A blast from the past – Yongquan demo 2003


This video is a blast from the past (for me, at least). It was filmed in 2003 and I’m in it!

It’s the film of a demonstration the Yongquan Chinese Martial Arts group did in London. There are lots of the arts I was training at the time shown off here – Choy Lee Fut, Northern Shaolin, Tai Chi, Push Hands, then some breaking demonstrations. I’m doing a broadsword form in the demo that I can’t even remember anymore! There’s some Iron palm (a granite pebble broken with a chop) from Donald and a kerb stone gets broken over Doug’s head with a sledge hammer!

Since I was actually in this demo I know that none of these materials are faked – they’re all the genuine article. Real bricks, etc..

At the end of the demonstration there are some clips of us practicing for the demo. These are more enjoyable for me to watch as they bring back some good memories of training with my teacher and the rest of the guys back in the day.

What I like most in the video is the very last clip, where Doug is practising the Press (Ji) technique from Tai Chi on a line of people. Done right it’s meant to be very minimal physical effort with a big results (using Jin not Li) – the power should penetrate through the line of people so that the people at the back of the line fly away first. He does a ‘not very good’ version of it (too much Li – physical force) so it all looks very physical. Donald comes over to tell him off and show him how it should be done, and without any set up does a perfect Ji – really minimal effort and the guy at the end of the line flies off – then Doug has another go and gets it right. I’m glad that got captured on video.




The professor

I can’t let the new documentary on Professor Cheng Man Ching, one of the early pioneers of Tai Chi in the West, slip out without giving it a mention on this blog.


Much has already been said about it, so there’s not too much more to add, except that I haven’t seen it yet, and I might blog again after watching it, because it will probably stimulate some thoughts.

Cheng Man Ching is one of those contentious figures who splits opinion. By being one of the very few people in the US publicly teaching Tai Chi in the 1960s, and thanks to the gushing endorsement in books by his student Robert Smith, and his ability to push big, heavy Westoners around with comparative ease, Cheng very quickly achieved a big reputation.


Cheng modified the Yang Tai Chi form he learned from Yang Cheng-Fu, creating one of the first short forms of Tai Chi. His Tai Chi also had a distinctive look compared to his teachers – in (I believe) an effort to stick as closely as possible to the writings of the Tai Chi classics, he changed some of the postures slightly, adopting a more upright body, and a softer hand and arm position. Some would say his Tai Chi was too soft, and his influence is responsible for the typical ‘soft like a noodle’ style of doing Tai Chi often found in the West. But if you watch  him do his form, you can see that he looks solid as hell. He exudes the ‘peng’ quality of energy rising upwards and outwards, and being rooted in the legs.

Undoubtedly he was an example of what happens when a small fish in a big pond suddenly becomes the only fish in a very small pond, but he was also a skilled practitioner of Tai Chi. Of that there can be no doubt. Was he also a world class martial artists? No, probably not. Did his students put him on an unrealistic pedestal? Yes, undoubtedly they did. But that’s what happens with human beings. We’re like that with people we admire.

You can watch the trailer here:

Don’t push the river, listen to it instead


Bruce Lee was onto something with his water analogies…

I recently read the phrase, “Don’t push the river, listen to it instead”, and it resonated deeply with me because it’s a great way of summing up my approach to jiujitsu’s rolling and tai chi’s push hands. The water analogy was famously used by Bruce Lee and also crops up a lot in the Tai Chi classics, for example “Chang Ch’uan [Long Boxing] is like a great river rolling on unceasingly.”

The flow of water is analogous to the flow of energy, or movement, when performing a Tai Chi form, or between two people engaged in a martial activity . In both jiujitsu and tai chi your ultimate goal is to ‘go with’ this flow in such a way that you come out on top. You want the opponent to be undone by their own actions.

In jiujitsu that might mean not using excessive strength to press home a collar choke from mount if your partner is defending it well, and switching to an armbar instead, then switching back to the collar choke (and hopefully getting it) when they defend the armbar.

In push hands it could mean not resisting your partner’s push and using Lu to let it pass you by, then switching to an armbar to capitalise on their over extension.

Of course, this is for when you’re engaged in the ‘play’ mode of both these arts, which is the mental space you need to occupy if you want to get better at either of them. This is the relaxed practice that nourishes the soul. It kind of goes without saying that in competition or in a self defence situation you’d be better off in Smash Mode. But when winning isn’t the only thing that’s important you need to open up your game a little and keep it playful. Or ‘listen to the river’ as the phrase has it. It takes a lot of expertise to be able to be that relaxed in a real situation, but as your experience in the art increase so too should your ability to remain relaxed under increasing amounts of pressure.

Rickson Gracie said, ‘you can’t control the ocean but you can learn to surf’ and that’s the heart of what I’m talking about.

To be aware of the way the river is flowing, and not waste futile energy pushing it in a direction it doesn’t want to go you need a degree of self awareness, and the ability to be aware of the situation you are in. And to get that you need to slow down and stay calm. Or, as the ancient Taoists said:

“Do you have the patience to wait

Till your mind settles and the water is clear?

