The boxing is tightly reeled

The Classic of Fighting is part of Yue Fei’s 10 Thesis, a collection of works also known as the Xing Yi Classics. (I once got into a bit of a tiff about these documents being attributed to Chen Changxin in error, but that’s another story.)

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The Classic of Fighting is one of the more practical works in the classics, and contains some fascinating insights on martial matters. Amongst the verse is this part:

“The outstanding person boxes through freely releasing technique. It is also useful if the boxing is tightly reeled using Qi in the haft grip”. 

The translation I’m using here is by my teacher Damon Smith and Shan Gao, and is reproduced in full in Xing Yi Quan, A study of Tai and Tuo Xing by Glen Board.

“Haft” here refers to the bit of the spear that you hold, but the same thing applies to holding a sword by the handle.

Later on in the classic it expands on what using Qi in the haft grip means:

“When the haft is gripped, this grip is done with the whole body; when one thing extends the whole body extends. The key to extending is to gain extension in the entrance; the key to the grip is to gain the grip from the root, as if coiling explosively. The coiling should become tight, like the power that exists in the bow at full draw.”

I really like this description as it gets across the feeling that needs to develop with the sword or spear as you use it day in, day out. So when it says “the coiling should become tight” I think it means over time. When you grip, it becomes like your whole body gripping the weapon, and if you want to move the weapon you have to move your whole body in a coiling manner. In fact, the best way to manipulate a weapon with your whole body is using reeling – spiral actions that move inwards and outwards. Our bodies are built for spiral movements. 

It’s also worth noting that the coiling is not done slowly, but explosively, although I’d suggest starting to find these coiling movements slowly and without using force first. If you want a simple exercise for developing coiling movements, then I’ve got one of those as well.

The other thing I wanted to mention before I go was the use of the word “boxing” here. Boxing would imply empty hand martial arts, but it instantly goes on to talk about a “haft grip”, which implies weapons. It’s long been said that Xing Yi is a spear fighting art that is done mainly bare hand. The clear references to weapons in its classics would seem to confirm this theory.

Anti-vax jokers are everywhere in martial arts

Be careful who you train with, because anti-vax jokers are everywhere in martial arts.

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The COVID 19 pandemic has had a devastating effect on the world economy, and it’s been equally as bad on martial arts practice. Chinese martial arts have proved more resistant to complete collapse because the majority of the training can be done solo. Taolu or ‘forms’ are prevalent and can all be done outdoors and socially distanced, and on Zoom. Things like BJJ however have really suffered, since it requires close contact. A solo drill version of BJJ is really just an exercise class. 

Now there is talk of a vaccine for COVID 19, and maybe before Christmas. The vaccine has the potential to return us to ‘normal’ in the martial arts. At least we’ll be able to train together safely again. You’d think that would be great news for martial artists, but now I’m noticing just how many of my martial arts associates won’t take a vaccine, because they are complete anti-vax nut cases. Sorry! I mean “vaccine hesitant”. Yes, that’s what we have to call them now.

All the conspiracy theories, stuff about Bill Gates wanting to microchip the world, COVID being made up, it all being a plan-demic, etc, it’s all, 100%, posted on my Facebook feed by martial artists, not by the other people I’m friends with.

For example, there’s one kung fu teacher I had from around 30 years ago, who I really respected, who has turned out to be a full on anti-vaxxer. He hasn’t even got his child immunised against measles because “I believe in Chinese medicine”. Well, that’s nice for you (man), but you’re putting weak, old and vulnerable people at risk from a killer disease because you have chosen to ignore science and not to get your child immunised against a potentially fatal disease. Your child might be healthy and fine, but they can pass it on to somebody who is recovering from cancer treatment and has a weakened immune system. But you don’t really give a crap about that do you? You’re too busy jabbing yourself with acupuncture needles and drinking herbs to care.

Next time you break a limb, just put some crystals on it. Job done.
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As you can tell, it makes me angry. So, apologies, but I’m going to go on a bit of a rant. 

