Make Xing Yi wild again

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Rewilding is an environmental process that brings nature back to life and restores living systems. Apex predators and keystone species are reintroduced and we let nature reclaim parts of the landscape, without human intervention.

The coronavirus pandemic has lead to a kind of enforced rewinding of the urban world. As the human race retreats indoors for the next few months it’s a chance for nature to reclaim parts of cities. As tourists left corona-stricken Venice, swans, fish and even dolphins returned to the canals. In England, the constant background hum of traffic is dimmed as people stay at home. As I stand in my back garden and look up at the last of the blossom on my cherry tree I can see more birds flitting about in its branches than normal. I can hear more bird song than usual.

One of my favourite martial arts, Xing Yi, was once a wild and untamed martial art, but over time it has become a rather domesticated and pale version of its former self. Human ideas have come to dominate in Xing Yi, where once nature was its real inspiration. But now Xing Yi can no longer be practiced freely with other people maybe we should take this time to do the same thing with it and other martial arts — rewild them and return them to the source.

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Our hook into the natural world

After trees and fields, our next point of entry into the natural world is usually from seeing wild animals. Even in cities, animals are all around us, but we rarely pay much attention to them. Foxes roam our streets at night, magpies land on our rooftops and birds of prey can even hunt in our gardens. In the past animals provided inspiration for many martial arts. Xing Yi, with its various animal ‘shapes’, in particular, was one of them. Unlike humans, wild animals aren’t separated from nature by civilisation. Even our pets can unexpectdly reveal their wild side on occasion.

Unusually, I was first introduced to Xing Yi Animals as part of my Tai Chi training. My teacher’s teacher had learned Xing Yi, along with various other martial arts in Hong Kong, before moving to the UK in the 1970s, but rather than teach the whole art to his UK students he used the 12 Animals as coat hangers for techniques which suited their individual body types and attributes. The main arts he taught my teacher were Tai Chi Chuan, Northern Shaolin and Buk Sing Choy Lee Fut, but to help his students become more effective in sparring he saw a lot of value in using the Xing Yi animal strategies. So, for example, one student who was good at straight punches would be given Horse to work with in sparring, and another, who was more stocky and good at rounded punches and kicks would be given Bear.  Learning in this way was very individual. You were given some sample movements, and it was then up to you to build from there by adding in other techniques that you found worked well in combination.

My own teacher also used the Xing Yi animals in the same way and from this little dip into the art my curiosity for Xing Yi was piqued and I became hungry to learn more. My search for Xing Yi-proper lead me to eventually meet an actual teacher of the full art, who was kind enough to take me on as a student. And while his techniques had more variety and specialisation, and the body methods looked more distinctively “Xing Yi”, (they required a good grounding in the 5 Element fists first, and were quite different to Tai Chi Chuan) I was pleased to see that his overall approach to the animals was roughly the same. After first learning a set sequence, he would then introducing variations to help you get the flavour of the animal through free experimentation. He encouraged you to actually observe the animal in question. Rather than being prescribed an animal to work with, his students tended to naturally gravitate towards one animal or two; the ones that suited their personalities and abilities.

Xing Yi Snake

The author practicing Xing Yi Snake with Glen Board, author of Xing Yi – A study of Tai and Tuo Xing . Photo by Emma Heeney (c) 2020 Somerset Valley Publishing

A proficient Xing Yi practitioner however, he taught me, should always be able to switch between animals freely, as required by the situation. Tiger, for instance, is good at entering from a distance while striking heavily on the opponent. Bear, for example, is good at close infighting and Snake is good at close quarter grappling. Moving between all three in an encounter may take only a few seconds.

Ultimately, the goal for a Xing Yi student is to get good at all 12, rather than just one or two, then leave them behind entirely and just practice “Xing Yi” itself. Of course, this training progression assumes you have hours of free time to practice, since this was the traditional way. The reality of adapting Xing Yi to our busy, modern lives is somewhat at odds with this expectation, so I found that focussing on an animal or two that suited me personally was perhaps a better use of my limited time. Bear-Eagle, Chicken and Monkey were my favourites.

