Review: Introduction to Baguazhang by Kent Howard (with audio)

Introduction to Baguazhang by Kent Howard

Price: $18.95, North Atlantic Books. Get it here.


Baguazhang has always been the most curious of the three big internal arts, but while its origins are shrouded in mystery, it’s applications non-trivial and its purpose often obscure, it’s actual practice has always been something that is accessible to anybody who can put one foot in front of the other and walk in a circle.

And getting you to put one foot in front of the other is exactly how Kent Howard’s Introduction to Baguazhang starts off. Without being too specific of any particular style of Baguazhang, Howard’s book lays out the basic content found in most styles of Baguazhang, like the first two palm changes, teacups exercise, circle walking techniques and mother palms, and mixes in some advice on fluid movement, combat applications, standing practice and how to generate power from the root.

In terms of practical advice, Howard covers how to step in a basic circle, and the different ways to changing direction – L steps, T steps and V steps – in a lot of detail. But when it comes to the more complicated things like palm changes you are given pictures to follow rather than detailed step-by-step instruction.

In that respect, the book is exactly what it says it is – an introduction. The “Advanced practices” promised on the cover are certainly included, but not in a “how to do them” sort of way.

Regardless, it’s nice to see such a professional quality book produced on Baguazhang. The production quality is really high – with nice printing and a nice, readable font. The pictures are only black and white, but big and clear enough to see what’s intended, and time has been spent making sure it’s all been properly edited and proofed.

At various points Howard hands over to other authors – Wang Shu Jin’s “The Eight Character Secrets of Baguazhang” from his Bagua Swimming Body Palms book is here, for example, and some commentary from Darius Elder from the same book is reprinted, too.

I found it a bit of a shame he hands over the reins, as the book starts to feel like a collection of other people’s stuff towards the end, and Howard’s own voice, so much in force at the start, is witty, off beat and funny. I’d have liked it more if he’d continued in the same vein throughout.

Minor gripes aside, Howard’s Introduction to Baguazhang is a valuable addition to the literature available on this spinning, circular art that captivates so many people. If you’re looking to take your first steps into Baguazhang then it’s an excellent guide. You’ll certainly be able to learn how to walk a circle, perform the tea cups exercise and have a go at the palm changes. There’s also plenty of advice here that will guide you in the years ahead when you’re much further advanced in your practice.

Review: Introduction to Baguazhang by Kent Howard

$18.95, North Atlantic Books. Get it here.

Introduction to Baguazhang by Kent Howard


Baguazhang has always been the most curious of the three big internal arts, but while its origins are shrouded in mystery, it’s applications non-trivial and its purpose often obscure, it’s actual practice has always been something that is accessible to anybody who can put one foot in front of the other and walk in a circle.

And getting you to put one foot in front of the other is exactly how Kent Howard’s Introduction to Baguazhang starts off. Without being too specific of any particular style, Howard’s book lays out the basic content found in most lineages of Baguazhang, like the first two palm changes, teacups exercise, circle walking techniques and mother palms, and mixes in some advice on fluid movement, combat applications, standing practice and how to generate power from the root.

In terms of practical advice, Howard covers how to step in a basic circle, and the different ways to changing direction – L steps, T steps and V steps – in a lot of detail. But when it comes to the more complicated things like palm changes you are given pictures to follow rather than detailed step-by-step instruction.

In that respect, the book is exactly what it says it is – an introduction. The “Advanced practices” promised on the cover are certainly included, but not in a “how to do them” sort of way.

Regardless, it’s nice to see such a professional quality book produced on Baguazhang. The production quality is really high – with nice printing and a nice, readable font. The pictures are only black and white, but big and clear enough to see what’s intended, and time has been spent making sure it’s all been properly edited and proofed.

At various points Howard hands over to other authors – Wang Shu Jin’s “The Eight Character Secrets of Baguazhang” from his Bagua Swimming Body Palms book is here, for example, and some commentary from Darius Elder from the same book is reprinted, too.

I found it a bit of a shame he hands over the reins, as the book starts to feel like a collection of other people’s stuff towards the end, and Howard’s own voice, so much in force at the start, is witty, off beat and funny. I’d have liked it more if he’d continued in the same vein throughout.

Minor gripes aside, Howard’s Introduction to Baguazhang is a valuable addition to the literature available on this spinning, circular art that captivates so many people. If you’re looking to take your first steps into Baguazhang then it’s an excellent guide. You’ll certainly be able to learn how to walk a circle, perform the tea cups exercise and have a go at the palm changes. There’s also plenty of advice here that will guide you in the years ahead when you’re much further advanced in your practice.