Can you remain unmoving

Till the right action arises by itself?”
Lau Tzu, Tao-te-Ching

Rollback – the unfinished technique

Here’s the best thing to do after you’ve applied Tai Chi’s rollback.


One of the things that comes up a lot in Tai Chi push hands training that’s geared towards the martial side of Tai Chi is what to do with the opponent after you’ve done Rollback. Rollback uses Lu energy to lead the opponent in and control them, with their arm kind of locked, but not to the point where they’d tap. In the Yang form there’s no ‘finish’ from this position – after controlling them you strike with Press (Ji). This is ok, but to me it seems like you’re giving up the advantage you have over them because of the control that rollback affords in exchange for a quick strike. It looks like this:


There are several alternative things you can do – turn it into a push away (into a wall?), turn it into a takedown where you keep the pressure on the arm and shoulder, forcing them into the ground, or you can go for my preferred answer, which is to turn it into a standing arm bar as shown in this video:

Key things to note:

1. He puts his elbow over the top of their arm and makes sure the locked arm is snug in his armpit.

2. On the locked arm the little finger edge is pointing to the sky.

3. In the finish position he rotates his wrists around the opponent’s wrist so that both his thumbs point upwards – this gives you maximum leverage on the arm.

4. Once the opponent is controlled you can look around and watch out for further danger from somebody else.

I like this solution because it’s a really powerful arm lock and you can move into it from the end of the Tai Chi rollback posture fairly easily. You can feel it would be easy to break the arm from here, and the opponent is pretty much helpless. Obviously, in a self defence situation the level of force you exert needs to match the severity of the threat you feel you are under, so don’t go breaking the arm of people who have innocently patted you on the back, and also take care of your training partners. Don’t break your toys!


The Tai Chi magician

Woo! Everywhere is Woo!

Tai Chi, like all other traditional martial arts, contains some aspect of performance, show or magic trick. See my previous post about meeting Scott Phillips for more on this idea, but in short, public demonstrations for entertainment have always been a part of the traditional Chinese martial arts. Martial arts street ‘buskers’ doing gymnastic performances, kung fu schools doing en masse demonstrations of their skills, the Shaolin Monks touring the world with their concrete-breaking, skull-cracking performances, etc… The list goes on.

In Tai Chi the publicly-expected demonstration of skill has turned into something more subtle and suitably ‘Taoist’ than merely breaking concrete blocks, or wooden boards. It seems to come down to a ‘master’ figure demonstrating how far he can push a student back with a very light touch, and while it may not be explicitly stated, the assumption is that the master is demonstrating his Chi Power. Sometimes touch is not even necessary and it is done through thin air by the master merely waving his hands at the student. The bigger the reaction of the student then the better the master, or so the unspoken rule seems to go.

Yes, there can be some functional use to this sort of pushing demonstration as a teaching aid. From the students point of view they get to feel what it’s like when somebody with skill puts hands on them and pushes them backwards. Ideally, from a Tai Chi perspective, it should feel different to a muscular, forceful push. It’s not much use as a self-defence technique, but it’s good for demonstrating the type of force you want to be developing in Tai Chi – using the force of the ground via the legs, controlled by the waist and channeled into the hands. It’s a smooth type of effortless power, rather than using the shoulders or back to do a muscular ‘stiff’ sort of push. The difference is subtle and getting hands-on with your teacher is essential if you’re ever going to learn what it is, because you need to feel what it is not, too.

The problem arrises when when the student’s reactions become hyped up in public. In an effort to not let their teacher lose face they can start to over-react to the push. They start to stiffen their arms, and straighten their legs, resulting in a curious type of ‘hop’. It’s not like an agreement was explicitly made before the demonstration that the student should have a big reaction, it’s more that he starts to subconsciously over-egg his response so he doesn’t make his teacher look bad. Anybody who has taught a group of people Tai Chi will be familiar with this phenomenon. Whenever my students tried to ‘fall over’ for me in a demonstration I always reprimanded them and tried to get them to stop ‘helping’ me do the demonstration, and just act like a normal attacker.

On the other side of the coin, you could decide to view these kind of demonstrations as a simple magic trick. A magician (the teacher) is showing a magic trick, and you all know it’s not real, so just enjoy it for the spectacle it is.

At The Fajin Project Facebook group a chap called Stuart Shaw, seems to have no patience for the Tai Chi magician. He’s done some brilliant breakdowns of how various ‘masters’ of Tai Chi do their tricks (he calles them “Woo Woo”). You might have to join the group to view the videos, but I’ll try and link to them below. Why watch it? Well, if your Tai Chi teacher does this stuff to you, then it’s worth being aware of what’s really going on:

>> Woo Fajin Analysis — Adam Mizner Jalapeños <<

>> Analysis of Woo-Fajin << Michael Phillips

>> Analysis of Woo-Fajin – Seated Push Trick << Chee Soo

>> Woo Fajin Analysis – Huang Shyan vs. Liao Kuangcheng <<