There’s a reason nobody has polio anymore. We had a vaccine, and enough people took it that we achieved a herd immunity. The less people that take a vaccine the less effective it is overall, which is why measles is making a comeback in parts of the UK and the US.

“But we don’t know the long term effects!”

Hey, guess what, nobody knew the long term effects of any vaccine. It’s not like these new vaccines haven’t been tested – that’s all they’ve been doing to them. Testing them over and over to make sure they’re safe. History has told us that bad side effects happen within 2 weeks of taking a new vaccine, or generally not at all. Nothing is 100% risk free, and nobody is saying it is, but it’s all about balancing the risks. 

Perhaps it’s social media, and the sorts of idiots who post links and make youtube videos packed full of conspiracy theories that are to blame. But it’s the people who think watching them counts as “research” that are the problem. And why do so many marital arts people specifically succumb to this? That, I don’t know. They seem particularly vulnerable to strange beliefs. It probably explains why martial arts cults exist and why kung fu masters in China keep getting beaten up by a middle aged MMA guy.


And before you hit the reply button with “Yeah, but what about..” Just don’t. It’s your very whataboutism that is part of the problem. You spread confusion about vaccines every time you post these things – you’re part of the problem. Please stop it!

Anyway, rant over. 

Wait until you hear my crazy Baguazhang-Eagle-Dance/Archery theory

I find talking – as in real talking, not discussion forum kind of talking – with other martial artists always inspires some great thoughts. Recently, I was having a chat about some Eagle movements in Xing Yi and my venerable discussion partner noted that they were very similar to the Eagle Dance that Mongolian wrestlers do before a match.

Eagle dance.

My friend noted that the arm positions in the eagle dance are also quite similar to a lot of the arm positions in Baguazhang’s circle walking, like this one:

Baguazhang performed by Master Zhang Hong Mei.

Obviously, the performance is not exactly the same – the eagle dance can have music or a drum beat, but often doesn’t. However, music or not, it does have a rhythm, a beat, which are all things usually lacking in performances of Baguazhang. But Baguazhang does look a bit like a dance. It’s wonderfully twisty, mobile and changeable, but the Mongolian Wrestling dance is so much freer, it’s done with a smile, it’s clearly about having a good time. In contrast, Baguazhang is much more dower and serious. You could almost say it’s as close to dance as you could get if weren’t allowed to actually dance. You’re certainly not supposed to be smiling or showing emotions. I’m going to steal my friend’s hilarious comment about Baguazhang circle walking: “It’s almost like, ‘I want to boogie, but my Confucian culture won’t let me!‘”. 🙂

(As a side note, he also told me a theory about why there is no syncopation in classical Chinese music – it’s because in ‘ancient times’ drums were used to whip up the armies of the various tribes into a kind of pre-battle fighting trance, and when they wanted to unite the Han dynasty, they had to stop the tribes fighting. So, syncopation was removed from the music. I’ve got no proof for this theory, so just take it as an interesting idea, but banning drums it does sound exactly like the sort of thing Confucians would do.)

And that brings me onto my crazy Baguazhang/Mongolian Wresting/Archery theory. Dong Haichuan, the founder of Baguazhang and Yin Fu – his main student, spent 10 years together in Mongolia collecting taxes for Prince Su. This would have been during our Victorian times, so you can get an idea of the time period. Back in China the Dowager Empress Cixi sat on the throne in the Forbidden City.

10 years is a long time, and I find it impossible to believe that, being keen martial artists, that Dong and Yin didn’t have at least some exposure to Mongolian wrestling and/or religious practices, like Eagle dance, and that it could very well be reflected in the content of Baguazhang. I also wonder what all that exposure to a different culture to their own did for them.

Mill stone posture

Let’s look at another popular motif found in Baguazhang, the Mill store posture”.

Baguazhang performed by Master Zhang Hong Mei.

The key feature of the ‘mill stone posture’ is that the upper body and lower body are twisted away from each other in opposite directions as you walk the circle. If you’ve watched a lot of videos of Mongolian martial arts then it might remind you of something…

Another of the “manly arts” of Mongolian culture is horseback archery, which includes the ability to shoot an arrow behind you – the famous Parthian Shot, a horseback archery technique of feining a retreat then turning and shooting behind you 180 degrees once the enemy commit to chasing you.