Rewilding Xing Yi

In modern times, Xing Yi animals have taken something of a back seat to the 5 element fists, or set linking forms. Rather than expansive fighting strategies derived from nature they have become somewhat domesticated, reduced and institutionalised. Really, each animal should be practiced like a mini martial art in itself, yet it is often shrunk down to a single move repeated over and over.

Rewinding Xing Yi would involve putting the focus back on the 12 animals and expanding them. And that’s starts with research.

We live in a time when it’s possible to view Xing Yi from all over the world on your laptop at home. Between all the different lineages of Xing Yi there is enough animal content preserved to fully flesh out the characters of each animal. If we start to look at as many variations of them as we can possibly find between both Xin Yi and Xing Yi, we can build up a bigger picture of what a Xing Yi animal represents.

Even better, find another Xing Yi practitioner and share your animal methods.

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The author practicing Xing Yi Chicken. Photo by Emma Heeney (c) 2020 Somerset Valley Publishing

And let’s not forget that we can still do with a lot of the Xing Yi animals what the founders of the Li tradition of the Song Dynasty tried to do, which is to get back to nature through direct observation. Amongst the 12 animals, there are several which it’s possible to observe directly yourself in the countryside and woodlands of the United Kingdom. For instance, chickens can be found in farmyards. Horses can be found in fields, and swallows still perform their aerial acrobatics in our skys. While there are a goshawks living in Wales and Scotland, Sparrow hawks are common throughout Brtain, and you can at least find birds of prey on display at many centres throughout the UK.

The other way we can rewild our practice is to change where we practice. My teacher always taught outside, in nature, because that was the way he learned in China. It didn’t matter what the weather was like, if he said he was going to be there, he was there. In fact, if you turned up to practice in a snow or rainstorm he’d be happier and teach you something especially good! Experiencing the weather directly is one way to get closer to nature. You can only learn to take the environment into account in your practice if you have to deal with it on a regular basis. Practicing at night under the night sky where you can see the stars is another great way of turning your head back to nature. Stop practicing indoors. Training in village halls is fine, but that perfectly flat wooden floor is making life too easy for you. Get outside and feel the wind on your face, it will do you good.

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Photo by Magda Ehlers on Pexels.com

I’m not suggesting that we abandon the fundamental principles of Xing Yi and adopt a delusional approach to practice, where our only judge of what’s correct is our own opinion. Animals living wild in nature don’t have the luxury of opinions. Their methods of hunting for prey or defending against predators either work, or they starve or get eaten.

The principles of Xing Yi are not derived from old sayings or old books. They’re derived directly from nature.

We’ve been ignoring nature for a long time now. As the coronavirus sweeps the world an old, uninvited guest has returned to the table. To quote the excellent poem, Sometimes a Wild God, by Tom Hirons,

Sometimes a wild god comes to the table.
He is awkward and does not know the ways
Of porcelain, of fork and mustard and silver.
His voice makes vinegar from wine.

When the wild god arrives at the door,
You will probably fear him.
He reminds you of something dark
That you might have dreamt,
Or the secret you do not wish to be shared.

We can fear this guest, or we can embrace him.

Let’s let nature be our teacher once more.

Let’s make Xing Yi wild again.

woman walking on a log in the forest

Photo by Brady Knoll on Pexels.com

The non-shakers and movers of the XingYi world

Byron Jacobs just posted the latest in his excellent XingYi primers, this time on the last of the XingYi elements Heng Quan:

 

Byron got into a discussion on the XingYi Facebook group when asked when he was going to show “an advanced version with the “fajin” motions.”

His reply was so good I’m reposting the whole thing here, with his permission, as I feel the same way and he explained it very nicely:

A: these are Primer videos to get people to understand the basics in order to begin practice, so that’s their purpose, fundamentals. Maybe in future I’ll release some other ones with function and application etc. I would like you to clarify what your are asking for with “an advanced version with fajin motions”?

Q: the shaking motions in your strikes where penetrates internally?

