Odd Strikes

What is odd to one is normal to another.

I have learned different styles and also examined many more styles. Among those styles I have learned I have picked up different ways of skinning the same cat. By spending years to practice the same form I have also discovered a lot more details such as non-obvious techniques and hidden techniques  than is apparent at first glance. And if you happen to have a good teacher you will also learn a lot of stuff you will never discover on your own.

Over the years as these movements become natural to me they start to manifest themselves in how I use techniques. In this way what is not normal becomes natural to me. However, to my student who has never learned broadly or taught to look beyond the obvious what I do seems odd to him.

If I apply the art shallowly without referencing the full range of techniques that is found in forms then it is easy for my student to catch up to my skill. With a huge repertoire it is more difficult for him to catch up, which is why I kept reminding them to practice forms.

For example, in the straight sword form we have a movement called Wind Sweeping the Lotus Leaves (風捲荷葉). Though it is a weapon technique it can be readily used for emptyhand striking in line with the principle of hand is the sword, sword is the hand. So when I use this in push hands my student is suddenly confronted with a technique he has not seen before. But if he had been diligently training the straight sword he might have made the mental connection right away when he saw the waving, side-to-side movements.

This is why when we study any art we should first study it in depth. After we reach a certain level of competence we can begin working on acquiring breath of knowledge. In this way a simple technique can conceal a certain level of sophistication that allows you to keep using it despite your training partner’s efforts to resist it.

When he finally manages to overcome it he will find that this simple technique can become something else and continue to go through his defense. This is one of the key teachings I picked up from Master Leong and a reason why I finally used his Pok Khek techniques even though I didn’t really like it in the beginning.

In this sense, Pok Khek seemed odd to me at first but given enough time it has become natural and it is actually quite practical and handy.

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Timing in Striking

I was explaining to my student about the use of timing to render strikes workable during push hands. The issue is this – in push hands because your arms are in contact with your opponent every move you make can be felt and read by him. Move fast, move slow, use more strength, use less strength, and so on can be detected by each other.

This means that its difficult to strike your opponent in push hands because each time you try to do so he can feel it. Unless he is slow to react most of your strikes will not land. Chances are after a while you end up disengaging arms before you throw a strike because this is the only way you can prevent him from reading you.

It is not wrong to use this method to stall your opponent’s reaction. However, it then defeats the purpose of training your ability to listen and understand through the sense of touch. This means that at some point you should still learn how to use contact to overcome your opponent’s ability to read your moves.

When we train push hands we do not only go faster to try to beat the opponent’s reaction. This is too easy. To challenge ourselves we make it a point to go slower and still be able to prevent the opponent from reading our moves and land our strike where we want it to land.

To up the challenge you can tell your training partner where you want to hit so that he can make it harder for you to do so now that he knows where you are going to hit. This is to train a traditional martial arts principle of hitting where the defense is the strongest as opposed to going for the weakest defense.

One of the key factors in being able to land a strike whether slow or fast is through the use of timing. The olden principle of timing is associated with keywords to teach you how to do the strike properly. Actually, if you train forms a lot you will be able to understand this at some point.

Sometimes when you cannot “see” the timing it may help to hear it. Listen from 0:00 to 1:10 in the video below.

This is an example of the use of odd time signatures in music. If you are my student and you can remember what I have told you about striking timing I would recommend to listen to this part of the music and you slowly think through what I said. At some point you will get what I mean about timing. This is one way to examine the topic from another angle.

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Impermanence

Last week was a long week. A sudden visit from the Grim Reaper led to days of mourning and tears for those who suffered the loss. My takeaway from this is that never take your health for granted, never overwork yourself and do what you want to do NOW.

You can seem to have it all. Until the day the blue crab comes crawling into a nook in your body and digs its claws in. If you make the wrong decision you will pay for it down the road. By then it is no use lamenting the wrong decision.

If in doubt, seek a second opinion. Certain illness can be cured or contained for a long time. If you fail to check around for more information you can end up making the wrong decision, one that leads to your early demise. Don’t believe everything people tell you even if they are close to you and appear to have your interests at heart. Check for yourself and decide.

Life is impermanent. We all have to go some time. But if you have a choice wouldn’t you want to be able to enjoy life a little longer? Do what you like, achieve whatever goals you set for yourself before you lay to rest or nowadays be sent into the incinerator to be turned into ashes.

I know what I am setting out to do. Do you? Don’t wait till your time runs out before you do it.

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7 Minutes

It took a 7 minutes and few seconds video to bring together most of what I had said before in learning push hands.

Backtrack – at various times when teaching push hands I would bring up different points, basically stuff to understand how to use push hands as a training platform for understanding how to use the emptyhand form, essentially a means to test your knowledge and skill in using the techniques in the form freely.

One day my student said he would be meeting his senior from another style, someone bigger and taller. It was an excellent chance to check his progress. I suggested things he could try on top of those he had learned before, not to mention taping it for his own analysis of his performance.

So I saw the video and yup, basically he didn’t use the stuff I had taught; not even remotely tried. It was as if he had not learned anything. To me it looked like giving the game away too easily.

The video I saw may be a short 7 minutes plus but I pointed out the many things I had taught before that was useful in his encounter. That he didn’t use any of them was like a baby offering candy to an adult. Yeah, it was worse than an adult trying to take candy from a baby.

This was a good learning moment, for me to say again the importance of knowing how to play push hands like a game, how what I taught him fitted in.

For example, when we play push hands the way we configure our posture dictates our strengths and weaknesses, informing ourselves and perhaps the opponent what could be exploited and used against us. When beginning push hands all students have this habit of inadvertently giving a free pass for a knowing opponent to open the door and come right in.

I would think having done this many times keeping the door closed would have become second nature. But no, I saw it, once, twice and each time his senior moved forward to enter. I didn’t say this in hindsight but in foresight having brought it up ages ago. Like I said the first step to master Tai Chi is know yourself.

I also pointed how that he did not follow our method of engaging. What he did was basically giving up candy without a fight. The way we play push hands follows a certain approach, the first amongst many is to carefully and knowingly guard our space. If you do not do so then your opponent can just enter easily without you being able to offer much resistance even if you wanted to.

I saw his senior used a Biu Jee escape technique. To me this was a bad technique, easily exploited but if one failed to pay heed to the details then this was another giveaway technique.

When we practice push hands we are very careful how we position ourselves, how we yield, how we set up a response, and so on. This would enable us to play different games of strategy to capitalize on what our opponent is giving us. A strong person is formidable but amidst the strength there are weak spots. What are they? Learning push hands is a way of understanding our own strengths and how to use it against the opponent’s weaknesses.

Lastly, we always remember that the opponent is not stupid. What you can think of he can too and then some. You want to beat him you have to use a different set of tools. If you use the same tools then apply with a new twist so that your opponent cannot anticipate it. Remember combat is a game of wits too, not just strength. Otherwise, we might as well pack it in and call it a day.

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Ding!

Ding!…………

That’s how I imagined it must have sounded when my student said there was a noise in his head right after I flicked the back of my palm against the side of his head. The weird part was I had tapped the right side of his head but the noise was heard in his left ear!

I didn’t know what to make of it except to assume in hindsight that the tap must have rung his head like a bell and projected the sound to the other side. To me the more interesting reaction was how the tap caused him to stop immediately. Though, I did not intend to actually made contact, that it did inadvertently yielded this observation.

So if you ever wonder if a flick of the wrist is effective this anecdote suggests that it is. Of course, the other question would be how would it be if the target struck had been the face head-on. Silly question. A tap to the face can stun and with a bit more force can break the nose.

Fun fact to know. Just be careful when practicing this way.

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Fifth Lesson – Games of Strategies

In the book on the 22-form there is a chapter entitled 拆架拆手 (Dismantle Frame, Dismantle Hand). This chapter offers examples on how to apply the strokes (招中术) and force methods of the 22-form.

The 21 examples can be considered as step-by-step studies on the use of intention force against an opponent who provides resisting pressure but not necessarily actively resisting.

The 21 studies of the strokes of the techniques are useful to spark off your journey to learn the use of intent in your push hands. As you make progress you will need to practice against opponents who resist more actively, who will vary the amount of resisting pressure and who will try to counter your fajing attempts with their techniques.