The Invention of Martial Arts, Popular Culture Between Asia and America by Paul Bowman

I’ve just got a copy of The Invention of Martial Arts, Popular Culture Between Asia and America, by Paul Bowman. (Amazon link. Non-Amazon link). Firstly, yes, that excellent cover illustration is a picture of Jim Kelly playing the iconic character Williams in Enter the Dragon, a character who speaks volumes about the international and multi-ethnic appeal of East Asian martial arts in the early 1970s. It was created by the incredible Jon Daniel, who passed away in 2017.

Some of Bowman’s work is very academic, but this one is for “normal people”, like me. I’m still on the Introduction, but feel compelled to write something about it because this book is dripping with ideas to do with the conversations we all have around martial arts.

That to me is what much of Martial Arts Studies is – it’s not about the martial arts themselves, it’s about “what we talk about, when we talk about martial arts”, which would otherwise be left unexamined.

Take his writing on theory in the introduction:

“At first glance martial arts may seem simple. But any discussion of them will involve an implicit or explicit theory about them.”

So true. If you’ve ever been involved in any sort of online discussion about martial arts you’ll find the participant are talking past each other because of an assumption of (often contradictory) theory that underlines everything they say to each other about any subject to do with marital arts. One person thinks the martial art is really all about this, and the other person thinks the martial art is really all about that, and they go on busily talking about different things.

He raises the brilliant point that no theory of martial arts (or culture) can contain all the answers and that “different theories offer variations and varieties of perspective. Looking at things from the perspective of one paradigm, or orientation, followed by another, and then another is stimulating and illuminating in many ways. The shifts in perspective caused by this can produce more well-rounded or enriched understandings of phenomena, and can also instil a prudent awareness of the limits of our own understanding. However, by the same token, such shifts can also produce contradictory, conflicting incompatible pictures of ‘the same thing’.”

It should come as no surprise that the title of the book can then be viewed in multiple ways. He’s not talking about the literal invention of the term “martial arts”, or the actual martial arts themselves, but the invention of the ideas about martial arts, ways of thinking about them, depicting them and valuing them.

I could go on, but really, I’d recommend grabbing a copy yourself.

Review: “Nonstop Jiu-Jitsu” by Brandon Mullins and Stephan Kesting

A rare and welcome return to dead tree media for Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu fans everywhere.

Since the advent of DVD, and easily downloadable video tutorials from the likes of Kesting’s own Grapple Arts website and sites like BJJ Fanatics, new books that teach you BJJ techniques in a step-by-step manner have dwindled to the point of non-existence. Back in the day we had masterworks in print, like Jiu-Jitsu University by Saulo Ribeiro and Kevin Howell, and Advanced Brazilian Jiujitsu Techniques by Marcelo Garcia and Marshal D Carper* to guide us. But VHS and then DVD took over, which is why I’m so pleased to see this new release from Brandon Mullins and Stephan Kesting. Nonstop Jiu-Jitsu is the first new book about Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu to buck the trend and feature photos and step-by-step techniques, released in years.

You might be wondering what the point of a printed book teaching you BJJ is in the modern age of YouTube and steaming video, so let me offer you some reasons for its existence:

1) You don’t need a phone, app, computer or VR headset to enjoy a book. You can take it wherever you go and dive into any page anytime, anywhere. Talk about “instant access”!

2) Some people learn better from printed material – reading puts you in a different headspace. There’s also just something nice about a real, physical book that you can hold in your hands.

3) A DVD of this material (“Nonstop Jiu-Jitsu”) already exists from Grapple Arts, so this book acts as an additional resource.

4) Goddamn it, I’m just tired of all BJJ instructionals being in video format these days! It’s so nice to go back to something more old school.

So, as you can probably tell, I really wanted to like this book. I work in print magazines as my day job, so I love print with the sort of passion that Gordan Ryan normally reserves for protein shakes. I want to see the printed medium continue for as long as possible. So, as a fan of the original Nonstop Jiu-jitsu video instructional from Grapple Arts, I was beyond excited to hear that a print version was now available. And at 260 pages, with literally hundreds of full colour photos it is clearly a labour of love for the authors Kesting and Mullins. Yet alas, (alas!), it is not without its problems, of which there are many, but more of that later.

