Just a reminder, I do actually like Tai Chi

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Looking back over the last few blog posts I’ve written it occurs to me that a reader might think that I don’t actually like Tai Chi Chuan. I do. I practice it pretty much every day. There’s something in it that is just very good for you. Before practice I feel a bit unfocussed, and uncoordinated. After practice I feel like I’m back “in the zone”, and that’s a rare thing for any practice to deliver as consistently as Tai Chi does. And it always does.

If I contrast that with Jiujitsu (something I also love, or at least used to before this lockdown started), after that I’m an exhausted, sweaty mess in need of water and recovery. Jiujitsu is a lot of fun, but it breaks you down. In contrast, Tai Chi builds you up. You need both together. I’ve always practiced my Tai Chi with other more physical arts anyway. More dynamic things, like Choy Lee Fut or Xing Yi are great compliments to the relaxed, slow Tai Chi movements.

One of the reasons I criticise Tai Chi a lot is that it does have the most abysmally low standards amongst its practitioners of any martial art you’ll ever see. In fact, it’s a martial art that most people don’t actually practice as a martial art!

Regular readers to the blog, or regular listeners to the Heretics Podcast, will know that we recently started a series on “The Myth of Tai Chi“. Again, it sounds like it’s a bit of a negative attack on Tai Chi, but anybody with even a cursory understanding of Tai Chi history will realise that a lot of it is vague, unknown and contradictory, especially for a period of time (1850s onwards) in which other martial arts (like Xing Yi) have no confusion over their history and lineage.

Episode 1 of the podcast takes into account all the other things that were happening in China in 1850, and there was a lot! It was a period of turmoil that was about to become even worse with the most bloody civil war in world history – the Taiping Rebellion – which left an estimate 20 million dead. (If you’d like to know more about this and the various martial arts that were created around the same time period, like Wing Chun and Choy Li Fut, then I’d recommend Benjamin Judkin’s excellent book Creation of Wing Chun, The: A Social History of the Southern Chinese Martial Arts – it’s by far the best Chinese martial arts history book I’ve read).

The best Chinese martial arts history book you’ll ever read!

Now the scene is set, episode 2 (coming soon) will offer more definite conclusions on the origins of Tai Chi Chuan, but there’s still so much left to talk about that this will soon become a mult-part story. You might want to empty your cup before you listen though: Damon’s conclusions on what Tai Chi really is are not particularly favourable for any group trying to claim ownership of the Tai Chi brand – the Chens, the Yangs, the Wus the Taoists or anybody else. You’ll have to wait until episode 2 is released in the next few days to find out what the big reveal is!

But until then, just a little reminder that I do actually like Tai Chi Chuan (honest!), despite appearances. And regardless of its origins what matters is its actual practice. Learning about history won’t make you any more or less skilful, only practice will do that.

The heretical history of Tai Chi Chuan (Taijiquan)

The 98th Regiment of Foot at the attack on Chin-Kiang-Foo (Zhenjiang), 21 July 1842, effecting the defeat of the Manchu government. Watercolour by military illustrator Richard Simkin (1840–1926).

The history of Tai Chi Chuan (Taijiquan), rather than its actual practice, is one of the most controversial subjects to do with the art. Various different groups have tried to claim Tai Chi as their own, and considering the amount of money involved in the art it’s very hard to know who to trust in this matter.

In this podcast we’ve tried to look objectively at the facts, and the result is that it doesn’t look good for anybody, especially the British 🙂

The history of Tai Chi Chuan is a subject I’ve wanted to tackle on our podcast for a while, but now (thanks to one of our patreons, Gabriel) it’s finally a reality.

In this episode we begin a new series of episodes on this subject by setting the scene and historical background to the mythmaking around the origins of Tai Chi that occurred starting from the middle of the Nineteenth Century in response to social turmoil and unrest exemplified by the Taiping Rebellion and Opium Wars.

The Taiji principle didn’t work well. 4 oz could not defeat 1000 lb.

