Medieval warhorses no bigger than modern-day ponies

Jurchen Jin Dynasty

The traditional legend handed down in Xing Yi circles is that Yue Fei’s army successfully cut down the horses of the Jin cavalry, whilst only being foot soldiers.

This legend is often scoffed at by anybody who has experience of standing near to a charging horse, and quite rightly so! But it does depend on the size of the horse…

A recent study has concluded that English Medieval war horses were no bigger than a modern day pony.

“In films and literature they are usually depicted as hulking, foot-stomping, snorting beasts but a new study has claimed that the medieval warhorse was typically a much slighter, daintier animal.

A team of archaeologists and historians searching for the truth about the steeds that carried knights into battle has concluded that most were probably only the size of a modern-day pony.”

How big were the horses being ridden into battle by the Jin, I wonder?

Wang Xiang Zhai doesn’t like Tai Chi

Somebody posted a quote by (founder of Yi Quan) Wang Xiang Zhai from his 1940s interview containing his thoughts on Tai Chi. It is pretty clear, unambiguous and to the point. Have a read:

Wang Xiang Zhai on Taijiquan (from an early 1940’s interview):As masters of the original Taijiquan, I should recommend the Yang brothers Shouhou and Chengfu. They are my friends, and I know that their Taiji has some knowledge of mechanics. But out of one hundred students, not even one gains its essence…and even then, it is still one-sided, because the skills of intuitive perception died out a long time ago. Originally, Taiji consisted of three fists, Wang Zongyue changed it into thirteen postures, and it was later embellished into as much as one hundred and fifty postures. This is the cause of the distortion.Sticking to mechanical movements, seeking beautiful postures and mistaking it for the glory of martial arts…that is terrible. Such a person cannot comprehend boxing for life. If a man of insight sees such a performance, he will feel sick for ten days.As a means of health preservation, Taijiquan restrains the spirit, and brings discomfort to its practitioner. For combat, it harms the practitioner’s limbs and trunk, and causes a useful body to become a mechanical and stiff thing…it’s nothing more than a waste of time.As for the training method—a punch with the fist here, a slap with the palm there, a kick to the left, and another one to the right—it is pitiful and laughable.As for dealing with an enemy in a fight: please do not even consider it. So ruined is this boxing that it has become useless. There are many more things, but I feel embarrassed to say them.

He doesn’t think much of Tai Chi, but there are some things to consider.

  1. Wang was building a brand – Yi Quan – in a commercial setting. Setting out how you are different to/better than your competition is the first stage of building a brand.

2. This “three old fists” idea of history I don’t put much stock in. I think it’s a reference to the three old fists of Xin Yi (info on Jarek’s website), which he is therefore assuming as the origin of Tai Chi Chuan, but there’s not much of a link there that I can see. Or if there is, it’s very tenuous.

3. I think he’s criticising the Tai Chi training method, more than the art. He seems to hold the Yang brothers in high regard, but it’s their students and training methods he thinks are flawed. Wang was never a fan of forms training.

4. I think we need to consider what was happening in China in 1940. China has never (and still doesn’t) had a free press. If this was published it would conform to the political direction of the day.

From Wikipedia:

“In 1940, the Japanese set up the collaborationist Wang Jingwei regime, with its capital in Nanking, which proclaimed itself the legitimate “Republic of China” in opposition to Chiang Kai-shek’s government, although its claims were significantly hampered due to its being a puppet state controlling limited amounts of territory.

Chinese Nationalist Army soldiers during the 1938 Yellow River flood

The United Front between the Kuomintang and the CCP had salutary effects for the beleaguered CCP, despite Japan’s steady territorial gains in northern China, the coastal regions and the rich Yangtze River Valley in central China. After 1940, conflicts between the Kuomintang and Communists became more frequent in the areas not under Japanese control. The Communists expanded their influence wherever opportunities presented themselves through mass organizations, administrative reforms and the land- and tax-reform measures favoring the peasants and, the spread of their organizational network, while the Kuomintang attempted to neutralize the spread of Communist influence. Meanwhile, northern China was infiltrated politically by Japanese politicians in Manchukuo using facilities such as the Wei Huang Gong.”

