The joy of Manchu Wrestling

In the last episode of the Heretics podcast we talked about Chinese wrestling – Shuai Jiao – but Damon also mentioned Manchu wrestling quite a bit. He described it, but you can’t get a proper idea of how it works without seeing it done, so let’s look a little closer.

Manchu wrestling is a unique form of puppetry popular in certain parts of China where the participant wears a life-sized puppet of two wrestlers in a costume that turns ther legs and arms into both the puppet’s legs. Various wrestling maneuvers are then performed. The skill is to make it look like the two puppets are really wrestling and pulling off moves on each other.

To a western martial artist interested in only “learning how to defend myself” this might all look a bit silly, but if you watch this documentary you’ll see that there’s quite a lot to it:

There are so many things here worthy of note.

  • Firstly, the connection between puppetry and Chinese martial art is ripe for research – I’m thinking of the other famous puppet show that martial artists are known for – Lion and Dragon dancing. These cultural and religious practices are still done by martial arts groups at demonstrations and festivals.
Photo by Quang Nguyen Vinh on Pexels.com
  • Everybody in the Manchu wrestling documentary calls it “wrestling” even though it’s a solo drill. They don’t call it a dance or puppetry. To them this is “wrestling”, but we’d never call it that in Britain, for example – I find that pretty interesting.
  • It’s a damn good work out. If you’ve ever done any BJJ floor drills where you walk around on your hands and feet you’ll know that it’s instantly exhausting. Manchu wrestling will get you fit! If you don’t believe me then have a go at some of these drills before you tell me I’m wrong:
  • Manchu wrestling actually looks pretty dangerous – you can easily break a wrist with the high-speed spinning they’re doing, especially if the stick you hold in the shoe breaks.
  • Mental health benefits: a part of the documentary is focused on the mental health benefits of Manchu wrestling, especially looking at its life-changing benefits for rural Chinese women whose lives seem to be reduced to raising children and farming. I found this interesting in light of how much mental health benefits are talked about in BJJ culture – “BJJ saved my life” is a commonly used phrase amongst gym rats. Perhaps there is something inherently therapeutic about any style of wrestling movements and the human body?

Wrestle with your hips, wrestle with your body

Saeed Esmaeli is my favourite wrestler, so I thought I’d share a couple of clips of him. I love the fact that he’s currently working out of a church with his classes, as you can see in his Instagram clips:

I like the way he’s emphasising using the whole body in his movements, not isolated leg and arms, much as we are encouraged to do in internal martial arts. “Wrestle with your hips, wrestle with your body”.

Wrestling arises spontaneously in every culture all over the world. Saeed’s branch has its roots in Iran. The story of how he comes to use a church is explained in this article from the Bristol 24/7. “THE UNLIKELY BOND BETWEEN AN IRANIAN WRESTLER AND A BRISTOL VICAR”

“Rather than striking, Pahlevani wrestling teaches students the art of grace under pressure, a great metaphor for dealing with the pressure that life can throw at us and one that reverend James Wilson can get on board with.

St Gregory the Great on Filton Road in Horfield officially opened its heavy oak doors to Wrestle for Humanity, a unique community Olympic wresting club and mental heath intervention service run by coach Saeed Esmaeli, whose mission is to make wrestling accessible and to help people feel good and perform well both on and off the mat.

Having experienced war, revolution and poverty, Iranian-born Saeed has overcome racism, bullying and grief and understands adversity. He brings a message of hope in his ‘infused psychology’ one-on-ones and in every community wrestling class.”

Bristol 24/7

As for the connection between martial arts and dance? Check it out!

Scandinavian gymnastics and Qigong

Mark Singleton wrote a book, Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, in which he questions the ancient roots of Yoga. Is it really old, ancient, or even Indian? You can read his article summarising his argument here.

