About Movement

I remember seeing this video. I was amazed not so much by the study itself but by the fact that the researchers said they were doing a study on Tai Chi but what was shown on the video was not Tai Chi but Baji! There is a write-up here and notice – no mention that it  was Baji that was studied instead of Tai Chi.

 

It is even more astonishing when you consider that the researchers were post-grads and you would think that they should know something about what they were actually studying versus what they thought (or led to believe) they were studying.

How I came to write about this topic today was somehow or rather I was talking about the Tai Chi Classics with my student and mentioned this video. I was surprised to learn that this lab had also done a study on him performing Tai Chi though I can’t find any information on it.

This early study is interesting but seem to miss out on a lot. This could be due to the fact of measurement instrumentation constraint, that the researchers did not know their topic enough to ask the right questions or that their focus is just on a specific aspect. I would say that the research paper here is better by comparison. At least, it really is on Tai Chi.

Still I would think that a proper study on Tai Chi has yet to be conducted. My thinking is that the first step is to identify a master, not so much by paper certificate or claims of lineage but by whether he really knows his topic. Herein, lies the first obstacle in that most researchers would not know enough about Tai Chi to be able to tell the difference.

Assuming that the first hurdle is passed the next part is to determine what is a suitable topic to delve into. I would love to see a study on the role of principles from the Tai Chi Classics in the practice and application of Tai Chi. The objective of the study to prove that these principles are consistent in optimizing the method in regards to movement efficiency and effectiveness.

To study this would require an array of instruments such as a high speed camera, motion sensors, shock sensors, temperature monitors, infrared camera, brain monitoring and software. It would also be important for the subject to narrate what he is thinking of as a movement is performed and correlate that to the part of the brain that is involved.

For example, if you want to study if The Song of Peng is a valid principle or mere flowery words it would be useful to call out each line to the test subject and capture what is occurring in his mind and body. From here you can compare and verify if he is actually doing what the principles called for or doing something entirely different.

For example, The Song of Peng calls for the energy to be like water supporting a moving boat. How should this be actualized? The test subject will narrate his thinking, after which he will demonstrate that the movement just performed is consistent with the real life example of water supporting a moving boat. The video below is an example of how water supports a boat :-

So if the test subject is doing a movement that is consistent with what The Song of Peng said then you will be able to discern at least some of the principles mentioned in the video above in play.

When I was talking to my student we were talking about An (Push). I showed him what the problem was when trying to apply power against a resisting opponent and how to solve it. The way most Tai Chi practitioners do their push is something like what is described below on how to push a cart properly to move heavy objects in an industrial warehouse :-

cart

I am not saying the above way of doing Push (like pushing a heavy cart) is wrong. You can read that the cart pushing posture is consistent with biomechanics (you can read the entire paper here). My question is whether this alone is consistent with the principles outlined in The Song of Push. You can read a translation below taken from Lee Scheele’s website :-

What is the meaning of An energy?
When applied it is like flowing water.
The substantial is concealed in the insubstantial.
When the flow is swift it is difficult to resist.
Coming to a high place, it swells and fills the place up;
meeting a hollow it dives downward.
The waves rise and fall,
finding a hole they will surely surge in.

I am sure after reading The Song of Push you would agree that pushing a cart is nothing like Tai Chi’s Push movement. There are two ways to apply Push. The first is to move in and just apply the push. The second is in the midst of pushing hands you apply the push and your opponent resists hard.

I contend that it is in the latter that we can check our compliance to the principles outlined in the Song of Push honestly. Imagine this – you put both hands on your opponent’s arm and you push hard until his arm is jammed against his body. He should be pushed out and off balance.

But he managed to lean in, place his weight on his front leg and brace against the push. Now you have a problem. You can move back to try pushing in again but chances are your opponent will follow you and counter-attack. You can also dig in and push harder. They are two possible options but again, how are they in compliance with the principles. At this point some practitioners would say the principles are not true, just stuff made up by scholars to fool the gullible and elevate the art for snobbery purposes.

