Park life

Friend of the Notebook, Byron Jacobs, who lives in Beijing, recently posted a video giving a glimpse into the martial arts culture found in Beijing parks. You can see people doing all sorts of martial practices, like calisthenics, chi kung, Tai Chi, sword and push hands.

Byron comments:

“Beijing’s public spaces and parks have been gathering places for people from all walks of life for generations. This includes martial artists, who would meet regularly at such places to practice as part of their general lifestyle. Throughout the many parks of the capital, you can find practitioners of various styles and standards getting together to train regularly. This is a glimpse of some of these special places. The first episode features the Temple of Heaven.”

A bit of Xing Yi Snake to welcome in the spring and St. Patrick’s Day

The blossom is out on my tree and spring is in the air! So, it’s time to record a new video.

Yesterday was St. Patrick’s Day, the saint who drove the “snakes” out of Ireland (a country which has never had snakes). I see a lot of people doing Xing Yi snake forms and generally I don’t like most of it. Sorry. It always seems a bit “dumbed down” to me. Linear and basic, and not very representative of the actual animal. Snakes coil, they twist, they wrap and they strike suddenly and swiftly. Those characteristics need to be present if you are going to embody the Snake (She Xing).

But rather than post videos of other people’s work and criticise it, (which seems to be a favourite pastime of people on the Internet), I thought I’d make my own and try to promote my mate Glen’s Xing Yi Snake book in the process:

Somebody commented on another of my videos that they liked the weapons work I’ve included previously, so I put some Snake sword in there too. As with all Xing Yi, you can see the barehand work is simply a translation from the weapons work. The application pictures are from Glen Board’s book Xing Yi Snake, (which I’ve reviewed here), that I worked on with him.

I actually recorded this video just before I did my regular Tai Chi practice, and I noticed that my Tai Chi form became infused with the flavour of the Snake Xing I’d been practicing previously and became very coily indeed! This is what the Xing Yi animals are like – they’re like strong flavours of tea, that you add to your hot water. Ultimately you should be able to blend all 12 freely. I don’t think there’s enough lifetimes left for me to do that though, which is why I tend to stick to the ones I prefer. Different Xing Yi practitioners tend to be heavily ‘flavoured’ by the animals they prefer.

But why snakes? What’s the advantage in studying them? There are many legends about snakes, but not many actual snakes to be found in the UK, so we don’t generally know too much about them, but it’s pretty clear from watching this YouTube video showing python attacks that they’re absolutely fearless predators:

What surprised me most about that video is how close the python manages to get to its prey before it strikes. I guess it must be to do with being absolutely silent as it moves? I don’t know. Either way, a python is a terrifying grappler and an ambush predator combined into one. You can see why horses, monkeys and man has a built-in snake phobia.

As Wikipedia notes: “Historically, serpents and snakes represent fertility or a creative life force. As snakes shed their skin through sloughing, they are symbols of rebirth, transformation, immortality, and healing. The ouroboros is a symbol of eternity and continual renewal of life. … In Hinduism, Kundalini is a coiled serpent.”

Carl Jung had a lot to say about snakes. The ouroboros is cool symbol, a Western Yin/Yang, but the most recognisable snake symbol in our daily lives is the caduceus, the traditional symbol of Hermes and a symbol used in many esoteric religions and associated with healing:

The (very similar) Rod of Asclepius is still used on ambulances today:

Close Up of Caduceus Medical Symbol on Rear Corner of Ambulance Vehicle

“Some accounts suggest that the oldest known imagery of the caduceus has its roots in a Mesopotamian origin with the Sumerian god Ningishzida; whose symbol, a staff with two snakes intertwined around it, dates back to 4000 BC to 3000 BC.[3]

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caduceus

In Roman mythology the caduceus was often held by Mercury, harald of the gods, which brings me back to where I started, with the blossom on my tree being the herald of Spring.

And, bit like the ouroboros itself, I took a circuitous route to get there!

How to grip the sword

When the haft is gripped, this grip is done with the whole body” – Xing Yi classics

I am still trying to make sure I do some sword practice every day. Specifically I’m using Bear Eagle from Xing Yi as my main practice.

One of the big issues that becomes apparent when you do a lot of sword practice is the grip. My experience is that a solid grip means less wear and tear on your wrist.

I was therefore quite pleased to read this blog on how to grip a sword by Scott Rodell, since it confirms what I was taught and have found to be the best way to practice in terms of logevity. He recommends the same grip that I use.

