ROOTING, RELAXING AND PENG IN TAIJIQUAN  

 

I recently had an encounter with a teacher here in Shanghai which made me change the way I think about the IMA concepts of relaxation (song), sinking (chen) and peng jing (expanding force) – how to define them and what is possible with peng in particular.

To give a bit of background, I had been continuing my search for a push hands group that actually allowed the use of force, or could at least deal with force, as opposed to the ‘polite pushing’ normally found in Shanghai’s parks. Through an MA group in Shanghai I had met a guy online (who I shall call Wan) who had mentioned to me that if I was interested in push hands his teacher was quite good.

Naturally I was curious to see if the teacher had the kind of skills I had read about. However, due to various hiccups along the way it took 2-3 months before I finally got round to visiting the teacher in question (Jiang laoshi). According to Wan, Jiang laoshi was quite unusual in that he had studied at least 3 of the major styles of taiji (Yang / Chen / Hao) with direct students of some very famous teachers (e.g. Yang style from a student of Tian Zhaolin; Chen style from a student of Chen Zhaokui; etc).

I arranged to pay a visit to a local sports stadium, which was where Jiang laoshi normally taught at the weekends. So it was one morning that I found myself one Sunday morning at a sports centre on the outskirts of Shanghai. I was met by Wan, a friendly bespectacled young guy in his late 20s. After some twists and turns we reached a clear open space surrounded by trees which provided some shade, a perfect place for taiji practice. And lo and behold, a small group of students of varying ages were being instructed on the finer points of push hands by a short, skinny elderly gentleman who I (correctly as it turned out) assumed was Jiang laoshi.

As my previous experiences with teacher N (the shuai jiao teacher) had shown, in situations like these most Chinese teachers are very wary, as they are not sure whether the visitor has come to ti chang (lit. ‘kick school’ – issue a challenge) or actually to study, so it is common practice for the teacher just to acknowledge the visitor, maybe show them one or two things, and then leave them to get on with it.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that Jiang laoshi was very open, and we had a long, interesting conversation about the early history of Yang and Chen style in Shanghai, in particular how Chen Zhaokui’s xinjia came to be taught there. I later learned from Wan that it was very unusual for Jiang laoshi to be so chatty, and that normally it took several months before he opened up to students. After some brief introductions of my background, Jiang laoshi and his longtime student Li put me through some tests to see where I had gotten with my neijia practice. The tests were very similar to some “teacher tests” or single posture testing which can be found on the internet – where someone (A) assumes a posture and then B applies pressure to it from various angles, or where two opponents try to prevent being uprooted by the other.

Sad to say, they were disappointed to find that I had little ability to relax (song), sink (chen) or display integrated whole body power (peng jin / zheng jin) and were able to uproot and move me around easily. They both remarked that if I had not told them they would have barely thought that I had practiced any neijia before. Obviously, this was disheartening, but I reminded myself that you only improve by being shown your shortcomings / weaknesses.

Jiang laoshi and Li then proceeded to show me what they meant by these 3 concepts (song, peng and chen). Perhaps I have not been exposed to enough high level teachers, but I was amazed by some of the abilities of both Jiang and Li – I discuss some concrete examples below:

SONG (relaxation): Li was able to generate incredible power from his hands (grip strength), all the while stressing to me that his arms and shoulders were completely relaxed (song). He allowed me to feel his arms and shoulders with my hands, and I found to my surprise that they were almost completely relaxed – very difficult to detect any tension at all. He also showed several qinna methods which were extremely inventive and painful for the person on the receiving end – my wrist is still a little sore a week later!

PENG (expansive / integrated force): My previous understanding of peng was that it was a structural force based on maintaining a certain structure and alignment. However, both Jiang and Li demolished this idea, as they were able to exhibit peng in positions in which it seemed they were at a tremendous mechanical disadvantage. For example, Li demonstrated that he could allow me to push his arm to completely collapse against his chest (called ‘sealing’ in taiji, and which normally is described as a beginner’s error), and still have extremely strong peng force expanding out. Even in such disadvantageous situations, he seemed to have huge stores of power in reserve and was able to launch me away with little effort. To explain, he just said that peng does not rely on a fixed structure and what he had done was merely a demonstration of small circle vs large circle peng, something which I am still trying to puzzle over now.