“What did it mean that many of the poses I was teaching were identical to those developed by a Scandinavian gymnastics teacher less than a century ago? This gymnast had not been to India and had never received any teaching in asana. And yet his system, with its five-count format, its abdominal “locks,” and its dynamic jumps in and out of those oh-so-familiar postures, looked uncannily like the vinyasa yoga system I knew so well.” –

Mark Singleton, Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice

I really love discovering these odd curiosities of 19th and early 20th century European gymnastic or martial arts that look incredibly like what we practice in the Asian martial arts styles, Qigong or Yoga. The link between 19th century French Savate (kickboxing) and the Japanese version of Karate is another fascinating connection that I’ve looked at before.

Recently I watched another video about 19th century Swedish Free Gymnastics:

Swedish Free Gymnastics has long since declined, but was pretty popular in the 19th century. There are some great archive pictures and video of the movements in that video above, and they look incredibly like what we know in China as Qigong – the idea of slow, smooth, elegant movement with force balanced around the body. In fact, some of the positions look exactly like Qigong movements I’ve been taught and practiced myself.

“The Swedish system of gymnastics is distinguished from other methods in the fact that a special apparatus is not absolutely needed for its exercises. If any argument were necessary to prove the hygienic and intellectual benefits of physical exercise, in these days of varied athletics, a scrutiny of the handbook now under notice would excite due enthusiasm. The whole range of gymnastic performance, from the simplest to the most complex exercises, is herein put before the reader with explicit directions for practice, and with a gratifying abundance of illustrations. The fact that the English language has hitherto had no comprehensive manual on the Swedish system is the occasion of the publication ; the official service of Baron Posse confirms his fitness for the authorship of this book of rules; while in mechanical arrangement nothing seems to have been omitted that would induce fondness for gymnastic practice.”

Posse, Nils. The Swedish system of educational gymnastics. B

As the video says, the similarities have lead some people to wonder if Tai Chi Chuan (Taijiquan) was actually the inspiration for these movements. There was, after all, a political connection between China and colonialist Europe powers in the 19th century, that culminating in the Opium Wars.

The author of the video sensibly disagrees with the connection to Tai Chi Chuan, and so do I. For a start, I think these movements from Sweden are likely older than Tai Chi Chuan, The general assumption amongst people is that Tai Chi Chuan must be really, really old, yet there’s no evidence of its existence before Yang LuChan arrived in Beijing in the 1860s.

But leaving the Tai Chi Chuan question aside, the movements of Swedish Free Gymnastics look more like Qigong than Tai Chi Chuan anyway, but there are records of Chinese health movements (“tao yin”) stretching back thousands of years in China, so I don’t think we can claim a European origin for Qigong. Some sets like the Muscle tendon change set are really famous.

However, I wouldn’t discount the role of influence. The Europeans arriving in China in the 19th century in large numbers and with superior military force resulted in huge changes. As China began to experience defeat at the hands of the European powers, it turned it attention to modernising and adopting these new methods or warfare, economics and exercise. We talked a lot about this in our podcast episodes on the history of Tai Chi Chuan.

As China looked to the West new ideas of commerce, military methods and politics were considered for the first time. I wouldn’t be surprised if some element of the gymnastics of the time slipped in as well, as it did in India, with Yoga.

Park life

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.

Byron comments:

“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.”

Suspended from above. Bringing a sense of lightness to your Tai Chi.

One admonition from Yang Cheng Fu’s 10 important points, that has become something of a law in Tai Chi Chuan, is to ‘keep the head suspended, as if from above’. In the Tai Chi Classics it also states “Stand like a perfectly balanced scale and move like a turning wheel”, whilst also saying, “Don’t lean in any direction; suddenly appear, suddenly disappear.

These quotes have produced all sorts of controversies in the Yang style side of the Tai Chi universe. If you look at ChengFu’s student Cheng ManChing, who did so much to popularise Tai Chi in the West, you can see that he changed his form to truly embody this principle of suspending the head and standing like a perfectly balanced scale. In a forward posture, Cheng ManChing kept his head, neck and back vertical in relation to the ground at all times. He allowed no forward incline at all. To stay vertical he softened his back knee a bit, which removed the straight line from the heel to the head, producing a much softer posture than his teacher, Yang Cheng-Fu, exhibited.