Parthian Shot

The millstone standing posture of Baguazhang looks (to me) like some sort of training method for the Parthian Shot.

Here’s a video example of it being trained as a drill in Baguazhang:

Dong He Chuan was inside the imperial palace starting in 1864, the ruling Manchu’s (from the North) still had horseback archery as part of the military service exam. Is the simiarity of many Baguazhang postures to Mongolian martial arts a coincidence, or not? Who can say. The historical connection between Dong and Mongolia is there though.

And to finish things off, here’s a funny video I made with my kids when they were little. I wanted to boogie, but my kids wouldn’t let me! Ah, I miss those days, but I don’t miss the disturbed nights 🙂

Bagua circle waking with multiple attackers:

Take it outside

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Another thing that sword practice does is force you to practice outside. Practicing martial arts outside is not something that’s popular in the UK. Village halls and sports centres across the land resound to the sound of a million “Ki-ah!”s, but if you practice martial arts outside you are instantly branded a weirdo.

If people in the UK see you practicing martial arts outside they shout stuff at you, or do a Bruce Lee impression. It seems to be part of our culture. It’s not like this in other countries. Inner Mongolia is a great example – its indigenous wrestling culture stretches back to caveman times, and is still practiced to this day outside on the grass.

“Inner Mongolians live a simple life that’s rich in human connection, connection with the earth and sky. This is something that wrestling brings us closer to.”

Sadly, today not only is Mongol language and culture under threat from the Chinese state, of which Inner Mongolia is a region, but wrestling itself is also under threat. As the Monogol language, identity and culture is destroyed, so people lose motivation to wrestle.

As this article on Bloody Elbow says:

“Em adds their thoughts to this with, “Mongols all over, especially the Mongols in the grasslands and the smaller towns, are depressed and sad. There’s a hanging feeling of hopelessness. It’s made wrestling difficult to do. People aren’t motivated to train, nor are they mentally focused. Their thoughts are elsewhere, which distracts you from having that ‘feeling’ during a match. Yet, the show must go on and a few Naadam have happened recently and it’s allowed wrestlers to get back to competing, uniting, and sharing a common goal of keeping their culture alive. Wrestling is one way to do this. Winter Training began in October and there is an even greater push to spread the art and culture internationally too.””

But the outlook does not look good.

“There is no doubt that if the PRC continues its forced assimilation of Mongolian culture, that this wrestling art will become forever changed. In turn, it can also impact the competitive landscape of Sumo, Judo, Shuai Jiao, Freestyle, and others. Bökh is simply too intertwined within what it means to be Mongolian, for the sport to not feel massive ramifications from cultural turmoil and forced influences from outside traditions.”

But to get back to weapons. Weapons make you practice outside, so you discover your own connection to earth and sky. Just try swinging a sword around inside for 5 minutes and you realise why.

Of course, in the UK it rains a lot. I find that I’m ok with practicsing fast moving arts like Xing Yi sword outside in the rain. It doesn’t seem to bother me. Slow moving Tai Chi forms in the rain however are miserable, and as for Zhan Zhuang standing practice – forget it. 

When it’s raining, that stuff belongs in the Ger.

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BJJ as therapy: Martial Arts Studies journal, issue 10 out now

Issue 10 of the (free) Martial Arts Studies journal is out now. This issue marks a 5 year anniverary for the journal. You should read it and support it, because it’s the most important journal we have for martial arts, and if, like me, you’re back in some sort of lockdown, what else are you going to do with your time? 🙂

Find out what’s in issue 10 at the Kung Fu Tea blog.

Amongst the delights contained within is a great article by my friend/teacher/student/Professor/Sifu/Guru Paul Bowman about finding Brazilian Jiujitsu (BJJ), falling in love with it and then having to give it up because of the COVID 19 Pandemic. It contains some great insights into why we practice martial arts there.

