REVIEW: Yang Short form: A beginners guide to Taiji Chuan by Leo Ming and Caroline Addenbrooke

Yang Short Form: A beginners guide to Taiji Chuan, is a beautifully made, hardback coffee-table Tai Chi book, containing a brief section on history and principles of the art, over 200 colour photos mainly for showing you the form, a few verses from the Tao Te Ching to act as inspirational quotes and more.

There’s no denying that at an RRP of £49, it’s expensive. For people wondering why this book costs that much on Amazon (although you could pick it up for 18% less at time of writing), the high production values and hard cover explain the price. Printing in colour is expensive these days.

Sifu Leo Ming is the teacher who appears in the photos, and his student Caroline Addenbrooke is the author.

The main point of the book is to teach you the Cheng Man Ching short form, and if you view the book through the lens of ‘Can I learn a Tai Chi from this book?‘, it succeeds, I just have a few issues with some of the information presented here.

Consider the title

My problems start with the title, “Yang Short Form: A beginners guide to Taiji Chuan“. The Tai Chi form presented in this book is the Cheng Man Ching short form, which is certainly a Yang short form, but it’s a bit of a stretch to call it the Yang short form. People generally call it the Cheng Man Ching Short Form or the Chen Man Ching 37 form, which would have been a more accurate name, since Cheng’s form varies quite significantly from the official Yang form that belongs to the actual Yang family.

Secondly, the use of “Taiji Chuan” awkwardly mixes two different romanisation styles together in a way I’ve never seen done before, making it something of an outlier in the Tai Chi world. Tai Chi is usually either written Taijiquan/Tàijíquán (pinyin) or Tai Chi Chuan/Tai chi ch’üan (Wade-Giles), or shortened to simply “Tai Chi“. I find the decision making process of mixing the two systems together used here to come up with “Taiji Chuan” a bit baffling. Why do that?

Similarly, inside the book there’s a mix of different romanisation styles. Shaolin appears as “Shao-lin”, while changquan appears as “Changquan”, (so they’re happy to use pinyin there…) Dantien appears as “Tan Tien”. But Qi is “Qi”, not “Chi”, and Xingyi is “hsing-i”! I can’t work out the logic. In a way, so long as the system used is internally consistent it doesn’t matter, but it is a bit frustrating.

Finally, “beginners guide” is used in the title without an apostrophe! Well, that is just… wrong.

But, let’s move on from the title of the book and look at what we’ve got here. 

All the history all at once

The history section starts with a pretty safe phrase, “The history of Taiji Chuan is unknown”, and if it had stopped there I think I would have been happy, but it then goes on to tell a version of Tai Chi history anyway that includes every folk tale in the Tai Chi master’s repertoire! It talks about the classic Chan Sanfeng origin story, but also has the Chen village origin story straight afterwards before giving a brief rundown of the current styles of Tai Chi, before then pivoting back further into time and linking Tai Chi to the Shaolin Temple because that’s where “qigong theory” started… If you know anything about the history of Tai Chi you’ll know that these kind of myths are probably just that, myths, but they help the marketing of the art.

There are other problems with the accuracy of information, too – there’s a picture of a statue of Chang Sanfeng in the history section which is captioned “A statue in Chenjiagou depicting the legendary Chang San-Feng”. I thought that didn’t sound right. A quick 5 minutes on Google confirmed that his statue is of Chang, but it’s found (not surprisingly) in the Wudang mountains, not Chen village, as stated. Unless I’m wrong and there are two identical statues, but I don’t think so. The most famous statues in Chen village are the statues of Chen Chanxing and Yang Luchan.

The rundown of the different styles of Tai Chi in existence today is accurate, but if you want a proper investigation of the history of Tai Chi, I’d suggest looking elsewhere.

The section on principles of Tai Chi is also very brief. It’s all the usual advice you find in Tai Chi books about relaxing, centering, evenness and slowness, etc. There’s nothing wrong here, but it’s very surface level.

Teaching forms is where Yang Short Form gets it right. The book uses the method of breaking down each move into tiny fragments and showing them next to each other, conveying the sense of movement through the form nicely. As such you can definitely use the book as an aid to memory of this form, or even teach yourself the form from it. Take a look at this example of Single Whip:

Diagonal Flying:

Of course, Tai Chi purists will say that the choreography of the form is not the important part, and that the body method is vastly more important, however, for better or for worse, the vast majority of Tai Chi practitioners in the world are not looking for a book on that. They are simply trying to learn some movements as a form of exercise for health, and this book will serve them very well.

