Twisting root: Gripping the ground in Tai Chi

gray trunk green leaf tree beside body of water

Photo by Daniel Watson on Pexels.com

An interesting side point to my previous post on wrapping in the legs and the crotch dantien in Tai Chi is the subject of the feet and gripping the ground.

There’s an old adage that the Tai Chi practitioners of Chen village used to “tear up the sandbanks” of the river bank when they practiced their form there. This indicates how much force was being produced by the legs twisting.

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It’s often said in Tai Chi that your feet want to grip the ground. This is achieved by slightly raising the arch of the foot so the toes perform a clawing action that affords you improved stability, balance and grip.

The question is, how do you do it? It doesn’t sound very relaxed to ‘grip’ the ground with your toes,  and we all know that in Tai Chi we need to be Song (‘relaxed’).

In fact, the arch of the foot and the grip of the toes is achieved through softness, rather than hardness. The answer is found in the wrapping of the legs we mentioned earlier.

If you point your knees outwards slightly you create a kind of gentle wrapping in the legs as you move, and, if you let it, this wrapping will encourage the toes to grip the ground and the foot arch to form. Of course, it should be emphasised that the action of the knee pointing outwards is achieved not by pointing the knee itself, but by rounding the inner thigh area – the Dang, in Chinese. We covered this in that last post.

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The gripping action of the toes gives you better than normal balance, especially in one legged postures. If you’ve ever looked at a Tai Chi practitioner stand on one leg without wobbling and wondered how they do it, then look at their knee and see if it’s being gently pointed outwards. That’s usually the key.

There’s not really any point in seeking the extra stability this leg posture affords if you’re only practicing Tai Chi for health reasons, which is why “rounding the crotch” or gripping with the toes isn’t talked about much in styles that predominantly focus on health matters, but it should form part of martial Tai Chi Chuan. And indeed, if you are making this all happen using too much tension, then you might end up causing more harm than good, so buyer beware.

None of the postural considerations of Tai Chi should be achieved through tensing parts of the body. That’s the key. You need to walk the middle way between trying to make something happen too hard and not trying hard enough. That’s the enigma of Tai Chi.

grayscale photo of buddha statue

Photo by Ben Yi on Pexels.com

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Yang Lu Chan’s old house and Tai Chi in Yongnian

The Wu Yu Xiang style Tai Chi

I found this video recently of an old gentleman called Mr Han practicing his Tai Chi form in the courtyard in front of the old house of Yang Lu Chan (the founder of the Yang style, pictured top left) in Yongnian County, Hebei province.

The video says he’s practicing Wu Yu Xiang’s (1818-1880, pictured top right) varient of Tai Chi, but I don’t find his performance particularly typical of that style as it is usually presented with much smaller stances than he’s using. It’s possible of course that this is what an ‘older’ version of the style looked like. It’s more similar to what we know as Yang style today.

The Wikipedia take on Wu Yu Xiang was that he was a “scholar from a wealthy and influential family who became a senior student (along with his two older brothers Wu Chengqing 武澄清 and Wu Ruqing 武汝清) of Yang Luchan. Wu also studied for a brief time with a teacher from the Chen family, Chen Qingping, to whom he was introduced by Yang.”, which I think is accurate.

It’s interesting that he learned from Yang LuChan, but also went back to try and find the teacher that Yang learned from, presumably, to find out details he was missing, or simply out of curiosity. It turned out that Chen Changxing (Yang’s teacher) said he was too sick to teach and instead referred Wu to Chen Qingping who was living in Zhaobao (赵堡) village, just down the road. He studied with him for a few months. The whole thing does sound a bit like a brush off to me.

Also, I think we can assume that Wu financially supported the teachers he learned from, since he was wealthy. Here we can see the birth of the Ching Dynasty idea that a martial artist could earn a living purely from teaching these arts.

Wu, and his brothers, allegedly found the documents we now call the Tai Chi Classics in a salt cellar, however, I’d say it’s much more likely that they are the authors of these documents (which are really just a collection of old martial arts sayings), given that they were wealthy scholars. Especially since they definitely did author some other writings on Tai Chi themselves.

Wu taught his nephew Li Yi-Yu, who in turn taught Hao Weizhen (郝為真; 1842–1920) who was the person who made the style popular, so it is often called Hao Style.

The video above is the sort of Tai Chi form I associate with Wu Yu Xiang’s style today, but if we go back to the video taken outside Yang’s house in Yongnian, the Tai Chi starts at 54 seconds. If you notice Mr Han’s performance looks a lot more like Yang style.

