As we’re moving into Autumn, there’s bright sun and a bit of a cold bite in the morning air during Tai Chi practice. I find a change in the weather is a good time to reflect on the things I’ve learned so far and to change the focus of my practice back towards the fundamentals.
I feel like summer was a time to be more active and energetic in my practice and Autumn is a time to be more reflective, so I’m picking up the practice of fundamental single-arm silk reeling again. Refocusing my Tai Chi on the idea of 1) sinking my weight down into the lower body and 2) generating movement from the legs, hips and feet while trying to stay as relaxed in the upper body as I can. I prefer to focus on these two tangible things rather than to talk too much about dantien and qi.
So, let yourself do the movements of a Tai Chi form, but remember, you’re not allowed to move your arms at all! And by that I mean, you cannot move from your arms all. Your arms move, of course, but they move because of the lower body. And don’t just pay lip service to this idea. Really do it. Ban yourself from arm movements and see where it takes you. Movements that could be seen as superficial take on whole new layers of meaning when practiced this way.
Byron Jacobs is a teacher of Xing Yi and Bagua based in Beijing, China. He’s a student of the famous Shifu Di Guoyong and is heavily involved in the martial arts scene in Beijing. As well as training traditional martial arts he’s also a BJJ practitioner and competitor.
In this wide ranging discussion we talk about training Xing Yi, Bagua and Tai Chi and whether Wu Shu will ever get into the Olympics. We also find out what it was like to train martial arts in Beijing during the Corona virus pandemic, and what the Chinese BJJ and MMA scene is like.
An interesting video has surfaced that links the guard postures used in Shuai Jiao (Chinese Wrestling) with postures in various Chinese martial arts. The premise of the video is that Shuai Jiao is the root of all the Chinese martial styles. The text accompanying the video says:
“Guards in traditional Chinese wrestling are meant to favor certain fighting techniques and strategies. Since Shuai Jiao is very ancient and there are precise references in these guards to the styles that exist today, traditional wrestling is at the roots of Chinese styles. My Master Yuan Zumou has clearly stated this for over thirty years. In Shuai Jiao these attitudes are not aesthetic, but are used in real combat. I have put the captions of the styles I know or of those that maestro Li Baoru (Beijing, late 80s) mentions in the video.”
It’s an interesting theory, but unfortunately I can’t agree with such a blanket statement as “traditional wrestling is at the roots of Chinese styles“. Was it a strong influence on all Chinese styles? Yes, of course. But calling it the root of all styles is a bit strong for me. Some styles developed entirely from military practices, and a lot of styles have no wrestling component at all, or have their roots in weapons usage.
I can certainly see postures in the video that resemble Tai Chi – particularly the “White Stork Cools Wings” posture and another guard that looks a little like the “Wave Hands Like Clouds”. But we only have two arms and two legs – inevitably there are going to be similarities between postures found in different martial arts. That alone doesn’t confirm a genuine historial link. Influences betweewn marital arts can flow in both directions, too. So it’s quite possible that wrestling has been influenced by local village styles. And even things that are not necessarily combat arts, like xìqǔ, can have an influence on them.
I’d also have to take issue with the statement that “In Shuai Jiao these attitudes are not aesthetic, but are used in real combat.” Let’s not even get into the idea of what “real combat” is (Shuai Jiao matches have rules, after all) but it’s a simple fact that Shuai Jiao was enjoyed in the royal court in the Ching Dynasty (and probably all the dynasties before it) as a kind of entertainment for the nobles. The same thing happened in the Japanese royal court with Sumo, just as medieval kings in Europe enjoyed watching martial games like jousting and fencing. And obviously wrestling is still enjoyed as a kind of popular entertainment in America and Mexico today.
But let’s turn our attention to the contend of the video. A lot of the guards being demonstrated look quite showy to me – as if they were designed to impress an audience, particularly the Wave Hands Like Clouds style guard, where the practitioner seems to deliberately trip over his own legs.
But I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Ever since modern Wu Shu put the emphasis on gymnastic ability over practicality, people have been searching for this false dichotomy between performance and practicality in historical martial arts, too. It’s almost like a real martial art isn’t allowed to have any ‘fun’ aspects to it. In reality, and with several historical examples, a martial art can be both a serious, practical tool for combat, and something that can be performed for social, entertainment and cultural reasons all at the same time.