Whereas, if you look at pictures of Yang Cheng-Fu in a similar forward posture you can clearly see that he holds his head in the same vertical alignment, but holds his back with a slight forward incline. He keeps his back leg straighter, forming a straight line from his back heel to his head, meaning that his posture is slightly harder than Cheng ManChings, and he exerts more of a forward pressure.

Both of these approaches can be seen as interpreting the advice to not “lean in any direction” differently. The situation becomes even more confusing when you look at the Wu style of Tai Chi Chuan, derived from the version of the form practiced by ChengFu’s peer Wu Jianquan. Wu holds an even more inclined position, which keeps the head vertical, but often seems to break the line at the hip, so that the back heel is no longer in a straight line all the way to the head. Being of Manchu heritage, Wu Jianquan had a shuai-jiao background. He was taught martial arts by his father who was a student of Yang LuChan and also a cavalry officer and imperial palace guard, as he was, so a change in his preference for grappling techniques could very well account for the changes in his version of the form.

I used to ponder these discrepancies a lot, but these days I have become more interested in the relation of the back (including the neck) to the hands and arms, regardless of its orientation in the vertical plane. When we lift and use our arms our tendency is to bend the top of our spine and drop the head forwards, a fact that can be proved each and every time you type on a laptop. The next time you’re sitting at a laptop observe what happens when you start to type. Notice that your head wants to move towards your focus of attention, the object you are interacting with.

Recently I was watching an excellent performance by a child doing Bak Sing Choy Li Fut, filmed in the 1960s. Young children doing martial arts can be great teachers because they effortlessly keep their posture as they move. It is only as we become adults that we seem to lose this ability.

Search for the video “Old Kung Fu Footage in Hong Kong in the 1960’s” on YouTube and you’ll see what I mean. Watch the good posture he keeps throughout – his back remains still in relation to the movement of his arms allowing his neck to stay extended and space and awareness to be present.

This is what I think is being asked for in Yang Cheng-Fu’s writings and the Tai Chi Classics, not mere fussing about how vertical a posture is. What is required is the freedom to move our arms, but to keep our back still, and maintain our head and neck relationship without falling into the trap of bending towards the object of our attention.

But how do we train this? Here’s something simple you can try. Get a 4-pint carton of milk out of the fridge and swing it in a figure of 8 in front of you. Now do it again and notice how you head wants to be pulled forward. Resist the pull and feel the work done by the neck and back muscles to prevent it from happening. It shouldn’t feel like they’re straining, but they should feel active.

You can do the same thing with a heavy sword, of course, if you want to look more like a traditional martial artist, and less like a deranged milk man. And once you get a feeling for it you can try it without a heavy object, in which case it becomes more like a silk reeling exercise, or you can try and keep the same feeling when you do the Tai Chi form. In which case it doesn’t look like anything.

Obviously, when you are standing still, or sitting, in meditation you can achieve the same relationship of the torso, neck, head and arms but with even less use of muscle to maintain the position. Initially at least. If you try standing in a Zhan Zhuang posture with your arms extended for a few minutes you’ll start to feel your neck and shoulder muscles tighten. This is where you need to work on relaxing them, yet maintaining your posture. You need to let the weight of the upper body rest on the lower body, and flow down into the ground through the centre of the foot, or through the sitting bones if you are seated.

A human head is quite heavy, at around 5KG, which is a lot more than a typical bowling ball weighs. If the head moves forward of the hips too far then we have to start using a lot of muscle to hold it up. In a way, the neck being tense, or feeling tired, after we’ve been doing an activity is a warning sign that we’re not using our body to the best of our ability. If we can maintain the relaxed, neutral, position of the neck through movement, then the weight of the head is transfered down to the ground through our frame instead. Our breathing will be better, and we won’t lose that sense of lightness and ease that the kid in the Choy Li Fut video from the 1960s so effortlessly demonstrates.