Here’s a quote that caught my interest:

“Since every challenging BJJ roll produces the feeling of a fight for life, the end of a session is like the aftermath of a near-death experience, with all of the attendant exhaustion, elation, and camaraderie that goes along with surviving such encounters. A BJJ saying goes, ‘if you don’t roll, you don’t know’. This has a range of possible meanings, but prime among them is that those who have never trained BJJ cannot begin to grasp its appeal, its feel, and its profound psychological and emotional effects. In a very real sense, BJJ can easily be regarded as a kind of therapy. The question is one of who it is that needs BJJ as therapy, and why.”

The contemporary condition (whether figured as modern or postmodern) has often been characterised as one permeated by sedentary media consumption, work-stress, insecurity, work/life imbalance, information overload, consumerism and indoor living. The so-called ‘developed’, ‘Western’ world of consumer societies, neoliberal policies and deregulated economies, are acknowledged to be the cradle of ‘diseases of affluence’. Part of the background noise of this environment is generalised anxiety.
One biological feature of chronic anxiety has been said to involve the constant low-level ‘running’ or ‘leaking’ of aspects of the sympathetic nervous system – manifesting in the anxiety-sufferer’s inability to ‘switch off’ feelings of stress and anxiety [Nestor 2020]. Activities that directly stress the mind and body – such as intense exercise and extreme experiences – have been connected with ‘correcting’ this constant ‘leak’. The argument is that they may do so by, in a sense, giving the body a dose of ‘real’ (physical and/or psychological) stress, which thereby ‘reminds’ the body what stress actually looks and feels like. This thereby allows the organism to ‘recalibrate’ and switch off anxiety-producing chemicals in the absence of ‘real’ physical stressors [McKeown 2015; Nestor 2020]. Short-term, low-level doses of the kinds of stimulation that would cause lasting damage or even death in prolonged exposure is called hormesis, or hormetic stress [Hof 2020].”

Great stuff.

Threading into one – Shen Fa and weapons

Day 3 of my experiment with switching my training around so that weapons (specifically sword) are the mainstay of my practice, and changes are already happening.

Today I want to talk about Shen Fa, which translates as “body method”. You could call it whatever you want really, but it just means “the way you move”. Xing Yi has a very detailed Shen Fa and in bare hand practice you have to make your body do it. In contrast, using a sword almost teases it out of the body. The key to Xing Yi Shen Fa is learning to use your body as a coordinated whole. If you start “using your arm” and muscling it, then nothing seems to work as it should.

As it says in the Xing Yi Classics:

“(When) the top wishes to move, the bottom automatically follows. The bottom wishes to move, the top will automatically lead. (When) the top and the bottom move, the center section will attack. (When) the center section moves, the top and the bottom will coordinate. Internal and external are combined, the front and the rear mutually required. This is what is called “threading into one.”

You could say that the sword forces you to do this threading, by using your whole body to do each move. I mentioned before that my teacher emphasised using a heavy sword, and that is part of the reason why. (The other is that this style of sword is for going through armour, but that’s another topic).

I’m focussing on just one Xing Yi animal for my practice at the moment – Bear Eagle. It’s quite a lengthy ‘form’ by Xing Yi standards (although much shorter than a typical Chinese sword forms”), so there are lots of variation in the moves involved. In Xing Yi you’re free to do the forms fast – in fact, sometimes, the faster the better. That means you need to “flick”, “jab” and “swoosh” (I’ll spare you the technical terms!) a pretty heavy sword through lots of very quick techniques. If you are using your body in an uncoordinated way then it’s simply not possible to control a heavy sword at speed with momentum and with the accuracy required.

I noticed that an older post of mine on the Principles of XinYi seems to have generated a lot of interest lately. While Xin Yi and Xing Yi have evolved to have a different look, they are both rooted in the same idea of threading into one, which originated from spear use.

Incidentally, I’ve decided to focus on sword not spear for my weapons practice – I’ll go over why another time, but one reason is that I don’t own a long enough spear. Needs must when the Devil drives hard!