Choy Li Fut schools often perform lion dance, and that doesn’t mean their kung fu won’t work in a fight. Similarly, I would contend that Shuai Jiao can be used as a form of entertainment and a practical method of self defence. Just like almost all Chinese martial arts can.
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.
“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.”
Michael does something similar while brushing his teeth, but he stands on one leg instead.
It turns out that your ability to stand on one leg for an extended period of time is a good indicator of how long you’re going to live, and it decreases significantly after age 35. It’s something to do with the brain slowing down as we age and the fact that balance requires the integration of so many body systems, but the good news is that we can improve our balance with practice.
You can give your self a little test of your balance right now if you like. Try and stand on one leg for 30 seconds each side, and for 10 seconds with your eyes shut. Be careful though, standing on one leg with your eyes shut is very tricky!
So, what’s the best way to improve you balance? Professor Dawn Skelton from Glasgow Caledonian University was interviewed in the programme about all things relating to balance, and at 10 minutes 59 seconds she recommends Tai Chi as one of the best activities to improve your balance and prevent your first serious fall – especially for old people. It is 3 dimensional movement, so your head moves at different times to the rest of your body, and because it’s slow and controlled you get great feedback from joints.
So there you go – yet more evidence that Tai Chi is good for you and will help you live longer!
If I had a pound for every time I’ve heard a Chinese martial artist start to explain the history of their style in a way that means, by sheer coincidence, that their particular lineage is the most special and authentic example of all the different branches of their style, then I’d be as rich as a relative of a Conservative MP in 2020 with no previous experience of procuring PPE equipment.
So, what’s going on here? Obviously not every single Chinese martial artist you talk to can have the ultimate lineage of a style, so one of two things is happening here. Either, you’ve just happened to bump into that one guy on the planet who has the best version of this style known to mankind… Or, like most human beings, the person talking lacks the self awareness to see that they are parroting a line they’ve been sold, and that they’re now selling to you. Everybody likes to think that they are doing the real thing, and that means, that all the other people who do their martial art a bit differently to them therefore can’t also be doing the real thing. As a side note, I think the elaborate and fanciful origin stories of most Chinese martial arts serve a similar purpose – to make the students confident that their style is somehow better than the others.
The most recent example of this phenomina I’ve listened to was in an episode of a podcast featuring a Chen style lineage holder talking about why his style is the best. The whole episode is essentially about who has the real Chen style lineage – the Beijing Chen group or the Village Chen group. I don’t do Chen style myself, and don’t really have any desire to either, so I don’t have a dog in the fight, but listening to the long, convoluted reasoning he used to explain exactly why his lineage is better than the others, I do wonder if he’s ever stopped to listen to himself?
Martial arts styles are essentially brands, and everybody involved is selling you their particular brand in one way or another, whether they realise it or not. This is a cynical view to take on martial arts, I agree, but I think it’s also historically accurate. Martial arts styles only appeared in China the age of commercialism when people realised that it was possible to make money teaching them. Before that different styles didn’t necessarily have different names, or names at all. Once you could make money teaching it was necessary to differentiate your particular style from others, otherwise, how would you attract students?
I don’t mean to single out the Chen style guy – he’s not alone by a long stretch – but it seems to me that all Chinese martial artists have some version of the same story they tell themselves about why their lineage is the most special, unique or authentic. Heck, I used to be one of those guys myself!
This is usually the point where my very wise Polish BJJ friend taps me on the shoulder and reminds me with his usual Spartan brevity that the only reason lineage becomes important is because the art has died and nobody is using it to fight with any more.
Again, that sounds a bit harsh, but he could well be right. BJJ is a brand like any other martial arts, and very marketing heavy, but in BJJ circles people don’t tend to care about lineage in the way they do in Chinese martial arts because the art has a healthy competiton culture. Nobody would say things like, “This is not the real Rio De Janeiro style of jiujitsu”. They’d just get laughed out of town for saying that. In BJJ, if you can make a technique work in training, or even better, in competition, then it’s valid. There is no need for any other type of validation. If it works, it works. You are expected to add to it and innovate. I really like that. Sure, there are a few branches of the BJJ tree that venerate the original self-defence orientated teachings of Helio Gracie as if they were written in stone, and refuse to modernise for fear of losing their street effectiveness, but they’re not that big a deal in the great scheme of things. The rest of the BJJ world carefully steps around them so they can carry on living in the 1930s without affecting anybody else. It’s not a big problem.
