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.
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 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?
I’m still fascinated by that film I posted a little while ago of China from 1901-1904. It’s as close as we’ll get to seeing the people who were around at the time that the popular martial arts of Northern China – Taijiquan, Baguazhang and Xingyiquan were being formalised into the structures and routines we still know and recognise today.
It gives a small insight into what the martial arts of the time were like, we have an idea of what they practiced, but we don’t always know where they practiced them, and to some extent really why they practiced them. There’s a particular sequence starting at 17.10 in the film where we see a procession of sorts going along a riverbank and then entering a village or town. There are martial arts performers doing twirls and spins of their weapons as they go. The setting is informal, music is being played (we see the musicians) and it has something of an air of the Saint’s Day religious processions you still see going on between villages in rural European nations, or the May Day “Hobby Hoss” procession that can still found in Cornwall in the United Kingdom.
But back to China. The martial artists involved seem embedded into the culture of the place and time as much as the musicians or flag holders.
“There was a well established pattern of village festival culture in Northern China. The ritual was called a sai and it was based on a three-part structure: inviting, welcoming and seeing off the gods. Ritual could last anywhere from three days to a month. Wherever you happened to be, these rituals were happening nearby every two weeks. A smaller sai might have only 50 people officiating and a thousand participants, while a large one might involve hundreds of ritual experts and 100,000 participants. A large ritual could invoke as many as 500 gods, their statues escorted out of temples in massive processions with armed escorts of martial performers that snaked between villages for miles.”
“According to David Johnson, ritual festivals were so common and so old and so large that they were overwhelmingly the most important influence shaping the symbolic universe of the common people. Regionally they happen about every two weeks and could involve over a hundred villages, with processions that strung out for miles attracting thousands of spectators. “It is quite impossible to understand what villagers… in North China thought and felt about the world of politics, about Chinese history and traditions, about the world of gods and demons, or about any of the grand matters of life and death, without a close familiarity with sai [and similar rituals]. Ref: David Johnson 1997, “Temple Festivals in Southeastern Shanxi”, Overmyer 2009,8.”
From Tai Chi, Baguazhang and the Golden Elixir: Internal martial arts before the Boxer Rebellion by Scott Phillips, p173.
I don’t think we can assume, from one film. that all Chinese martial art of the period was like this, but it’s fascinating to see a glimpse of how well it was integrated with everything else.
Everywhere in China the martial arts either present themselves in the guise of simple exercises or are shrouded in arcane religious mysteries. Western enthusiasts often feel impelled to strip away these religious trappings and construct a version of the martial arts that is neither simple gymnastics nor religion, but emphasizes true hand-to-hand combat skills. The question remains, is this an authentic understanding of the martial arts?
Charles Holcombe, Theater of combat: A critical look at the Chinese martial arts
I thought I’d start a series of posts commenting on what I like about photos of famous masters of the past. I thought I’d start with this photo of Yang Cheng-Fu doing rollback from the Yang long form.
Yang Cheng-Fu comes in for a lot of criticism, mainly I think because of his weight. He was a big man, but I’ve always been impressed with how precise and delicate his postures seem to be. What I like most about this picture is that you can almost feel the heaviness and sinking in what he’s doing, yet at the same time there is the precise placing of his hands and feet.
Tai Chi is a paradox in that you are supposed to feel light yet also heavy. According to the Tai Chi Classics your head needs to feel like it is being pulled up “as if suspended from above”, and yet your body needs to also have the feeling of sinking, “Make the chi sink calmly” and “The abdomen relaxes, then the chi sinks into the bones.”
You can see both these qualities in Yang Cheng-Fu performing Rollback, head upright, light and nimble, yet also firm and heavy. With the placement of his hands you also get a sense of the yin and yang being distributed throughout his body. The back hand has the intent of pulling and the front hand has the intent of pushing. He is not “double weighted” – each hand is expressing a different energy. The weight on his feet is on the back leg – again, not in no man’s land in the middle, but clearly distinguished.
You also get a sense of calm. This is not a frantic and hurried performance. It’s slow and deliberate, like a great river rolling.