CHEN (sinking): Jiang and Li also reinforced an idea which I had been mulling over for a while but had not seen put into practice until that point, namely that sinking in taiji has nothing to do with low stances. Jiang and Li were both able to withstand pushes from me (using all of my strength) without any discernible sinking into a stance – albeit that their knees were slightly bent. When asked about this, Li answered by saying “You are pushing up here [indicating his chest]. But my centre of gravity is still down here [pointing to his dantian], so of course it is easy for me to keep my balance. However, when I push you, your centre of gravity floats up into your chest, so of course it is easy for us to push you out.”

Jiang and Li then proceeded to teach some simple exercises and stances to try and help me get rid of the excess tension in my body, particularly the shoulders.

One other comment that Jiang laoshi made that has stuck with me is that the precise form you practice in taijiquan is not that important – the form is merely a vessel, the important stuff is what is inside. Without the elements I have mentioned above, then you cannot even be considered to have ‘entered the door’ of taiji. Jiang laoshi implements this in his own teaching – in terms of form, his students are free to choose whether to study Yang or Chen style form with him, to him there is not such a big difference in the goals and content of both. Certainly food for thought.

Needless to say, I will be continuing to visit Jiang laoshi in the future and hope to have breakthroughs to report.

Posted in chen style taijiquan, Yang style taiji | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Wake-up call in the Chinese Jianghu

Several friends who have studied CMA in China have commented on the lack of a spirit of open sharing and exchange in the CMA world, particularly in China. Teachers from separate branches of the same style or even kungfu brothers (shixiong) who studied under the same teacher will openly bad-mouth each other to their students. There is also very little friendly exchange between schools, even of the same style. An all-too common scenario would be for a student to study style A (could be say Chen style taiji or tongbei or anything really) in one city, then to go to another city and try to find a teacher of the same style, only to be told he is doing it completely wrong and have to start from scratch.

Another common story amongst students of CMA, particularly the internals, is of getting into what appear to be friendly push hands / sparring contests which very quickly turn vicious, with the stranger trying at all costs to ‘win’, often by using techniques completely at odds with the stated format (e.g. using elbow strikes or head-butts in a push hands encounter).

The reasoning and thinking behind this mentality was brought home to me by a recent encounter with a teacher in the city where I am living. I have long been interested in Shuai Jiao (Chinese wrestling) and had been looking for a teacher ever since I moved to Shanghai a few years ago. Unfortunately, Shuai Jiao seems to be completely out of fashion in such a westernised city as Shanghai – what little wrestling there is is mostly judo. I had almost given up when I heard from a friend that there was a teacher (let’s call him Teacher N) still teaching Shuai Jiao at a park way out in the south-western suburbs of Shanghai. Intrigued, I made the one-hour plus journey one weekend to see for myself.

Upon arriving at the park, I immediately spotted Teacher N’s practice area located in a quiet corner of the park near a lake and was welcomed by one of his students who I had contacted previously. As that morning had been punctuated by intermittent rainstorms, the group of 6-7 students was practicing under the eaves of one of the pavilions that dotted the park. Teacher N himself was a heavy-set Shanghainese man in his late fifties – most unusually for men of his generation in China, he didn’t smoke. The students were a mix of adults in their late 20s and early 30s who seemed to have been studying for a while and some young boys who were just starting to learn the basics. Despite the group practicing in the park, there was an impressive assortment of supplementary training equipment on the benches besides the pavilion, including makeshift resistance bands, ropes, kettlebells and free weights.

The student who I had contacted (let’s call him Chen) introduced Teacher N as having been a champion wrestler in his youth and also apparently head coach of the Shanghai judo squad in the late 70s, which I was suitably impressed by. In addition to Shuai Jiao, he had also studied taijiquan and xingyiquan with some very reputable teachers. I then introduced myself, saying that I was very interested in learning shuai jiao and asked if it was OK just to watch the first time, to which Teacher N assented.