Lineage is real. It exists. But surely, what matters more is what we can actually do with the art?
My question is always, “does it work?” If it does, I’m interested.
I’m going to have a bit of a rant today, so bear with me.
I read this quote today:
“Why should everything always be measured by competition MMA standards? Rules and protections so people won’t get hurt, judges, mats, doctors standing beside the ring, and months for the people to prepare before a fight… So those are the standards of “high level fighting”?
That quote sums up what’s wrong with the attitude of a lot of people in the Tai Chi world. Now, don’t get me wrong. I tend to agree with his idea that not everything should be judged by MMA standards. There are lots of reasons to do a martial art, and it doesn’t all have to be about competing in a ring, but then he immediately loses the plot by claiming that MMA is safe, tame or sanitised, compared to the real martial art that he practices. This idea that his art is too deadly for the ring is as old as the hills. People have been using it as an excuse ever since the UFC was created. And we particulary hear it from internal martial artists – usually Tai Chi people. And despite it being obvious nonsense, it never seems to go away.
People who talk like this simply don’t know what they’re talking about, so I really should just ignore him and go and do something more interesting instead, but just for my own sanity, let me flesh out why he’s wrong.
MMA at all levels, but particularly the professional level, is ridiculously dangerous. People die, and they’re doing it for your entertainment and crappy wages. I like to watch MMA as a form of entertainment as much as anybody else who practices martial arts as a hobby, especially if I know who the fighters are and have been following them for a while. There are moments of brilliance that get pulled off in the cage, and they’re astonishing to see. To see one person successfully implement a fighting strategy against another and for it to work is as much a triumph of brain as it is of brawn. As with all sports, there are rare moments of pure drama that happen in the cage that cannot be replicated even in the highest levels of theatre.
If you’re a jiujitsu fan then there’s the added bonus of seeing your favourite grapplers transition to MMA to see if they can work their wizardry in the cage with the threat of punches added. Ryan “The wizard” Hall is one of my favourite fighters for this very reason:
But there’s also a lot about the sport I don’t like – I hate the way fighters keep hitting their opponent’s head after they have gone unconscious. I hate how much punishment the referees sometimes let the fighters take before waving the bout off. The weight cutting is ridiculous and dangerous. I don’t like watching violence for the sake of violence. But most of all I don’t like the fact that these people are putting their health and, let’s be honest, their lives, on the line for not a lot of money when compared to other sports that have similar viewing numbers, but don’t have anywhere near the same risk. No professional MMA fighter is getting out of the game unscathed. The effects of repeated blows to the head in competition or training often only reveal themselves as life-changing brain damage years after the fighter has hung up his or her gloves.
And that’s not to mention all the potentially life-changing injuries you can suffer inside the cage in the few short minutes of a fight. Chris Wideman suffered an horrendous injury to his shin just a couple of weeks ago:
It’s not like a lot of other combat sports are much safer. Just a week ago a Sumo wrestler slipped and fell face down. He never got up again. There were no doctors present at the match and nobody checked on him for about 5 minutes as he lay there. You can watch it on Youtube if you’re feeling brave. His medical care, or lack of it, was an absolute disgrace and clearly the safety procedures (which seem hamstrung by tradition in this case) need urgently reviewing. Again, Sumo wrestlers are generally compensated appallingly for the amount they give to the sport, and then discarded after their career is over.
While football stars, golf pros, runners and basketball players can command huge salaries, professional fighters (with the exception of boxers) are just not getting the recognition they deserve.
So the last thing I want to read about is some Tai Chi expert telling me he thinks that MMA is too soft and safe compared to the “deadly” art he practices. If he’s even raised a sweat in training in the last 10 years, I’d be surprised.
As I’ve heard many people say over the years, MMA is the closest you can get to a no rules fight while still having some rules, so as a testing ground it’s immensely valuable for research. Let’s not pretend it’s not, or that practising a martial art without any resistance fighting will somehow make you a better fighter.
Bob Klein first studied Tai Chi Chuan fifty years ago with Grandmaster William C. C. Chen, and also owned an animal importing business, which gave him a ready supply of exotic animals to test his martial skills against. In a method that sounds similar to the legendary founding tales of many Chinese martial arts, Bob observed the wild animals, and learned their fighting ticks. Bob describes the process as learning the “pattern of attention” of each species, which he then tried to adopt in himself in sparring and Chi Kung, creating his own system, Zookinesis, along the way.