A: A couple of things. Its a misunderstanding to think that Fajin means something like a specific method or something. It simply means to issue force. That is all it meant in the past, and that is all it means today. Its real meaning has been twisted and misunderstood, even more so in the west. In more recent times some strange focus on shaking has come into CMA which is not how things were and definitely this too has been twisted into something that it never was. The Xingyi classics never discuss “shaking” and in fact older generation teachers will admonish you for this telling you overtly shaking makes “power leak” from your target. An example is even quoted from Feng Zhiqiang talking about how Chen Fake taught them “While issuing power the body should be relaxed, but one should be very conscious about so-called “Shaking Power” (Dou Jin). This power has to be focused and not scattered all over the body. The more advanced one is, the smaller the shaking. When we were learning Taijiquan from Chen Fake shaking the body in Fa Li was the greatest taboo to be avoided.”

Good issuing of force is firstly dependent on the correct structure, then the correct method and finally using body mechanics to assist with generating optimal force. This is all covered in those basics, and its the long term practice of these key points I put in those videos that will enable you to develop strong issuing of force. Strong issuing of force penetrates

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

 

 

 

 

The King (Netflix 2019), a short review

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The King (Netflix 2019) is the story of the rise of King Henry V and the battle of Agincourt against the French (1415).

Prince Henry is portrayed as a wayward teenager, who dislikes authority and has no desire for the throne or the complications of court politics and international diplomacy. Suddenly this emo teenager has the full weight of the English crown thrust on his shoulders, and pretty soon, against his will, he is at war with France and the famous field in Agincourt is calling.

There are virtually no women in this film. It’s as study of men. How men rule, how men lead and how men fight. And ultimately, how they lie.

The fight scenes are not bloody. They’re muddy. Smack, bang, wallop in the mud. But they feel realistic. I think the makers of The King have spent a lot of time talking to medieval armor experts and thinking about how fights in armor, between armored knights, would actually have played out.

While Agincourt is remembered for the English archers securing victory with their longbows, their effect in the battle, while important, is not portrayed as the decisive factor by a long way. It’s the use of the terrain, strategy and hand to hand combat that secures victory.

And the grappling. There is so much grappling. Specifically, grappling with weapons and armour. Forcing the opponent to the ground and working a blade in or bashing their head with a hammer.

The key factors seem to be, wrestling, impact from momentum (blunt or sharp edged weapons), and finally the environment – the mud.

Xing Yi, a Chinese martial art which I talk about a lot on this blog, has battlefield origins and seems equally obsessed with weapons, armour and the environment. The strikes in Xing Yi’s 12 animals all target weak points in armor. The bits where the joints in the human body are and the armor is, by necessity, weak to allow the limbs to move – up under the armpit, the inner thigh and the neck are obvious examples.

Another thing that Xing Yi emphasis is the stepping. So much emphasis is placed on making sure you don’t slip or trip in Xing Yi training. My XingYi teacher would insist on us stepping with the whole foot landing flat, never the normal heel toe action of walking.

Back when I was learning from him regularly we used to train outside (whatever the weather), so often this was on wet grass. Trust me – you don’t appreciate that heel toe stepping is vulnerable to slipping until you try it at speed on wet grass.

Over time we seem to forget these little things in our training, because in our modern life they are rather unimportant. People don’t wear armor these days and we usually train martial arts on flat wooden floored gymnasiums or village halls, in the dry. Watching The King was a good reminder of their importance. It’s the simple things like this that make the difference between living and dying on a battlefield.

When it comes to grappling in armor, The King suggests that tripping or simply unbalancing the opponent is the decisive factor. Forget the big hip and shoulder throws of judo, and think more about the little leg hooks and sweeps you find in folk style wrestling. It makes me think of those jacketed styles of folk wrestling which have survived today in isolated corners of the world, or the descriptions you read of Irish collar and elbow wrestling (sadly now lost), which start from a position of already being in a clinch with the upper body and the leg tricks where the art is found. Suddenly the reasons for training wrestling like that makes much more sense.

