In part 12 we pick up our series on Xing Yi with a new dynasty, the Yuan, examining the social changes that Mongol rule brought to China and their implications for the martial arts through the lens of the artwork of the period.
Damon also covers a bit on Marco Polo and covers one of the central points of the podcast series, that he’s building the historical case for the connection between Xing Yi and Yue Fei – essentially the idea that it’s not a fiction, joke or a legend – it’s just that people are framing the question in the wrong way.
Gongki’s Horse painting, which he uses as an example of Chinese political art from the period:
There’s a great article on Jiujitsu Style about the late, great, Anthony Bourdain and his love for BJJ, which he took up later in life. Over four years, Bourdain posted on the BJJ Reddit forum, r/bjj, as NooYawkCity 80 times before his death. He wasn’t doing it to promote a book or new TV show. He was just doing it because he loved BJJ, and his writing was real, honest, unflitered and above all, relatable.
Here’s an example:
“58 years old and getting so gassed during warm ups, that when we start to roll, I end up sticking my own head into an obvious guillotine –just to take a break. An utterly humiliating class yesterday, yet showed up for a private today with 250 lbs of muscle and bone so I could get pounded like a chicken fried steak . Why am I doing this? I don’t know. I’m like a dope fiend at this point. If I can’t train I start going into withdrawal. Wander around, twitching, restless and pissed off. At least with dope, you feel GOOD afterwards. After training, I feel like a rented and unloved mule . All the other (much, much younger) white belts all seem to be coming back from long breaks because of injury. Strangely enough, so far so good for me. I may feel like a fragile box of stale breadsticks but I’ve managed to avoid injury (if not discomfort). I have never enjoyed pain. I don’t care if it’s Gisele Bunchen coming at me in thigh boots wielding a riding crop, I’m not interested. Yet I insist on getting squashed on the mats every day and feel bereft if I can’t. This is not normal. When I talk about BJJ , Old friends look at me like I have an arm growing out of my forehead. But I Won’t stop. Can’t stop.” – NooYawkCity, July 9th, 2014
An interesting video has surfaced that links the guard postures used in Shuai Jiao (Chinese Wrestling) with postures in various Chinese martial arts. The premise of the video is that Shuai Jiao is the root of all the Chinese martial styles. The text accompanying the video says:
“Guards in traditional Chinese wrestling are meant to favor certain fighting techniques and strategies. Since Shuai Jiao is very ancient and there are precise references in these guards to the styles that exist today, traditional wrestling is at the roots of Chinese styles. My Master Yuan Zumou has clearly stated this for over thirty years. In Shuai Jiao these attitudes are not aesthetic, but are used in real combat. I have put the captions of the styles I know or of those that maestro Li Baoru (Beijing, late 80s) mentions in the video.”
It’s an interesting theory, but unfortunately I can’t agree with such a blanket statement as “traditional wrestling is at the roots of Chinese styles“. Was it a strong influence on all Chinese styles? Yes, of course. But calling it the root of all styles is a bit strong for me. Some styles developed entirely from military practices, and a lot of styles have no wrestling component at all, or have their roots in weapons usage.
I can certainly see postures in the video that resemble Tai Chi – particularly the “White Stork Cools Wings” posture and another guard that looks a little like the “Wave Hands Like Clouds”. But we only have two arms and two legs – inevitably there are going to be similarities between postures found in different martial arts. That alone doesn’t confirm a genuine historial link. Influences betweewn marital arts can flow in both directions, too. So it’s quite possible that wrestling has been influenced by local village styles. And even things that are not necessarily combat arts, like xìqǔ, can have an influence on them.
I’d also have to take issue with the statement that “In Shuai Jiao these attitudes are not aesthetic, but are used in real combat.” Let’s not even get into the idea of what “real combat” is (Shuai Jiao matches have rules, after all) but it’s a simple fact that Shuai Jiao was enjoyed in the royal court in the Ching Dynasty (and probably all the dynasties before it) as a kind of entertainment for the nobles. The same thing happened in the Japanese royal court with Sumo, just as medieval kings in Europe enjoyed watching martial games like jousting and fencing. And obviously wrestling is still enjoyed as a kind of popular entertainment in America and Mexico today.