So while all this conflict with Japan is going on I think the general trend is towards westernising and modernising China, leaving behind the older traditions that had held China back. This interview – looking towards newer scientific methods of martial arts – is in keeping with that trend. Japan was also very into adopting western military methods and building an empire, like the British had.

5. Both Yang Shao-Hou and Yang Cheng-Fu died in 1936, yet Wang is talking about them as if they are still alive in the 1940s, so something doesn’t add up. This interview is either doctored, or was done a long time before it was published in the 1940s.

6. You can get a better idea of his larger themes by reading the whole interview.

Three views of qi in Tai Chi

Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash

When it comes to “qi” it seems that every teacher has a slightly different view about what it is. After meeting many martial arts teachers, over the years (and ignoring the clearly delusional amongst them) I’ve paired these various views down to three models that I feel can act as a guide for helping the practitioner sort out what your teacher means when he or she says “qi”, and therefore, what you mean. I don’t think the three are exclusive at all – following one does not negate the others – and all three can be applied at once.

Many people would rather we kept qi out of Tai Chi Chuan teaching altogether, and I respect that view, however the Tai Chi Classics refer to qi quite often, so I think we’re stuck with it. And if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

Of course, qi relates to things well outside of the realm of martial arts too, so I think that it’s important to say that what follows is from a martial arts perspective. I’m looking at qi with a view to how it relates to the human body in things like Xing Yi and Tai Chi Chuan. If I was thinking about how qi related to, say the universe, or the landscape, I’d be looking in different places. Although, it has to be said that in Chinese thought the microcosm often mirrors the macrocosm.

Biological qi

The first view we’ll call the biological model. This is the view that what the Chinese call qi is simply the energy the body creates in the cells using the ATP cycle. We’re not talking about a controversial “bio energy” here, just the normal way energy is created in the cells of the body.

Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) is the energy-carrying molecule found in the cells of all living things and the universal energy carrier in the living cell. The German chemist Karl Lohmann discovered ATP in 1929.

ATP contains three phosphates and when it is converted to Adenosine Diphosphate (ADP) a phosphate is removed and energy is released that cells can use for processes like movement, synthesis and active transport.

https://www.britannica.com/science/adenosine-triphosphate

While the chemical process of the ATP cycle is hard to explain, the impact on things like Tai Chi and martial arts is quite simple and uncomplicated – qi is nothing mysterious here, and all movement therefore requires qi.
In this model, qi is related to breath because oxygen is required for the ATP cycle, which ties into the Chinese view of qi being related to breath quite nicely. The lungs therefore take over a prominent role in qi production, since oxygen is required for the ATP cycle to work.

Teachers that have this view of qi tend to focus more on the middle dantien in the body, as the the focus of movement, since qi production is higher in the body, towards the lungs, compared to the lower dantien. Stances tend to be higher and not as wide. Mobility is stressed over stability. Arts like Xing Yi and Yi Quan are good examples of these sorts of martial arts.

Qi as strength in a conditioned body

The second view of qi fits in more with Chinese concepts of acupuncture. This view sees the body as containing a number of muscle-tendon channels that run from finger tips to toes. On the soft yin parts on the front of the body we find the yin channels, and on the harder yang parts of the body, the yang channels. These qi channels are the channels along which strength can ‘flow’. By strength we’re not talking about the normal isolated limb movements, but the type of springy whole-body strength exhibited by animals and some marital artists. You can view movement in animals (and humans following this model) as a series of opening and closing movements using these channels. When we contract inwards, for example, we pull along the yin channels and when we open the body outwards we are pulling along the yang channels.

Think of the movements of a Cheetah running – as the legs stretch out the yin part on the front of the body is ‘opened’ and the back ‘closed’. As the legs retract inwards, the front closes and the back expands and opens. The process repeats in a cycle. This movement from yin to yang and back again is the Tai Chi cycle in action.

These channels are not real anatomical structures in the body, but constructed as distinct pathways containing various muscles, tendon, ligaments and fascia groups. (The acupuncture meridians that most people are familiar with are a similar idea, but came later and are obviously based on this idea of muscle-tendon channels in the body.)