However, what if the principles are true? If so, then how do you prove that they are true and workable? Therein, lies the problem.

In my explanation of one example to overcome resistance without stepping back or changing to another attack I used the principle of “The waves rise and fall,…” to borrow the strength from the resistance and return it. I came across the explanation below which is related to the explanation I provided :-

cart2

I applied this principle through the fajing principle mentioned in Grandmaster Wang Yongquan’s book on Tai Chi (book cover shown below, from TaijiKinesis Official Handbook Volume 2 – Background) :-

cart3

So you see a movement applied properly should be traceable to the principles and not just rely on I say, you say or master says. Otherwise, we could be doing something wrong and not realize it, never mind it looks beautiful outwardly.

Note – doing right does not mean we must all do it the same way – it just means that we should have the proper principles running through it. So if I were to apply Push and using the below principle from Peng as well the flavor would be different :-

The entire body is filled with springlike energy,
opening and closing in a very quick moment.

This then is the thing about the nature of movement in Tai Chi. You can say same, same but not the same. This means that all Tai Chi are the same because the principles are similar if not the same. If the principles are different then we are not the same. No matter, all Tai Chi styles share the same core principles; for example lowered elbows, sunk shoulders. It is the unique principles of the respective lineages that make them stand out.

Signboard

Dominoes 3

This is unexpected. Xingyiquan has been touted as an aggressive internal art; like a cannon on wheels. However, in this match the xingyi practitioner is more like a cannon stuck in the mud.

 

I asked my student if he had seen this as he had previously learned xingyi. It was surprising to hear hear him say that he got out of xingyi because of the over-emphasis on power, making him stuck to the spot and unable to move.

I can understand this considering that after so many years I am still working on getting rid of his old habits. For example, when I throw a strike from the side his instinct is to block it rather than to use the angle to absorb the strike. I pointed out the part of the form where we practice this.

The key to nailing this part of the form is the position. However, it is common for students to be obsessed by the strike in the movement. Hence, when they do that they will overlook the importance of the secondary hand.

When the hand is not positioned properly his attempt to block the strike caused his balance to be affected, leaving him vulnerable to follow-up strikes. With proper use of angles and stance he can neutralize the strike with lesser movement and keep his balance intact.

The other point is that if he tried to block the side strike he would be vulnerable to a chain of follow-up strikes from the same hand that he just blocked. This sequence of strikes from the study of Pok Khek Kuen made a nice study in how to link up strikes to overcome attempts to stop it. For the person under attack it is a good practice in not freezing up.

To remedy the problem fortunately his form training has made it much easier for him to pick up on the corrective skill right away. The only thing to do now is to keep drilling it until it becomes second nature.

This was also the right time to re-emphasize and explain again why proper study of push hands is important. An important point to keep in mind is that push hands is not sumo shoving so we should refrain from mindless shoving matches which is not useful.

The study of push hands should include distancing, spacing, angling, positioning, stepping, guarding, changes, flow etc. For example, an old habit that is also commonly seen in other students in the tendency to move back whilst still staying in the path of a strike.

The practice of push hands is to eliminate this response which allows our opponent to continue with the attack. Instead, we should study how the principle and strategy of Step Back, Repulse Monkey is to be used to teach us how to instantly counter-attack and not give a free pass to the opponent.

We should keep in mind that combat is about movement. Hence, in our Tai Chi we do not practice zhanzhuang which can promote a habit of standing there trying to resist an opponent that is moving around and launching missiles at us. No matter how rooted you are or how powerful you are in issuing power if you get tagged in the head you will go down. So learn to move and stop standing there like a punching bag.

Signboard

Dominoes 2

Today I saw a video showing kung fu besting boxing. After watching the video I cannot help but wonder why put on a boxer who does not really box or use the range of boxing punches.