Over the next hour and a half we watched as his students ran through shuai jiao auxiliary training exercises (single movements designed to mimic various types of throws, footwork drills) as well as some 2-man work, including one which involved one side (Partner A) trying to shove the opponent (Partner B) backwards, while Partner B tried his best to make this difficult for Partner A through sinking of weight and body rotation. I was particularly impressed by two of the teacher’s long-time students, who although not very tall by Western standards exhibited the extremely ‘blocky’ physique which seems to be typical of long-time wrestlers.

During the whole time, I was of course asking some questions of the teacher. Perhaps I had not been respectful enough in my questioning, or Teacher N felt that I was doubting some of his explanations, or perhaps simply from learning that I practiced xingyiquan – for whatever reason, Teacher N must have decided that he needed to ‘teach me a lesson’. So he very politely invited me to ‘push hands’ with two of his more senior students. Having never seen anything beyond the gentle fixed push hands patterns in the parks, I was utterly unprepared for what came next, which was essentially me being roughly thrown from pillar to post around the pavilion at will by his students. My arms still bear the evidence of his students’ tender ministrations several days later. Saying my thanks to Teacher N and his students, I took my leave shortly afterwards.

The point of this story is not really that I got my ass handed to me by a couple of wrestlers – receiving some knocks is part and parcel of learning any martial art, especially something with such a focus on actual practice against resisting opponents as Shuai Jiao. What really opened my eyes to the ‘base state’ of CMA in China was what happened afterwards.

One thing any foreigner needs to realise if they are intending on learning kungfu in China is that the Traditional CMA community is actually very small. It seems like all of the TCMA teachers in a certain city talk to each other, and news travels fast. Within a few days of me visiting Teacher N, I received a phone call from my xingyiquan teacher (who teaches xingyi in a completely different part of Shanghai and as far as I know has no connections to Teacher N). Obviously, he had heard about my encounter with Teacher N from another teacher and was none too happy about it.

Shifu: “What were you thinking, going and challenging Teacher N? You’ve never even practiced push hands or shuai jiao!”

Me: “Shifu, I was not trying to challenge the teacher, I was honestly just there to observe and maybe learn something”

Shifu: “Young Xie [my Chinese name], if you are going to keep living here you need to learn not to be so naïve. That’s not how it appeared to Teacher N – he obviously thought you were a student from another school come to challenge them and do a sneak attack (tou xi). The whole thing with the invitation to push hands was just a set-up to teach you a lesson. In future if anyone asks you to ‘have a friendly exchange’, you must be merciless and not accept unless you are sure that you can win, otherwise it will reflect badly on our school.”

Me: “But [doing my best ‘why can’t we all just get along’ voice], why would he assume that? Why can’t there just be friendly exchanges between people from different schools?”

Shifu: “Young Xie, you still don’t understand. If you get badly injured in a contest with another school, I as your Shifu have to do something about it. This is not about you as an individual, this is about the face of our style!”

It was a real wake-up call for me and explains a lot about the typical behavior you see in Traditional CMA circles here in China: teachers guard the reputations of their schools jealously, and in their minds a single defeat can mean the loss of all of their students. As a result, teachers are very wary of accepting even friendly invitations to ‘cross hands’ or to show applications, and will generally go for the ‘nuclear option’ if there is the slightest suspicion the stranger / visitor has underhand intentions. Several friends who also study TCMA here have concurred with what my teacher said – this kind of thinking appears to be pretty common here in China.

Would love to hear from readers of this blog – has anyone had similar experiences?

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Beijing MA Trip – Liang style bagua of Zhang Xue’an

One of the pleasures if doing IMA is meeting other fellow enthusiasts who often have travelled hundreds or thousands of miles to study the arts at their source. On my previous visits to Tiantan I had noticed that the TCMA people seemed to be concentrated on the Western edge of the park, where there is a large area with both a concrete exercise area and also a large area of trees behind with the characteristic circles of bare earth around the trees which indicates a large group of baguazhang pracitioners train there.