Sword as your main practice

Sorry there haven’t been many blog posts lately. I just didn’t feel inspired to write anything, and when I don’t feel inspired, following the Tai Chi principle, I don’t like to force it.

Something has got me back into writing recently though. I was having a conversation with a friend about Chinese marital arts and specifically weapons, and I thought – ‘well, instead of trying to describe things in words, I can just show you this on Zoom’, and I ended up teaching part of a sword form. What a time to be alive! It’s great that we can do this. When I started martial arts there was no such thing as the Internet, and if you couldn’t make it to see your teacher all you got was the occasional crappy VHS tape to learn from. Now we can Zoom between continents in seconds. I love the spontaneity of it.

As usual, the process of having to teach something means you get as much out of it as the person learning – you have to riffle out your old memory box, and then practice it hard enough so that it’s polished back up to a decent level before you teach it. I’d definitely put my Xing Yi sword on the back burner to focus on other things since lockdown began back in March, so getting back into it was an absolute pleasure. I miss the physicality of it, and the subtlety.

What occurred to me is that we (the general corpus of Chinese martial arts practitioners) tend to practice bare hand as our main art, then tack on weapons as an afterthought. Historically (and I’m generalising here, but stick with me), it was always the other way around. Our precious bare hand forms are actually more recent things, tacked on the end of weapons systems. Wing Chun practitioners, for example, spend most of their form training time practicing Siu Lim Tao, not butterfly knives. This got me thinking… what happens if we swap it back to the way it used to be? 

What if, instead of heading outdoors to do Chi Kung, Tai Chi practice and Kung Fu each morning,  I instead picked up my sword and did sword routines, then tacked on a few barehand bits on at the end if I’ve got time?

I’m going to experiment with this idea for a couple of weeks and see how it feels. 

What I usually find is that practicing barehand does nothing for your sword practice, but practicing with a sword doesn’t seem to knock back your bare hand practice as much as you think it would: It’s much easier to transition from weapon to bare hand, than it is to transition from bare hand to weapon.

Even after a couple of days I can feel the physical difference. My forearms and wrists ache a bit from lack of conditioning. The sword I use is quite heavy – 800 grams, I think – and it’s a replica of a Ming Dynasty sword, hand made by Tigers Den in the UK. It’s great. I’ve put some tape over the handle, because it was slipping in the cold weather. That might ruin the esthetic, but at least it makes it look like a “used” weapon, rather than something that you hang on the wall.

Anyway, back to Zoom. Of course, as soon as I stepped outside to wave my sword around it started raining. This is Britain, after all. However I managed to get my laptop somewhere dry enough that it was only me getting wet, not the machine, and taught a few moves. It all went rather well I think. We’re going to do it again this week.

The whole thing brought back a lot of memories about practicing Xing Yi sword in the rain somewhere in a field back in the “naughties”, as the 2000s was called. My teacher used to be very into practicing outdoors in nature, and his mood positively lifted the worse the weather got and the further away from other people we got! There’s something to be said for not giving in to nature and working with it, no matter what it throws at you.

But, anyway, I think having the sword as your main “thing”, rather than it existing on the periphery of your practice, could lead to some interesting results. I’ll experiement and see. Let me know what you think, or if you’re doing something similar.

Edward Hines and Scott Park Phillips Discussing Tai Chi, Baguazhang and The Golden Elixir

Scott P Phillips is one of the few authors discussing the link between Chinese martial arts and Chinese Opera (also called Chinese Theatre).

I find his ideas intellectually fascinating. But, for many martial arts people he goes too far in the sense of seeing this one idea in almost everything to do with Chinese martial arts. You could say that in terms of taking the ball and running with it, he does tend to kick it out of the park (sorry) completely 🙂

Is that a fair summation of Scott’s work? Probably not. Part of the problem I think is that the world where theatre was the big entertainment of the day in China, and was simultaneously connected to religion and martial arts, has long since disappeared. From today’s standpoint it’s hard to imagine it even existed. Also, words like “theatre” and “opera” in the West have distinctly different cultural baggage attached to them already, so it’s almost impossible for us to see them as they actually were, free of our cultural biases.