First though, who are Kesting and Mullins, and why should you care what they have to say about BJJ? As mentioned, Kesting runs the Grapple Arts business of BJJ instructional videos. I’ve been a fan of his work for a long time, and purchased many of his products. They’re all good, high-quality productions and usually done in conjunction with another teacher, who has a unique or valuable insight into the world of BJJ. Kesting usually takes the role of uke in the videos, while the featured instructor takes you through his techniques, or concepts. The featured instructor here is Brandon “Wolverine” Mullins, a BJJ world champion who is known for his clear instructional style and showing you complete gameplans, rather than isolated techniques, so he will show you a guard sweep, followed by a guard pass and then a submission, rather than techniques that leave you hanging and not knowing quite what comes next. Mullins isn’t one of the really famous BJJ guys out there, but he’s no stranger to competition and is a very competent teacher.

So what’s my beef? Well, the problem is that the book smacks of self publishing. A quick scan of the credits page reveals they didn’t employ an editor or a sub editor, and it really shows. Not only could almost all the text in the book do with a good edit to make it punchier, tighter and more interesting to read, there are a lot of unforgivable grammatical errors that have crept in, mainly in the introduction text admittedly, but that’s the thing you read first, so it creates a very bad first impression. But while things improve in later sections, typos are prevalent throughout the work, and if like me you can’t stand seeing obvious mistakes in a finished book, you’ll be tearing your hair out. I have a lot of sympathy for the authors here – working in print I know how hard it is to spot your own mistakes. You go “word blind” to your own writing. There are probably typos in this review that I’ve missed, but I can easily go back and fix them because it’s a blog post. In contrast, once something has been published in print it can’t be changed without issuing an expensive reprint – it’s really a very unforgiving medium, and not getting another pair of eyes to look at every single page before you send it to the printers is always fatal. Heck, I’d have done it for free myself if only they’d asked me!**

Some examples of typos from the introduction:

Maybe you’re not be the sort of person who cares about dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s. You just want to get to the great content, right? Well, I have some issues there as well.

I can’t fault the quality of the instruction presented. Like I said before, I was a fan of the original video series. But the way it’s presented here could be improved. For a start, the book is an odd shape (21.5cm across and 21.5cm high). There’s a reason why most books generally aren’t square – they’re really awkward to design for and you can see how this has created problems. When they have a full page of text, they’ve used only 1-column, so a line is uncomfortably long. The margin on the outside edge of the page is very tight too, and it all makes reading difficult, as you have to track your eye back a long way to the left to find the start of the next line. A 2-column grid would have made scanning text much easier.

(Very long lines of text to digest here. And a double exclamation mark at the end? What were they thinking”!!”)

The pages of photos have a different problem. Following from one step to the next is difficult, as they often have alternative shots of the same technique on the page. They’ve put numbers on photos so you can see where to move your eye to next, but knowing where to go next is not intuitive. They also expect you to read the explanation in the text box at the top of the page, then move your eye back to the correct picture to see what is meant, then move your eye back to the text box at the top to read the next step, and so on. It’s all a bit awkward.

(The two white lines indicate an alternative view, in case you were wondering.)

All credit to Kesting and Mullins for spending the time to re-shoot every single technique in detail and presenting colour photos of each step (that’s not cheap to do in print). The photos are clear and accurately show the techniques. They avoid the classic mistake of both weaing the same colour gi, but the printing is a bit too dark, meaning there are some shadows and dark patches on Kesting’s blue gi that are hard to make out, as you can see in my photos. (This probably looked fine on screen when they were creating the book, but the printed version can differ).

(That’s a lot of very small photos to try and fit on one page).

The design has competing systems of classification too, which makes it even more confusing. Sometimes a “what not to do” type photo has a red thumbs down icon on it, at other times it is crossed out with a big red “x”. Why not just pick one system and stick with it?

In their enthusiasm the authors have tried to squeeze too much into this book, both in terms of the number of photos on each page, and the amount of material covered. There are 3 big sections – 1. Fundamental movements, 2. Butterfly guard, 3. De La Riva guard – and to fit it all in, something important has been lost, which is context. In the video version of Nonstop Jiu-Jitsu, Mullins explains why he’s doing each technique, usually in response to the opponent defending his previous effort. Here you don’t know when or why you would use the techniques shown. For instance, when you have butterfly guard, what makes you choose either the hook flip to x guard or the hook flip to phantom choke? It’s not entirely clear. A short piece of text explaining the context before diving into the steps would have made all the difference.