I enjoyed The King for all these reasons. Perhaps the closest we’ll ever get to a battlefield type situation in modern civilian life is a game of rugby. Either being in one or watching one.

In short, The King is great, war is a muddy business, and I need to start thinking about my stepping again.

Tai and Tuo Xing videos (part 1 and 2)

As I was reading Glen Board’s excellent new book Xing Yi: A study of Tai and Tuo Xing I thought there really needs to be a video of these linking sequences he’s presenting in the book so people can see how the moves work and get a flavour of it. So I made one myself in a bit of free time instead of my usual morning practice.

During filming I got a visit from a local village Peacock (we call him Peter) who decided to bless my video with his presence. Tai is the flycatcher, a small to medium bird with a long tail. Now, while Peter may also have a long tale, he’s a very large bird. Also, he’d be more like Chicken Xing (Ji Xing), so he’s a not a perfect fit with Tai, but you have to use what you’ve got.

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Peter, standing proud.

Here’s the first video:

The problem is, (as I discovered) if you want make a video of animals Xings that if useful for people to follow along you have to take a lot of the character of each animal out, and it becomes a bit bland and (dare I say it….?) more like Tai Chi…

So I did another video that had less emphasis on relaxed movement and accuracy and more on expressing the Xing of each animal. Glen described the Xing well in his book, but in short, I’m trying to generate more torsion through the dragon body in Tuo and more agility, abrupt change of direction and surprising strikes in Tai.

My Xing Yi is always a work in progress, and I’ve been out of the loop with it for a few years, but Glen’s book has inspired me to pick it up again, so I’m not presenting myself as a “Laoshi” or expert here or anything, just a glimpse into my personal training. Anyway, here it is and hopefully people who buy the book will find it helpful in some way:

 

Staying rounded in Taijiquan

My Xing Yi teacher invented the word “chalicity” as an English equivalent of the Mongol phrase “Bak Tam Stay Saub”, which means (very roughly) “a bit like a capacious container”. So, chalicity means, “a bit like a chalice.”

A chalice, or a cup, is a rounded structure designed to contain a fluid with no leaks, and has parallels for both the mental aspect and physical aspect of a posture in the internal arts.

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Photo by Jametlene Reskp on Unsplash

In the context of his shamanism practice, chalicity is more about the mental parallel – the space inside the cup reflecting the space inside a mind that is empty of thought.

However, in the context of Taijiquan and martial arts, you can think of ‘chalice-like’ as the physical structure of the body creating the space necessary to contain “Peng” energy, that is, the ground force used in internal arts expressed through a rounded structure.

Think of Peng energy as being the fluid inside the cup and your body as being the structure of the cup. Or you can think of it as the air inside a rubber ball. If you keep your body rounded, it holds the Peng energy nicely. If you don’t, it leaks out.

The posture requirements of Taijiquan

All the posture requirements of Taijiquan create a rounded structure for the body. Here are some:

1. Head suspended from above

2. Elbows drooped.

3. Chest sheltered / back lifted

4. Shoulders rounded.

5. Chi sunk to the dantien.

6. Kua rounded

7. Knees bent.

These requirements create the structure for your ‘chalice’ within which you can hold the Peng force.

These days all internal martial arts make use of Zhan Zhuang, “standing like a tree” standing postures, which the practitioner is required to hold for extended periods, work the same way. They all maintain this same Peng shape, with gently rounded limbs and upright spines.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Xing Yi Quan uses the San Ti Shi standing posture which has 6 requirements, two of which are bear shoulders and tiger embrace. Together these two requirements mean your torso and arms take up the same chalice-like posture. You maintain the Peng shape. It’s all the same idea.

Maintaining structure while moving.

Structure isn’t something that’s meant to be achieved only in a static posture. Part of what you’re training when you perform a Tai Chi form, for example, is the ability to keep this Peng shape as you move.

If you keep the requirements you can maintain Peng. If you break the requirements then your Peng force will leak out of your body, just as water would leak from a cup with a hole in.