Finally, his idea of keeping an open relationship between the head, neck, back and arms raises a few good questions when applied to martial arts. What springs first to my mind is, should you have your head in that position to fight? I’d say probably not – you want to tuck your chin in a bit more when you fight, for obvious reasons, but the real question is how you tuck your chin. The idea of the extended neck that you’re training by working on your posture can be transferred into the way you tuck your chin. Dropping the head towards the opponent has all the same disadvantages we’ve outlined above when applied to martial arts, and will inhibit the free movement of your arms, so critical to fluid punching, not to mention making you more hittable.

So, keep your head up, as people say to you when you’re looking down. Walk lightly, smile brightly!

Xing Yi Quan by Tian Jinglong

Here’s a nice video of a Xing Yi Quan linking form showing some really nice Xing Yi Quan body methods.

Xing Yi Quan master Tian Jinglong (田景龙) shows Advanced and retreat linked form(Ji Tui Lianhuan(进退连环拳). Tian Jinglong is disciple of Li Jinbo(李金波), youngest student of legendary Hebei province warrior “Iron Luohan” Zhang Changfa (张长发aka Zhang Xiangzhai张祥斋) . Lineage: Li Luoneng(李洛能)—Liu Qilan(刘奇兰)—Liu Dianchen(刘殿琛)—Zhang Changfa(张长发)—Li Jinbo(李金波)—Tian Jinglong(田景龙)

Kung Fu work out with David Rogers

Michael Rook posted about an online course in Hap Gar that’s starting in January, so I thought I’d check it out and had a go with one of the free videos as my morning workout. The teacher is David Rogers of Rising Crane, and the workout is a nice, not too heavy, way to start your day while learning some Kung Fu. Plus it’s free, so give it a go! I really enjoyed it. After a warm up you’ll work on the first 5 basic punches of Hop Gar and some stances.

Richard is a teacher of Tai Chi and Hap Gar Kung Fu through the Rising Crane. David only takes one or two student groups a year for online learning, and it’s a very interactive, personalised training session so a whole group can move through it together, getting feedback as they go.

Registration is open for the next 7 days at Rising Crane Kung Fu Virtual Academy. He also has a Rising Crane Tai Chi Virtual Academy course starting this year as well.

I haven’t done Hap Gar before, but I’ve done a lot of Choy Lee Fut, and to my eyes there appears to be very little difference between the two. Hap Gar looks like a version of Choy Lee Fut to me, even the same names are used for the moves, so it was great to experience a Kung Fu style I was already familiar with, but from a slightly different perspective. I also liked his thoughts on fighting strategy for these long range styles that he gives at the end, around the 35 minute mark, plus I liked his thoughts on MMA.

That is one mean looking crane. Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The real secret to martial arts – Bruce Lee and the concept of Jeet

Today I want to talk about a very useful martial arts teaching called the 3 timings. In many ways, these teachings are the secret to all martial arts, so you’re getting some pretty good value out of this free blog post! 🙂

The three timings have been handed down in many different martial arts lineages under different guises, but it’s all the same teaching. I suspect the 3 timings are as old as time itself.

Personally, I’ve found the three timings most applicable to weapons work, but they are obviously important for barehand too.

Photo by Yaopey Yong on Unsplash

The version of the 3 timings handed down in my Chinese lineage was called “Yi timing, Chi timing and Xing timing”, but in English you’ll find them explained perfectly well by Paul Vunak here as simply, before, during and after:

Paul Vunak is a Jeet Kune Do teacher. Bruce thought the concept of “Jeet” was so important he named his martial art after it. The “Jeet” in Jeet June Do means to intercept, and intercepting is what the 3 timings are all about.

The 3 timings is a pretty simple concept. You can hit somebody:

  1. After” they have completed their technique (xing timing), for which you obviously have to move out of the way before you respond. This is the slowest timing and easiest to perform.
  2. During” their attack (chi timing). This is a much shorter timing, and it could end up in a simultaneous strike where you both hit each other, but ideally you would just sneak in first and beat them to the punch.
  3. And finally, “before” they strike you (yi timing). This is the hardest timing to achieve, because it’s very easy to get wrong. For true Yi timing you need to hit them before they launch their attack, but equally, their attack does need to be a genuine attack. If you fire on Yi timing (”intention” timing), and they are faking, or not attacking, you’ll end up out of position and vulnerable. Yi timing therefore requires immense practice and sensitivity so that you can accurately read the whole situation in the blink of an eye.

Timing is the ultimate skill in martial arts. If you are a master of timing, then you almost don’t need any technique. If we are both holding swords and I can always time my attack to hit you anytime you come towards me then I can forget about “Green Dragon Scoops the water” or whatever fancy technique I know. It all becomes irrelevant.

So how do you practice the 3 timings? Well, I’d suggest that the first stage would involve getting a partner, like Mr Vunak has done in that video, and practicing responding to set attacks, so you can develop a feel for each timing. Obviously this would need to be done predictably at the start then slowly more variation can be introduced and the sparring can become freer. Instead of the other person just feeding attacks, they can try to start to make their own attacks and counters.

If you practice barehand and with weapons then you’ll notice how much quicker the timing needs to be with weapons. You have so much less time to react. In fact, going back to barehand after using weapons you will almost feel like you are moving in slow motion, which is a handy skill to have for obvious reasons.

With the timings at the heart of your practice you might also change the way you think about moving in martial arts. Ways of moving that require a unity of body and mind become much more important. You need to move everything together, and as one, to hit your timings.

The words of the Xing Yi Classic of Unification become more important:

“When the upper and lower move, the centre will attack.
When the centre moves, the upper and lower support,
Internal and external, front and rear are combined,
This is called “Threading into one”,
This cannot be achieved through force or mimicry.”

Hundreds of years after these words were written, Bruce Lee came to the same conclusions, and based his new martial art around the concept of timing, naming it Jeet Kune Do, the way of the intercepting fist.

Is there really only one style of Tai Chi?

Time to address some more comments generated by my Whole body movement post. Oliver Gerets writes:

“The body can move/coordinate in an almost unlimited number of ways. These kind of oversimplified comparisons are useless and misleading. There is no general/right way of “whole body movement” in Taijiquan. Every school/lineage is at least slightly different. “

This is an interesting point. Are all the different styles of Tai Chi actually different martial art styles, or are they all one? The generally accepted wisdom on the matter (Chinese government-backed) is that (in theory) there is only one style of Tai Chi. But when you get on the ground, in amongst the weeds, then it’s really hard to see how somebody doing Sun style Tai Chi is doing the same thing as somebody doing Chen style, and how either of them are doing the same thing as somebody doing Yang style. Sure, if you follow the sequence of their long forms, they follow roughly the same order, but the stances are all different and the type of body movement looks different. They might have had the same starting point, but over the years, they seem to have diverged significantly.

Or have they? Let’s return again to the three principles I listed as the essence of Tai Chi whole body movement in my last post.

1) moving from the dantien
2) power up from the ground (jin) – rooted in the feet, expressed by the fingers.
3) coiling and spiraling actions from the dantien out to the extremities and back.

You can argue that these 3 things are happening in all Tai Chi styles. 

giphy-3

Sun style.

giphy-4

Yang style

giphy-5

Chen style

 

But, the hard truth is that number 1 is not always observed in most practitioners, and number 3, is most often dropped entirely in the styles that don’t start with a letter C in their name.

Is that a bad thing? It’s point 2 that is the most important. Point 2 can be done without point 1 and 3 and you still have a functional martial art. Point 2 is also the thing I see that ties together all the “internal” arts in the most obvious way – Bagua, XingYi and Tai Chi Chuan.

We only have so many hours to train a week. I think you could make an argument that if you want to get anywhere in Tai Chi, then you’re better off spending most of your time working on point 2 anyway.

If you add in points 1 and 3 then you get even better movement. It’s a different type of movement. I think it’s worth investing time in learning points 1 and 3 as well, but make no mistake – it’s a significant investment of time. A good place to start is a simple single arm-waving silk reeling exercise:

Oliver’s final point is:

“There is no sense in moving like a cheetah, only if you want to run in a similar way. Which is not useful as a human being.”

It’s peculiar that he’s written this in a Facebook group (Ancestral Movement) which seems to enjoy looking at the way animals move and what we can learn from them. As mammals, our bodies really aren’t that different. Generally, we all have a spine, 4 limbs and a head.

64b8f401376e3cf8eb012c9de816b3c4

I’m not suggesting that we should pretend to be a horse or a cheetah, but the principles of movement in mammals are shared amongst all species. Even us.

Here’s a review of an Ancestral Movement seminar, if you want to find out more about it.

Tai Chi: One part moves, all parts move

pexels-photo-62376.jpeg

Photo by Snapwire on Pexels.com

I’ve been thinking of the way to describe what ‘whole body movement’ means in Tai Chi. The problem is describing a specific feeling, or body movement using words, which leaves the meaning open to interpretation and misunderstanding.

In Yang Cheng-Fu’s Ten Important Points, No. 7 says:

“7.) Coordinate the upper and lower parts of the body. The T’ai Chi Ch’uan Classics say “the motion should be rooted in the feet, released through the legs, controlled by the waist and manifested through the fingers.” Everything acts simultaneously. When the hand, waist and foot move together, the eyes follow. If one part doesn’t follow, the whole body is disordered.”

This is an expanded version of the more condensed and often heard phrase: “One part moves, all parts move”. But it’s also misleading.

If you take the line “Everything acts simultaneously” at its literal meaning you don’t have Tai Chi movement. You have robot dancing.

Now don’t get me wrong. I like robot dancing as much as the next Peter Crouch fan, but it’s not Tai Chi. When you see a performer doing the robot dance she often swivels the waist sideways, or dips the hip with the arm locked to the body. With the dip the whole torso and arms all move downwards together, simultaneously. Something like this:

giphy

It’s fairly obvious that this is not what is meant by Yang Cheng Fu when he says to move the body parts simultaneously, and yet I do see people falling into this trap quite often. They obviously had no intention to set out moving like a robot, but when the brain gets the idea that the body must move as a unit, the resultant expression can often end up far from the mark.

Instead, the way the body moves in Tai Chi should be more like ripples emanating from a stone dropped in a lake. The central point is the dantien. The waves begin there and ripple out to the extremities (feet, head and hands).

giphy-1

When you move, the dantien moves first, and the rest of the body follows in a coordinated action, almost as if dragged by the dantien. It is loose, connected, relaxed and powerful, rather than stiff, jerky and ’empty’.

The parts of the body don’t all move together at exactly the same time, otherwise you’ll end up like a robot. Instead, you want to be more like the way an animal moves. Animals demonstrate some of the best, most graceful, full-body, co-ordinated movement you’ll ever see.

The Cheetah is the classic one that’s used to illustrate open and close in the body, but also the directed head position. Just look at how the head helps with the coordination when running here:

giphy-2

While we run with a torso held in the vertical plane and the Cheetah runs with the torso in the horizontal plane, the head position remains key.

Point 1 of Yang Cheng-Fu’s 10 Important Points is:

1.) Head is held upright to let the shen rise to the top. Don’t use li, or the neck will be stiff and the chi and blood cannot flow through. It is necessary to have a natural and lively feeling. If the spirit cannot reach the headtop, it cannot raise.

In the Cheetah, the engine is the dantien area. The torso does big opening and closing movements as it sprints and the head points the way, keeping the spine flexible, but extended.

Be less robot, be more Cheetah.