I mean if you watch enough videos of boxers especially when they spar against styles that rush straight in you would note that hooks are effective in stopping these rushes and even knocking down the person rushing in. This video is a classic case of where the boxer should control his distance and hook. So why didn’t he? Makes the demo of kung fu prowess suspicious……

Take a look at this video. Its not exactly the same but you can see a better boxer more in control of distance and using hooks when his opponent tried to rush in.

A good video for learning about the strengths and weaknesses of your own art is the video below on an Aikido teacher getting a friend to help test his techniques.

Despite being bested the Aikido teacher maintained humility and a spirit of learning. This is how you can improve your art. Do not be afraid to slaughter the sacred cow.

Finally, look at how happy the students are to learn something new from watching their own black belt played like a doll. Its an old clip but its gold.

Signboard

Dominoes

It started with Tai Chi versus MMA.

In the space of the last two days we have two more Style X versus MMA / Sanda / Boxing. And man, its badddddddd…………. so bad that the only thing I can think of is dominoes falling……..

domino.png

Last night I saw a link to a Baguazhang versus Sanda – see below :-

 

Did I wish for a video that sees a traditional Chinese martial art prevailing? Yes, that would be nice. But realistically I was not holding my breath and my worst fears came true as you can see above.

And if I thought that was the end of it this morning another video; Wudang vs Boxing. This was worse…….

You might wonder why as a teacher of Tai Chi I would highlight the bad publicity of Tai Chi and other Chinese martial arts. Why not?

Especially when there are lessons to be learned………

Signboard

Wake Up 2

The chap who caused an uproar or awakening depending on your point of view by unveiling a fake Tai Chi master gave an interview after the match.

Some readers may find it hard to stomach what he has to say but hey, don’t shoot the messenger, especially if self-improvement is more important to you than “face” if you know what I mean.

After watching the interview I can understand the problems that Coach Xu is facing now from the government and other martial arts masters who do not like what he has to say and are out to get him.

Like the Japanese would say the nail that sticks out gets hammered down. But then if the nail does not stick out and cause some pain no one would know that things are not hunky dory.

Self-delusion is a big problem for Chinese martial arts. Fortunately, there are still good masters around. However, I think the bigger problem is the students blindly worshiping the master, blindly worshiping the senior, blindly worshiping the lineage, the style and leaving their commonsense behind.

Self-delusion is not just a problem suffered by the uneducated. The educated, the literati too are afflicted. At one time one student told me about how good his master was. I know who the master is as I have read his books.

But once I have seen a video of this master I have to tell my student that the master’s skill is ordinary. That the master is a big chap would help a lot. I saw how the video did his fajing. Seriously, I had to wonder – is this really internal skill? Any ordinary person could do it by following certain steps to put in motion the principles of acceleration, momentum and displacement. My student might not like to hear it but if he did not wake up from the self-delusion he will continue to hang on to the past, unable to move forward.

The second thing that was important is the question of why my student did not inherit any great skill from this master given that the master was put on such a high pedestal. My student said that some of the seniors got it. Yes, that is good but what would it matter if my student didn’t get it. To me, a teacher that failed to transmit to you especially if you are a serious student is not a teacher worthy of your adoration.

Of course, if you did not sincerely learn and seriously train, ah well, then you are the problem. Such 5-minute warmth students are typical of many learners. Now you teach them then they immediately forget. If by a miracle you managed to fix them, then the next lesson they show the same mistakes, again as if the previous hard won changes meant nothing. One step forward, ten steps backwards.

I know that traditionalists hate to be exposed by MMA. But if there is a problem, the best way to fix it is to face up to it. What Coach Xu is saying is nothing new. My Ngok Gar Kuen seniors said Pok Khek Kuen is no big deal and explained to me how they can beat the techniques. Now that I know Pok Khek Kuen so much better I would say they are right and wrong depending on the skill level of the Pok Khek practitioner.

Every style has mostly average practitioners who cannot use the techniques. I suppose it depends on the direction of the school whether they want street fighters or tournament fighters. Would Ngok Gar fighters have fared as well in full-contact tournament? That would be an interesting question as I have not heard of any one who has entered tournaments and won, however, quite a number of Pok Khek practitioners have won full-contact tournaments.

The same goes for Wing Chun practitioners who rode high on how many rooftop fights they won. However, when these same practitioners entered a full-contact tournament they got wiped out by Choy Li Fut practitioners. It does not mean Wing Chun is totally useless for tournaments, just that the art has certain areas that need to be worked on if it is to be successful in tournaments. Nowadays, some Wing Chun masters have changed their art and entered their students tournaments with good results.

If you are not seeing results in your training it is time to review your learning critically. If there is a need to move on, just move on. After crossing the river I don’t bring along the canoe. After driving down the highway I don’t bring the Ferrari with me up the mountain.

 

Learning from Mistakes

Some students have a desire to try out what they know against friends. If I am asked I would tell them whether they are ready to do so.

If they are not as ready as I thought but still want to go ahead I would offer suggestions on what they can try doing based on what they can best achieve competently, that is using the best of the worst.

Sometimes I get to hear of their testing sessions after the fact. I would be curious to hear their feedback, what they thought they were able to achieve, able to apply, observations and so on. This can be used a a gauge from which to move forward.

One latest feedback is a student X trying out against Y whom he has known for a long time. X said that Y was softer than him but he was still able to apply some techniques from the repertoire that he had learned from those times that we touched hands.

X found that using the body method from our Tai Chi he could easily move Y’s hand applying pressure on him. X found one particular technique for neutralizing strikes useful when they added strikes in at a later part of the session.

I asked X questions based on his feedback and from there explained to him what he was still lacking in his understanding of push hands. I can re-summarize and add on to what I told X earlier :-

  1. X’s found that though his use of the high blocking movement prevented Y from hitting him it left his elbow vulnerable to being lifted. I explained that this is a problem that can be fixed by not over moving, keeping the awareness and knowing the options to counter any attempts to lift the elbow. This is where training flow rather than power is important. I demonstrated that Y’s attempt to lift his elbow is actually good as it can be countered by a variety of responses.
  2. Pushing around in circles means waiting for opportunities to apply your technique. It would be better to create the opportunities through a game plan. One of the core principle we use in our push hands techniques is based on the Tian Ji Horse Racing Strategy which is recorded in Sun Tzu’s Art of War. You can read this article to get an idea of how this early example of Game Theory works within the Tian Ji Horse Racing Strategy. The diagram below which is extracted from the article summarizes the principle vividly :- horse
  3. Principled habits must be a natural response if we are to be able to use the techniques from the form. I find that 99% of students still do not train the form enough. They may remember the sequence but this is not enough. To be able to use the lessons from the solo form training we must know why we are training it and what we can get out of it. A simple example is the flying elbow syndrome. The principles of Tai Chi calls for the elbow to be kept lowered but students commonly violate this principle when I apply pressure on their arm. If they are unable to control this untrained reflex they will always have a weakness that can be exploited in push hands. Our required standard of performance is that the elbow must be kept lowered always.
  4. Strength conservation – do not use too much strength if it is not called for. I find that students use too much strength when the task does not require as much. For example, if you want to open up your opponent’s guard using more body strength may not make it easier for you to pry his guard open. Instead, it would be much easier to apply the slot machine handle pulling principle to do so. This would comply with the principles of physics and anatomical considerations, making the task more efficient.
  5. Do not go against the will of heaven – basically do not force your opponent to do what he does not want to. If you try to force your opponent to do something he will fight you tooth and nail, making it difficult to apply your technique. X had limited success using the Faan technique against Y. However, after a while Y found a way to counter it and thereafter X could no longer use it. Faan is a versatile technique that is not so easy to counter unless you have limited understanding of how it works. Y’s defense against Faan can be exploited if X can learn how to flow and keep flowing instead of giving up when a technique does not work. When Y used his elbow to angled Faan off X could work Y’s elbow angle to create a better, bigger opening from which to launch a few continuous Faan strikes that Y cannot stop

 

Everything I pointed out above can be fixed by understanding the 108 form in greater depth and learning how to apply the principles within a proper framework for learning push hands.