I was hanging around this section of the park one weekend (I had actually come looking for people practicing Chen taiji) when I noticed 2 foreigners who looked to be practicing baguazhang / San Huang Pao Chui nearby. As it was very rare to see any foreigners practicing with them, I waited until they had finished training and then went over and introduced myself. It turned out the two guys were American, called Fritz and Joe. Joe’s main art was Capoeira but had practiced baguazhang for several years in the US before deciding to come to Beijing to learn from the source. Fritz’s main art was Chen taiji which he had studied from a disciple of one of the main Chen family standard bearers based in Seattle.

After the introductions, Fritz and Joe mentioned that they were studying Liang style baguazhang under a grand-student of Li Ziming in the same park later that morning, and offered to introduce me. Always interested to see quality orthodox IMA, I immediately agreed.

Fritz, Joe and me

Fritz, Joe and me

Shortly after arriving at their bagua training ground (a clearing under several trees at the back of the park – Tiantan is huge), their teacher M Zhang Xue’an arrived and gave us all a warm welcome. While Fritz and Joe were set to work on warm-ups and basic circle walking, M Zhang gave me a brief introduction to Liang style and how he came to learn the style. He had learnt Liang style baguazhang from Zhang Junmin (a disciple of Li Ziming) in the 1980s, and by that point had been practicing bagua for close to 30 years. He said that in his view, if you wanted to use bagua for fighting, the most important thing after the basic circle walking (Ding Shi Ba Zhang or fixed 8 palms) was to master and really learn how to use Liang style’s 64 hands (直趟64手, zhi tang 64 shou) set.

This 64 hands set has been written about extensively by both Tom Bisio (here: Tom Bisio’s write-up ) and Nigel Sutton in English in his book “The 64 Hands of Baguazhang” (64 Hands of Baguazhang). Suffice it to say that this linear set appears to have been created by the famous IMA master Liu Dekuan (who was not only a master of bagua, xingyi and taiji but also had a very strong foundation in Yue style Sanshou, aka Ba Fan Shou). The 64 hands appears to have mainly been based on his experience in Ba Fan Shou, but of course incorporating many bagua movements and techniques.

M Zhang demonstrating a 64 hands movement to Fritz

M Zhang demonstrating a 64 hands movement to Fritz

After Joe and Fritz had finished revising their 8 Old Palms and the portions of the 64 hands which they had learned, M Zhang began to teach and demonstrate the usage of one or two particular sets within the 64 hands (the 64 hands is actually split up into 8 ‘sets’ or small routines). I was immediately impressed by the practicality of the applications, as well as the power and speed demonstrated by M Zhang, who must have been in his mid-50s at least. The applications were full of extremely simple, practical strikes and locks on the opponent (I understand that Liang style also has separate sets training kicks and footwork, which are eventually incorporated into free fighting). Every action by Joe produced an instant counter from M Zhang, so that even if he tried to escape from the original lock / throw, he ended up in a disadvantageous position and had to ‘accept’ the lock or be hit with an elbow / fist / palmstrike.

M Zhang and Joe going over a 64 hands application

M Zhang and Joe going over a 64 hands application

M Zhang explained that once the 8 sets were learned in detail, one could practice them in pairs, break them out into individual move practiced (dan cao) and introduce changes and variations into the way they are practiced. All in all, it seemed like a very good ‘textbook’ for teaching students how to fight in a Liang style manner and a good bridge between forms practice and free fighting.

Unfortunately authentic Liang style does not seem to be very widespread even in China, with most of the good masters concentrated in Beijing and it is certainly very difficult to find internationally. If any readers have an opportunity to study this style or this set, I would heartily encourage them to jump at the chance!

Posted in baguazhang, Liang style baguazhang | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Beijing MA Trip – Dachengquan of M Deng Fuli

During my trip to Beijing over the Chinese National Holiday, I made several visits to Tiantan park, which is one of the hotspots of CMA activity in Beijing. In addition to the taijiquan groups which can be found in any park in China, there are teachers of xingyiquan, baguazhang Tongbei, San Huang Paochui as well. On my way out of the park after one of these visits, I noticed a short, heavyset man practicing what I recognized to be Yiquan / Dachengquan postures in a corner of the park. As seeing people practicing Dachengquan in parks* is very rare, even in China, I went across and struck up a conversation with him. Following a brief conversation about his background and how he had come to learn Dachengquan. It turned out his name was Deng Fuli, that he had been practicing Dachengquan for more than 20 years, and that he had originally studied from Wang Xuanjie’s student He Zhenwei, then later changed to study with Zhang Jinhe, who had studied with several teachers but whose main material came from Zhao Daoxin. (This is according to Deng himself – I have not been able to find from public sources exactly who Zhang Jinhe studied from).

