One stroke of the brush

niketh-vellanki-202943-unsplash.jpg

Photo by Niketh Vellanki on Unsplash

It says in the Tai Chi classics that the movements of Tai Chi should be continuous, like a rolling river:

Chang Ch’uan [Long Boxing] is like a great river rolling on unceasingly.”

There are a few interesting things to unpack about this quote, taken from the Tai Chi Classic attributed to Chang San Feng. Firstly, it doesn’t call the martial art “Tai Chi Chuan”, instead it calls it “Long Boxing”, which is yet another indicator that what is known as the “Tai Chi Classics” are in fact, just a collection of common sayings about martial arts of the time that have been bundled together.¹ I tend to regard what we know as “Tai Chi Chuan” today, in all its various forms, as the modern expression and amalgamation of older Chinese martial arts; it is an evolution of ideas and techniques, rather than a ‘new’ martial art which was invented in a moment of divine inspiration by somebody having a dream about a Crane fighting a Snake, which is one of its apocryphal origins myths.

Secondly, the image of water harks back to ideas of Taoism, which uses water imagery frequently in its depictions of worldly affairs. The imagery of a river is a good one. And the implication is clear: no stopping. Continual movement.

Quite often people who think they are doing a Tai Chi form continuously are not. They’re putting in little stops at the end of movements. My teacher called this “posturing”. A good performance of a Tai Chi form will smooth out all these end points so that the form becomes like a single stroke of a calligrapher’s brush on a canvas.

When approached this way, the Tai Chi form stops being composed of numbered moves which are separate elements. As human beings we’re so ingrained in this type of thinking that we even classify Tai Chi forms with numbers on the end. E.g. the “The Tai Chi 24-step form, the Chen style 48 form, the Yang style 108-posture form, etc..” with the number indicating how many different postures there are in the form. When you do the form as ‘one stroke of the brush’ then the whole form becomes one move from beginning to end. Sure, you move from close to open to close to open, and so on, continuously within the movement, but there is still only one movement.

But why? Well, in terms of aesthetic value, it’s definitely more pleasing to the eye to see somebody who moves like this, but that’s not the only reason. In terms of martial technique, the ability to flow smoothly between techniques is key to being able to respond adaptively to whatever the opponent is doing. If you’ve never put the time into practicing movements smoothly you can’t expect to just pull that skill out of the bag when required.

Another reason is that it’s much easier to learn to coordinate your arms and legs if you can move at a constant rate. It gives you the mental space you need to slow down (which is a whole principle in itself) and become more aware of the movements you’re doing, rather than rushing through them, which creates mental blank spots you may miss.

You need to approach continuity as a task that is going to take you a while to complete. As you do the form become aware of where you’re losing awareness and continuity. Has a hand stopped moving here? An arm become immobile there? Did you pause for a fraction after completing Brush Knee Twist Step? (Here’s a hint, you probably did).

If you make continuity the focus of a complete run through of the form then over weeks and months you can get to the stage where your movement becomes very smooth and even. Now you’re ready to look for a deeper meaning. Consider the aforementioned river – it moves continuously, in that it never stops, but different parts of it move at different rates. Where the river narrows rapids form, where it flattens out the pace is more genteel. The form is like this too. There are faster bits and slower bits – quite obviously in Chen style, but also in the even-paced Yang styles. Let the movements guide you – they’ll tell you where you should naturally ‘go with the flow’. Now your techniques will start to become more realistic and you’ll be able to appreciate the type of movement required to make them work.

As Bruce Lee said. “Be like water, my friend”.

¹. See Douglass Wile’s Lost Tai Chi Classics from the late Ching Dynasty

 

Tao Te Ching, chapters 8 and 61

 

51b4nahi0bl-_sx258_bo1204203200_

I was giving the Tao Te Ching the cursory glance I occasionally give it recently. I’ve got the copy shown above. I usually flick to a random chapter, read it three times and ponder it deeply. Well, as deeply as I am able to. I landed on chapter 61, and the next day I landed on chapter 8. These two seemed to be linked in theme, so I thought I’d say something about them.

Incidentally, I really like the Stephen Mitchell translation. I’ve no idea how accurate it is compared to the Chinese, but all translation seems to involve some interpretation, and I like the way he’s done it.

Here’s chapter 61:

61

When a country obtains great power,
it becomes like the sea:
all streams run downward into it.
The more powerful it grows,
the greater the need for humility.
Humility means trusting the Tao,
thus never needing to be defensive.

A great nation is like a great man:
When he makes a mistake, he realizes it.
Having realized it, he admits it.
Having admitted it, he corrects it.
He considers those who point out his faults
as his most benevolent teachers.
He thinks of his enemy
as the shadow that he himself casts.

If a nation is centered in the Tao,
if it nourishes its own people
and doesn’t meddle in the affairs of others,
it will be a light to all nations in the world.

 

and chapter 8:

8

The supreme good is like water,
which nourishes all things without trying to.
It is content with the low places that people disdain.
Thus it is like the Tao.

In dwelling, live close to the ground.
In thinking, keep to the simple.
In conflict, be fair and generous.
In governing, don’t try to control.
In work, do what you enjoy.
In family life, be completely present.

When you are content to be simply yourself
and don’t compare or compete,
everybody will respect you.

 

So, firstly let’s look at the imagery of water, one of the classic symbols of the Yin side of the Taiji diagram. Both chapters use water as a metaphor for the correct way of acting or being in the world.  It’s a theme that repeats through the Tao Te Ching, and also throughout the history of Asian martial arts, even in modern times. I’m thinking of Bruce Lee in the infamous interview where he says “Be water, my friend!”