“The imported animals were often not in a good mood as they emerged from their shipping containers and I was attacked frequently.”, explains Bob. “Many of the animals were stronger and faster than I so I had to use my skill in controlling their attention. There were many close calls and I had many scars”, he observes.
Klein also traveled to the jungles of Central America several times to study animals in the wild. “I would buy a dugout canoe and spend a few months paddling along rivers, meeting the wildlife and people.”
The result of this study is the system of chi kung he calls “Zookinesis” (“animal exercises”) and the fighting system called “Phantom Kung-fu”, which is the result of his Tai Chi Chuan influenced by Zookinesis. Zookinesis seems to evolve into the wider world of healing and being in harmony with nature.
The book, Heal yourself and the world with Tai Chi is as much about Zookinesis as it is about Tai Chi. It’s not a “teach yourself Tai Chi” type of guide, or a deep dive into history. Instead, I’d describe it as a kind of stream of consciousness on the subject of animism, Tai Chi, energy flow and spirituality. There are headings and there are chapters, but I don’t really feel like they matter much. You could dip in at any point and just start reading. Stop, flick on 20 pages and read a bit more. Go back 40 pages. And so on. That’s not to say it’s not a well written book, but a reader looking for a more organised, practical or logical system to unpick will be disappointed.
Here are some examples of paragraph I’ve picked at random to give you an example of the sort of text it contains:
“Small children in our society usually draw people as big heads with tiny arms and legs sticking out of the heads. I wonder if they are just seeing the distribution of attention in a person, and drawing their pictures accurately from that perspective.”
In fact, Klein’s work makes a nice contrast to the often fractious world of online Tai Chi discussion. His musings are marvelously inofensive and do a good job of framing his points of reference. He has no interest in denigrating other styles of Tai Chi or teachers, exposing fake histories or arguing with anybody else about what ‘real’ Tai Chi is.
No egos were harmed in the making of this book. If you’re looking for a philosophical meander through many of spirituality’s greatest hits then you’ve come to the right place. Step inside, pour yourself a cup of green tea and let the zookinesis flow.
I remember when I started Tai Chi in the 90s, one of the things that was talked about a lot was that you should never let your knees go beyond the line of your toes in a forward stance.
Letting this happen was always seen as unequivocally bad. Not only was knees beyond toes seen as structurally unsound (your weight is too far forward making you easy to pull off balance), but this was seen as the primary cause of the epidemic of so many Tai Chi people having bad knees.
The Snake Creeps Down posture in particular was quite often used as an example of a badly done posture by Western dilettantes.
But it always struck me as a bit odd that it was seen as being such a dangerous thing to do. If you were training the martial side of Tai Chi then you were being punched, thrown and armlocked on the regular. Worrying about your knees going over the line of your toes seemed a minor danger in comparrison.
Fast forward to 2021 and today I found out that a lot of BJJ people (an art that specialises in slowly destroying your body over time) were raving about the benefits of the method espoused by the Knees Over Toes Guy on YouTube, who had achieved great results reparing people’s knees using a traning methods that empahsises, yes, you guessed it, putting your knees beyond the line of your toes as much as possible.
Interesting. Here’s what he says:
A year went by with no results. In fact, I was certain I needed another surgery when a spark of truth finally presented itself…
“The athlete whose knees can go farthest and strongest over his or her toes is the most protected.”
Everything I had been taught up to this point by dozens of trainers and physical therapists was very clear: NO KNEES OVER TOES — but when I read this statement, I immediately knew it was true.
Knees Over Toes Guy
The write up of his method is here. And here’s a video of his basic method is here:
The logic seems sound to me, so if you’ve got knee trouble, you might want to give it a try.
It makes me think – is the epidemic of Tai Chi people with bad knees (if it really exists) caused by the knees going over the toes? Or is it more likely because that group self-selects for other unhealthy behviours?
I think push hands is completely flawed as a competitive sport, which is why it ends up as a shoving match, but somebody (Jet Li?) is trying to change the rules to make it work better as an Olympic sport…. So here it is! It’s essentially more like wrestling, which is probably a good thing as it means you can move your foot.
And it’s got takedowns, but I think the question is then always … why not just compete at Shuai Jiao?