In other words, not a dummy partner who will allow you to get away with anything. You certainly do not need to have a compliant training partner who at your slightest touch (or perhaps a non-contact dismissive wave of your hand) jump like a grasshopper.

Your progress is only as good as the way you train. When you have more realistic resistance from your training partner you will understand why the use of techniques and power go hand-in-hand. This information is captured in the way a good form is organized.

Sometimes the information is obvious but many times it is not. We can only speculate why this should be so. If you ask me it is to prevent someone, perhaps an interloper who is peeking through a hole in the wall, who managed to see the form being played from figuring out how to use the techniques easily. In other words, you can steal the movements but you cannot steal the applications.

The movements of the form are not cast in stone. They have obvious, hidden, derived and situational applications. Many times a demonstration of fajing can be good but totally suck at being a proper combat application. When you play push hands against a less cooperative training partner, someone who will push you back or strike you, then you will understand this point better.

Though the form does not always tell you the strategy being employed explicitly it does not mean it is not present. As long as your opponent is not a dummy he will not allow your attacks to go through so easily. You will have to intelligently use your wits, techniques and power to make your technique work.

In the beginning you will find that even though you can visualize the workings of the force models in the various strokes, however, you are unable to use them freely. In fact, most of the time during push hands the timing to apply a technique is very short making it next to impossible to get your strokes together.

Until and unless you can do the various requirements in a split second you will never be able to use the force models. This is why you need to internalize the requirements by constantly working on your 22-form. There is no shortcut to mastery here.

Keep to your daily practice. The goal of using the force models within the strokes of the form is not impossible. It just takes persistence and intelligence to master them.

So what are the games of strategies you can learn from the 22-form? Let us take a brief look at one example. You might have seen this drawing at the beginning of this site :-

Yangstyleintention

This fajing model is the last model presented in the chapter 内功勁法 (Internal Power Strength Method). The full name of this model is 大氣球澎脹法 (Big Chi Sphere Inflated Method). I like the use of this model because it is simple yet comprehensive. Since the topic here is about strategy rather than force models I won’t discuss how it works in the context of power. Instead, I will just write about its use as a strategy in a broad context.

I have heard Tai Chi practitioners describe how their body needs to be rounded so that they can be like a fully inflated ball that can rebound an opponent. This is a nice analogy though it is rare to see a practitioner or master actually use it. Master Cheng Man Ching’s Cheng Tzu’s Thirteen Treatises on Tai Chi Chuan has a chapter entitled Strength and Physics that discusses how a sphere can be used for attack and defense.

I have read it a long time ago and always wondered how to actually apply the information. I tried out ways to make the sphere work for me but I could never truly make it work in a manner that is consistent to what is written in the Tai Chi Classics, at least not until I have learned and practiced the method of 大氣球澎脹法 (Big Chi Sphere Inflated Method) for some years.

I won’t describe in detail how to cultivate the 大氣球澎脹法 (Big Chi Sphere Inflated Method) as it is outside the scope of topic here. What I would like to say is that you need to use the fundamentals to build the necessary intent to bring forth the Big Sphere until it is for all intent and purpose, feels real to your opponent.

When you arrive at this stage your can use the Big Sphere to carry out the ways of neutralizing and attack that Cheng Man Ching describe in his book. However, this is still only the basic stage of usage. From my experience there are at least two more stages that you can go through, that can expand and refine your ability to use the Big Sphere.

To put it in a nutshell, the 大氣球澎脹法 (Big Chi Sphere Inflated Method) allows us to use the following games of strategies in a game of push hands :-

a) Go with the flow, harmony and outflank

b) Rotate and rechannel

c) Load and release like shooting an arrow

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Second Lesson – Quanfa

Tai Chi is a method of Quanfa (拳法) using the intent () to develop one’s combat skills. Instead of physically doing repetitions of a technique, the learning of the Tai Chi of Grandmaster Wei Shuren calls for us to exercise our grey cells ahead of our physical movements, i.e. every movement shall be preceded by an intent.

