The Forgotten Style: Moral Art!

This is a guest post written by Justin Ford  of Cup of Kick (cupofkick.wordpress.com) a great martial arts blog you might like to check out.

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Close your eyes. Now imagine the best student ever:  They are always on time. They always take notes.

They absolutely LOVE learning. They ask really thought provoking questions that lead to even more learning. They work hard, in class and outside of class.

Just keep thinking about how amazing they are. Are you ready to teach them?

Oh, but…I forgot to mention something. They have a couple of flaws: They are arrogant and egotistical.

They are always bragging and showing off. They never show respect. Heck, are their lips staying closed together when somebody else is teaching or talking? They tell lies and are hard to trust because of it. They really couldn’t care less about anybody other than themselves.

Not so perfect now, are they? In the beginning, they sure sounded like an angel that fell from heaven. If their traits ended there, they would learn lots in life, both academically and martially. I mean, who wants to teach an A-hole? Not many people would, happily. Especially not somebody who is teaching because it is sharing a passion of theirs, not so that they can take tuition money.

Most teachers would agree that rather than new knowledge and skills, lesson number ichi would be about respect and proper conduct. Especially if the skills they would be learning are ones they can potentially use to harm another being.

That’s not to say that it would just be the teacher denying them new knowledge though. A bad student stunts their own growth as well. An arrogant mind learns very little.

Let’s turn our eyeballs to feudal Japan and the code of conduct the warriors of that era kept. Bushido.

HEADS UP: Keep in mind that these tenets were never written down and that you will see a different number of them depending on where you look.

If you look at Nitobe Inazo’s famous book published in 1900, Bushido: The Soul of Japan, you will hear about eight tenets of bushido. If you look into other texts that are older, you might only see seven.

A major part of these principles is that they were naturally absorbed into the Samurai class and always expected of them. Therefore they really didn’t need to be written down to remind them of how they were expected to act.

Regardless of the number, each is an important principle that the Samurai were expected to uphold, so let’s take a look at how they lived.

義 (Gi: Righteousness)

The top half is a radical (building blocks for the character) for ram. That might sound like some bull-sheep but rams in China (where the writing character originated) not only represented justice but also frequently represented respect because of the way they often kneel.

The character for ram can also be combined with the character for “big” to mean beautiful. The bottom half of the character means I/me/my and can be used when talking about ourselves, but can also be separated to mean a hand and a spear or a halberd. In a poetic sense, we can picture finding the path of beauty or respect even amongst conflict or struggle.

Even while fighting or arguing, I don’t sweat, I sparkle.

There is even a mythological unicorn-goat in ancient China called Xiezhi that can always tell who is innocent and who is guilty, kicks criminal bootie and – depending on where you hear the legend – even chomps down on the bad guys. Read that sentence again and just let the words sink in.

No matter where we are or what is happening around us, as martial artists we need to uphold our morality and always do what is righteous. Seek justice in the small acts and large acts we perform in our life.

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勇気 (Yu Ki: Courage)

The top half of the first character can mean path and the bottom half can mean power. They come together to characterize bravery, or perhaps the path of strength. Understand, that the character for bravery is only a piece of the character for courage or valor.

Bravery is a characteristic of somebody, an attitude. They are willing to be the hero and do what others may be fearful of. Courage is different.

Courage is when somebody is just as afraid as everybody else but accepts what they need to do anyway, whether for personal reasons or for somebody else’s benefit and health.

Did you ever watch the cartoon from the early 2000’s called Courage the cowardly dog? It was about a purple dog that was absolutely afraid of just about everything around it. But when his owners got in trouble, he acted to save them anyway. That’s the kind of courage we are building up to etymologically. That purple dog kind of courage.

The second character can actually be written a couple different ways. The Japanese version is what I listed above. The traditional Chinese version would be 氣 . The character is composed of the radical for uncooked rice and steam.

Stick with me now. I promise I haven’t gone too crazy.

There is a connection between courage and cooking rice. Pinky promise.  You see, the two radicals for the last character combine to mean a lot of different things: steam, air, gas, and more. It’s pronounced “ki” in Japanese and “qi” or “chi” in Chinese.

Yep.

The same “mystical” ki us martial artists always make a big deal about. It simply means energy. Not in an “ooooooollld chinese secret!” manner, but rather in a scientific way. The steam rising off of rice. That can be looked upon in a lot of different ways, philosophically and otherwise, but we’ll cover that in a later blog post.

To sum it all up, the two character together can represent the energy to be brave. Being brave while facing down somebody trying to brunoise dice you takes effort. It takes energy. It takes ki.

仁 (Jin: Benevolence)

I love this character! So. Much. If you wanted to describe benevolence, how would you do it? It takes some thinking but it is actually a lot simpler than one might think. There are two parts to this character. The radical on the left which represent man in the general humanity sense. The other radical (the two horizantal lines) means two.

Jin, benevolence, is the connection between two humans beings. It is how we treat the people around us, whether they are a hobo or a Hollywood celebrity. It represents what unites two people living on this planet earth together.