The way I was taught was to grip the handle with all my fingers, not any kind of thumb/finger arrangement as you often see, and make sure all the fingers are below the guard, for obvious reasons. I think one of the keys to making your grip strong is to grip really hard with the little finger, that way you make sure it never sips off, because once it does the rest of the fingers tend to follow. As the Xing Yi classics say, “When the haft is gripped, this grip is done with the whole body“. With a strong, stable, grip you can start to connect the sword to your centre, so that movements from the torso can be reveald in the extremities – in this case, the sword.

Take it outside

Photo by Nick Bondarev on Pexels.com

Another thing that sword practice does is force you to practice outside. Practicing martial arts outside is not something that’s popular in the UK. Village halls and sports centres across the land resound to the sound of a million “Ki-ah!”s, but if you practice martial arts outside you are instantly branded a weirdo.

If people in the UK see you practicing martial arts outside they shout stuff at you, or do a Bruce Lee impression. It seems to be part of our culture. It’s not like this in other countries. Inner Mongolia is a great example – its indigenous wrestling culture stretches back to caveman times, and is still practiced to this day outside on the grass.

“Inner Mongolians live a simple life that’s rich in human connection, connection with the earth and sky. This is something that wrestling brings us closer to.”

Sadly, today not only is Mongol language and culture under threat from the Chinese state, of which Inner Mongolia is a region, but wrestling itself is also under threat. As the Monogol language, identity and culture is destroyed, so people lose motivation to wrestle.

As this article on Bloody Elbow says:

“Em adds their thoughts to this with, “Mongols all over, especially the Mongols in the grasslands and the smaller towns, are depressed and sad. There’s a hanging feeling of hopelessness. It’s made wrestling difficult to do. People aren’t motivated to train, nor are they mentally focused. Their thoughts are elsewhere, which distracts you from having that ‘feeling’ during a match. Yet, the show must go on and a few Naadam have happened recently and it’s allowed wrestlers to get back to competing, uniting, and sharing a common goal of keeping their culture alive. Wrestling is one way to do this. Winter Training began in October and there is an even greater push to spread the art and culture internationally too.””

But the outlook does not look good.

“There is no doubt that if the PRC continues its forced assimilation of Mongolian culture, that this wrestling art will become forever changed. In turn, it can also impact the competitive landscape of Sumo, Judo, Shuai Jiao, Freestyle, and others. Bökh is simply too intertwined within what it means to be Mongolian, for the sport to not feel massive ramifications from cultural turmoil and forced influences from outside traditions.”

But to get back to weapons. Weapons make you practice outside, so you discover your own connection to earth and sky. Just try swinging a sword around inside for 5 minutes and you realise why.

Of course, in the UK it rains a lot. I find that I’m ok with practicsing fast moving arts like Xing Yi sword outside in the rain. It doesn’t seem to bother me. Slow moving Tai Chi forms in the rain however are miserable, and as for Zhan Zhuang standing practice – forget it. 

When it’s raining, that stuff belongs in the Ger.

Photo by Nick Bondarev on Pexels.com

Threading into one – Shen Fa and weapons

Day 3 of my experiment with switching my training around so that weapons (specifically sword) are the mainstay of my practice, and changes are already happening.

Today I want to talk about Shen Fa, which translates as “body method”. You could call it whatever you want really, but it just means “the way you move”. Xing Yi has a very detailed Shen Fa and in bare hand practice you have to make your body do it. In contrast, using a sword almost teases it out of the body. The key to Xing Yi Shen Fa is learning to use your body as a coordinated whole. If you start “using your arm” and muscling it, then nothing seems to work as it should.

As it says in the Xing Yi Classics:

“(When) the top wishes to move, the bottom automatically follows. The bottom wishes to move, the top will automatically lead. (When) the top and the bottom move, the center section will attack. (When) the center section moves, the top and the bottom will coordinate. Internal and external are combined, the front and the rear mutually required. This is what is called “threading into one.”

You could say that the sword forces you to do this threading, by using your whole body to do each move. I mentioned before that my teacher emphasised using a heavy sword, and that is part of the reason why. (The other is that this style of sword is for going through armour, but that’s another topic).

I’m focussing on just one Xing Yi animal for my practice at the moment – Bear Eagle. It’s quite a lengthy ‘form’ by Xing Yi standards (although much shorter than a typical Chinese sword forms”), so there are lots of variation in the moves involved. In Xing Yi you’re free to do the forms fast – in fact, sometimes, the faster the better. That means you need to “flick”, “jab” and “swoosh” (I’ll spare you the technical terms!) a pretty heavy sword through lots of very quick techniques. If you are using your body in an uncoordinated way then it’s simply not possible to control a heavy sword at speed with momentum and with the accuracy required.

