it’s going to take a major victory on a world stage (as BJJ had in the UFC) to bring back a revival of Catch, or maybe it needs somebody to come up with a more people-friendly version – a Catch Light – perhaps, that can be more popular amongst ‘normal’ people.

I don’t know what the answer is, but it’s a shame that we’re letting something that in China would be described as a “national treasure”, like Chen Taijiquan is, die out due to neglect. Catch as Catch Can is our Chen Taijiquan, and it needs to be protected.

 

Notes:

The Snake Pit in Wigan has its own website and is doing what it can to revive Catch.

Incidentally, Billy Robinson who died in 2014, and features in that earlier film can be seen here in this film, still teaching in old age.

 

 

 

The eagle has landed.

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After finally making some headway in my friend’s Woven Energy podcast on Shamanism, I find this episode of Tribes, Predators & Me fascinating. Firstly, you get to see a lot of what is being talked about in terms of Mongolian culture and animism. Secondly, there’s the timing of the release of the bird. If you’ve been following some of the exercises for Amsgar in the podcast then this element will be familiar to you, even if it’s not been picked up on by the programme producers, or the guy in it 🙂

Even if you’ve got no interest in Shamanism, it’s a great episode to watch – utterly fascinating.  You can watch it on the BBC iPlayer.

 

 

 

Walk like an Anglo Saxon

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I do enjoy Roland Warzecha’s high-quality videos on medieval weapons and their usage. I’m not entirely sure how to feel about this one, however. He’s suggesting that medieval people walked with a different type of step than us modern humans, because of the different footwear. The old way (he suggests) was to land on the ball of the foot first (but put the whole foot on the ground, not just the ball) instead of heel striking first. In a way it’s similar to the type of stepping you find in the Chinese martial art of Baguazhang.

I just tried this way of walking on a little trip around the office and I did notice that it was possible to walk around like this, and it definitely works the calves in a way that ‘normal’ walking does not. For me it’s still a big ask to believe that people used to do such a fundamental human activity, like walking,  in a very different way to the way we do it today. Either way, it’s interesting. Have a watch and see what you think:

Roland also has some great videos on medieval posture and fighting with weapons that are also worth watching if you haven’t seen them before:

The thrusting posture does look odd, especially for combat,  but I can see what he means about it developing different muscles in the back.

This video about Viking arts is also a good watch:

The problems with being a teacher

 

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This is something I’ve seen happen a lot in martial arts. After a period of being a “teacher” or a “coach”, you somehow start to believe your own hype, and end up as an “expert”, or you allow others to see you as such (i.e. you become complicit even if you don’t announce yourself as the expert). Of course, you might legitimately be an expert. There’s no problem with that, or with acknowledging somebody’s skill at something (belts in martial arts have their uses), but for your own development, taking on the mantle of ‘expert’ can be an absolute dead end to your progress. Let me explain.  

You start out at something, and get pretty good at it. After a while people start asking you for advice and you end up as the teacher. After a lot of experience of teaching you get pretty good at that too and you go and turn what you’ve got into a system(™), online course (™) or book (™) and whatever you’ve produced ends up being codified, systemised, named, labelled and becomes a kind of law. Maybe you even develop followers (also known as customers these days) who go around championing your cause. I’m pretty sure that Jesus (if he existed) didn’t start out with the aim of having followers or producing the Bible. In fact, he wrote nothing down! (Well, that we know of anyway).

That’s all great until you are faced with some new information, far too late into your career, and realise that you’ve got something terribly wrong. Or perhaps you meet a real expert, and find that your knowledge isn’t as all encompassing as you thought it was. What do you do? Suddenly your ‘fame’ means nothing. You can’t go back to all the people that have invested their time, their money and their belief in your system and tell them ‘“sorry guys, I got it wrong, we’re going to start again with this new idea and take it from there…” Well, I mean, you could, theoretically, but very few people in human history have ever done that. Instead what usually happens is you either reject the new information, because it doesn’t fit your model, or you try and incorporate it into your world view, when in fact, it doesn’t fit that either, because it contradicts what you’ve previously been saying, and you end up with this sort of bastardised half truth…

The people I most admire in martial arts are the ones who are happy not to have everything all worked out. The ones who are constantly open to new ideas and retain a kind of ‘beginner’s mind’.

So what should we do? Yes, we should have ideas and theories. But we should always be testing them against nature, against resistance and against each other. We should never end up ‘locked in’. Unfortunately, as soon as you hit the publish button on your course, your video, your article or your online course, you are, effectively, locked in.  

Having said all that, I publish blog articles, I make videos and fully intend to write a book about this stuff one day, I’m just going to make sure (at least in my head) I have a massive disclaimer at the start of anything I do along the lines of ‘Warning! Some of these ideas may not reflect reality’ 🙂

 

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 😦

4 ways Conor McGregor can improve your Kung Fu

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Another article of mine has appeared on Jetli.com – this one was fun to write as I’m a big fan of The Notorious’ fighting style:

4 Ways Conor McGregor can improve your Kung Fu.

 

If you liked this article you might also like:

Review: Notorious – The life and fights of Conor McGregor (Jack Slack)

Warrior scholar: A Jack Slack primer

Ido Portal and the possibilities of Neijia

Kung Fu in MMA

Thoughts on Push Hands, by Mike Sigman

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Mike posted his thoughts on push hands recently on the 6H forum. I really liked what he wrote, so I’ve received permission from him to post it here as a guest blog post. Enjoy!