I suppose it should extend to a visiting alien or ghostly spirit as well though…

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禮 (Rei: Respect)

“REI!”

Admit it.

You just bowed, didn’t you?

Plenty of martial arts, especially Japanese ones, know rei to mean show respect. Let dive into the meaning a little further though.

The character is composed of two different radicals:

 

  • Abundance or plentiful
  • Demonstrate or manifest

 

Together, they are seen to represent a plentiful sacrifice for a ritual or ceremony. An act done in reverence and respect for somebody or something. An act that has importance. I find it worth noting that the modern simplified character (simplified Chinese came to existence around 1950’s) uses the radical for mysterious/small. The small things we do should be treated as a part of a rite with importance. Respect should be shown in every action we demonstrate and word we speak.

 

誠 (Makoto: Sincerity)

Half of the character is a radical meaning words or speech (it represents a mouth with a tongue sticking out or sounds coming out). The other half means complete or finished.  Together, we get “the complete speech”. Nothing hidden. Nothing left out with ill will.

Every martial artist (as well as decent human) should thoroughly practice integrity in their everyday living. Your students need to be able to trust you. Your classmates should be able to believe you. Your words, actions, and intents should never misalign.

This only becomes more important as the amount of McDojos increase around the world. Remain honest and sincere.

Perhaps most importantly though, you should be able to be honest with yourself.

Don’t pretend your favorite technique is invulnerable. Don’t make up an answer to your student’s question because you don’t know the answer. Admit when you make a mistake. Only then can you begin to really learn and grow.

Learning something new means admitting you didn’t know something before.

There is an unfortunate disease that spreads through any top level athlete or artist: ego. And that ego often leads to a lack of integrity in ourselves.

  • “Oh, I didn’t finish Bassai Dai perfectly because I’m just still tired from yesterday’s workout!”
  • “I could have beaten that guy in sparring but I wanted to go easy on him.”
  • “The other guy won the tournament because of favoritism from the judges!”

Just as we strive to be honest to the people around us, let’s be honest to the person inside us.

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名譽 (Meiyo: Honor)

The first character means position or rank/place (in the manner of where you stand among winners. 1st place, 3rd place, etc.) and can be broken down to mean…evening and mouth.

Y’know, it actually kinda makes sense.

I don’t know about you but I’m not getting out of the bed in the middle of the night unless the person calling my name is somebody really important. My dog and my teacher would get very different reactions to calling me and interrupting my beauty sleep.

The second character means praise or reputation. Break it down and you get “the words one carries on their shoulders”.

You can put the two characters together to mean “a position that is praised or carries a reputation” My question is this: Where does your reputation start?

Does your title give you meaning or are you the one giving it worth and weight?

Meditate on this deeply.

 

忠義 (Chu Gi: Loyalty)

This is another set of characters that can be viewed in a very poetic and beautiful way. The first character has two parts, heart and middle. It means devotion, something your heart is centered on.

The next character means righteousness. Yep. The same character we talked about at the beginning.

Remember? Man-eating justice obsessed unicorn goat? Yeah, we’ll just keep it moving.

Together, they can mean devotion to justice. It is interesting to note that the righteousness character can also mean adopted. We can also view this as staying devoted to the what and who we adopt.

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What’s important to remember is that being a good person leads to being a good student and a good martial artist because of it (in addition to many other reasons).

If you teach kids classes, then that is one of the most important lessons you can teach. Heck, it applies to grown adults as well.

Martial arts are about living, not just surviving.

I don’t know about you but I don’t have a guy around the corner trying to punch me or stab me every minute of my waking day. I can’t recall but hopefully not in my sleeping nights either.

The part of your martial arts training that you get to use most is the moral and ethical side. Every day, we have to make decisions about how we act and just like most anything else, we can train to improve.

Ethics along with ability is such a universal idea that it is even prominent in other cultures and arts, not just in the east where respect is an inherent part of the country:

  • Chinese martial arts have a similar code of conduct called Wu De
  • European knights had chivalry
  • The pirates of the 17th and 18th century commonly had Articles of Agreement on how to conduct themselves
  • The Bible lists the Ten Commandments
  • Ancient Rome had the Corpus Juris Civilis Or Body of Civil Law
  • The medical field has the Hippocratic Oath
  • Modern courts in the US go by Common Law

 

It doesn’t matter what your “power” is, you have a responsibility to not abuse it.

It is a gift. Not just a powerful weapon.

 

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The legend, BJ Penn

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Really nice article by Jack Slack on MMA and Jiujitsu legend BJ Penn.

There have been few falls from grace as ugly and lengthy as that of BJ Penn. Nobody who knows the game is hung up on his 16-10 record, he has nothing to prove to anyone who knows their onions in that regard. It is simply that Penn spent so many years being in many ways remarkable, in a few ways wanting, and continued to drag out his attempts to find the mythical ‘motivated BJ Penn’ rather than addressing the actual issues in his game.

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:

 

 

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 😦