If anything I think this just shows that the further you go away from the source of something, the more it inevitably changes. Tiny little changes, amplified by time, end up with big differences in the end results.

 

The history of Xingyi (a podcast series)

Xing Yi part 1

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Tang Dynasty soldiers

We’ve been building up to this episode of the Heretics podcast for a while, but we’ve finally got there. Here it is, the history of the martial art of Xing Yi, right from the very beginnings.

Damon heads back to the Tang Dynasty to dig into the historical conditions that gave rise to the Song Dynasty and influenced the eventual creation of Xingyi, specifically the An Lushan Rebellion (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/An_Lushan_Rebellion) and its disastrous consequences (some scholars have estimated that we lost a 6th of the world’s population! Although that figure remains controversial) and the subsequent rise of the Wen and Li traditions in the new Song Dynasty, and how this was going to influence the mother of a certain young commoner who hadn’t even been born yet, but whose name would come to be known throughout all of China – Yue Fei.

This is probably starting a lot further back than most people would imagine a history of Xingyi would begin, but we’re not in a rush – we’re going to do it right, placing everything in its historical context. Lots of detail and lots of depth.

I’ll update this post with each new episode.

Podcast Link:

https://www.spreaker.com/user/9404101/13-xing-yi-part-1

 

Xing Yi part 2

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Yue Fei being tattooed.

https://www.spreaker.com/user/9404101/14-xing-yi-part-2

In this episode the look at the early life of Yue Fei, some of the factors that link him to the Li Movement, the meaning of some of the symbolism surrounding him, and the reasons for the transition between the Northern Song and Southern Song Dynasties.

 

Xing Yi part 3

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Emperor Gaozong of the Song Dynasty.

 

https://www.spreaker.com/user/9404101/15-xing-yi-part-3

In part 3 of our series on Xing Yi, we look at how the Li movement influenced Yue Fei and other Song generals in formulating effective strategies for use against the Jin, and how they managed to challenge the previously unbeatable dominance of the Jin cavalry. We also discuss the rise to power of chancellor Chin Hui in the regime of Emperor Gaozong.

 

Xing Yi part 4

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https://www.spreaker.com/user/9404101/16-xing-yi-part-4

We come at last to the great general Yue Fei’s greatest victories, and ultimate betrayal and death – at the hands of corrupt officials on his own side.

Here’s the picture by Fan Kuan ‘Travelers amongst mountains and streams’ which gets a mention often:

Fan_Kuan_-_Travelers_Among_Mountains_and_Streams_-_Google_Art_Project

 

 

The Rainbow Bridge

Not strictly part of the series, but a whole episode about the industrial revolution of the Song Dynasty using the famous painting “Along the river at the Ching Ming festival” as a window into the past.

We return to China in the Song Dynasty, looking through the eyes of artist Zhang Zeduan at the vibrant economy that developed among the common people while their confucian rulers were distracted by external events, and the nascent Industrial Revolution that it gave rise to, which lasted until the early part of the Ming Dynasty.

https://www.spreaker.com/user/9404101/1 … bow-bridge

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The Rainbow Bridge

 

This link gives you access to the whole scroll to look at as you listen. It’s 17 foot long!

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Along_the … g_Festival

 

Xingyi Part 5

 

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Zhu Xi

In this episode we examine the work of the Confucian Scholar Zhu Xi, who lived during the time period we have reached in the narrative (during the Song Dynasty). His philosophy did not impact Xing Yi until centuries later, but when it did, the effect was a large one, so this episode sets the scene for other episodes to come.

Zhu Xi was responsible for what we call the “Woo Woo Tai Chi world view”. If you practice Tai Chi, or almost any of the Chinese martial arts that had input from the intellectual class, then you need to know about Zhu Xi, although you might not like what we’ve got to say about him

https://www.spreaker.com/user/9404101/20-xing-yi-part-5

Chen Ziming’s “The inherited Chen family Taiji Boxing art”.

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Paul Brennan has added a new selection of translations to the martial arts manuals contained on his website. This one is Chen Ziming’s “The inherited Chen family Taiji boxing art”.