To give you an idea of how much content there is here, the table of contents alone runs to 6 pages! Complaining there’s too much value in a book sounds like an odd gripe, but this book could easily have been split into 3 different books, with more room to really let each subject breathe, and it would have been all the better for it.

The first section (which seems unsure if it’s called Fundamental Movements, or Advanced Fundamentals) is based around the fundamental movements of Jiu-Jitsu, like the technical stand up, sit through, hip escape, butt double and rolling forward and backwards, and then shows you how these movements can be applied in techniques. In a section aimed at beginners the applications are actually quite involved and ramp the difficulty level up very quickly – for example, a rolling omoplata from the armbar position in side control, anybody? As a more experienced Jiu-jitsu player I personally loved the high-level technical content here, but a real beginner might be a bit out of their comfort zone. My only criticism is that they show plenty of applications for all the movements except the hip escape (or shrimp) and bridge, which only get one application each – regaining closed guard from half guard for the shrimp and bridging from mount. I would have liked to have seen a shrimping escape from side control here, and another mount escape added for completeness sake.

The second section goes on to cover butterfly guard. Butterfly is a really good guard to use against an opponent who is trying to pass your guard from his knees. The standard butterfly sweep is shown, plus a plethora of options for when they post a hand or leg. Quite naturally this leads into all sorts of x guard material, back takes and shin sweeps. The section starts with Mullins’ trademark aggressive butt double attack from butterfly, which is a very proactive way to get the action going against a stalling opponent, and as such is nicely suited to competition. Because Mullins teaches in a game plan-based system, a lot of this chapter is devoted to guard passing after you’ve swept them from butterfly guard.

The final section covers the De La Riva guard, which shows you what to do against a standing opponent. The majority of the section is on how to attack with the ball and chain sweep, and follow ups depending on how the opponent defends. Again, the jiu-jitsu shown is attacking and aggressively non-stop, in the sense that he links together guard sweeps, passes and submissions.

Throughout all of the book’s sections, Mullins drops in some tips on motivation, competition strategy and his general thoughts on BJJ. It’s welcome advice, but I think it could have done with an editor to make it more concise.

After all this moaning you probably think I’m going to recommend staying well clear of Nonstop Jiu-Jitsu (or is it “Non-stop Jiu-Jitsu“? Even the name of the book is editorially styled in two different ways, one on the cover without a hyphen and another on the footers of each page with a hyphen – argh! Just choose one way and stick with it), because of all the editorial problems, but I’m not. I’m recommending it because this book is actually glorious!

I love seeing BJJ back in print, and despite the issues I’ve mentioned**, it didn’t stop me from loving this book. If you’re looking for some new ideas for a game to play from butterfly or de la Riva, then you’ll find inspiration here that will last a lifetime, and you can easily add to your game. And, godamn it, it’s a real book about BJJ and we should celebrate that fact.


Link to Nonstop Jiujitsu on Amazon


(* If you’re interested, I consider Marcelo Garcia’s book to be the gold standard in terms of these types of instructional BJJ manuals. Its production standards are first rate, from the quality text and explanations to the brilliant photos. Sadly it went out of print a long time ago.)

(** Lads, if you are reading this and want to do an updated version 2 of this book without all the typos, then please do, but please, please hire an editor this time!)

Xing Yi Quan, a study of Tai and Tuo 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.

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 Chinese Crocodile. (Also known as Chinese Alligator). Sometimes you see Xing Yi people call it “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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Buy this book on Amazon: UK link to Amazon.

Heads-up! New Xingyi book coming soon. Tai and Tuo Xing.

book

Just a heads up that there’s a new Xingyi book on the horizon that deserves your attention. It’s called A Study of Tai and Tuo Xing and it’s by my old training partner Glen Board.

Tai and Tuo (Asian paradise flycatcher and Chinese crocodile) are two of Xingyi’s 12 animals. They’re considered advanced in the sense that the methods they use are difficult and subtle. The book is a thorough investigation of the fighting strategies and methods of both animals.

I’ve had access to a pre-final draft and I think it’s shaping up to be an excellent book. The illustrations are great, there’s plenty of historical background on Xingyi as well as technical discussion. The book also features good quality photographs showing martial applications and linking sequences for both animals. All in all, it looks great.

Look out for it soon. It should be on Amazon.

Asian-paradise-flycatcher-portrait

Asian paradise flycatcher

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Chinese alligator