But let’s turn our attention to the contend of the video. A lot of the guards being demonstrated look quite showy to me – as if they were designed to impress an audience, particularly the Wave Hands Like Clouds style guard, where the practitioner seems to deliberately trip over his own legs.
But I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Ever since modern Wu Shu put the emphasis on gymnastic ability over practicality, people have been searching for this false dichotomy between performance and practicality in historical martial arts, too. It’s almost like a real martial art isn’t allowed to have any ‘fun’ aspects to it. In reality, and with several historical examples, a martial art can be both a serious, practical tool for combat, and something that can be performed for social, entertainment and cultural reasons all at the same time.
Choy Li Fut schools often perform lion dance, and that doesn’t mean their kung fu won’t work in a fight. Similarly, I would contend that Shuai Jiao can be used as a form of entertainment and a practical method of self defence. Just like almost all Chinese martial arts can.
Friend of the Notebook, Byron Jacobs, who lives in Beijing, recently posted a video giving a glimpse into the martial arts culture found in Beijing parks. You can see people doing all sorts of martial practices, like calisthenics, chi kung, Tai Chi, sword and push hands.
“Beijing’s public spaces and parks have been gathering places for people from all walks of life for generations. This includes martial artists, who would meet regularly at such places to practice as part of their general lifestyle. Throughout the many parks of the capital, you can find practitioners of various styles and standards getting together to train regularly. This is a glimpse of some of these special places. The first episode features the Temple of Heaven.”
Dim mak, pressure points, high kicks and nerve strikes! Along with permed hair, styled into a mullet, and blue jeans, these were part of the staple diet of kung fu magazines in the 1980s and 1990s. But pressure point striking quickly became something of a running joke once people found out that it couldn’t be applied in a real fight, you know, when somebody was actually trying to punch your face in, not just when they were standing in front of you passively in the dojo, happily waiting for you to strike their Gallbladder 15 or Lung 4 points.
The reputation of pressure point striking wasn’t helped by the many obvious charlatans peddling their fake pressure point striking systems on DVD and on seminar circuits. These ‘masters’ tended to only demonstrate their skills on their own gullible students, and they rarely seem to work on other people, who hadn’t been brainwashed to think they were the second coming.
But while falling foul of reality, pressure point striking carried on a healthy second life in the fantasy-based genre of martial arts movies. For example, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon had a great scene where one of the fighters is almost instantly paralysed by some quick pressure point tomfoolery until he can be released by yet more pressure point touching.
And in Kill Bill: Volume 2, the late David Carridine famously succumbed to Bak Mei’s legendary 5 point palm exploding heart technique, delivered deliciously by Uma Thurman.
Even as recently as 2021, in the Marvel TV series, Falcon and the Winter Soldier, homage was paid to the pressure point movie trope with a body-popping sequence that made the Winter Soldier’s metal arm suddenly detach from his shoulder and fall to the floor with a clank, turning him from super soldier into one-armed bandit with one simple cheat code.
However, if you ignore the mystical nonsense surrounding pressure point striking you’ll find that it is actually based on some pretty sound scientific principles. In a recent UFC 252 match Anthony Smith seemed to paralyse Jimmy Crute’s leg with a well-delivered calf kick.
After the kick, Crute’s leg seemed to be unable to function in a way that was almost comical. Crute bravely tried to fight on, but his leg was so unusable after the strike that the ring doctor waved the fight off when he was unable to walk in a straight line properly between rounds. I’m sure I heard Pak Mei chuckle quietly to himself in his grave when it happened.
So how was this possible? The answer lies in nerves.
As orthopedic surgeon Dr Lucius Pomerantz explains, on his YouTube channel, the phenomenon is called Drop Foot, and it’s what happens when the peroneal nerve sustains an injury. “When a nerve does not work the muscles that it innervates do not receive messages from the brain. When the peroneal nerve is injured the muscles that raise the foot at the ankle do not work – the foot drops down. Simply walking can be extremely difficult without the ability to raise the foot.”
So, there you have it. A pressure point strike achieved via a calf kick in MMA! I’m glad pressure points are making a comeback, and I hope we’ll see more of them in the future.
