Dyson & Tai Chi

I read an interview with James Dyson in last week’s The Sunday Times entitled “No Such Thing As A Silly Idea”.

Whether you agree with him or not, his comments can nevertheless be useful to us in learning Tai Chi.

Comment No. 1 – “Knowing what has worked in the past really doesn’t help you at all now. In fact, it does always the opposite. It’s a hindrance.”

Opinion No. 1 – Its a no-brainer to say that the most obvious example is this was when BJJ met the striking arts in UFC and we see strikers being defeated left and right.

However, I will talk about this in the context of Tai Chi instead. The thing about knowledge is that it can be a double edge sword. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that we know a lot just because we learned a lot or is learning from a knowledgeable / famous master. However, until we know the boundaries of our knowledge we cannot really say that we know a lot and by extension what we had learned may not be as helpful as we thought.

Nowhere is this more obvious than when I switched to learning the Yang style of Grandmaster Wei Shuren’s lineage. If you look at some of the videos of people playing the forms from GM Wei’s style you might think that in terms of flavor there is not much different though the same techniques are played differently from that in Yang Cheng Fu’s descendants’ style. This typically is the problem of making the mistake of thinking that you can bring your previous learning experience from other Yang styles to GM Wei’s style.

If anything, your previous learning can be a hindrance to learning GM Wei’s style. I had to practically relearn GM Wei’s Tai Chi style from the ground up once I realized that what I had learned from the Yang styles of Cheng Man Ching, Dong family, Yang Sau Chung and Nip Chee Fei was of little help to mastering GM Wei’s style, if not an obstacle.

It is only when I go back to the beginner’s mindset that I could change my physical habits. GM Wei’s style is not just about outer movements but how what you are thinking of can affect the way your body moves and reacts. Once you know what this is you can read the Tai Chi Classics and things that do not make sense will now make a lot of sense.

So Dyson’s comment can be taken in this manner also, that your past is a hindrance to your present and therefore future. This is especially true in today’s fast changing technologies that look set to change a lot of things across many fields of knowledge and industry.

Comment No. 2 – “I think naive curiosity, naive questioning, wrong suggestions, are good ideas.”

One reason why I don’t join many forums is because people that flock together tend to be of the same feathers. They have a tendency to agree with each other, shouting down those that they don’t agree with.

Innovation comes about because of questioning the status quo. If we agree with everything we will still be living in caves and hunting with stones. You will be surprised at how closed minded Tai Chi people are. A number of practitioners have told me that they consider zhanzhuang to be super important. One of my friends even told me zhanzhuang is the secret to mastering Tai Chi.

They are so super assured that zhanzhuang is the way that they have never considered the alternative argument that zhanzhuang is not the way (or not the only way). They never thought to ask me why. They never asked why the Dong family, GM Wei and some masters don’t have zhanzhuang practice yet these masters have superb skills. In fact, I doubt anyone who considers zhanzhuang to be the way can explain how GM Wei did his fajing but for us what zhanzhuang people do for fajing is so obvious that to call it a secret is doing a disservice to those who want to uplift the practice of Chinese internal arts.

Comment No. 3 – An experienced person will only put forward a sensible suggestion, which might work, whereas a native person, or a young person who is unafraid to make mistakes, will ask the wrong question, will make an outrageous suggestion, which might actually be a very good idea.”

I am relatively new to learning FMA. I was taught that we can hold the blade with a forward grip or an ice-pick grip. We could also switch from one grip to the other while we are wielding the blade.

Forward Grip
Ice Pick Grip

At one point I thought why not hold two blades in one hand? Wouldn’t this eliminate the need to switch from one grip to another if I want to switch the way I am holding the blade? The question why anyone would want to switch grip is another matter.

This is not a new idea. In fact, there is a weapon from the style of Yin baguazhang called Judge’s Pen (goggle it) that sparked off my thinking (past experience can matter sometimes…….) in this direction. I played around with it while holding two knives in one hand. Seems like a good idea.

However, the reality is that unless a real blade is made this way this idea is not practical. Why?

Firstly, a real knife handle may be thicker and oval shaped, making it difficult to hold two knifes in one hand. Secondly, how will you carry the blade in a concealed manner? How will you draw it out quickly when required without cutting yourself? So what seems like a good idea is not a practical idea. But who knows, maybe someone will make this into a practical idea, which begs the question how does a Yin style baguazhang practitioner carry a Judge’s Pen?

Comment No. 4 – “Being very open to every suggestion and not ever saying ‘that’s a silly idea, don’t be so stupid’ – that’s my style. I like the unobvious suggestion…I get very worried when someone says they’re an expert.”

There’s nothing wrong with being an expert. The problem is when their mind is closed even when they are obviously wrong. They want to argue until a corpse can come alive, to use a colorful Chinese saying.

The basis for creativity is to not be afraid to ask what to others would be obvious stupid or even impossible questions. Remember the assumption that things heavier than air can’t fly (Lord Kelvin said that heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible). So for a long time if someone brought up the idea of flying they would be laughed at. Yet birds can fly. So obviously the assumption that things heavier than air cannot fly is not true.

Assumptions can be wrong. What is today correct may also be wrong tomorrow (flat earth versus round earth argument). So it is this way with the argument with zhanzhuang being the secret to developing fajing skills in Tai Chi. I say that this is not true because any beginner can learn to do fajing without having to learn zhanzhuang. They don’t even need to learn forms or to put in years of practice.

There is a difference between being able to use freely (requires years of practice) and being able to do fajing in controlled environment (does not require years of practice, just a few minutes of instruction and tinkering the movements for proof of concept). The latter is proof that it is important to know what you are doing clearly and not be caught up by outdated dogma that is enslaving you.

So in this sense when an expert, someone who proudly tacks a sifu before his name, tells you that you take years to learn how to fajing take it with a few spoonful of salt because it is not true. Even if I don’t tell you the basis of my argument you can figure it out easily with the help of a physics textbook and a partner willing to be your guinea pig. Once you figure it out you will probably slap your head for not seeing it for the simple thing that it is.

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