After this brief conversation, he offered to show me some of the basic whole body power (zheng jin) that Dachengquan can produce. He took up a basic Cheng Bao Zhuang (lit. “expanding and embracing pose”) and invited me to try and move his arms. Try as I might, I could not move his arms an inch in any direction, whether pressing from above, or pulling from below. For the sake of full disclosure, I am not a strong or heavy guy by any means (75kg, skinny build by Western standards). What impressed me more than the feat itself was his relaxation throughout – it really did not feel like he was using local muscle to resist, it was very clearly the structural power of the whole body. When he was certain I had had enough of pushing and pulling him, he said “Let me launch you” (wo fa ni yi xia) and with very little effort threw me into the air a couple of metres away.

Convinced that here was someone who could certainly teach me a thing or two about Dachengquan, I spent my remaining mornings in Beijing practicing basic Dachengquan postures and exercises under Deng laoshi’s watchful eye.

Deng Fuli demonstrating Fuhu Zhuang (crouching tiger pose)

Deng Fuli demonstrating Fuhu Zhuang (crouching tiger pose)

Because of my limited time in Beijing, we only really worked on 3 things, namely Cheng Bao Zhuang (lit. expanding hugging pose), Kai He Shi Li (Opening and Closing Force Testing) and Mo Ca Bu (Dachengquan footwork). Although I had learnt several basic Dachengquan poses several years previously, I only learnt the very basics (basic posture and very basic instructions on the forces going on inside) and had practiced only infrequently since (maybe a couple of times a week). So it was unsurprising that Deng laoshi, after testing my Cheng Bao Zhuang (by ‘hanging’ his whole body weight on to my outstretched arms), said that I had developed no gongfu from my standing. In correcting my Cheng Bao Zhuang, he emphasized the feeling of force going to the fingertips (li tou shaojie), and that in Cheng Bao Zhuang there should not only be an outward expansive force (cheng) but also also an inward contracting force. The expansive force is relatively easy for beginners to recreate, but most have trouble producing good inward hugging force at the same time. Deng laoshi’s advice was to focus on the ‘wrapping / hugging’ (Dou Guo) feeling of the entire back and chest.

Deng Fuli demonstrating Xiang Long Zhuang (subduing dragon pose)

Deng Fuli demonstrating Xiang Long Zhuang (subduing dragon pose)

For the Kai He Shi Li, like a couple of other Yiquan teachers I had come into contact with, he emphasized that one needs to seek the slight feeling of resistance both on the opening and on the closing, that it shouldn’t open so wide that your elbows go behind the back. For beginners, it is often easier to find the correct feeling with the eyes closed.

M Yao Chengguang demonstrating Kai He Shi Li

M Yao Chengguang demonstrating Kai He Shi Li

Just from a few days of practice, I could feel the postures helping to dissolve the tightness of the shoulders, which is a consistent problem I have had in transmitting power from the lower body to my arms and have been criticized for many times by my teacher.

I will continue to practice Dachengquan and will hopefully have another chance to study with Deng laoshi early next year.

*Whether one uses the terms Yiquan / Dachengquan for the art of Wang Xiangzhai is a political decision in China. Yiquan tends to be used by the Yao family and other early students of Wang, while the later students and in particular Wang Xuanjie’s group prefer Dachengquan. As the teacher discussed in this article calls the art he practices Dachengquan, I shall use this throughout.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Beijing MA Trip – Xingyiquan of Wang Deli / Wang Jiwu

Readers who have been following the internal martial arts (IMA) for a while and in particular xingyi enthusiasts will have heard of the book Xingyi Neigong by Tim Cartmell and Dan Miller (originally published way back in 1998). The book describes the 16 health exercises practiced as part of the xingyi school of Wang Jiwu, a famed teacher of the mixed Hebei – Shanxi xingyiquan coming down from Wang Fuyuan, who I have written about elsewhere in this blog.