I just hope the permed mullet doesn’t make a comeback as well.
Michael does something similar while brushing his teeth, but he stands on one leg instead.
It turns out that your ability to stand on one leg for an extended period of time is a good indicator of how long you’re going to live, and it decreases significantly after age 35. It’s something to do with the brain slowing down as we age and the fact that balance requires the integration of so many body systems, but the good news is that we can improve our balance with practice.
You can give your self a little test of your balance right now if you like. Try and stand on one leg for 30 seconds each side, and for 10 seconds with your eyes shut. Be careful though, standing on one leg with your eyes shut is very tricky!
So, what’s the best way to improve you balance? Professor Dawn Skelton from Glasgow Caledonian University was interviewed in the programme about all things relating to balance, and at 10 minutes 59 seconds she recommends Tai Chi as one of the best activities to improve your balance and prevent your first serious fall – especially for old people. It is 3 dimensional movement, so your head moves at different times to the rest of your body, and because it’s slow and controlled you get great feedback from joints.
So there you go – yet more evidence that Tai Chi is good for you and will help you live longer!
We are constantly bombarded with the idea that we need to drink quite a large volume of water a day. Have you ever tried to drink the recommended 3 litres, or 8 cups, of water in a day? It’s actually pretty hard to do, and you’ll end up going to the toilet constantly. At least, that’s my experience!
After listening to the new Body Stuff podcast from TED Audio Collective by Dr Jen Gunter I now realise that this commonly accepted myth was spread by bottled water and sports drink companies using bogus science. It’s a better idea to simply drink when you feel thirsty – unless you have some sort of medical condition.
Give the podcast a listen, because it’s pretty good. You can find it on Apple Podcasts.
Here’s the info on the show:
Body Stuff with Dr. Jen Gunter, the newest podcast from the TED Audio Collective, launches on May 19. Body Stuff will bust the lies you’re told — and sold — about your personal health. Body Stuff is hosted by celebrated OB/GYN, pain medicine physician and TED speaker Dr. Jen Gunter, who has made it her mission to combat health misinformation online and isn’t afraid to take on the world’s biggest peddlers of it — from lotions and potions to diets and detoxes.
Each week’s episode debunks a medical myth and turns us into experts by demystifying how our bodies work. For example, did you know that you don’t actually need eight glasses of water a day? Or that you can’t “boost” your immune system? With humor and wit, Dr. Jen Gunter is here to educate you, while also disproving myths that have been around for centuries.
Thanks to the wonders of modern technology your favourite Tai Chi blog is now available in podcast form. No, not that one, I mean, my blog, The Tai Chi Notebook.
A glorious computer voice called Cassidy now reads my blog posts and publishes them as an audio podcast, so I don’t have to. I’m still playing around with the system, so I imagine it will start badly and get better 🙂
Anyway, my first episode, my review of Kent Howard’s Introduction to Baguazhang is now live as a podcast episode. Enjoy!
Baguazhang has always been the most curious of the three big internal arts, but while its origins are shrouded in mystery, it’s applications non-trivial and its purpose often obscure, it’s actual practice has always been something that is accessible to anybody who can put one foot in front of the other and walk in a circle.
And getting you to put one foot in front of the other is exactly how Kent Howard’s Introduction to Baguazhang starts off. Without being too specific of any particular style of Baguazhang, Howard’s book lays out the basic content found in most styles of Baguazhang, like the first two palm changes, teacups exercise, circle walking techniques and mother palms, and mixes in some advice on fluid movement, combat applications, standing practice and how to generate power from the root.
In terms of practical advice, Howard covers how to step in a basic circle, and the different ways to changing direction – L steps, T steps and V steps – in a lot of detail. But when it comes to the more complicated things like palm changes you are given pictures to follow rather than detailed step-by-step instruction.
In that respect, the book is exactly what it says it is – an introduction. The “Advanced practices” promised on the cover are certainly included, but not in a “how to do them” sort of way.
Regardless, it’s nice to see such a professional quality book produced on Baguazhang. The production quality is really high – with nice printing and a nice, readable font. The pictures are only black and white, but big and clear enough to see what’s intended, and time has been spent making sure it’s all been properly edited and proofed.