Sample quote:

My colleague Chen Ziming is a native of the Chen Family Village in Henan and an expert of the Taiji boxing art. After many years of painstaking effort, he has written The Inherited Chen Family Taiji Boxing Art. A month ago, he begged me to proofread it and also to produce a preface. I read it carefully over the course of two weeks and could not help but slap the table in amazement. The Taiji boxing art is truly a means of connecting to the Way, which cannot be said about most other boxing arts. But unless you achieve a high level, you will not be capable of discussing its essentials.
This art as it is taught in modern times can be divided into about three styles: [1 – Chen] Chen Style Taiji is in a direct line of descent from the Chen family in Henan. [2 – Hao] Hao Weizhen taught Sun Lutang what is called “Open & Close Taiji”, but Hao Style was obtained from Wu Yuxiang, who had learned Chen Style. [3 – Yang] The Taiji that Yang Luchan studied was likewise taught to him by a member of the Chen family, Chen Changxing, and then Luchan taught it to his own sons, Banhou and Jianhou, and to this day his version is in fashion everywhere. All three of these versions actually originated from Chen Style. They have each evolved and been improved, and so they each have their differences.

Link.

Mongolian Wrestling

A new Heretics podcast episode is up that covers martial arts – specifically Mongolian Wrestling – which I thought you might like.

We cover Mongolian wrestling, culture, writing, language, rivalry with the Chinese, wrestling techniques, Sumo, the three ‘manly’ arts (which are also practiced by women) and female wrestlers.

“Mongolian Wrestling is one of the three warrior arts of the Naadam that originated from Genghis Khan and the Mongol Empire. In this episode we explore the history, techniques and links with Shamanism of this surprisingly extensive and complex art which has produced both Sumo grand champions and Judo gold medalists.”

https://www.spreaker.com/user/9404101/11-mongolian-wrestling

Here are some videos that go with the episode:

Mongolian Wrestling highlights:

Asashoryu, the famous Mongolian Sumo wrestler we mention:

 

Mongolia’s first gold medal in Judo at the Olympics from Naidangiin Tüvshinbayar, Beijing 2008:

 

D. Sumiya has won a gold medal in the 2017 World Judo Championships in Budapest, Hungary, becoming the first Mongolian female gold medalist at world judo championships:

Let’s explore the Mongolian national wrestling with Stephen Pera:

 

 

Know your history: The formation of China

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My Heretics podcast has done 3 episodes now on the history of ancient China. We’ve started with the Zhou, then into the warring states period that leads up to the formation of the Qin Dynasty. This is where you start to see a physical map of a Dynasty that actually looks like modern China.

Animated map of the warring states period from Wikipedia:

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Despite ambitions to reign for a thousand years, the Qin Dynasty ended up being very short, but dramatic and introduced the key rulership idea of Chinese Legalism. The Qin Emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi, was buried in a huge tomb which contained the now-famous Terracotta Warrior pictured above.

Here’s the episode:

The man who invented China

While Qin Shi Huangdi created China, he wasn’t liked by the people.  The hardline approach of Legalism didn’t have what it took to hold a geographic area of that size together and his dynasty ended pretty quickly after his death. The next dynasty, the Han Dynasty lead China into its golden age, introducing modern economics in the process. One of the reasons for the success of the Han that it changed government style, introducing something called the Han Synthesis, which enabled people to practice different religious or philosophical traditions at the same time.

The Han Dynasty saw several conflicts with the invading Xiongnu from the North, in the area we call Mongolia now.

hanmap

Here are the episodes:

The Han dynasty (part 1)

The Han dynasty (part 2)

 

 

Xu Xiaodong is back in high thrills Bird Box challenge

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I’ve blogged about Xu Xiaodong before – he’s the infamous MMA coach from China who rose to fame by taking on self-styled ‘masters’ of the traditional martial arts and challenging them to actually fight in a ring. The results are as expected – he wipes the floor with all of them.

Chinese martial arts contains many practitioners who have legitimate fighting skills, but the number of imposters is, sadly, huge, so generally, I’m quite in favour of what he’s doing. It’s surprisingly easy to set yourself up as a master of the traditional arts and start teaching people any old thing without ever having tested your moves in a fighting situation. These people need to be called out and I’m glad he’s doing it, but he gets a lot of criticism for only taking on people who are clearly deluded about their own martial ability, and also because these guys are not really ‘masters’ of anything. The government got involved and at one point and I feared we might never see Xu again, but as the most recent video from China shows, it seems like he’s still going, this time up against a man whose only redeeming feature as a fighter is his ability to take a beating.

It’s not clear what style the man is supposed to be represented, but his actions are clearly being hampered by the bandage they apply to his face in the first round, which results in him pretty much fighting blind for the rest of it. Talk about a Bird Box challenge!