So, if you start to drop your head or stiffen the neck, for example, or straighten your legs or raise your elbows, you lose the natural power of the body working together all powered from the ground, and you have to start muscling it to compensate in your techniques.

So, to work in internal arts, all the techniques need to be expressed within the framework of this structure, and some techniques in martial arts just aren’t suited to maintaining this Peng structure.

Take for example, a side kick.

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Photo by Jason Briscoe on Unsplash

There’s nothing wrong with a side kick, but you physically can’t keep the body ‘rounded’ while performing a side kick to the opponent’s chest because of the angle you need to open your hip to. Just look at the photo.

I think that’s one reason why you don’t often see the a side kick in most Tai Chi forms or in fact in Xing Yi or Bagua. The kicks you do see in the internal arts tend to not take the hip out of alignment with the rest of the body.

Does that mean you can never do a side kick again? Of course not, but generally, you need to keep your rounded structure at all times when practicing internal arts, that way you keep your Peng energy rounded and the true power of the internal martial arts can be expressed.

Xing Yi Quan, a study of Tai (Flycatcher) and Tuo (Crocodile) Xing, a review

I finally got myself a copy of my friend Glen Board’s new Xing Yi book: Xing Yi Quan: A study of Tai and Tuo Xing. It arrived in the post today:

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UK link to Amazon.

US link to Amazon.

Firstly, the book looks great. It’s thick, there are a lot of photos, some of which are colour, but most are black and white. They’re well taken and it’s easy to see what’s happening. In terms of content, there is lots of historical information about how Xing Yi was created in the book and the philosophical and martial ideas that lie behind it, but there’s also lots of very practical real-world applications of the movements shown as well. Glen even covers that tricky subject of how Qi is used in Xing Yi Quan as well as taking in the Xing Yi Classics, San Ti Shi and weapons. It’s a pretty hefty volume.

The real focus of the book though is on two of Xing Yi’s 12 animals: Tai and Tuo, but it also covers an awful lot of general Xing Yi theory. The inclusion of a full translation of the two most important Xing Yi classics writings – the Classic of Unification and the Classic of Fighting, from Yue Fei’s 10 Important Thesis – is particularly welcome. As is the inclusion of an Appendix on the I Ching, which explains the 8 trigrams and how you can use them to post-analyse martial arts movements or situations in Xing Yi Quan.

Full disclosure: Glen and I have the same Xing Yi teacher and this book follows on from my Xing Yi teachers first attempt to write a book on each of the Xing Yi animals. He only got as far as Bear Eagle, before stalling on Snake. So, it’s good to see that Glen has picked things up in our lineage and got something into print on a couple more of the animals. I’d like to see him do the same thing for Horse and Snake (if you’re taking requests Glen? 🙂 )

(You might also like the podcast series I’ve been doing with Damon on the history of Xing Yi).

Tai and Tuo

Tai is a fly-catching bird from Asia with a long tail. It’s sometimes referred to as “Phoenix” in English. It’s quite an agile little bird that’s good at evading predators by using its long tail to confuse the attacking bird and also good at catching insects in flight. As you’d expect, there are a lot of changes of direction and spiraling type actions amongst its martial applications.

Tai uses a special fist formation to strike with where you protrude the middle finger knuckle ahead of the others when you form a fist. You use it to strike with in the same way that a “Phoenix-eye fist” can be used in Shaolin arts to strike with. The book explains all these aspects of Tai.

Tuo is the Crocodile. Sometimes you see it translated as “Water lizard”, (but come on people – just put the pieces together 🙂 )

Tuo doesn’t have any specific fist shapes, but emphasizes the ambush nature of the crocodile when hunting. It also makes use of the side to side rolling action that a crocodile performs when trying to drown and rip apart any prey it has captured in its jaws.

The book has a linking sequence (a form) for each animal as well as applications of the movements in a huge amount of detail. There are 31 applications shown for Tai and 22 for Tuo with photographs of the steps involved in each. They’re all bare-hand applications rather than weapons applications, but that’s fine by me.