At various points Howard hands over to other authors – Wang Shu Jin’s “The Eight Character Secrets of Baguazhang” from his Bagua Swimming Body Palms book is here, for example, and some commentary from Darius Elder from the same book is reprinted, too.
I found it a bit of a shame he hands over the reins, as the book starts to feel like a collection of other people’s stuff towards the end, and Howard’s own voice, so much in force at the start, is witty, off beat and funny. I’d have liked it more if he’d continued in the same vein throughout.
Minor gripes aside, Howard’s Introduction to Baguazhang is a valuable addition to the literature available on this spinning, circular art that captivates so many people. If you’re looking to take your first steps into Baguazhang then it’s an excellent guide. You’ll certainly be able to learn how to walk a circle, perform the tea cups exercise and have a go at the palm changes. There’s also plenty of advice here that will guide you in the years ahead when you’re much further advanced in your practice.
If I had a pound for every time I’ve heard a Chinese martial artist start to explain the history of their style in a way that means, by sheer coincidence, that their particular lineage is the most special and authentic example of all the different branches of their style, then I’d be as rich as a relative of a Conservative MP in 2020 with no previous experience of procuring PPE equipment.
So, what’s going on here? Obviously not every single Chinese martial artist you talk to can have the ultimate lineage of a style, so one of two things is happening here. Either, you’ve just happened to bump into that one guy on the planet who has the best version of this style known to mankind… Or, like most human beings, the person talking lacks the self awareness to see that they are parroting a line they’ve been sold, and that they’re now selling to you. Everybody likes to think that they are doing the real thing, and that means, that all the other people who do their martial art a bit differently to them therefore can’t also be doing the real thing. As a side note, I think the elaborate and fanciful origin stories of most Chinese martial arts serve a similar purpose – to make the students confident that their style is somehow better than the others.
The most recent example of this phenomina I’ve listened to was in an episode of a podcast featuring a Chen style lineage holder talking about why his style is the best. The whole episode is essentially about who has the real Chen style lineage – the Beijing Chen group or the Village Chen group. I don’t do Chen style myself, and don’t really have any desire to either, so I don’t have a dog in the fight, but listening to the long, convoluted reasoning he used to explain exactly why his lineage is better than the others, I do wonder if he’s ever stopped to listen to himself?
Martial arts styles are essentially brands, and everybody involved is selling you their particular brand in one way or another, whether they realise it or not. This is a cynical view to take on martial arts, I agree, but I think it’s also historically accurate. Martial arts styles only appeared in China the age of commercialism when people realised that it was possible to make money teaching them. Before that different styles didn’t necessarily have different names, or names at all. Once you could make money teaching it was necessary to differentiate your particular style from others, otherwise, how would you attract students?
I don’t mean to single out the Chen style guy – he’s not alone by a long stretch – but it seems to me that all Chinese martial artists have some version of the same story they tell themselves about why their lineage is the most special, unique or authentic. Heck, I used to be one of those guys myself!
This is usually the point where my very wise Polish BJJ friend taps me on the shoulder and reminds me with his usual Spartan brevity that the only reason lineage becomes important is because the art has died and nobody is using it to fight with any more.
Again, that sounds a bit harsh, but he could well be right. BJJ is a brand like any other martial arts, and very marketing heavy, but in BJJ circles people don’t tend to care about lineage in the way they do in Chinese martial arts because the art has a healthy competiton culture. Nobody would say things like, “This is not the real Rio De Janeiro style of jiujitsu”. They’d just get laughed out of town for saying that. In BJJ, if you can make a technique work in training, or even better, in competition, then it’s valid. There is no need for any other type of validation. If it works, it works. You are expected to add to it and innovate. I really like that. Sure, there are a few branches of the BJJ tree that venerate the original self-defence orientated teachings of Helio Gracie as if they were written in stone, and refuse to modernise for fear of losing their street effectiveness, but they’re not that big a deal in the great scheme of things. The rest of the BJJ world carefully steps around them so they can carry on living in the 1930s without affecting anybody else. It’s not a big problem.
Lineage is real. It exists. But surely, what matters more is what we can actually do with the art?
My question is always, “does it work?” If it does, I’m interested.