Here’s an interesting post, complete with pictures, by David Ross of NY Sanda about the Lei Tai tournaments in China in the 1920s. These were supposedly the first organised national martial arts championships. They would have been part of the GuoShu movement of the Republic as they set about using martial arts to strengthen the nation.

The following are some quotes said about the tournament, from his post. I’m just providing them here without commentary. I leave it up to the reader to draw their own conclusions.

Some quotes said about the tournament:

– 这次比赛没有看到高深的内功,没有发人于丈外的场面
You don’t see high level internal power, and Faijin that send people flying 10 feet away in this tournament.

– 太极打法毫无建树,四量难拨千斤
The Taiji principle didn’t work well. 4 oz could not defeat 1000 lb.

– 也就是说号称以巧取胜的中国功夫 实际上也是在跟人拚勇力比高大
The taller, heavier, stronger guys won in that tournament.

– 要学打擂台的拳术
After this tournament, people wanted to learn the style that can be used on the Leitai.

Mark Chen on Chen Taijiquan’s history

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This podcast interview of Mark Chen by Ken Gullette is a real gem. If you haven’t listened to it before I’d really recommend it. It starts with a basic run-through of who taught who and in what order, and who all these people are, but then gets really interesting about halfway through when it talks of some of the more heretical things, like what happened during the utter insanity and madness of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. A period which is ignored by almost all Chinese martial artists. It’s just something that is not talked about these days – almost a non-subject, and those non-subjects always fascinate me.

There is also a section on the famous “Peng Lu Ji An” list used to describe the “powers” of Taijiquan, and the characters used. There are also some good thoughts about Taijiquan training and what Taijiquan is really all about. Overall this is an excellent podcast and shouldn’t be missed by anybody.

Mark’s book is a translation of most of the book by Chen Zhaopi’s book, published in 1935 and is available on Amazon in print and digital formats.

 

 

General Qi Jiguang: On fighting pirates and his connection to Taijiquan

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I’d like to point you to an excellent article by Sascha Matuszak on the Ming Dynasty General Qi Jiguang. In his 1560 book Jixiao Xinshu (“New treatise on disciplined service”), which contains a chapter called “Quanjing Jieyao Pian” (“Chapter on the fist cannon and the essentials of nimbleness”). This chapter is famous because it contains the first written reference to Kung Fu written by a military person.

(You’ll find a translation of the chapter here if you would rather just read the original source material.)

In his article Sascha says:

“There is a lot of speculation as to why Qi Jiguang included martial arts in his military treatise, but it is most likely that several trends converged to make including martial training a sensible thing to do. A few of them would be the rise of taijiquan during the late Ming Dynasty, the superior close combat skills of Japanese pirates, an incredible lack of disciplined, trained Chinese troops, and Qi Jiguang’s own experience training martial arts and developing farmers into soldiers.” – Sascha Matuszak

While I love the article, I’m puzzled by the inclusion of the rise of Taijiquan as a reasoning device for the inclusion of the chapter on kung fu, since 1560 was three hundred years before anybody had even heard of Taijiquan. The great populariser of Taijiquan, Yang LuChan died in 1872.

Interestingly, the chapter written by General Qi does contain references to some things that crop up in Taijiquan centuries later… Does this sound familiar to Yang stylists?

“The Golden Rooster: stand on one leg and cock the head askew.”

“Golden Rooster stands on one leg” is a well known Taijiquan posture.

“The Ambush Crouch posture: it is like using the hunting bow to lie in wait for a tiger;”

I’m thinking of the posture known as “Bend the bow to shoot the tiger”, also found in Yang style Taijiquan.

“Change to a lower position and momentarily take the single whip stance”.

Yang-single

Yang Cheng Fu showing Yang style Taijiquan “Single whip”.

While Qi seems to have a love/hate relationship with Kung Fu, it’s interesting to note that Qi incorporated “Chinese individuals capable of acrobatic performance including boxing instructors and Buddhist monks” into his army to meet the challenge of fighting Japanese pirates, who were much better versed in close-quarter combat skills than uniformed Chinese soldiers.

In chapter 14, he makes criticisms of the existing martial arts of the time as being too specialised, and that by combining them you can cover all bases better. My feeling is that although he does say he engaged in training at Liu Caotang’s Striking Fists school,  he’s a military man, an outsider looking at civilian arts he isn’t involved with personally or practices, so you get an interesting perspective.

He’s continually judging what is credible and what is not – something that continues to this day on martial arts forums on the Internet!

 

 

 

Take a long hard look at yourself, Chinese martial artist

mirror fragments on gray surface with the reflection of a person s arm

Photo by Thiago Matos on Pexels.com

A new video in the long line running ‘Tai Chi master vs MMA guy’ series got posted the other day. Rather than talk about it here straight away I wanted to see what the reaction was from the martial arts community, and boy, it didn’t disappoint!

This whole MMA vs Tai Chi genre was started by the now-infamous Xu Xiaodong who posted the first video showing what happens when a delusional Tai Chi “master” gets in a fight with an MMA guy.

The qualifications for being a “Tai Chi master” these days seem to be that you have:

1) The backing of Chinese state TV, who will post lots of faked videos of you performing magical martial skills.

2) You have a sufficient number of minions and followers to do you bidding.

3) You look the part (silk pyjamas) and have can talk a good talk about your abilities.

Of course, none of these martial abilities are grounded in reality, so when you get in a challenge match with an MMA guy it usually ends quickly and badly for you. Chinese martial arts, particularly Tai Chi, is the focus of the soft power emanated by Beijing and the hyper-nationalistic Chinese government on the global stage. Therefore, publicly humiliating a Tai Chi “master” doesn’t make the MMA guy very popular in China, and Xu Xiaodong has been badly persecuted – his social credit score is now so low that he can’t even travel on trains and his social media accounts keep being deleted.

After the initial video of Xu Xiaodong surfaced he didn’t let the persecution put him off and he kept calling out the masters boasting of their skills on state TV. Challenge after challenge followed. One involved self-proclaimed Tai Chi/Xing Yi Master Ma Bao Guo who had previously paid a retired cage fighter Peter Irving in the UK to perform in a demo video that made him look good, and was boasting that this video was proof he was the real thing.

In this excellent article, Peter recounts the story behind the video.

Here’s the video:

To anybody that knows anything about fighting it’s obvious that Peter is just feeding attacks to Ma who reacts with some twitching responses. The fact that some people thought this was real says a lot about the mentality of minions and followers.

Xu and Ma’s challenge match was all set to go ahead (and would have ended the same way as all the others) but Ma actually called the police on his own challenge match and it was called off!

But Ma Bao Guo wasn’t giving up. At 69 he recently got in a challenge match with a San Da (Chinese kickboxing) guy who was 20 years younger than him. Here’s the video of Ma Bao Guo vs the San Da guy

As expected, it was a shocking display of ineptitude, and as I said, the reactions of the martial arts community have been interesting. Here are a few of the common responses I noticed:

  1. The rebranding of this as MMA vs Tai Chi to fit the narrative.
    The fight is actually between two practitioners of Chinese styles – one is Tai Chi/Xing Yi and the other is San Da, which is a homegrown Chinese kickboxing style. But it instantly becomes “MMA” because it fits the story created so far.
  2. “The Chinese have absolutely ruined kungfu.”
    Hard to argue with this really.
  3. Concern for Ma’s safety.
    This was my first thought – getting knocked out like that at 69 could have been fatal, and will likely have long-term effects.
  4. He needs to be sued for fraud.
    I wonder how many minions and followers he convinced of his nonsense over the years? I wonder what they think of his teachings now? If they gained health benefits are they now invalid?
  5. Why don’t those Kungfu guys that angrily complain about the fraudulent masters’ performance themselves step up to make Kungfu great again?
    It seems like a bit of false reasoning to me. I think the point is that if you are going to claim abilities then you need somebody to test them. Perhaps you need to be more realistic about what you claim? The reason Xu is not challenging 20-year-old kickboxers, is that they’re not claiming magical abilities on state-run TV. And also, it’s usually the old masters doing the challenging!
  6. “I look at someone getting beaten and it has little to do with me or my training.”
    True – exposing the delusional Tai Chi masters doesn’t mean that Tai Chi itself is delusional. If you are honest about what you can and can’t do, then that’s a good thing.