I don’t do the Cheng Man Ching short form myself, but I have learned it in the past, and as I was looking through the movements it struck me that there were one or two idiosyncrasies presented by Sifu Leo that I hadn’t seen before. I noticed three things in particular:

1) A low squat Sifu Leo does as a transition between each ‘Fair Lady Works at the Shuttles’ move: 

2) A front kick/leg raise, he puts into Repulse Monkey.

3) In Golden Pheasant Stands on one leg – he again squats all the way down to the floor between the knee raises.

This struck me as peculiar, so I checked the form against a video of Chen Man Ching, mapping the movements in his video to the ones in the book, and while the forms match (all the movements are here and none have been added), the above curiosities are not performed by Professor Chen Man Ching. 

Also, there are 43 moves in the form shown here, and Chen Man Ching’s form was said to be 37, but I suppose it depends how you count the moves. 

I don’t think these three variations to the Cheng Man Ching form matter that much, but I think it’s safe to say that they are not standard, so I should point them out. It’s also important to note that there are no marital applications or discussion of push hands in the book at all.

Overall, if you practice the Cheng Man Ching short form for health and you want a visual reference to remind you of the moves then this book will fit the bill – it’s beautifully designed and the form is clearly presented. If you’re looking for a scholarly discussion of the history of Tai Chi, or an in-depth dive into the body mechanics, then other books are available.

REVIEW: Chen Taijiquan Illustrated, by David Gaffney & Davidine Siaw-Voon Sim

Chen Taijiquan Illustrated is an exploration of pretty much everything that makes up Chen Taijiquan, from principles, and body methods to practical usage and philosophy. But the most notable thing about this Taijiquan book, and the place where we should probably start, are the illustrations, because they are what really separates this book from others of its ilk.

Almost every page here (and there are over 200) has some sort of detailed drawing on it that adds context to the text surrounding it. In fact, the whole book takes the form of a visual notebook, as if you are discovering a secret copy of the best-looking training notes you’ve ever seen. Surrounding the drawings are quotes from the most iconic practitioners in the Chen lineage, past and present, as well as explanations of principles, concepts and requirements of Taijiquan. Take a look and you’ll get the idea:

As you can see, the drawings are mainly done in a stylised cartoon way, which is actually very effective, and it’s pretty clear that these are photographs that have been traced over digitally, to produce the illustration, rather than drawn from scratch. The overall effect is really nice, and refreshingly modern and accessible. 

Because a Taiji master’s posture takes years to develop and is a reflection of their skill, you can learn quite a lot from just looking at it. So, having a drawing based on a real photo gives you the best of both worlds – you get to see the genuine skill of the practitioner on show mixed with the accessibility and visual appeal of an illustration. 

In fact, in a lot of cases you can guess the famous master that the drawing is based on. For example, the book cover shows, I believe, a digital tracing of a photo of Chen Xiaoxing, brother of Chen Xiaowang.

It should be pointed out that not all the illustrations in the book are done to the same high standard, but there are only a few where the quality dips significantly.

Chen Taijiquan Illustrated is split into three sections – Section 1, Body Rules (Shape and energy), Section 2, Practical use/Application and Section 3, Philosophical Roots. Section 3 on philosophy is tiny compared to the massive section two, which consists of a catalogue of pretty much all the practical methods found in Taijiquan – peng, lu, ji, an, listening, sticking, neutralising, push hands, hand methods, leg methods, stepping, chin na, etc. Pretty much everything to do with the Chen style is here!

The initial section on body requirements is very good, and something you can keep coming back to and the book goes into much more detail than you’d expect to find in a basic beginner’s book, which makes me happy. The explanations of the concepts and techniques in the second section can sometimes err towards being more of a catalogue of techniques than an in-depth ‘how to’ of each one, but there is always going to be a limit on how much can be achieved in print, and the illustration of various masters doing the method being discussed speaks volumes in itself, and adds a lot of depth. It’s also nice to see the martial methods of Taijiquan being discussed in detail, something that is also rare to find in a Taijiquan book.

Let’s talk for a moment about what the book doesn‘t include. For a start, there is no attempt to teach a form in this book, which is probably a good thing, as Chen style in particular would be hard to teach in a printed book due to its intricate nature and complex, spiraling movements. Also, there is no history section – personally I’m glad about that, as it’s a massive subject and would require too much space to do it justice, and frankly, it’s been done to death elsewhere, and matters not a jot to your actual practice of the art. If you want to discover the key to “internal movement” then you’ll find good pointers here, but if you really want to delve deeply into subjects like peng, groundpath and internal body mechanics then I’d say you should check out Ken Gullette’s book on the subject. Finally, there’s no mention of weapons here, which are obviously a huge part of the Chen art. The emphasis here is on body methods and bare hand methods only.