Thoughts on Push Hands
-M. Sigman.

Push Hands is designed as a way to practice using jin with and against a partner. The four jin directions are Up, Toward the Body, Away from the Body, and Down …. or Peng, Lu, Ji, An, respectively. You first learn to use jin in your own movements by learning forms, traditionally in Chen Village, before you begin learning to use that jin with a partner. Since most people claiming to do Taijiquan can’t really use jin skills while simply moving themselves, it is obvious that most “push hands” is usually more about some vague competition than it is about continuous jin skills. The closest most people get to jin skills is usually a sudden, impulsive tossing away of their opponent.

Beginning push hands involves the persistent use of push-hands patterns so that people can practice long periods of attempting to move while maintaining jin in the four directions of Peng, Lu, Ji, An. That’s why it’s such an eye-roller to hear some tournament rowdy say something like, “Oh, I don’t do patterns … I just do free-style”.

So basically, push hands is about Peng, Lu, Ji, An more than anything. It’s about practicing jin and imbuing jin in your body’s movements at all times. Arm/hand techniques, dramatic uprootings, etc., are nice, but they miss the point of what push-hands is really about.

I asked a teacher of mine (a student of Feng Zhiqiang’s) once “what is the philosophy of Taijiquan as a martial-art?”. Stupid question, but I asked it anyway. He responded to me: “The philosophy of Taijiquan is to crash through to the opponent’s center and kill him”. Of course he meant that half in jest, but it’s still true and it’s also the general philosophy of almost any martial-art. In much of the push-hands we see there is a lot of maneuvering at arms’ distance from the opponent, looking for a way to effect a technique or push on the opponent … you seldom see someone simply slip through the arms and apply a massive Kao to the opponent. That’s considered a “no-no” by many people, but since I see so many people do so many “no-no’s” already, I just get confused. If my partner is not doing good push-hands, adhering to the technical aspects, why should I waste time accommodating his not-so-good push hands? I think more people should think more about “what is push hands really about?”.

There are many things you can focus on while doing push hands: throws, joint-locks, “winning”, and so on. I tend to focus foremost on jin and using jin through all of my movements. I am not fully successful yet, but I keep working on it.

If you are moving your arms, you want to look for areas where you slipped into muscle and try and correct that area back toward good jin. You want to check your movement in terms of Open and Close and whether you are using the dantian to move or whether you suddenly went into an arms-only mode for a second. Moving with the dantian is what reeling-silk is about and that’s why reeling-silk movement is the core/basic of Taijiquan.

You want to not provide any resistance for your partner to push against, if possible … but that’s not always possible, so while I focus on that avoidance of resistance, I also enjoy practicing letting my partner push me. As I’ve said in the past, I often/usually will maintain a peng-jin direction that is upward and in a direction that will off-balance my partner if he pushes me. I don’t necessarily do the up-jin thing all the time, but I do it enough that it is an easily-accessed tool that is sort of second-nature.

Most of all I enjoy a casual interplay (win-some, lose-some is best for everyone, I think) where I make it a game to see if I can apply an effective jin response against any push my partner can manage to slip in. I don’t care if I lose some … the idea is to get better and better, so I “invest in loss”.

It’s a fun game to allow an opponent to push you and see if your jin skills are good enough to turn the tables simply by making his own push defeat himself. I would recommend and suggest that this strategy will get people away from always trying to win while at the same time giving them a true skill-set of actual Taijiquan.

I remember a comment from a Chinese friend of mine who was challenged in a nasty way to do some push hands. He looked at the guy and said, “No, let’s fight. Push-hands is just for exercise”.

 

If you liked this post you might also like:

Internal Judo

In Tai Chi you have to go down to go up

The basics of Tai Chi movement

Defining Tai Chi Chuan

Kung Fu: Old style Mantis

There’s a new YouTube channel called Jiang Hu that’s just launched containing ‘old’ types of Kung Fu performed by a couple of Western Kung Fu practitioners based in China. The first video clip posted caught my eye. It’s an old Praying Mantis Kung Fu form called Luan Jie performed by ‘Will’ who also runs the Monkey Steals Peach blog.

The description reads: “Luan Jie 乱接 is the oldest form recorded in Praying Mantis Kung Fu. It is made up of 36 Mother Techniques, the core of the system. Here, Will performs the Luan Jie form from the Taiji Mantis lineage of Zhou Zhen Dong.”

I’ve heard of this “Taiji Mantis” name before, but I’m unsure wether that’s Mantis influenced by Taijiquan, or whether just a coincidental naming convention. Either way, it’s a really nice performance, and I like the hooking techniques done with both the arms and legs.

 

There’s also this informative video about the use of the characteristic Mantis hooking hand (Gou Shou) in application: