Monday, November 27, 2006

day 9: practice day


  • chi kung (level 1)


  • 5th palm change
  • tantui (lines 1-4)
today wasn't an actual class. it was Thanksgiving weekend, and Jason had said there was no class for the week.

but i had swapped contact info with John Eagles, one of Jason's intermediate students, and we'd scheduled a Saturday meeting, figuring it would be a good chance to catch up on some of the things i had missed from previous weeks and practice some of the other things i hadn't quite figured out. since we both lived near Pasadena, we met in Garfield Park, which is a small grassy park in South Pasadena just off Mission St.

i told John that i'd wanted to go over what he'd showed us a few weeks ago with chi kung level 1, as well as the 5th palm change. John said that he was fine with that, and that he'd probably also do some jian shu (Chinese sword) practice on his own.

John has been with Sifu Jason for about 4 years. from what i can tell, he seems to have developed a pretty good understanding of a lot of Jason's teachings pertaining to bagua open-hand as well as weapons training, although i'm sure he'll deny it. John also seems to be a very laid-back, receptive, and generous personality. i find him to be one of the more open students in Jason's class in terms of entertaining questions, engaging in discussion, and demonstrating lessons. sometimes, i find him almost too receptive and generous--he'll often provide more information that i can readily digest, and i find myself having to parse out my questions to him to control the flow of information to a manageable stream.

chi kung (level 1)

John had led the early arrival students through this some weeks ago (reference day 6: 4th palm change and application), but at the time i was overwhelmed with the information involved.

to summarize from the prior session, level 1 chi kung involves 9 exercises following the 8-sided taoist symbol (1 exercise for each side, plus 1 for the center of the symbol). this 8-sided figure is named bagua (hence, the origin of the name of the martial art based on it), with a trigram for each side. each side also has corresponding meanings in taoist alchemy, cosomology, and philosophy, with associated elements (yin and yang permutations of wood, earth, fire, heaven, and water), animals, fortunes (as in fortune-telling), emotions, and numbers. further complicating things is that there is a pre-natal and post-natal bagua figure. in essence, the 8-sided figure appears to be the basis for all of taoist teachings, principles, and way of life.

i'd managed to scribble down a basic diagram when John had led people through it the first time, and then with Ching-Tszieh's help had filled in some of the terminology and concepts. i'd subsequently taken some time to do research on the internet to clean up my scribbling and generate a cleaner copy of the 8-sided diagram.

unfortunately, i wasn't able to do much with the exercises other than collect a vague and foggy recollection. i'd asked Art for some help, but he hadn't been able to do much since it was at the end of a class and everyone had been leaving.

i was a little surprised when John said that there were actually 3 levels of chi-kung, with level 1 just being for chi-gathering. he offered to show me more than just level 1, but i told him that was pretty much all i could absorb and that i'd be satisfied with this. he shrugged, and we started off slowly.

level 1 chi-kung starts by facing northwest, performing the associated exercise synchronizing slow physical movement and breathing, and then proceeding around the 8 points of the compass, facing in each direction and performing the respective corresponding exercise, until finally finishing and facing the center. having done some of the background work, i was able to follow along with John much better. it also seemed to help to remember the exercises in sets of 2, since there seems to be a connection between pairs of exercises, especially consecutive ones. it also helped to understand that each exercise is meant to gather chi into distinct parts of the body. as we went through the 8 exercises, John named the element and the body part related to each one.

near the end, John made an interesting comment to me. he said that chi was something that can't be forced. he said that the harder you try to find it, and the more physical effort you put into performing kung fu techniques, the more difficult it is to find chi. to make his point, he held up a fist and squeezed it, then said "if you squeeze it [chi], it'll just ooze out."

i think i can remember the set of exercises, although i promptly forgot the breathing...which i know is probably one of the most important parts. this will probably need quite a bit more of work.

5th palm change

after the chi-kung, we took a number of minutes to go through the stances. John then said he wanted to review all of the first 4 palm changes.

this was expedient enough, although we had to stop and discuss which palm change was which--i, being a beginner, am still having to mechanically sort out the distinctions between each palm change, and John, being more advanced, has to figure out which are the correct 4 palm changes from all the palm changes he knows.

we also had to stop before starting the 5th palm change. Sifu Jason broke this palm change into different sections, since it is a longer one involving more nuanced (as in not as intuitively obvious) movements and combat applications. John and i did a few dry runs to figure things out, then did several runs of the entire sequence we've covered in class to date. John commented that he thinks there's actually another section of the palm change that Jason will show us, since what we're doing in class doesn't quite match his memory. despite this, i was happy just to review what we had, and get a better feel for the entire sequence of movements.

tantui (lines 1-4)

after we'd gone through the 5th palm change, John asked me if there was anything else i wanted to know. in particular, he asked me if i knew anything about tantui. i said i knew the first 2 lines, but that i'd like to pick up the 3rd line.

with that, John lined up next to me, and we immediately went through the first 2 lines. he watched and corrected me on lines 1 and 2, and then took me through line 3. to me, line 3 is very similar to line 1, in that it involves wide circular movements of the arms in a vertical plane. it differs in that it incorporates successive punches in opposing directions. i'd tried to figure it out on my own, but there were a couple of points that i needed help going through.