Taijiquan is a practical, doing art, not the sort of practice that benefits from too much intellectualism, and the visual nature of the book is great at reminding you of that fact, grounding the concepts and principles in practical reality.

Overall, I think this has to be one of my favourite books on Taijiquan ever produced. This is really one of the most comprehensive collection of training notes you’ll ever come across. And because everything is fitted around pictures, there are no long, boring, passages of text, meaning you can dip in and out at any point. In fact, just picking it up, flicking to a random page and starting to read for a few minutes can easily give you inspiration for your practice that day.

Highly recommended, and while obviously best suited to Chen style practitioners (there’s a lot of discussion of silk reeling), I think a Taijiquan practitioner of any style would get a lot out of it. I certainly did.

More thoughts on elbows and the classics of Tai Chi and Xing Yi

From we find this nice quote about Chen Taijiquan:

“The, at first sight, seemingly humorous Chenjiagou saying to “always keep an egg under your armpit” reflects the importance of not allowing the upper arms to become stuck to the side of the body.

This idea of always keeping a space under the armpit is something I’ve heard said in other styles of Tai Chi as well, and it fits in very well with the idea of “Peng all over the body” that you’re aiming for in Taijiquan, that kind of “inflated like a balloon, but also soft, springy and heavy” feeling. 

Taijiquan, with armpit gaps. Photo by Stephen on

But how does that relate to the question I was looking at recently about the issue of where the elbows should be in Xing Yi? “The elbows never leave the ribs” is a line from the Xing Yi classics* (more of that later) that has caused a lot of arguments between practitioners on its interpretation and meaning. 

And when you compare it to the previous saying about the armpit from Chen Village, it’s basically the complete opposite advice! And yet, both Taijiquan and Xingyiquan are said to be internal arts, and part of the same family. So, is the advice about the elbow a crucial element, as fundamental as, say, aligning the Bai Hui point (the crown) with the spine? Or is this more of a piece of strategic advice to do with the fighting style of Xingyiquan, and not anything to do with its fundamental body method?

Let me throw in a curve ball here and switch arts to BJJ. “Glue your elbows to your ribs” is something I say to my students in BJJ all the time when they are on the bottom defending a position like side control, knee on belly or mount.

Knee on Belly in BJJ. Photo by RDNE Stock project on

If you let your opponent separate your elbows from your ribs in that position then only bad things can happen, so it’s great advice. Normally after I submit somebody new in BJJ I stop to explain to them how I did it, so we can turn it into a learning moment. 9 times out of 10 my explanation starts with “it started when you let me into the space under your armpit”. However, it would be ludicrous to make it into a hard and fast rule, to suggest that you should never let the ribs leave the armpit at any moment in BJJ. There are plenty of other times in BJJ where you need to pull with your arm, and you can’t do that fully without separating your elbow from your ribs.

* And let’s also decide on what constitutes a “classic” in Xing Yi. My own teacher only considered the 10 Thesis of Yue Fei  to be the classic writings in Xing Yi. Most of what people call the Xing Yi classics today are, in fact, writings created in the early 20th century when there was a publishing boom in martial arts manuals (See Chinese Martial Arts Training Manuals: A Historical Survey by Kennedy and Gau), and are based on the original Yue Fei writings anyway. For Xing Yi it started with Sun Lu Tang’s 1915 A Study of Xing Yi Boxing.

In the preface to his manual Sun says (Translation by Brennan), “While once at Bai Xiyuan’s home in Beijing, I got to see one of the Yue Fei manuals, not an original copy of course, but a handwritten copy made by someone in a later generation. It was not very detailed and unfortunately contained no explanations of its terminology, only the barest of text from beginning to end. I was suddenly inspired by this, immediately wishing to provide more complete information, even though I was fully aware that my level of learning and skill was superficial, and without being tempted to make anything up [in order to fill information gaps]. I secretly made my own copy and then deeply studied it, going through it posture by posture until bit by bit I had built up the material to make this book. There is no decorative language in it at all, for in my studies I have not dared to hold on to even the slightest exaggerations. Wherever flaws are found within my work, I hope my comrades will correct me, for which I would be very appreciative.