Xingyi Neigong book cover

Xingyi Neigong book cover

Although Wang Jiwu passed away in 1992, his teachings are being carried on by a stalwart band of disciples and grand-disciples in the Beijing area, in particular Wang Jiwu’s disciple Pan Zhiyuan and his students, including Yin Jin and Wang Deli. I have always admired this line of xingyiquan as it seems to have retained a lot of the different ways of training that have been lost or neglected in other more popular styles.

And so, with the help of Paul Frost, who himself is a Czech grandstudent of Wang Jiwu through his teacher Du Fukun, on a sunny Monday morning I made my way down to teacher Wang Deli’s usual practice ground next to a canal in eastern central Beijing. As I had previously met Wang laoshi a couple of years previously, he greeted me warmly and was happy to give me a more thorough introduction to the style and its contents.

As Wang laoshi explained (and has been detailed elsewhere in this blog), although Wang Fuyuan learnt his xingyiquan from Liu Qilan (and therefore would be classified as Hebei xingyi), in his middle age he fled to Shanxi to evade being arrested as he had killed a local gang boss in his hometown. Wang Fuyuan chose to take shelter with his shishu (kungfu uncle) Che Yizhai in Taigu, and actually lived in Che Yizhai’s house for an extended period, before Che recommended him for a bodyguarding job in Yuci (a town further north in Shanxi province which is famous for producing many xingyi masters). In Yuci, Wang met and exchanged skills with many other masters from the 1st and 2nd generations of xingyi, including Song Shirong, Li Taihe, Li Guangheng, He Yunheng, etc, who were all working there as guards for the mansions of rich merchants.

What this means practically for this branch is that, firstly, they have an extremely rich repertoire of taolu which can often be practiced in several different ways. The single person routines practiced by this branch (apart from the standard 5 elements and 12 animals) also includes Za Shi Chui (Miscellaneous Hammers), Chu Dong Ru Dong (In & Out of Cave), Long Xing Ba Shi (8 dragon shapes), Ji Xing Si Ba (4 Chicken Seizes). In terms of paired routines, commonly practiced ones include Wu Xing Xiang Sheng Xiang Ke (5 elements mutually destroying), An Shen Pao (Safe body cannon), Wu Hua Pao (5 flower cannons) and Jiu Tao Huan (9 rings).

Wang Deli and Paul Frost practicing Jiu Tao Huan

Wang Deli and Paul Frost practicing Jiu Tao Huan

I had the dubious pleasure of running through Wu Hua Pao with Paul, and can certainly testify that he has gained xingyi’s ability to ‘cut’ (cuo) into the bones, as I had bruises on my forearms for a couple of days afterwards!

Of course, sheer number of routines does not equate to better martial skill or gongfu. What is probably more interesting was the different ways that they have of practicing the elements. Wang laoshi illustrated this with Tiger (Hu Xing), showing how it should initially be trained large but later much smaller (without taking the fists back to the waist), and how Tiger practiced properly combines both an upward and downward element that should first break the opponent’s root and then send him flying away.

Back to the starting position!

Back to the starting position!

Another prominent feature of this branch is the very strong Che style influence on the way they practice the various fists and elements. This manifests itself in the stances (very compact and small compared to say Shang style or Zhang Zhaodong xingyi), the use of double fists (as opposed to palms) in Piquan, and the turning method (very characteristic “trailing leg” turning method).

Wang laoshi very generously corrected my Santi and showed me the traditional ‘jumping’ way of practicing Dragon (Tiao Yue Long Xing), which was incredibly tough on the thighs!

Any readers who are interested in Xingyi and happen to be in Beijing could do worse than pay a visit to Paul and Wang laoshi, they are both living repositories of Wang Jiwu’s xingyiquan.

Posted in Che style Xingyiquan, Hebei Xingyiquan, Shanxi xingyiquan | Tagged | 1 Comment

Becoming a Disciple – The Baishi Ceremony

In traditional CMA, there is a saying “the teacher observes the student for 3 years, the student also observes the teacher for 3 years” (shifu kaocha tudi san nian, tudi kaocha shifu san nian). Obviously, this doesn’t mean that in the past you always had to wait for 3 years to become a tudi (disciple) of a teacher – but it does mean that generally there is a period where the student is effectively ‘on probation’ while the teacher decides if his various qualities (behaviour, diligence, aptitude for MA, etc) warrant him being accepted as a disciple. The length of this probation period varies tremendously – I personally have heard of people being required baishi just to learn anything from a teacher, to people waiting 3-4 years for baishi, to people who can have studied with a teacher for 20 years but never baishi.

To give a bit of context to this post, I have now been training with my current xingyi teacher (Dai Xueqi) for just over 3 years. In that time, we have talked about me becoming his disciple (baishi ceremony) a few times but had agreed that it would have to wait until the next time that his teacher (Song Guanghua) was in town. As Song shiye was in Nantong for the wushu tournament I had blogged about previously, it seemed like too good an opportunity for us Shanghai students to pass up. After some behind the scenes phone calls from my shifu to shiye and the other students, it was arranged that the Shanghai students were to baishi the day after next. Due to shiye’s tight schedule, the whole thing was very rushed – I got a phone call from my sifu on a Wednesday night and the ceremony itself was held two days later.

Although I had witnessed a baishi ceremony once before a few years back, understandably the whole thing was very foreign to me as a Westerner – many of the elements of the traditional baishi ceremony, such as burning incense to the founder of the art or kowtowing (full kneel with head touching the floor – see the photo below), were outside of my experience and required several whispered conversations with my shixiong to make sure I was doing the right thing.

Kowtowing during Baishi ceremony

Kowtowing during Baishi ceremony

For the benefit of those readers who may one day end up undergoing baishi, a quick description of the sequence of events is probably in order. First the pictures of the founder / earlier generations of the art are hung on the wall, as well as a banner saying “XXX discipleship ceremony”. Then, a small table is set up underneath the photos with various offerings of fruit as well as a rice bowl (for placing incense). Generally, the baishi ceremony will have ‘observers’ – these are generally also martial artists who are friends of your teacher, not necessarily from the same art. In the case of my ceremony, these were my teacher’s shixiong, who between them practice Fanzi quan, Xinyi Liuhe quan and Sun style taiji. Generally for the ceremony itself only your teacher and shiye will be seated (i.e. observers and MC will remain standing). The first step of the ceremony officially is to offer incense to the founder of the art. Then, you kowtow to both your shiye and your teacher – in my case a full kowtow 3 times (forehead touching the ground). Whilst still on the ground, you will normally also have to offer tea to shiye and your teacher. Once this is over you may stand up. The third section of the ceremony involves reading out the rules (men gui) of your particular style – these vary between styles but generally exhort the disciple to train hard, refrain from using their skills to bully and intimidate others, spread the art, etc.

Probably the most interesting part for me was the final part of the ceremony, where the shiye and shifu can give a short speech. Song Guanghua gave quite a long speech (5-10 minutes) to us new disciples, which is the longest I have ever heard him speak (he is normally pretty monosyllabic, at least to us grand-students). He emphasised that, as disciples, we not only had a responsibility to train, understand and master Song style and its various requirements, but also to spread and improve the art. Obviously, as the only foreigner in the group, there were pointed glances at me at this point. Other Western students of traditional CMA will testify that teachers here often hope that their Western students will help them spread their art, and so often will receive ‘special attention’. Of course, it should be noted that this special attention is no guarantee that you will learn the complete system or that ‘secret’ teachings will be passed on to you.

New disciples (tudi) with Song Guanghua and my teacher Dai Xueqi

New disciples (tudi) with Song Guanghua and my teacher Dai Xueqi

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

2015 Nantong Traditional CMA Tournament

Wow, cannot believe it has been over a year since my last post. The long gap was due to a combination of work and also a feeling that I didn’t have any new insights to share from my practice – apologies to any fans of this blog!