John demonstrated line 3 several times, then had me perform it with him. after stopping to watch me, he seemed comfortable with my performance, and then said we should go through line 4.

line 4 is a rather complicated sequence of movements, involving an initial low stance rising into a forward facing kick and punch, which are then followed by a reversal of direction and backwards steps done in conjunction with a series of punches. it is awkward, somewhat befuddling, and for me entirely non-intuitive. i managed to get a sense of it after awhile, but not enough to feel comfortable. like so many other things in this class, this will take some practice.

John offered to show me line 5, but i told him i didn't think i was ready for this yet. which was the truth. i'm not. and it will probably be some time before i am.

by this time, we were wrapping up. we had started at 9:30 am, and it was now close to 11. John had originally planned on doing some jian shu practice on his own, but i could tell he had forgone that and was done for the day--i certainly hoped it wasn't because of me. we chatted for a little bit, and then i packed up and left to run some errands.

with the material we had gone over, i felt that i'd gotten plenty to think about and digest, even if it was stuff that i'd gotten before. i'm probably going to have to go over it again with Sifu Jason (and maybe even again after that...) to get things down.

Friday, November 24, 2006


i found some useful videos showing my instructor Jason, some of his senior students Jeff and Phunsak, and Liu Yun Chiao, who as Sifu Jason's instructor and founder of the Wutan Hall in Taiwan.

most of the videos are related to bagua--the style i'm learning at the moment, but a few cover baji. bagua, as you can see from the videos, is a softer, less physical style (hence one of the reasons it's classified as an "internal" martial art), while baji is a harder, more physically forceful style (and thereby classified as an "external" martial art.

note that the 2 videos of Jeff and Phunsak show them doing the same bagua forms. you can compare and see the differences in the way they are doing them. i haven't asked them--or Sifu--if this is something that is allowed in bagua, or if this is perhaps a product of personal stylization and customization of the underlying bagua techniques.

Jeff (i've never met him, but he appears to have been a long-time student of Jason):


Jason Tsou:

Liu Yun Chiao:

Monday, November 20, 2006

day 8: 5th palm change (or, the only constant is change)

  • wuji
  • tai chi
  • liang yi
  • xiang yi (si xiang?)
  • combat applications
  • functions and variables
  • change rhythm and combinations
  • circles


  • 5th palm change
today was a bit of a make-up day for me. i missed last week because of fund-raising activities with my other past-time (USC Triathlon) for Homecoming weekend. i was a little worried that i might have quite a challenge catching up, since we seem to cover a lot of material in classes.

the class started slowly this time. it seemed everybody was late, and Lee didn't do his customary lead through stances or tantui. after a while, i figured i better warm-up with stances on my own. i took the stances slowly this time, trying to incorporate the breathing work that Sifu Jason had taught us in the previous classes. of course, this meant that by the time i was finishing them everybody else began arriving.

Sifu Jason began by having us review hand drills (one-arm and then double arm), with John leading the class. after that, we proceeded with a brief review of the 1st palm change, with Sifu stressing proper form, particularly in terms of keeping the quads close and the hands, arms, and head all moving in and out of tension. once he was satisfied re-familiarizing everybody with the palm changes, Jason then began discussing combat applications of the forms.

combat applications

this was probably one of the more fascinating sessions i've had. so much of the palm changes we'd practiced to date had been focused on proper technique, proper form, proper breathing, and feeling of energy. today's session added a practical layer to the palm changes, showing just how the techniques and forms are meant to be applied.

Sifu Jason spent a good chunk of time demonstrating the use of "leaf covers summer flower." as i've discussed before, this applies to a stance featuring the practitioner crouching and twisting the torso around, with hands crossing in opposite directions across the chest, with the lower hand facing up and the upper hand facing down.

Jason showed that this stance is actually part of a throwing technique. when used in conjunction with a step-turn, it allows a practitioner to step outside an opponent's line of hand-strike while simultaneously trapping the opponent's outreached arm and throwing them. the practitioner's lower hand (the "summer flower") is supposed to align in the direction of the opponent's line of strike, the upper hand (the "leaf") is supposed to move towards the opponent's face, and the shoulder of the lower hand is supposed to engage the rear side of the opponent's striking arm shoulder. the technique is supposed to involve a rotational moment about the step-turn's pivot foot, with a slight downward movement that finishes with the non-pivot foot's knee stopping in the rear of the opponent's forward knee and the practitioner's 2 arms squeezing the opponent's striking arm. the technique itself finishes with the practitioner continuing follow-through and rotate the torso in the direction of the step-turn, so the practitioner's shoulder throws the opponent. performed properly, it's supposed to be a largely effortless means of throwing the opponent off-center.

functions and variables

Sifu expanded the lesson by showing the various options involved with the throw, and stressed that there's different ways to perform the technique. he showed that instead of being a throw forwards, it can be reversed in mid-rotation to become a backwards strike or a backwards throw. he also showed that it could be used to facilitate a joint lock on the opponent's shoulder, elbow, wrist, or hand.