Jack Slack was the first person to draw my attention to the parallel between rioters storming government buildings that happened in China’s Boxer Rebellion around 1900, and the storming of the Capitol Building by Trump Supporters in 2021. Both involve a kind of “spirit possession”.
Of course, America, along with many European nations, was involved in the Boxer Rebellion:
“In 1898 the Yellow River burst its banks and destroyed the harvest in much of Northern China, but this misfortune was followed by an agonizing drought which dried out the land and hardened the dirt. As young men went hungry and without work, some Chinese noted the connection between the anger of nature and the construction of train tracks, telegraph lines and churches since the arrival of foreigners in the Qing Empire. Anti-foreign sentiment brought together groups of peasants practicing martial artists and calling themselves the Righteous Society of the Harmonious Fists—though the West came to know them as “The Boxers”. The Boxers attacked and murdered missionaries across the Empire and in the summer of 1900, Tianjin and Beijing were plunged into chaos as the Boxers received the blessing of Empress Dowager Cixi and the Imperial army. 400 foreigners and 3000 Chinese Christians endured a two month siege in Beijing’s legation quarter—a stone’s throw from the Imperial Palace but completely helpless. The Boxer Rebellion is a story about agriculture and diplomacy, magic and court intrigue, and it stands as both the last great event of the Victorian Era and the beginning of the end for the Qing Dynasty. ” – Jack Slack
Of course, I’d contest that the events that lead to the end of the Qing Dynasty had started much earlier, back in 1860s. It was these conflicts with foreign powers and internal rebellions which lead directly to the creation of Tai Chi Chuan, as we discussed on our History of Tai Chi podcast series. Yes, I’m sorry, the myth of a Taoist inventing Taijiquan after a dream about a snake and a crane, is just a fairytale. The real reason is much more pragmatic.
Jack has done an excellent podcast episode on the Boxer Rebellion, which he’s just released to the public, instead of being behind his Patreon paywall. If you want to find out more, have a listen:
“When the opponent expands, I contract. When he contracts, I expand. And, when there is an opportunity, I do not hit – it hits all by itself.” ― Bruce Lee
Practicing both Xing Yi and Tai Chi together helps you gain insights into both arts. Here’s what occured to me this morning: If you were to strip down Tai Chi and Xing Yi forms to their essentials then Tai Chi is a series of deflecting moves interspersed with occasional punches or kicks, and Xing Yi is a series of punches or kicks interspersed with occasional deflecting moves.
That’s a gross simplification, but I think it’s true to some extent. It’s what makes the two arts good companions for each other.
I’ve written before about not putting power in the form, but in a related note I think the idea of not using your arm to punch is another way of looking at it from a more Xing Yi perspective. It’s the same nut, just another way to crack it.
The famous Tai Chi practitioner, Cheng Man Ching, is said to have had a dream in which he had no arms, and it was only after that that he grasped the secret of pushing hands. The secret was that pushing hands had nothing to do with hands at all, and he credited this dream with in his ability to push people.
But I find it a lot easier to understand the ‘not using your hands’ thing when you are constantly pushing and deflecting. It’s a lot harder to do it when you are striking.
Xing Yi is obsessed with striking. Most of the forms are a series of strikes linked together (called “links” – Lian Huan). I’ve come to appreciate however that the key to it is to not use your arm to strike. I mean, yes, your arm is doing the striking, of course, but it’s like it’s not involved in the process. I’m thinking about what Bruce Lee said when he said “it hits all by itself”. But while I believe Lee was talking about a more spiritual process (the top line of the hexagram), I’m thinking about a more mid-line process that’s rooted in the body. The hand moves into the position you want, but what moves it there has nothing to do with the arm at all, it’s all from the body. I find that when Xing Yi becomes “too much in the arm” it ceases to be the art it’s supposed to be.
Paradoxically by trying to hit hard, you ruin it. You’ve got to ease back a little bit – take your foot slightly off he gas and let the body do the work, almost as if you are a craftsman using a tool skillfully (your body) rather than making a great effort to get things done and just making a mess in the process.