Is not wanting to throw a punch an intent? Is thinking of where to step an intent? Is turning your body as you are thinking of turning it an intent?

Yes, yes and yes. They are all intent.

However, the intent in Tai Chi is a lot more specific and specialized than that. For example, when you throw a punch where is your intent? When did it start moving? What are you thinking of when your punch is moving through space?

Let’s examine an example. This is part of the Fair Lady Threads Shuttles technique from the 22-form.

Spear-3.png

Without the benefit of an explanation and relying on the two pictures alone it would seem as if Grandmaster Wei is lowering his right hand from shoulder height to about waist height.

Now if you were asked to do this movement without being told about the need to use specific intent how would you lower your right hand? Do you :-

a) Just lower it?

b) Think first about lowering your right hand before doing it?

c) Ensure that your right hand lowering is guided by your body / dantian movement in conformance with good biomechanics?

Now if you were told that this movement is called “Mountain Splitting (the) Five Peaks (or Summits)” would it alter the way you do the movement?

Close you eyes and let your imagination roam. Mountain splitting five peaks. What does it mean? How does a mountain split five peaks? It does not make much sense, does it? Most people would have given up and think the name is just for reference; basically saying they do not know and just want to shelve the matter.

But what if the name of the movement is important? Would we not miss out on a possibly important part of training? Knowing what the name means, how it relates to the training of Tai Chi force is a distinguishing feature of our Quanfa.

The name is there not because some bored Taoist monk decided to jazz the name up. There is a reason for it, an important rationale behind it and everything points back to the training of the intent.

Consider – what if we were to write out “Mountain Splitting Five Peaks” in Chinese? This is how it is written :-

山劈五岳

Would this make a difference? I guess to most readers and practitioners their mind would still register a blank and its alright. This is where I jump in and say that a knowledge of China is helpful. The name in English does not tell me much either but once I say the name in Chinese this is what comes to mind :-

山-劈-五-岳 (how most people see it)

山-劈-五岳(how I see it)

Can you see the difference now?

You can either read it as a mountain-chopping down-five-peaks (i.e. five different peaks). Or you can read it as mountain-chopping down-five peaks.

The former tells me a mountain is cutting down five mountains, possibly one after another. The latter tells me that a mountain is cutting down Five Peaks (五岳)!

If you know something about the geography of China you would realize that Five Peaks (五岳) is referring to The Five Great Mountains in Chinese history. Emperors in the past would make pilgrimage to these mountains. The Five Great Mountains are Tai Shan (Shandong), Hua Shan (Shanxi), Heng Shan (Hunan), Heng Shan (Shanxi) and Song Shan (Henan).

The Five Peaks are sacred and their association with the pilgrimage of Emperors bestow on them an aura of majestic might. A mountain that is powerful enough to cleave the Five Peaks is mighty indeed! By association, the technique of Mountain Splits Five Peaks should be a powerful stroke!

Note of interest – Tongbeiquan, a very old powerful northern style of Chinese martial arts, has a vertical palm strike called 劈山 so I guess Tai Chi players are not the only ones fond of chopping down mountains.

Below is how the image of a mountain cleaving five mountains lined up in a row comes to my mind :-

Spear-4.png

But how do we perform the technique of Mountain Splits Five Peaks with intent to develop our power?

This is how we can do this technique in a nutshell :-

Step 1 – imagine you are holding a Chinese spear in your hands. Behind you stands a mountain.

Step 2 – as the mountain behind you bows forward to cleave the five great mountains imagine your spear is also cutting down.

Spear-5

If you practice this for a sufficient period of time your arms can develop a powerful downward force without appearing to use obvious biomechanics. You can use this force in push hands to sink your opponent’s bridge arm or you can use it to power a downward chopping strike.

In order to arrive at a level where you can use this power freely you need to reach the level of “true intent” (真意). Ironically, at the stage of “true intent” (真意) is when you should have “no intent” (无意). This is consistent with what I mentioned in the First Lesson as 从繁到空.

And that dear readers is what the Quanfa (拳法) of our Yang style Tai Chi Chuan that is descended from Grandmaster Wei Shuren is about.

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