So, that’s why I was pleased to see this interview with him and Ed Hines where Ed gets to ask Scott some basic questions about his theories. Ed is a Baguazhang practitioner based in Paris and he asks some of the more “down to earth” questions that need to be addressed by Scott before he can take us on his magical mystery tour. Have a listen:

Why so many grappling styles stop when things go to the ground

If you throw your opponent to the ground in almost all of the old, traditional folk wrestling styles then you win. That’s it. Game over. To modern day martial artists that seems very odd, as we’re now all used to seeing MMA and BJJ fights on the ground, sometimes lasting minutes. But in olden times, if your shoulders touched the ground or you were pinned (or some version thereof), it was all over.

Why is that?*

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You’ll find the answer in the latest episode of the Sonny Brown Breakdown in which he interviews Ruadhán MacFadden of the Hero with a Thousand Holds podcast.

“I talk to Ruadhán MacFadden. He runs a project titled The Hero with a Thousand Holds which looks at the culture and practice of folk wrestling styles around the world. In particular the people and places that the styles have emerged from and not just the techniques which they used. We discuss some of the mythology and culture behind these styles and what the future holds for them. And we get into some of the particulars of Icelandic Glima and Irish Collar and Elbow Wrestling and Scuffling.”

* Ok,I’ll tell you the answer, (or one of the possible answers anyway). Wrestling between males (and sometimes females) was often used as a form of socialisation, and entertainment in tightly knight communities, or as a way of settling disputes without recourse to serious violence. Killing valuable members harmed the community’s chances of long term survival. In any case, there was nothing to be gained for the community from people getting seriously hurt either, so there had to be a simple way of declaring a winner without things escalating to the point that somebody was bludgeoned to death with a rock. Hence, once you landed on the ground, it was over.

Movie Kung Fu vs real Kung Fu

I was alerted to a great post by Reddit User drkaczuz about the role of stunt men and women compared to the same scenes done by “real” martial artists who are not trained in movie-fu.

I’ll quote it here (I hope he doesn’t mind because it’s really interesting, and he makes some great points):

“Yeah, people very often misunderstand the role of stunt doubles, especially in fight scenes. It’s often not as much about skill, or risk as about production logistics. Even if you have a physically capable actor, with MA experience, you still want to use the stunt doubles, simply to squeeze the most out of pre-production time. You can’t lock the star of the show in a room with the stunt crew for a few weeks to rehearse the scene to perfection, they need to well, act. Learn their lines, prepare for their non-action scens, do marketing stuff, photoshoots, etc. What you CAN do is have the stunt double rehearse the entire choreography for months untill it’s buttery smooth and them tag them in on a moment’s notice.

Another thing with actors that have MA background is how different movie fighting is from real fighting – a lot of time real fighting skills and reflexes actually make on-screen fighting look worse.

I think Donnie Yen vs Mike Tyson is a good example showcasing a lot of issues when working with real athletes – we all know Mike is insanely fast, but in this clip he appears slow and sluggish, and you can’t really see the power behind the blows – further below I’ll try to explain why.

 BJ Penn and Rampage in this clusterfuck of a movie – in this case choreography, montage, lighting are absolute garbage, but you can still see that they seem weirdly uncoordinated and slow.

 Anderson Silva from the same flick, notice the kicks especially, also look at all Randy Couture scenes from Expendables – they’re a dark, shakycam mess, but a lot of shakycam and bad lighting is damage control to hide hits that didn’t sell well.

I am not saying that having actual martial artists on set is bad – but you have to manage them really well, have an action director that will guide them and communicate their vision clearly. In a lot of cases a director will oh so wrongly assume that if they have the star martial artist on set they can just tell them to do their thing and it’ll come together somehow. Also it’s not that being good at actual fighting is somehow a hinderance – all good stuntpeople will be at least competent in one or more actual combat sport or martial art. It’s just they have a LOT of additional knowledge on top, as well as the ability to turn some instincts on and off.

There’s more to this post, including links to good examples of well done fight choreography.