 

I was reading another article about Wing Chun today by Ben Judkins, which also expanded upon this idea of softness overcoming strength, and how this idea has permeated Asian martial arts:

Early reformers in martial arts like Taijiquan (Wile 1996) and Jujitsu sought to shore up their own national identities by asserting that they brought a unique form of power to the table.  Rather than relying on strength, they would find victory through flexibility, technique, and cunning (all yin traits), just as the Chinese and Japanese nations would ultimately prevail through these same characteristics.  It is no accident that so much of the early Asian martial arts material featured images of women, or small Asian men, overcoming much larger Western opponents with the aid of mysterious “oriental” arts.  These gendered characterizations of hand combat systems were fundamentally tied to larger narratives of national competition and resistance (see Wendy Rouse’s 2015 article “Jiu-Jitsuing Uncle Sam” .

but as the author notes, the situation is often muddied

Shidachi appears to have had little actual familiarity with Western wrestling.  It is clear that his discussion was driven by nationalist considerations rather than detailed ethnographic observation.  And there is something else that is a bit odd about all of this.  While technical skill is certainly an aspect of Western wrestling, gaining physical strength and endurance is also a critical component of Judo training.  Shidachi attempted to define all of this as notbeing a part of Judo. Yet a visit to the local university Judo team will reveal a group of very strong, well developed, athletes.  Nor is that a recent development.  I was recently looking at some photos of Judo players in the Japanese Navy at the start of WWII and any one those guys could have passed as a modern weight lifter.  One suspects that the Japanese Navy noticed this as well.

But while the idea of the soft overcoming the hard has already fallen to the level of a cliché, especially when it comes to martial arts, and mixed with political ideas, should we ignore it as a way of being in the world?  I’d say not. It does point to a truth.

Anyone with any familiarity in martial arts is aware of the feeling of having to ‘muscle’ a technique to make it work, as opposed to executing a clean technique based on good leverage. This points towards what I think these chapters of the Tao Te Ching are talking about.

When it comes to Tai Chi one of the hardest things to grasp about the techniques exemplified in the forms is that they shouldn’t necessarily feel powerful to you as you do them. My teacher often uses this phrase: “…if you feel it then they don’t – you want them to feel it, not you“.

If you can give up the need to control and struggle with a situation, then you can relax and access your own inner power. See what acliché that statement sounds like already? It sounds like one to me as I wrote it, but I guess all cliches were probably based on something real, otherwise, they wouldn’t be a cliché.

In Chinese martial arts that sweet spot between doing and not doing (to bastardize some more Taoist terminology) is called Jin. I’ve written a bit about that before:

The 6 directions and Jin

Rickson Gracie using Jin

Mike Sigman on basic Jin

Jin in Chinese martial arts (and tennis)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Are forms any use for fighting?

kwan-tak-hing-wong-fei-hung

The question above is my one-line distillation of the abstract provided by Douglas Farrier for his article called “Captivation, false connection and secret societies in Singapore“, which appears in the journal Martial Arts Studies. You can download the PDF of the article from that link.

The simple question, “are forms any use for fighting?” is one that will plague Chinese Martial Arts until the end of time. In true academic style, this article “adds to the conversation”, plus it’s got some great stories in there of traditional Choy Lee Fut training. In fact, the one time I met D. Farrier he was telling the exact story that is in this article. I asked him at the time what “the face” was. He gave me a serious look and said “I’ll have to show you later”. Our group split in different directions and he didn’t in the end. After reading the article I’m kind of glad about that…

(Don’t be put off that it’s in an academic journal as it’s not written in academic language, and is quite readable 🙂 )

 

Tai Chi Chuan applications practice

Sadly, a lot of Tai Chi teachers seem to be under the impression that by simply practicing the form for many years you will somehow magically acquire all the abilities you need to manifest martial skill when required. It goes without saying that these people are simply deluded. Applications practice is something that goes on far too rarely in most Tai Chi Chuan classes, but like everything else it has its pros and cons. Chief amongst the pros are that there’s simply no other way to tell if you’re really doing a move with the right feel unless you know what that move is intended to do in application. And I don’t mean ‘know’ in the sense of intellectual understanding, I mean actually being able to do it. Even if you’re practicing Tai Chi Chuan for health reasons only, you can still make your form better by practicing the applications. Becoming familiar with the application can give you direct, first hand knowledge of how that move should work in a way that theoretical knowledge never will.

The cons of application practice are rarely discussed, but here’s one to mull over: I think it’s possible that a heavy emphasis on application practice over other 2-person exercises can give you an over rated sense of your ability to defend yourself. It’s important to remember that practicing applications from the form against a compliant training partner is not the same as doing them against a resisting and determined attacker. While no training situation can ever be the same as ‘using your art for real’, you do need to train in something closer to a real situation to get an idea of how to apply techniques against a determined attacker.

Applications practice remains a valuable part of the training. One of the benefits I’ve found from this practice is noticing how the simple introduction of a person on the end of your techniques can totally change how you do them – usually for the worse. You’ll probably notice that you stupidly throw away a lot of the skills you’ve been training so hard on in your form work. For instance, this week we were working on a simple application of the Ward-off posture, where you deflect the attackers punch with your ward-off, then use Roll Back on his next attack to unbalance him before applying a counter. While I successfully deflected the attackers punches, the application just didn’t feel comfortable when I tried it, and after a brief analysis of what I was doing I noticed that even with lots of practice I was still making basic errors. Under the threat of attack I had immediately resorting to just using my arms to deflect the incoming stirke, rather than turning the body from the waist.

In the practice of Tai Chi Chuan we must learn to use our body in a different way to the way we normally use it in everyday life, at a very deep level, so that you can still move that way when under pressure. Applications practice is a great way of upping the amount of pressure and seeing whether you’re really as good as you thought you were when fighting the air.