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Xu spends most of the match looking board and letting the other guy hit him without it having any effect at all while destroying his opponent’s left leg with low kicks (the guy has some very nasty bruises on his leg visible at the end). Once Xu has had enough of destroying the leg he ends the whole thing with one well-placed knee strike, and that was all she wrote.

And before Xu gets accused of beating up on an older guy, I believe this challenge was instigated by the traditional martial artist. Xu is also not a young guy.

 

Qin Shi Huangdi, the man who created China.

In the last episode of the Heretics podcast for 2019 from Damon and I, we look at the deeds of Qin Shi Huangdi, the man who created China.

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“Qin Shi Huangdi’s name, Qin (Chin), is the origin of the word China, and with good reason – he was the man who unified the states that collectively formed China. A vicious madman, his dynasty lasted for only about 15 years, but set the tone and structure of China’s civilisation for more than two thousand years.”

Topics covered also include Taoism, Confucianism, Chinese Legalism and military tactics.

Natural structures in Tai Chi

I spent my lunch hour practicing Tai Chi with the leaves falling around me, which made me realise that Autumn is definitely here. Practicing under the trees also made me think about the strong parallel between the postures of Tai Chi and the structures of nature.

Take trees for example – the branches grow upwards and outwards:

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

If you look at the postures of a Tai Chi form you can see the same ‘outwards and upwards’ structures:

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Animals have the same quality too. The horns on a deer are a good example:

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

But the alert, ready posture of most animals (when they’re not sleeping) also mirrors this:

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The spine is always extended, the eyes engaged and the posture directed upwards and outwards.

The following is a Yang Tai Chi form video. Notice that his body structure is always opening outwards and upwards:

So why do we do this in Tai Chi? Well, natural structures are inherently strong structures. Nature has been working on trees, plants and animals for millions of years, and they have evolved into strong shapes that can take a battering from the elements and survive. In terms of postural considerations of Tai Chi we are aiming to mimic natural structures to take advantage of their inherent strength. For example, with the arms, the elbow is usually kept below the wrist in Tai Chi, when the hand is going up and outwards, this enables your arm to create the same sort of shape as a tree branch that grows outwards and upwards.

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If you collapse the structure of your arms – say, close your joints like the elbows and shoulders too much, you don’t get this effect of mimicking natural structures. Instead, the structure needs to be supported by more muscle usage if it is going to withstand pressure.

Think also of stretching the ‘body suit’ of skin, fascia, tendons. If you bend the joints too sharply you lose the stretch from feet to toes. If you look at a picture of a fower, plant or tree, it looks kind of ‘stretched out’, doesn’t it?

selective focus photo of cherry blossom

Photo by Tim Gouw on Pexels.com

There’s a lot to learn from nature.

 

The whole Chen Tai Chi curriculum, in video form

Well, this page is interesting. It’s from Bosco Baek (and some of Bosco’s students) who is based in Los Angeles, USA, and from the looks of things, and it looks like a video reference for the whole Chen style Taijiquan curriculum!

https://chenbing.org/videos

Chen Bing Taiji Academy (陳炳太極院) was established by Master Chen Bing who is a 20th generation representative of Chen Family Taijiquan.   Its headquarter is located in Chenjiagou, Wenxian County, Henan Province, China. – the birth place of Taijiquan.  Master Chen Bing is a direct descendant of Chen Wangting (陳王廷), the creator of Taijiquan.

That’s very generous of him to share these videos. It’s fascinating. Things I’ve noticed so far:

  1. The advanced stepping and silk reeling he shows shares a lot of similarities with Bagua (the tea cups-style exercises of Bagua Zhang are obviously silk reeling exercises, so this should be no surprise, but it’s the first time I’ve seen a Chen guy walking a circle, like they do in Bagua).
  2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j8JBxWQz3bg
  3. The advanced push hands videos look a lot like ‘wrestling without being allowed to grab the legs’. Looks like good basic training in stand-up grappling:
  4. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gjiw-JAl9YI
  5. The ‘primary explosive power’ video combines all the basic ‘fa jing’ moves you find in the Chen ‘old frame’ form into a nice little sequence:
  6. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LqcFfZaYPYA
  7. There’s a Yoga sequence at the end! Obviously he finds that a useful addition to Tai Chi. More weight to the idea that the primary origins of the ideas of body movement in Tai Chi and Yoga originate from the same source (or at least are compatible).
  8. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FXT67_vgncw