  – sincerely written by Sun Fuquan [Lutang] of Wan County, Baoding, 1915, 1st month, 15th day”

In his manual Sun has a chapter called “The Essentials of Practice” in which we find the advice about elbows and ribs. (Translation by Brennan)

The essentials of practice in Xingyi Boxing: 1. Sink your waist. 2. Shrink your shoulders. 3. Hollow your chest. 4. Press. 5. Lift. 6. Horizontal and vertical should be clearly understood. 7. Lifting, drilling, dropping, and overturning should be clearly distinguished.
  Your head presses up during drilling, then shrinks back during overturning. Your hands lift during drilling, then drop during overturning. Your foot lifts during drilling, then drops during overturning. Your waist lifts during drilling, then drops during overturning. [from the Xingyi Boxing Classics:] “In lifting there is a horizontal aspect, but it is invisible [because it appears to be only upward]. In dropping there is a vertical aspect, but it is invisible [because it appears to be only forward].”
  Lifting is going out and dropping is striking, but when lifting is also striking, dropping is still striking. Strike with lifting and dropping, like the overturning waves of water, which are lifting and dropping. Regardless of lifting and dropping, drilling and overturning, going and coming, it should always be that your elbow does not leave your ribs and your hand does not veer off from your centerline.
  These are considered to be the essentials in Xingyi Boxing. Knowing these, the right path in the art will be obtained.“

But you can see that even in this passage, Sun is quoting the older “Xing Yi Boxing Classics”. So, you have to start to wonder, how old is the advice that the elbows do not leave the ribs, really? I know some styles maintain that their “quan pu”, ancient collection of classic handwritten writings their family possesses has this advice in. At least with Sun’s work we have a published date we can be sure of. 

Photo by George Sharvashidze on

But this also brings up the question of how much we dedicate ourselves to following the literal words of “the classics” to the letter. How much freedom are we allowed in our martial art? Were the classics intended to be a kind of set in stone, unwavering, set of rules to be followed on pain of death? The ancient writings of the founders always tend to take on this weight that gets heavier over time. If they’d been written a year ago, would we treat them with the same reverence? There are hard line Christians who treat every word of the Bible as the word of God, never to be questioned, and there are more modern progressive Christians who interpret the words in the Bible into a modern context, or see them as simply stories designed to teach an idea, and not to be taken literally.

So, the question still lingers, like a bad smell. 

Where do you put your elbows in Xing Yi? 

I think the best answer I’ve found so far is…..

“in between your shoulders and your wrists”.

Tai Chi Notebook News, May 25th 2023

So, a heads up about a couple of new books on the way, a robot teaching Tai Chi and a seminar write up that’s worth a mention. This post actually makes me think, should I be doing a newsletter? What do you think? Do you want one? Would you read it? Let me know!


Dragon Body, Tiger Spirit

Byron Jacob has a new translation of the Xing Yi Classics, Dragon Body, Tiger Spirit, coming out, which looks like it will include a chapter on the history of Xing Yi written by Jarek Szymanski who you may know from his popular website China from inside.

Image Credit: Mushin Martial Culture

This is looking like it’s going to be good. The title is a nice play on “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and it refers to things mentioned in the Xing Yi Classics. The cover also features a nicely-colourised version of the only photo we have of the famous Xing Yi master Guo Yun Shen, which has been very nicely done. (Master Guo is the guy seated centre right, and wearing the light blue tunic, next to Master Che.)

There have been many books that contain the Xing Yi classics translated, of course, but I’m hoping that Byron’s commentary will be the thing that makes this one different.

Byron says: “Dragon Body, Tiger Spirit will be available in hardcover, softcover as well as digital versions. To be notified of release visit and sign up to the newsletter.”

I’ll do a review once I get my hands on a copy.


Yang Style Short Form

Another nicely presented book on my horizon is Yang Style Short Form by Sifu Leo Ming and Caroline Addenbrooke. The short form in question is the Cheng Man-Ching Tai Chi form, and calling it the “Yang Short Form” is a bit of a liberty, since it is not the official Yang Short Form. But names aside, it looks like it’s going to be interesting.

Here’s the description:

“A beginners guide to Taiji Chuan is a comprehensive training guide for all students of Taiji who are serious about mastering the art of Taiji. It is unique in that it details each of the forty four postures that make up the complete Yang Style Short Form, and it does so in a way that the student can experience the smallest nuance of each movement, from the opening sequence to the closing posture.”

It sounds interesting, especially since it goes on to say it will teach you how to breathe correctly during your practice and how the “Tan Tien drives all movement, opening the meridians so that the universal llife [sic] force can flow through you. “

A spelling mistake in the description of the book on the website (“llife”) is a bit of a red flag, but that could be Barnes & Nobles fault, and nothing to do with the book. However, I’m curious about the use of “Taiji Chuan” as a Romanisation on the cover though, since it seems to mix both Pinyin and Wade-Giles Romanisation systems. I have genuinely never seen anybody mix the two quite like this before. It’s usually either “Tai Chi Chuan” or “Taijiquan”. This will upset some people, I’m sure, but I don’t mind.

I’ll be reviewing the book soon.

Robot Tai Chi

I guess it was inevitable, but somebody has made a life-size robot that teaches Tai Chi.

Image Credit: Credit: Rochester Institute of Technology

Depending on how it works (there’s no video!) this looks quite impressive, however, I’m left with one burning question – why? I don’t know how many thousands or millions of dollars it took to create this robot, but economically I’m pretty sure that paying Bob, your local Tai Chi teacher $50 to teach Tai Chi to the people in the old folks home once a week is a business model that is going to be hard for a multi-million dollar robot to beat. This looks like a solution in search of a problem to me.

Chen style seminar write up

Let me give a shout out to my friend Ken Gullette of Internal Fighting Arts for his write up of a recent seminar with Chen Tai Chi mastermind Nabil Ranne in Philadelphia. Here’s a quote:

“What impressed me most about Nabil’s teaching was the level of detail. And there were differences — in the shorter stances where feet are parallel most of the time, in the shifting of weight, in the awareness of different jin in each movement, the fullness of the dan t’ien and the coordination of the mingmen, the opening and closing of the chest and back, the folding of the chest and stomach, the closing power in the legs, the grounding from the heels, the stability of the knees and the spiraling through the feet, and connecting it all in each movement; and peng — always maintaining peng, which I have worked on for over two decades but still learn new aspects.”

Image Credit: Ken Gullette

Nabil teaches Tai Chi in the Chen Yu lineage, and to my eye seems by far the best of the teachers available if you want to follow that particular line of Chen style. Plus, you can learn with him online at the Chen Style Taijiquan Network

If you want to get a quick glimpse of his style of Tai Chi then check out this Instagram page.


Recent Tai Chi Notebook posts

Here are 3 things I wrote this week that you should read:

1. The power of connection with Henry Akins:

I came across this video recently of Henry Akins explaining the concept of connection in BJJ, as taught to him by Rickson Gracie, and it doesn’t half remind me of Tai Chi…

2. Way of the Warrior episode: Shorinji Kempo

The classic BBC TV series, Way of the Warrior’s episode on Shorinji Kempo just appeared online, and it still holds up today.

3. Where should the elbows be in Xing Yi?

This blog is about a weird quirk of the Xing Yi world. There’s a surprisingly large amount of online debate in Xing Yi circles about where the elbow should be when performing Xing Yi.

If you haven’t checked The Tai Chi Notebook out on Facebook then please do, and why not give our Instagram page a look too, and our YouTube channel?

The power of connection, with Henry Akins

I like it when you can find those rare moments where martial arts seem to cross boundaries and blend into each other. I came across this video recently of Henry Akins explaining the concept of connection in BJJ, as taught to him by Rickson Gracie, and it doesn’t half remind me of Tai Chi…

There’s a lot of talking at the start, but he gets down to action at around the 4 minute mark and starts demonstrating rooting – something that you’ll find being practiced in most Tai Chi classes. These are what you’d see described as ‘simple jin skills’ or ‘jin tricks’ by a lot of Tai Chi experts. And they are what you are supposed to be doing in Tai Chi all the time, when you practice the form and when you do push hands. They’re the root (ha!) of classic phrases from the Tai Chi classics like, “4oz defeats a thousand pounds”.

In fact, a lot of people seem to think that these jin skills alone qualify something as being internal, which is why you see the descriptor, “internal”, being added to the name of a lot of martial arts, like ‘internal Wing Chun’ or ‘internal Karate’.

My take would be that, sure, these are an essential part of the internal package, but they’re not the whole enchilada. For instance, Henry is not doing anything particular with his dantien, and indeed, you don’t need to do anything in particular with your dantien to do these things. But these are still the first few steps to being an internal art.

As you know if you’ve read my blog for a while, I’m a BJJ practitioner myself, so it’s great to see somebody like Henry applying these principles to BJJ. I see it as a path to a version of the art that you can still do as you get older. I don’t think you’re going to be winning any competitions if you dedicate yourself to practicing these jin skills (the power and aggression of youth is pretty darn overwhelming to fight against in competition, particularly if it’s being done by dedicated athletes who train to a level the average guy with a job and two kids can only dream of). All I’m after is something that gives me the edge in friendly, hobbyist rolling and enables me to stay in the game and on the mat for as long as possible. “Do not go gentle into that good night”, as Dylan Thomas put it.

Push it, push it real good

In particular, Henry deals with one of the favourite subjects of Tai Chi – pushing. Henry pushes Bernardo, using power from his legs, not his arms – this is Tai Chi 101 – and then shows how to receive a push by aligning his body so that the push goes into the ground. He, (dare I say it?) tucks his butt, so that the force goes down his legs to the ground, rather than knocking him backwards. This is what you need to be working on in push hands when people push you. N.B. Tucking your butt does not mean adopting a forced and unnatural posture, it just means flattening the lower back and aligning the lower part of your spine with the upper, so that your bum doesn’t stick out.

What I like about this clip is that Henry, coming from a non-Chinese marital art, doesn’t use words like Jin and Qi – he just talks about alignment, relaxing and using the legs and ‘using the ground for support’. It seems much less mystical than the way it is typically presented in Tai Chi, and it goes to show that you can explain a lot of Tai Chi things without having to use words that are nebulous or hard to grasp for the Western mind.

But it’s really the concept of connection that Henry is teaching. As he says, a lot of the time in grappling what you want to do is connect to your opponent to use your techniques, and then learn how to disconnect from them when they try their techniques on you. He sees connection working in three main ways – and this is where I think Tai Chi teachers can benefit from his teaching –

  • Connecting within yourself,
  • Connecting to the opponent
  • Connecting to the ground.

That’s not a bad way to look at grappling at all, and I think it is a good way to help people understand that, when doing push hands, you can’t apply no force at all to the other person in a sort of noodle arms-display of rooting into the ground, because then you have no connection to them. If you move, they don’t move. Instead, you need to apply enough force at all times so that you are connected to their body and through listening (ting) you can feel when it’s time to break this connection too. Think of it a bit like an insect using the surface tension of the water to stay afloat.

Great work Henry, I would buy your instructional on Connection, if only it wasn’t almost $300. 🙂 But thanks for sharing that video above for free. I’ll have to wait for it to come into the ‘daily deal’ section of Fanatics, where they reduce the price. Osss!

If you haven’t already, check out my post on Jin Tricks and Mike Sigman explaining Jin. Both worth a watch.

If you haven’t checked us out on Facebook then please do, and why not give our Instagram page a look too, and our YouTube channel?

1,000 followers on Facebook! (and my most popular posts of all time)

The Tai Chi Notebook Facebook page has finally got far enough over the 1,000 followers milestone that I feel confident in shouting about it a little bit! So, here we go – 1,000 followers!

Thanks to everybody who has liked, subscribed and commented on The Tai Chi Notebook over the years – it’s all very much appreciated!

If you haven’t checked us out on Facebook then please do, and why not give our Instagram page a look too, and our YouTube channel?

Also, I’ve changed the sidebar on the blog over to the right —-> It now shows the most popular posts on the page by views and likes, so if you’re looking for something interesting to read about martial arts and Tai Chi, then look here to find something.

Shorinji Kempo – Way of the Warrior episode

The classic BBC TV series, Way of the Warrior’s episode on Shorinji Kempo just appeared online, and it still holds up today.

The BBC seem to have complete access to the style to film this, which at the time they say had a million followers and was floating on that ‘cult’ borderline, and it’s a fascinating glimpse into the past. Shōrin-ji kempō means something like Shaolin Temple Fist Way, and was established in 1947 by Doshin So after his time as a spy in China, where he supposedly trained at the Shaolin Temple. I think, as the documentary makes out, that his main form of training at the Shaolin Temple consisted of looking at the famous painting (which is not that old at all) of Chinese and Indian monks fighting. Like all Kempo styles his art is probably an eclectic mix of all sorts of different martial arts he trained in. However, he appears to have used that painting as the inspiration for his whole martial art! The Shaolin origins made a great backstory, anyway.

The mural painting from the Shaolin Temple.

While this is only one type of Kempo from Japan, you can see a lot of the elements we talked about in our Heretics Podcast, History of Kempo and Jiujitsu episodes, that seem to be recurring themes:

  • The blending of marital arts and religion (in this case Buddhism)
  • Far right political views
  • A sense of freedom in where you get techniques from (absorb what is useful)
  • Helping fight crime as a kind of unofficial police force
  • A lot of sparring!

What is also interesting is that the film shows the widespread use of the original Shorinji Kempo logo – the Swastica – that they replaced for all branches in 2005 with the so-en (double circle).

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Where should your elbows be in Xing Yi?

Today’s blog is about a weird quirk of the Xing Yi world. There’s a surprisingly large amount of online debate in Xing Yi circles about where the elbow should be when performing Xing Yi. I mean, a surprisingly large amount of debate. Especially for a matter that might, forgive me for saying this, be seen as trivial by people actively engaged in combat sports that actually spar with resistance.

Obviously, if you have some sort of two person free practice in your Xing Yi system that you actually engage in regularly, I’m not talking to you. I think the real reason why all these debates happen is simple – too much forms and not enough fighting.  

But, ok, there are other reasons. For example, details do matter in internal arts. Quite often we’re being asked to look in detail at our movements and micro movements to get the most perfectly coordinated and natural human movement possible. But without keeping one foot on the ground, (and grounded in the reality that sparring provides), the theoretical arguments start taking over and the art disappears up its own bum. A martial art that is predominantly forms-first is always going to be theoretical at best. To take the well worn analogy – you don’t learn to swim by practicing on dry land.

Long, explanatory videos have been made, back and forth, about why a certain person is doing it right or wrong because his elbows stick out or tuck in.

The problem stems from the fact that there’s a line in the Xing Yi classics that translates as: 

“The hands do not leave the heart and the elbows do not leave the ribs”.

But it’s how literally you take these words seems to be the crux of the matter. Now, I’ve seen videos of respected Xing Yi masters quoting this passage while demonstrating and their elbows are clearly leaving the ribs, if not in the horizontal axis, at least in the vertical axis. 

The reasoning behind keeping the elbows tight is sound – in boxing, kickboxing and MMA it’s generally considered best practice to keep your shoulders high and elbows tucked in close to the body to help protect the ribs. But boxers don’t tend to get hung up on this – as their individual style develops they don’t feel like they have to conform to the same ‘rules’ that the novice has to. They are free to develop their own personal style through experimentation and testing in the ring. I’m sure Prince Naseem was taught the same basics as Mike Tyson, but look how differently their boxing styles turned out in the end.

So, (and I know, dear reader, that you are just dying the hear this), what’s my take on where the elbow should be in Xing Yi?

Well, I’m glad you asked. Rather than getting hung up on words in an old writing (that may or may not be old at all) I prefer to get hung up on history. I mean, you have to get hung up on something, right?

Xing Yi is generally considered to be descended from military spear fighting. If you hold a heavy spear it becomes readily apparent that your best chance of wielding it with power is to keep it in front of the body, not out to the sides. It’s the same when you hold any heavy object – you are stronger when your arms are in front of you holding it than when they are at your side holding it. This is the truth I feel these words are aiming towards, and generally the postures and techniques of Xing Yi all comply with this idea of keeping the elbows in and the arms in front of the body, not to the sides. There are exceptions though. For example, Xing Yi Bear has a much rounder posture, with gaps under the elbows, more like the Yi Quan standing postures.

Professor Yu Yong Nian, demonstrated Yi Quan standing posture from

Some postures in our Xing Yi dragon and chicken links are for hitting with the elbows and we hold them out to the side when doing so, but in these cases you are normally (but not always) standing side-on to the opponent, so the elbow tip is pointing at the opponent, so in that sense it is not ‘out to the side’. 

A good example is this famous Liang Yi Zhuang posture from Baji, which is similar to the chicken posture I was talking about. (Baji is another Northern Chinese martial arts, that is a bit similar to Xing Yi).

Picture from两仪桩

I mean, we could decide that viewed from the opponent’s position the elbow is in line with the body, therefore it is not leaving the ribs, but the hands are not in front of the heart. No way. Are we therefore going to decide that this posture, taken out of context on its own, is wrong because it doesn’t correspond literally to some ancient writing that may, or may not, have been referring to a specific context?

Here’s another theory: I think what the whole thing is quite possibly about how soldiers work in formation on a battlefield. If Xing Yi does have military roots then a line of soldiers on a battlefield would all be orientated towards the enemy, standing side by side in a line. That’s another good reason to stick the elbows to the ribs. Any bladed weapons going towards your sides would definitely not be welcomed by your brothers in arms. 

Ultimately, I don’t expect this post to have really made a difference to the debate. I feel like this one is just going to run and run forever. So long as there are mainly theoretical practitioners of the art there will be always be many theoretical debates about how what somebody is doing is right or wrong in relation to some ancient writing.

I just think people’s efforts would be better put to trying moves out on other people and getting feedback that way. As one of my teachers used to say often:

“There is no such thing as correct technique, there is only appropriate technique.”

REVIEW: American Shaolin: Flying Kicks, Buddhist Monks, and the Legend of Iron Crotch: An Odyssey in the New China

I’ve been meaning to read the story of Matthew Polly’s time spent training at the famous Shaolin monastery for years, but I finally got around to it recently thanks to my subscription*. And what a great read it is! I’m sure we can all identify with the teenage Polly, unsure of himself and his place in the world, who falls under the spell of Kung Fu and decides to dedicate his life to the pursuit of it as some kind of escapism from the pressures and fakeness of the modern world. To Polly, Kung Fu represented something sublime, pure and otherworldly that actually meant something. But unlike most of us, he did more than just dream about it, he actually went to Shaolin and lived there for almost a year, at a time when there was no Internet, no easy way to get there and China had only recently opened up to foreigners, so most Chinese people had never even seen a Laowai in the flesh before.

Polly’s story could best be summed up as a sequence of misadventures punctuated by moments of sublime martial arts inspiration. He manages to get into all sorts of scrapes involving accidentally offending senior party officials, being entered into a tournament against a San Da champion and hilarious misadventures with the opposite sex. Part Bill Bryson-style travelogue, and part kung fu geek-out, this is a rewarding, even emotional, look into what the Shaolin monks were really like in the 1990s, just as their international fame as stage performers was starting to spread and take over from the mystical image everybody had of them from the Kung Fu TV show. (Interestingly, at one point Polly watches the Kung Fu TV show with the monks who laughed their heads off at the idea of burning a dragon and tiger into your arms by lifting a hot anvil and dropping it into the snow – “why would you do that???”)

What you really get from this book is a sense of what the Shaolin monks are really like back then, and how much more human, relatable and down to earth they are compared to the lofty ideas we all have of them. It answers all the big questions like, how good are they at actually fighting, how seriously they take the “monk” side of their lives and how they train iron first, arm, head and even iron crotch.

The little snatches of Chinese you pick up by reading the book are also a hidden bonus and bring the characters to life marvellously. By the end of the book you feel like they are your friends and you know them just as well as Polly did. Anybody who likes this blog would love this book. Recommended.

N.B. The cover with a monk holding a Burger King bag is representative of the idea of American values seeping into China, but a little misleading as there were no Burger Kings in China then, and certainly nothing like that in the rural backwater of the Shaolin village.

*Like a number of other books, American Shaolin is included in the cost of an Audible subscription, so if you are a subscriber you get it free.

What came first in Tai Chi – the philosophy or the techniques?

It’s no secret that Tai Chi is a series of circles. The body opening and closing using circulation motions, like a yin/yang symbol in action. But when you look at a Tai Chi form, you’ve got to wonder, what came first, the techniques or the philosophy? Was Tai Chi created in a moment of philosophical purity and clarity, or was the philosophy simply bolted on to existing military or self-defence techniques (or popular movements from theatrical or religious rituals) that were already as old as the hills?

What I’m wondering is, was there at some point a founder of the art who decided, as a starting point, that he was going to purposely create a martial art based entirely on a philosophy based on the Tai Chi symbol, which would be both the overarching principle and the raw material, out of which martial applications would be fashioned?

Or did the idea of doing things in circles come later, and get added to existing martial techniques, and in so doing, alter them forever?

Well, let’s look at what we know as fact.

Fact 1: Tai Chi does indeed contain nothing but circular movements. I’m sure somebody somewhere can point out a movement in a form that looks linear, but it’s quite possible that the movement is actually being created in a circular way, or it has degraded over time into something else. All we can do here is talk in broad brush strokes. If you look at a Karate form, or a Tae Kwan Do form you see lots of examples of linear movements, that are usually lacking from Tai Chi forms. From this we can conclude that some sort of philosophical idea must have been involved in its creation.

Fact 2: The techniques in Tai Chi forms look a lot like other techniques in other Chinese martial arts forms, so are not in any way unique. If you look at a lot of forms from the Shaolin Temple, or village styles from all over China, you see postures and movements that are very similar to the techniques found in Tai Chi. In a way, there is nothing new under the sun.

When solving a murder, detectives look for two things first – opportunity and motive.

When Tai Chi first appeared in Beijing in the late 19th century it was promoted along with the idea that it had a founder, an immortal Taoist called Chan Sang Feng who had created the art based on his observation (or a dream) of a fight between a crane (or possibly stork) and a snake. And while certain groups (see my last interview with George Thompson) on Wudang mountain still take this story very seriously, and possibly literally, modern scholarship has tended towards the idea that it was a fighting art from the rural countryside (Chen village being the most popular choice for origin) that found its way to Beijing via a young Yang LuChan, who taught it to those at the highest level of influence inside the Forbidden City.

Of course, the shadowy figure of Yang LuChan is never adequately explained, and since he was an uneducated nobody – a rural rube – nobody really made a record of his existence. The story everybody, including all the heads of the various Tai Chi families, follows, (because it’s the story the Chinese government approves of), is that he learned the art in Chen village. But I always wonder about that time in the 1860s when Yang and the very well educated and important Wu brothers were in Beijing, as being a time when Tai Chi could have been invented. The Wu brothers would have known the philosophy on which to hang it, and Yang would have had the martial skills to make it work and turn it into something that could bring the fractured court of the late Ching Dynasty together, bonding over something that was essentially Chinese in the face of constant threat from foreign powers. Yang and the Wu brothers together had both opportunity and motive, and regardless of whether you accept that interpretation of history or not, Tai Chi has been used as a political football ever since, especially by the current government to whom Tai Chi (the world’s most practiced marital art!) represents the ultimate form of soft power, spreading Chinese culture and influence the world over.