In a normal human being these channels are not particularly strong or well developed, and work is required to strengthen them – to give you a “strong qi” – which is what neigong and chigong is for.
Qigong practice is therefore designed to condition these muscle-tendon channels – notice a lot of Qigong practice is to do with stretching along these muscle-tendon channels, using the breathing to assist (e.g. the baduanjin set of exercise). Over time this stretching and breathing can strengthen the channels so that they become a tangible, physical presence in the body. Once they are strong enough to physically manipulate the body with, various martial arts feats can be performed using them, like explosive punching (Fa Jin) or strong twisting and coiling movements.

You most often find this qi model used in arts like Chen Taijiquan, which is known for its twisting and coiling locking and throwing methods (chin na) and its explosive, whole body strikes called Fa Jin. Silk reeling exercises, which are part of Chen style Tai Chi, are excellent for developing this kind of conditioned strength.

Qi as a non-physical body

The final, more esoteric, view of Qi is as a non-physical body. Chinese medicine has the concept of the Sanbao – the three bodies. The physical body – Jing (related to our ability to replicate ourselves by reproduction), the energy or Qi body and Shen the mental or spiritual body. All three bodies are thought to inhabit us at once.

The physical body is the most apparent being the one we use most obviously, but through practices such as Zhang Zhuang Qi Gong, where you stand and hold postures over time, we can gradually become more aware of the more subtle energy body. The Qi body becomes apparent through sensation observed over time. The act of being aware of the qi body, usually in standing Qigong postures, (although seated or lying meditation practice also exists), strengthens your connection to it and your appreciation of it. The same is, presumably, also true of the Shen body, but that is not something I’ve ever experienced myself.

These more esoteric practices tend to be associated with spiritual groups (Taoist internal alchemy traditions), secret societies (exploited in the Boxer Rebellion) and martial arts groups that tend more towards stillness in their practice – like Yang style Taijiquan, or ones that practice seemingly impossible feats of conditioning, like iron palm and iron body practices.

While this view of qi is the one that’s hardest to ‘prove’, it’s also one of the most accessible. Practicing with stillness over a period of time can be done by anybody anywhere and usually produces some tangible results – heat in the hands, etc. But I think this is also the qi model it’s easiest to become deluded with. After all, if your only feedback is judging the things you experience yourself it’s easy to lose your objectivity. This is of course why having a good teacher is important.

Merry Christmas!

Kickboxing Santa Claus

As we find ourselves at the eve of yet another Christmas day, it’s time to reflect on what’s happened this year, the mistakes we’ve made and to think about what we can do to improve ourselves next year. So, (I’d like to own up to stealing this entirely from @arthurdent, but it’s a great message that I can totally get behind):

“In the spirit of the season, I don’t want to end the year on bad terms with anybody. So if you’ve crossed me or wronged me in some way, and you’re ready to apologise, I will be receiving DMs at this time.”

Merry Christmas!

Thoughts on Tai Chi Push Hands

Photo by mana5280 on Unsplash

Range

People tend to do push hands at the wrong range. I think the combat benefits of training push hands disappear almost entirely when you are too far out.

I notice when I train it with people they keep wanting to edge back. You need to be a range that feels uncomfortably close, until it feels comfortable.

If you look at MMA (sorry to use that as an example, if it rubs you the wrong way, but it provides brilliant examples and feedback of the dynamics of two people in a violent encounter) one of the big, high-percentage, often fight-ending, techniques is the counter left (or right) hook; the check hook. This happens after the fighter throws a jab – you move back (or slip) and throw your hook over the top – that’s the range push hands is working in, and a good practical example of what skill at that range can do.

If you watch this video of Cheng Man Ching pushing hands you can see he tries to stay in close all the time – in fact, when he’s launching people he kind of ‘cheats’ and takes an extra half step in so he’s right inside their base, which enables him to show off a bit more on the distance he can push them – this is only possible because they are keeping their ‘front door’ open with a wide stance. The way I was taught is that your toes match the opponent’s heels, fist width apart to allow for ‘shin biting’. (Lots of people do this distance correctly, but go shoulder width apart – leaving the groin too open and letting people step in to launch them. It’s just a bad habit to get into).

Don’t mistake push hands for sparring

Chinese martial art people in general I think spend too long in these double or single ‘arm contacted’ type positions – in more martial sparring sessions these moments happen in split seconds. People don’t stay here. If you end up putting your arms out looking for that position you get punched on the nose. I think doing too much of it breeds bad habits. You’re doing that ‘safe’ training to learn skills that are hard to acquire, which then get used in freer environments, rather than try to mimic the ‘safe’ environment in freer training.