Signboard

Rot

There’s something rotten in Tai Chi land. Actually, the rot started a long, long time ago and its not just a Tai Chi problem. You see the same rot in many other styles. Its just that the recent Xu versus Wei incident has shone the spotlight on Tai Chi.

Today I saw an article from Malaysia’s The Star Online here.

Reading through it I can see a number of inaccuracies. What is more astounding is the logic behind some of what was written. Take for example this passage :-

The fact its legendary grandmaster Yang Luchan became the undefeated champion in Beijing and won the favour of the Manchurian court attests to that.

Appointed as a teacher by the imperial family in 1850, Yang simplified tai chi. Yang feared the princes would hurt each other and he would be held responsible, so he stripped away the combat elements from tai chi, turning it into an exercise.

Let’s see what are the problems I have with these two paragraphs :-

Firstly, I must say that though I have read a fair bit on Yang style Tai Chi and even learned it for a long time (like since 1976) I have not heard of Yang Luchan fighting in a tournament and becoming a champion; not from reading nor heard of it from any of my several Yang style teachers. Where in the world did the writer get this?

Sure, Yang Luchan had skills and he won against the people he touched hands with. How he did it and what technique he used exactly I can’t say for sure because I wasn’t there to see what he did. But as someone once pointed out whatever skills Yang Luchan had must have been superlative to make people still talk about it some one hundred fifty plus years later. But one thing I have never heard of is that of Yang Luchan fighting in a tournament and becoming champion.

Secondly, the way the writer wrote gave the impression that Yang Luchan was favored by the entire Manchurian court. When you think about it this cannot be true because in order to do this Yang Luchan would have to impress the Manchu Emperor himself and be appointed the head instructor for the Manchurian court.

I suspect the truth is probably that Yang Luchan managed to get an audience with one of the Manchurian prince and impressed him enough to be given a position as one of the martial arts instructors.

Thirdly, I think the second paragraph is a huge joke. Its premise is so preposterous that only the shallow minded would believe it. I don’t know who started this rumor but basically its as stupid as they come. Read the passage again and you will see what I mean.

Did you see what I mean? Let’s take a closer look shall we……….

Appointed as a teacher by the imperial family in 1850, Yang simplified tai chi. Yang feared the princes would hurt each other and he would be held responsible, so he stripped away the combat elements from tai chi, turning it into an exercise.

Now imagine you are Yang Luchan and you are now in the presence of a prince. The prince is surrounded by his bodyguards and perhaps even a number of his other martial arts teacher.

So you have this stranger applying for a position as a martial arts instructor. What does the prince do to evaluate him?

Today, we might ask to see the stranger’s certificate from a martial arts governing body or a certificate issued by his master. Since Tai Chi was at that time not known in Beijing it would not be unusual for the prince to ask Yang Luchan to demonstrate something. Typically, this calls for a form demo, followed by a demo of strength or test of fighting skills.

So there you have Yang Luchan being asked to do a demo. If you believe that he had been learning the Chen style forms we see today then Yang Luchan would no doubt demonstrate either the first routine or second routine.

If Yang wanted to impress the prince then the second routine would be more impressive with many more fajing movements. However, it would have been more likely for Yang to demonstrate the first routine especially since other martial arts masters were watching and some of them may be smart enough to steal some movements.

The first routine has some sudden, fast fajing movements that is impressive to those who see it the first time. Unless you suffer from dementia you are not likely to forget the silk reeling flavor and fajing movements. After demonstrating the form then Yang Luchan was called to demonstrate his combat skills and his demonstration was good enough to get him appointed.