Anyway, recently one of my shixiong announced that he was organizing a traditional CMA festival in a town called Nantong, a couple of hours outside Shanghai. As my shiye Song Guanghua was attending, my attendance was pretty much obligatory. As Song Guanghua is 86 this year, visits from him to the Shanghai area are pretty rare, so of course his grandstudents would be expected to turn out. I went along to the festival with a couple of my shidi who had never met shiye before, so it would definitely be a precious experience for them regardless of what happened at the actual tournament. I was actually supposed to perform a xingyi routine at the tournament but eventually didn’t get a chance to, for reasons I’ll get into later.

After a fairly comfortable coach ride to Nantong (am a big fan of the coach system in China, they are comfortable, cheap and frequent) we installed ourselves at the nearest hotel and got a good night’s sleep. Early the next morning, we arrived at Nantong Sports Stadium (where it was being held) to find dozens of people already there dressed in Chinese kungfu uniforms of all different types and colours. Especially eye-catching were a group of young guys (who I think were from Cangzhou) who were practicing exercises with stone locks (shi suo) right outside the sports stadium. The stone locks were slightly smaller than those used for shuai jiao training, but still very impressive to see them being handled and thrown in the air with such ease.

We were especially impressed by the number of different styles competing at the tournament: not only were there were representatives of the various styles of the three main internals (Taijiquan, Baguazhang, Xingyiquan) as well as other northern arts like Xinyi Liuhe (Lu Songgao branch) and Bajiquan. The Bajiquan team was from Shanghai, which I found very surprising as my impression was that Shanghai doesn’t have that much in the way of traditional northern styles like tongbei, pigua, baji, etc. I later found out that the Shanghai Baji association was transmitted to Shanghai by a student of the famous Wu Xiufeng. As someone who doesn’t practice Baji, I wasn’t in a position to judge, but was impressed by the Shanghai Baji team, their performances looked crisp and powerful.

Another unusual sight was the very large contingent of Hulei Jia (‘Thunder’ frame) taiji, which is a branch of Zhaobao taiji. This style, which is still in the early stages of being known outside China, is famous for it’s sudden fali throughout the form – to my journeyman eyes the general sequence and postures of the form look similar to the Zhaobao small frame practiced in Xi’an.

Unfortunately, there was no Leitai or sparring segment of the tournament. Whether this was because there was no demand or because of concerns about insurance etc, I’m not sure. We had to satisfy ourselves with watching the freestyle tuishou competition, which was held in another venue halfway across town. Typical Chinese tournament organization! After a madcap drive across town we managed to get to the freestyle tuishou competition. From what we saw it was a pretty scrappy affair, pretty similar to the tournaments I have seen from Chen village. Would have to say that I couldn’t see any particularly “taiji” skills on display, but still admire the competitors for getting out there and actually trying something on a resisting opponent.

The evening of the first day was followed by the usual banquet for the visiting masters held in a nearby restaurant – as I’m sure other Western students of traditional CMA in China can testify, these are practically mandatory and usually involve copious amounts of baijiu (50% alcohol!!) before everyone stumbles back to their hotel blind drunk. Thankfully, as Song Guanghua does not drink, it was a comparatively staid affair and the assembled teachers were merely slightly inebriated by the end of the proceedings.

The next day, if anything there were even more competitors queuing up outside the stadium. The morning passed in a blur of weapons performances (including several rare weapons such as the whip dart, or the Daoist duster (fu chen) form performed a lady from Wuxi dressed in a ‘Wudang’ outfit). And then suddenly at lunchtime, as suddenly as they arrived, having performed and received their various medals, 90% of the competitors left, leaving behind the organisers, the judging panel and a few stragglers such as ourselves. It was at this point that I managed to perform my xingyi Jintui Lianhuan routine for shiye Song Guanghua and get some corrections from him on the form. Even at 86, he is fast, relaxed and nimble, living proof of the health benefits of xingyiquan!

With the ‘health maintenance methods’ (yangsheng gongfa) discussion slated for the afternoon cancelled, our group had no choice but start on their trip back to Shanghai.

All in all, it was a learning experience just to see so many styles, but I was disappointed that there wasn’t more combative content such as a Lei Tai or Shuai Jiao competition, think this is something that traditional CMA in China would very much benefit from.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments