My new website, http://www.wulinmingshi.com is now up and running. The content from this blog will be moved over to the new website over the next couple of weeks. Any and all new content will appear on the website, so go over there and check it out!
Thanks to all the readers who have stuck with this blog over the years – I know it can be frustrating when there are no updates for several months. I am now in the process of moving the content of this blog over onto a proper website. Hopefully this will allow me to reorganise the material so it is easier to browse through, and also to post more regularly – watch this space!
Alex Kozma, the distinguished martial arts teacher and author, has produced a great interview with Gordon Tso, a Hong Kong-based teacher of Song style xingyiquan, in which Gordon talks about the history and practice of the style, how he came to learn xingyiquan, and also features several great training snippets with Gordon’s teacher GM Song Guanghua, as well as M Song Baogui (Song Guanghua’s son) and M Zhao Chuanhui, son of the famous Song style teacher Zhao Yongchang.
For anyone interested in Song style xingyiquan, this is a great introduction to the art:
In the interests of full disclosure I should probably point out that I am not exactly an independent party – Song Guanghua is my shiye, which makes Gordon my kungfu uncle!
For me personally it is great to see shiye in the familiar Song family courtyard in Taigu which I have visited several times, I hope he and his family members can carry on the art for many more years to come.
I understand that Alex is now training a group of students in Song style xingyi in the UK, so am happy to provide Alex’s contact details by PM if any UK or Europe based readers would like to check it out for themselves.
I realize I have not updated my blog in a while – as usual, it has been a case of life getting in the way, and also not having many new insights to share!
As I will be leaving China in a few months’ time, I have been trying to make the most of the time I have left by learning as much as I can, as in future my opportunities for returning to the mainland for any extended period of time will be very limited. One of the unintended positive consequences of my imminent departure is that my xingyiquan shifu (Dai Xueqi) seems to feel the urgency as much or even more so than I do, and has decided to teach me certain forms / content which I guess he had previously thought I was not ready for, for which I am very very grateful.
During this process, I have had two realizations recently which I wanted to share, to see whether other fellow readers have had similar experiences.
The first one is what I call “the Plateau effect”. Oftentimes when we are practicing martial arts, it is very easy to slip into a rut – practicing the same forms or exercises in the same way. This can go on for days, weeks or even months, with the feeling that actually you are not making any improvement at all, or sometimes even going backwards. In my case, I had a period of maybe 3-4 months of practicing different variations of basic fajin / footwork exercises, Xingyi’s 5 fists plus the linking fist (wuxing jintui lianhuan) set, without feeling that I was improving. However, from comments from both my shifu and some of his shixiong (i.e. my kungfu uncles), they feel that I have been improving, in my ability to relax the upper body, leading to improvement in the quality of fajin, starting to get what is called Dou Jue Jin (‘shaking power’) in Song style. Also in testing moves/applications against my shixiong (kungfu brothers), they have said that I am starting to get the penetrating power (chuan tou li) that is another characteristic of xingyi as a whole. This just goes to show that your own assessment of where you are in your practice can sometimes be out of whack, and the best is to get feedback from your teacher / kungfu brothers, who have probably gone through the same stages before.
The second point is the value of aimless practice. This may seem counter-intuitive – how can you improve at something if you are not deliberately focusing on practicing that one area? However, in reality the situation is more complicated than that – in Chinese martial arts, often times what we are trying to improve is the ‘quality’ of our movement, which is a whole mix of things, including awareness, relaxation under pressure, ‘aliveness’ of the body, etc etc. What I have found through my own practice is that sometimes “aimless” practice – i.e. trying to link together moves spontaneously as a reaction to imagined attacks, seeing what comes out – is actually a very useful method for changing what we practice from ‘dead’ forms (si taolu) into an “alive” practice (ba quan lian huo), which is one of the keys to being able to actually use your art. This ties in nicely with something which my xingyi shifu said to me in the early days of studying with him: “In xingyiquan, the forms are not fixed in stone, they are just a particular collection of techniques – once you have mastered the individual movements [dan cao], I expect you all to be able to put together your own forms!”.
Would very much like to hear from any blog readers who have had similar experiences, and how you got through the plateau!
The longer one stays involved in martial arts, the more obvious it becomes that certain arts / lines / groups have a serious case of “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. The phenomenon I’m referring to is where a comprehensive, usable fighting art gets degraded as it passes through the generations, until all that is left is an empty dance, a husk masquerading as a martial art.
In the description that follows I will deliberately avoid mentioning specific arts, as my intention is not to start a flame war. What I want to discuss in this blog post is a general trend in the world of CMA.
Generally what we see in Chinese martial arts (CMA) and possibly Japanese MA (JMA) as well – although I don’t have enough experience with JMA to make that call – is that during the heyday of the art, which for a lot of CMA was the late Qing dynasty, the art was practical, comprehensive (including conditioning, applications, sparring, neigong, etc), and training was with a view to actually using the art. This applies to several famous CMA that we can think of, such as taiji, xingyi, bagua, baji, etc.
Then, with the passage with time, various historical and personal factors conspired to dilute the art:
- Withholding the Art:
Certainly in the older generation of teachers it was not uncommon for teachers to withhold certain key aspects of the art such as neigong. In extreme cases, this meant that that material may be lost from that line altogether. Controversial examples would be the 24 neigong set in Wu style taiji, or the 72 kicks set in Jiang Rongqiao bagua.
- Selective Teaching / Favouritism:
Historically, for most TCMA in most places in China, the majority of the real teaching did not take place in formal classes but in small gatherings in parks or at the teacher’s house, or even one-on-one. The result of this is that it is / was common for teachers to be very selective about what materials were taught to certain students. In the xingyi that I practice I know for sure that there are portions of the art that are held very close to the chest and are not demonstrated in public, and I’m sure this is the same for my friends studying other traditional CMA.
- Cultural Revolution:
The damage wrought by the Cultural Revolution to CMA in China cannot be overestimated. Many famous taiji masters, such as Wang Peisheng, Yang Chengfu’s disciple Cui Yishi, Chen Xiaowang’s father Chen Zhaoxu etc were all struggled against. On the xingyi side masters like Zhu Guofu, Zheng Huaixian (Sun style), and Liu Molin (famous Hebei style master in Shanghai) were all targets of public struggle sessions. The word in Shanghai kungfu circles is that in the end Liu Molin could not stand the beatings and denunciations and committed suicide by jumping in the Huangpu river. Even if masters survived the Cultural Revolution, in most cases they were not allowed to teach and in certain examples were not even allowed to practice their arts. For example it is said that red guards were posted outside the house of Zheng Jun, the son of the famous Zhaobao taiji master Zheng Wuqing, to stop him from practicing!
- Chinese Political Environment
Even after the Cultural Revolution had passed and China started opening up, the Chinese government viewed the practice of real martial arts as at best a waste of time and at worst a threat to its control over its people. The teaching of fighting techniques in public was frowned upon, and even ostensibly less violent forms of practice such as stand-up wrestling received no government support.
- Commercialization of the Art / McDojo-isation
Separate to the trend of development of TCMA in China, other trends in the West also helped to further the dilution of the arts. Unlike China, the main way TCMA has spread in the West is through commercial schools (dojo / wuguan). This has the advantage that the art (hopefully) is taught in a more public, systematic way, but also has the associated downside that it can lead to creating a large pool of people who have only obtained a superficial understanding of the art, to the point where they may not have even learned the choreography of the main forms properly. If these people then go on to teach, the results can be imagined.
What is left at the end of this process is just a dance or form of calisthenics, fine for general exercise but devoid of any real martial substance, and not leading to any real fighting ability.
If you (like me) are studying TCMA not just for health but also with the genuine intention of at least being able to use what you have learnt, then you need to ask yourself:
- Do I know the usage of these moves that I’m learning?
- Can I actually use these moves under pressure?
- In the system that I am learning, is there a systematic step-by-step training method that leads from training applications to controlled sparring to semi-realistic fighting conditions?
If the answers to all of those questions are yes, congratulations! You are on the right track 🙂