Overall I’d say that this book is one of the most accessible and practical books you’ll find on Xing Yi Quan. It doesn’t matter if you’re new to the art or pretty experienced – you’ll find something new here to pique your curiosity. If you’ve got any interest in the art of Xing Yi Quan at all then I’d suggest you get yourself a copy, because you’ll really enjoy it.

Here are some photos of what it looks like inside:

 

 

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Kung Fu Tea on Sun Lu Tang

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There’s a great article over on Kung Fu Tea about the life of one of the most influential Chinese martial artists of all time, Sun Lu Tang.

One of the persistent problems that I see in amateur discussions of “Chinese martial studies” is a lack of understanding of how broad the traditional martial arts really were, and the variety of life experiences that they encompassed.  In fact, rather than discussing China’s martial culture in the singular, it would probably be better to think about these cultures in the plural.  The martial arts never were just one thing, and our experience with the modern “traditional” arts tends to seriously skew our perceptions of the past.

It’s a good read, so sit down with a cup of tea and put your feet up with your laptop.

Link.

Real world uses for Taijiquan, Aikido and XingYi, from a real police officer

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I love this article by Bill Fettes, a retired Australian police officer, I came across recently on Ellis Amdur’s blog. It discusses real world uses for the techniques found in the Internet Arts he has trained- Aikido, Tai Chi and XingYi. I like the mix of no nonsense description and practical demonstration.

What’s great is that Bill gives clear recollections of the techniques he actually used “on the streets”, then provides demo pictures of how it played out with a partner. Take a look!

My overwhelming observation is that what he’s showing looks exactly like the kind of techniques my Tai Chi teacher does all the time in push hands/sparring. In fact, I recall being on the end of them several times!

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A lot of the time I see people training Chinese Martial Arts with too much emphasis on getting a single hit in, as if that would be the end of everything. It won’t. “One strike one kill” is a nice idea in theory, but I don’t think you’re meant to take that idea litterally.

One thing my Tai Chi teacher emphasises is that he wants the fight to end with the other guy controlled at his feet, pinned to the ground in some way so he can be incapacitated or restrained. If you want to run away then why not give yourself a head start by breaking something first, or calming them down? Or if you want to hold them in place until help arrives you need to have trained that skill.

You can’t just keep hitting people – it prolongs the conflict and turns what started as a self defence situation into an assault by you on the attacker, even if you were the original victim. Just imagine how it’s going to look on CCTV, which is everywhere in the UK.

Homework time

Tai Chi people! I would suggest you incorporate these techniques into your push hand if you are not doing so already – it’s not hard to see where you could fit them in.

XingYi people! – Note, there’s also a nice reference to one of my favourite XingYi animals, the bear eagle, in the article. And also check out the quote below about the observation of wild animals – this is your homework 🙂

Everyone! One more thing to consider about this article – he’s not really talking about weapon assaults or multiple opponents. How do you think that would change outcomes and what he’s doing? Discuss.

Animal observation

Quite often in martial arts like XingYi we are encouraged to observe actual wild animals and the way they fight. I really like the part of the blog post where he describes a similar instruction from a teacher, and real world example of usage:

When living in Japan, I attended several meetings of martial minded fellas, organized by Phil Relnick. Phil was kind of a godfather to most of us non-Japanese martial artists, having lived and trained in the country since 1955. At once such meeting, a U.S. student living in Singapore, who was studying the Shaolin animal forms, was invited to speak. He told us that his teacher had him go to Singapore zoo each day and study his animal: the boar. He then had to report back with anything he had learnt. I thought that was a pretty cool idea until Master Wang Zhong Dao designated me a ‘tiger,’ and gave me the same instructions. Then it became hard work. I was not sure why he designated me a tiger, maybe my big paws or shoulders, or maybe because I was always pacing or prowling, never being able to keep still. Most masters don’t explain their reasoning to plebs, anyway, so I spent a lot of time observing my namesake behind bars. One thing I did notice about the tiger was that when attacking, it generally uses its weapons on the throat; I used this a couple of times on the street with quite unusual results.