Later Yang Luchan reported to work and he taught a watered-down version of his art which some have said is because Yang did not want the Manchurians to learn the real art or in this article Yang feared the princes hurting each other.

So we are supposed to believe that the prince who appointed Yang Luchan had forgotten what the first routine looked like and now accepted the learning of a form devoid of silk reeling and fajing movements.

OK, maybe our assumption is wrong and Yang Luchan actually went to the audience prepared to demonstrate a watered down form. So the audience ended up scratching their heads and wondered how such an unimpressive form could be effective. After seeing Yang’s combat demo their doubts were put to rest. However, some wondered why the techniques that Yang demonstrated did not look the same as what he showed in the form demo. Perhaps even the prince himself noticed and asked about it.

Put yourself in Yang Luchan’s position. How would you explain away the discrepancy between what is shown in the form and the actual combat techniques. Would you say that the form is just for beginners? Or would you say that practice and actual usage is not the same thing. Unless you take the prince and the people with him for morons do you think such excuses would fly?

You know what, I always wondered why readers would assume that the Manchu princes are a gullible lot when it came to martial arts. With the amount of intrigue and backstabbing in the court you would think that the princes were a smart, if not cunning lot in order to navigate and survive the politics. Is there a turn off switch when it came down to the martial arts? See how silly this is?

Now that Yang Luchan was an instructor in the prince’s household. The prince began learning. Mind you the prince already has a few teachers, perhaps he is already at an advanced level or had been learning for a few years. Again why do readers assumed that the Manchu princes were a weak lot? Drinking, smoking and womanizing does not necessary make you weak – in fact a number of top masters have these three vices.

So Yang Luchan taught his watered down stuff to the prince. If the prince had learned martial arts before don’t you think he would see through it if Yang was teaching him BS techniques?

Can you imagine Yang telling the prince that the stuff was so deadly he had to water it down for fear the prince would injure his fellow siblings. Don’t you think that the prince would not be pleased to have an instructor who is not prepared to teach him proper skills, if not the best skills, that the prince had paid for. Do you think the prince would want to learn techniques that can possibly cause him to lose instead of winning with a wide margin?

Don’t you think that Yang was toeing a fine line and if the prince had discovered that the superlative skills that he was supposed to be learning was in fact just exercises the prince would be pissed like hell and Yang would have a steep price to pay for deceiving the prince.

Do you understand now why I have a problem with these two paragraphs? The writer is assuming we are stupid enough to believe the logic. Anyone who has tried to teach combat or learn combat techniques would understand my point. This is more so when teaching to those who have learned martial arts before.

At this point I should point out that legitimate lineages and styles do not guarantee that you will learn good and proper stuff. I once had a teacher who taught me a form called Three Gates. There was one sequence in the form that felt a bit funny when practiced.

But I never asked why. This teacher was “genuine” and from a legitimate lineage. It was only later that I found out that he had changed this part of the sequence which originally had a movement in which you would suddenly drop to the ground and do a kick to the opponent’s groin. When I heard this I could now understand why the technique before it was the way it was, because it was to set up for the kick.

However, the teacher changed it because he couldn’t do the kick; possibly because he was already older by then. I understand his constraint. But by changing the form he had imported a less than effective technique. Don’t get me wrong. Changing a technique, modifying it is not wrong. Masters do it all the time. The important consideration is to change for the better and not for the worse and this is the tricky part. Postscript – because I do not know what else this teacher changed I have consigned the Three Gates form to the good to know but do not practice bin.

I am under no illusion we can stop the Tai Chi rot. Any style that becomes popular will have this problem. Wing Chun is a good example. Donnie Yen’s Ip Man movies made the art popular but it also accelerated and increase the rot. We cannot change others especially if they do not want to change. We can only change ourselves and hope that it has some positive impact and contributes to arresting the decline. From here hopefully the art proper will rise again.

Signboard