I noticed that an older post of mine on the Principles of XinYi seems to have generated a lot of interest lately. While Xin Yi and Xing Yi have evolved to have a different look, they are both rooted in the same idea of threading into one, which originated from spear use.

Incidentally, I’ve decided to focus on sword not spear for my weapons practice – I’ll go over why another time, but one reason is that I don’t own a long enough spear. Needs must when the Devil drives hard!

Sword as your main practice

Sorry there haven’t been many blog posts lately. I just didn’t feel inspired to write anything, and when I don’t feel inspired, following the Tai Chi principle, I don’t like to force it.

Something has got me back into writing recently though. I was having a conversation with a friend about Chinese marital arts and specifically weapons, and I thought – ‘well, instead of trying to describe things in words, I can just show you this on Zoom’, and I ended up teaching part of a sword form. What a time to be alive! It’s great that we can do this. When I started martial arts there was no such thing as the Internet, and if you couldn’t make it to see your teacher all you got was the occasional crappy VHS tape to learn from. Now we can Zoom between continents in seconds. I love the spontaneity of it.

As usual, the process of having to teach something means you get as much out of it as the person learning – you have to riffle out your old memory box, and then practice it hard enough so that it’s polished back up to a decent level before you teach it. I’d definitely put my Xing Yi sword on the back burner to focus on other things since lockdown began back in March, so getting back into it was an absolute pleasure. I miss the physicality of it, and the subtlety.

What occurred to me is that we (the general corpus of Chinese martial arts practitioners) tend to practice bare hand as our main art, then tack on weapons as an afterthought. Historically (and I’m generalising here, but stick with me), it was always the other way around. Our precious bare hand forms are actually more recent things, tacked on the end of weapons systems. Wing Chun practitioners, for example, spend most of their form training time practicing Siu Lim Tao, not butterfly knives. This got me thinking… what happens if we swap it back to the way it used to be? 

What if, instead of heading outdoors to do Chi Kung, Tai Chi practice and Kung Fu each morning,  I instead picked up my sword and did sword routines, then tacked on a few barehand bits on at the end if I’ve got time?

I’m going to experiment with this idea for a couple of weeks and see how it feels. 

What I usually find is that practicing barehand does nothing for your sword practice, but practicing with a sword doesn’t seem to knock back your bare hand practice as much as you think it would: It’s much easier to transition from weapon to bare hand, than it is to transition from bare hand to weapon.

Even after a couple of days I can feel the physical difference. My forearms and wrists ache a bit from lack of conditioning. The sword I use is quite heavy – 800 grams, I think – and it’s a replica of a Ming Dynasty sword, hand made by Tigers Den in the UK. It’s great. I’ve put some tape over the handle, because it was slipping in the cold weather. That might ruin the esthetic, but at least it makes it look like a “used” weapon, rather than something that you hang on the wall.

Anyway, back to Zoom. Of course, as soon as I stepped outside to wave my sword around it started raining. This is Britain, after all. However I managed to get my laptop somewhere dry enough that it was only me getting wet, not the machine, and taught a few moves. It all went rather well I think. We’re going to do it again this week.

The whole thing brought back a lot of memories about practicing Xing Yi sword in the rain somewhere in a field back in the “naughties”, as the 2000s was called. My teacher used to be very into practicing outdoors in nature, and his mood positively lifted the worse the weather got and the further away from other people we got! There’s something to be said for not giving in to nature and working with it, no matter what it throws at you.

But, anyway, I think having the sword as your main “thing”, rather than it existing on the periphery of your practice, could lead to some interesting results. I’ll experiement and see. Let me know what you think, or if you’re doing something similar.

Xing Yi Snake: sword

I was looking through some old Republican era Xing Yi manuals on the excellent Brennan Translation website recently and was surprised to discover one of them had some Xing Yi animal sword forms included – Snake and Bear Eagle!

Images from 形意拳術抉微 SELECTED SUBTLETIES OF THE XINGYI BOXING ART 劉殿琛 by Liu Dianchen [1920] translation (c) Paul Brennan.

I was involved in the photoshoot for my friend Glen Board’s book on Xing Yi Snake at the start of the year, and we performed applications of the same movement with swords:

From the book Xing Yi Snake by Glen Board

Doing the same Xing Yi links (forms) with a weapon that you do barehand has always been a feature of the Xing Yi I’ve been taught. Xing Yi movements are after all adapted from spear use, so historically speaking the weapons applications are the original movements, from which the barehand is derived.

In modern times weapons use has obviously declined and people tend to think of Xing Yi primarily as a barehand art, but historically speaking that’s not the case.

I like the idea of applying the same movements barehand and with weapons – it always makes more sense to me.

The two books are 100 years apart!