But then we get to number 7, and this is the one that really gets my goat…..

        7. “It says a lot about those that post these clips.”

What???

Aiming your ire at the guy lifting the curtain to show a little old man, not a wizard, behind it is something you’d attribute more to the mad emperor Nero, (who had a habit of shooting dead the bearers of bad news) than the sane and balanced mind of Marcus Aurelius, one of the last ‘good’ emperors of Rome.

The event was done publicly. There were press there with cameras. Ma had clearly arranged for this to be broadcast. And I can bet if (by some miracle) Ma had actually defeated the San Da guy, then heralds of his victory would be celebrated far and wide by everybody who purports to be a Chinese martial artist.

Stop trying to shame people for exposing the bullshit.

You can’t have it both ways. If you do something sportive and public then it remains pubic, regardless of whether you like the outcome. The point of challenge matches is to see what works. Part of the appeal of MMA for me is that it’s on one hand sport, but on the other a long-running public education project about what works in fighting.

I can already feel the voices of those “MMA is not for the street!” guys building as I write this, but you know – screw them. A good answer to that is that if you can’t make your art work with a limited rule set that simulates a real fight as closely as we can make it, how are you supposed to make it work when the other guy isn’t even restricted by those few rules?

San Da, boxing or MMA is a young man’s game. Old masters of whatever martial art it is should really stop trying to engage in it altogether. Putting yourself in a position where you can get knocked out cold at 69 years old is just a terribly bad idea. The implications for what remains of your life are serious. There’s a reason that Muay Thai fighters’ careers usually end in the 20s.

The whole thing was folly.

Ma was delusional for

  1. Thinking that whatever martial skills he had gained from a lifetime of pushing minions, followers, and paid performers, around while wearing silk pyjamas could actually translate into real fighting skills.
  2. Thinking that you could do this at 69 years old.

But human beings are delusional. And in normal life, we can get away with it up to a point because there are no serious consequences. I talked about this in my recent interview on the Martial Arts Studies podcast. My point was that nature is not delusional, which is why the Song Dynasty had such success economically and military thanks to the Li Movement, which aimed to get back to looking at nature for what it is, not what we think it is. That was the point I was making about studying animal methods (that I don’t think my interviewer quite picked up on) that a snake does what a snake does regardless of what human beings think about it, or even better, with no human beings around at all.

Similarly, MMA or San Da or challenge matches bring martial artists into direct contact with nature, or reality, if you like. And sometimes that can be a painful act of recognition.

It should be celebrated, not turned away from. Look it full in the face and learn. As the old martial arts saying goes:

“In martial arts you either win or you learn.”

It’s probably not a good idea to wait until you’re 69 to start learning.

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.

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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.

The Jing Cheng Wushu archives

Screen Shot 2019-12-30 at 9.22.07 AM.pngI just wanted to give a quick shout out to the work Byron Jacobs is doing preserving old Chinese TV performances of Chinese martial art from the 1980s.

“Jing Cheng Wushu” (京城武术) is a series that ran on Beijing TV in the 80’s. The title “Jing Cheng Wushu” means ‘The Wushu of Beijing’. Each episode focused on a Chinese martial art style popular in Beijing at the time and featured many prominent older generation practitioners, many of whom have passed away since.

He’s done three episodes so far, digitising and adding English subtitles. They are:

XingYi Quan

 

Bagua Zhang

 

Taiji Quan