Staying in this range all the time with another person doing ‘soft’ stuff like push hands seems to lead to teachers who start showing off and generating cult-like guru behaviour. It’s a trap you can fall into if you’re not careful. If your students start treating you like a holy saint, then that’s a red flag!

I’m really not a fan of the kind of following that builds around some of the big names in Tai Chi, like this guy, Adam Mizner. He plays the guru card well, and I’ve seen lots of videos where his students really overreact to him in a way that makes me think they all fell down a rabbit hole years ago. However, the guy clearly has some good skills at push hands, as you can see in this video. This video I think is one of the least worst of his I’ve seen (in terms of over reaction from his students) – yet the group still all stop what they are doing to ‘watch the master’ and play his guru game:

Fighting

It’s always worth repeating, even though its kind of obvious, – you don’t need push hands to fight. Combat sports turn out accomplished fighters quickly without these methods.

You can practice all the applications in a Tai Chi form in push hands – it’s one step up from doing them as stand alone techniques because it requires more timing, flow and ‘listening’, but this is still not ‘fighting’.

Jin

One of the reasons for push hands is to learn to use Jin not Li. For a short answer of what that means, I mean using the ground strength in your movement (jin), not local strength (li). It’s easy to fool yourself that you’re ‘doing it’ when you perform a Tai Chi form, because there’s nobody else there. Can you ‘do it’ when somebody is providing some light resistance? Or trying to ‘do it’ back to you? Push hands enables you to find out. I wish people would view push hands more as a tool for learning that, not as a competitive sport of limited wrestling. It’s like people have been given a knife, but they insist on using it like a spoon.

And the use of Jin in directions also requires a strategy to use them, which can also be practiced in the laboratory of push hands. Listen, stick, yield, neautralise and attack.

In push hands you ‘listen’ to the push from the opponent (with your body), you stick to their limbs (so you can feel and listen) then you yield to their pressure, which leads to neutralising their attack, so that you can attack yourself.

In sparring you use the same idea, but you cannot rely on being stuck to their arm. However, you need to keep the same process going that you’ve learned in push hands, just sometimes there will be no contact – you can still neautralise, and yield, through subtle changes in body posture and position, thanks to your use of sensitivity. Once you take ‘push hands’ into a more real sparring environment, I think you’re in the same territory where Xing Yi spends most of its time training. In Xing Yi it’s just the same idea, even if it looks different – you do not attack blindly at the opponent – that won’t lead to success against somebody good, bigger or stronger. In Xing Yi we have this phrase “don’t attack when you see an opening, attack when you see the heng” – I would interpret that as you only attack once the opponent’s attack has been neautralised (heng being the point of neautralisation); depending on your level of timing, this can be before the attack has even been launched. Good opponents will leave fake ‘openings’ for you to attack. Therefore you don’t attack based on what your eyes alone see – you attack based on feeling for that moment of neautralisation. Different training methods – same results.



Stephan Kesting on the martial arts life

In the latest episode of the Tai Chi Notebook podcast I’m talking to the man, the legend, that is Stephan Kesting. Stephan has taught thousands of people martial arts through his famous website grapplarts.com which, back in the day, was one of the first sites to put out quality Brazilian jiujitsu instructional material and is still putting out top notch instructional material today.


Stephan is a fireman, he has competed in marital arts, he has trekked across the Canadian wilds with a canoe and recently he’s undergone a full hip replacement and documented his recovery – and he’s about to return to training again, so he’s one tough old dude.


Stephan also hosts his own podcast, the Strenuous Life Podcast, which I’d recommend you listen to – because it’s always super interesting, especially his episodes debunking conspiracy theories.

Chinese martial arts: The place where theatre, religion and fighting meet

One of the ways you can tell genuine history from a ‘made up’ history (in Chinese martial arts, or in anything really), is that the real history is always pretty messy, convoluted and complicated, and a conveniently invented origin myth or history of a style is usually pretty simplistic. Tai Chi Chuan is a good example, I think. Attributing the origin of Tai Chi to one particular Taoist immortal, or one particular remote rural village, is a very neat and simple solution – and probably not the whole truth.

And I think the same thing applies to Chinese martial arts as a whole. The Chinese martial arts, (as we know them today) were not just invented fully formed, hundreds of years ago and have remained unchanged ever since. On this blog I’ve often quoted those who have proposed that kung-fu has a more convoluted pedigree than one might otherwise have expected. Historian Charles Holcombe’s excellent “Theatre of combat” on the subject of kung fu history from 1990 is a good starting point for this line of enquiry. Also check out my first podcast episode with Daniel Mroz.

To quote from Holcombe:

“In China the martial arts are far more than just techniques of hand-to-hand combat, although actual fighting skills are indeed traceable far back into antiquity. In China the martial arts are an aspect of religion, with all of the attendant mystery and miracles. At the same time, the public face of the martial arts has often been that of the entertainer, and the self-image of the martial artist has been thoroughly imbued with motifs drawn from fiction and the theater. The martial arts of today must be understood as a confluence of China’s unique approach to physical combat, Buddho-Taoist religion, and theater.”

Theater of Combat – Charles Holcombe

It’s worth reading that quote a couple of times.

One curious thing I’ve noticed from other martial artists is that they often can’t comprehend this argument at all. They don’t seem able, or unwilling, to hear it properly. Some internal bias seems to prevent it. I’ve had people come back to me a year later saying, “I thought you were saying that all Chinese martial arts comes from dance”. Or theatre. No, that’s really not what I’m saying. I’m saying, it’s complicated. I’ve even gone back to these people and shown them the exact thing I wrote, a year ago, saying exactly the opposite of what they think I said. But for some reason, it doesn’t go in. They hear what they think I’m saying rather than what I’m actually saying.

Real history is always complicated. “Kung Fu came from dance” is just too simplistic to be true.

Incidentally, the excellent Kung Fu Tea blog has written a long, and detailed post addressing Holcombe’s article: “Reevaluating the “Theater of Combat”: A Critical Look at Charles Holcombe, Popular Religion and the Traditional Chinese Martial Arts.”

RIP Dan Docherty, Tai Chi Gladiator

Sadly, yesterday the Tai Chi community lost Dan Docherty, who for a time was without a doubt the biggest name in Tai Chi in the UK. He represented a dynamic, full-contact style of Tai Chi that he learned during his time as a police man in Hong Kong from Grandmaster Chen Tin Hung and his 24 Nei Kung exercises, which he taught alongside his Tai Chi Chuan.

Dan was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease at age 56. He recently celebrated 50 years in martial arts this September and you can hear the story of his life, and diagnosis, told by the man himself here.

My condolences to family, friends and students. May he rest in peace

Was Stanley Henning wrong about Taijiquan?

Zhan Sangfeng

I’d just like to draw your attention to this excellent article by SSD about Stanley Henning’s often-quoted article Ignorance, Legend and Taijiquan’ on the origins of the term Taijiquan. Henning’s article is often used to discredit the idea of Taoist origins of Taijiquan. However, it’s not without its problems, as Adrian Chan-Wyles (ShiDaDao) writes:

The tone and design of this work is generally dismissive and denigrating toward the subject of Chinese traditional culture, and represents, in my opinion, a continuation of the imperialist Eurocentric attitude that is essentially ‘materialistic’ in nature, and implicitly ‘intolerant’ to any other world-view. Astonishingly, this attitude that misrepresents Chinese culture is prevalent (even dominant) amongst Western martial arts media, and is found within martial arts online discussion forums, etc. One or two Taijiquan magazines in the West even partake in this attitude that demeans the Chinese cultural basis of the martial art they practice and support. Working from Chinese language source texts – which I do – I can say without a doubt that Henning’s viewpoints are not acknowledged as legitimate, and are ignored in China. The idea that certain lineal descendants of the Wu family of Taijiquan claim to have written the Yang family Taijiquan Classic texts appears to be only a Western trend – as this idea is not accepted within China. Indeed, such a claim is viewed as the Wu family trying to raise their lineage of Taijiquan above that of the Yang, but again, such a phenomenon could only happen in the West, outside of the cultural controls of Chinese culture. What is important is that the traditional Chinese cultural heritage is acknowledged and treated with respect. SDD)

By Adrian Chan-Wyles (ShiDaDao) from https://thesanghakommune.org/2012/07/13/how-old-is-the-term-taijiquan/