Jason paused to emphasize that our use of the technique--and the ultimate end of it--could be interpreted as a function with variables. he said it was important to NOT view it as a simple answer to be applied mechanically in response to an opponent's attack, but rather should be seen as a mathematical function whose end result would depend on what variables were sensed by us. this, in effect, goes back to the discussion in previous posts about not becoming algorithmic technicians but more engaging, observant, and creative problem-solvers. of course, this means that it becomes imperative in being able to recognize and observe the opponent's actions and intent correctly so as to adjust the variables of the function.

change in rhythm and combinations

the next point of emphasis was the idea of changing rhythm. taking the "leaf covers summer flower" lesson as a starting point, Jason said the technique could continue to successive actions. he showed how the technique could be changed in mid-application by reversing the hands from "leaf" to "summer flower" and reversing the rotation, throwing or locking the opponent in a different direction. in addition, it could also be changed by shifting the practitioner's weight downward, tripping the opponent. this way, in the event we saw the opponent employing a counter-technique, we could change and employ an effective response. the concept is to adjust the rhythm of the technique so that it becomes more unpredictable and more difficult for the opponent to follow.

Sifu Jason commented that in combat chances are that most trained opponents would be able to respond to a single technique in isolation. many, however, can be caught off-guard and confused by changes in rhythm.

Jason proceeded to the idea of combinations. here, he said that apart from changing the rhythm of a technique in mid-application, that it can be combined in successive variations, with the same purpose of increasing unpredictability and confusion against an opponent. with "leaf covers summer flower," for example, he showed that we could perform the technique going one way, and then continue by staying engaged with the opponent and repeating the technique in a different way (reversing rotation, shifting weight, changing into a lock from a throw, etc.).

according to Jason, a substantial number of trained opponents can handle a simple technique, and will almost always have a counter to employ. however, fewer will be able to handle 2 changes, and fewer still will be able to deal with 3 changes. he estimated that the application of 3 changes would probably deal with 99.5% of opponents (although i suspect the precision of this percentage).

this is apparently an extension of Taoist principles, especially those presented in the classic I Ching (The Book of Changes). by its very title, the work espouses the concept of constant change and its application. for bagua, which is derived in part from Taoism and the I Ching, change is an integral component of combat, and something to be utilized to achieve victory.

Sifu reminded us that the only constant is change, and we have to embrace it. he said that in bagua, and in Taoism, even the idea of yin and yang, as dynamic as it is, can involve even more change. in Taoism, complexity can increase. it has the term wuji to describe a state of zero energy (void?), tai chi to describe a state where yin equals yang, liang yi for when yin and yang are discernible from each other (i'm guessing this means unequal), and xiang yi (si xiang?) where yin and yang further divide.

Jason referred to the idea of exponents of 2. wuji is a state of 0. tai chi is the value of 2 (yin and yang) with the exponent of 0 (creating a net value of 1, or unity). liang yi is 2 with an exponent of 1 (creating a net value of 2, indicating 2 distinct entities). si xiang is 2 with an exponent of 2, indicating that 2 becomes 4 (or increasing complexity). to me, this is roughly analogous to the idea of entropy, which is a thermodynamic law prescribing increasing disorder and chaos.


something else covered today was the concept of circles.

bagua is apparently about circles. circles circles circles. circles everywhere. big ones. small ones. horizontal ones. vertical ones. angled ones.

as we practiced using "leaf covers summer flower" with rhythm change and combinations, Sifu repeatedly stressed that we hand to understand and visualize our actions moving in circles. these circles extended beyond just general motions involving rotation of our torsos, but also needed to be visualized in reference to movement of individual body parts. in essence, while there might be large circles described by the actions of our bodies, there were simultaneously smaller circles being described by the individual behavior of our hands and feet as well as arms and legs and head and waist. in other words, there are circles within circles, sometimes moving in conjunction, sometimes moving independently, sometimes within each other, sometimes outside each other.

Sifu said that the idea of circles also needed to be visualized as beyond the horizontal plane. the circles could be angles or vertical as well as horizontal. for example, our practice with "leaf covers summer flower" involving a shift in weight to trip the opponent could be interpreted as a vertical circle. in addition, our application of the stance into a throw can be understood as movement in an angled circle.

according to Jason, this concept is important, since it increases the effectiveness of the techniques and also increases the ease with which they can be performed. and that, in part, is the purpose of bagua: to exert as little of the practitioner's energy as possible to defeat the opponent.

5th palm change

we finished the day by learning the 5th palm change. on the day i missed Sifu had evidently taught the first half of this form. i'd managed to get John to show me what they had covered during the break, and it had seemed simple enough to pick up. but then Kei-Yon (sp?)--another student who, while one of Jason's intermediate level students, had a broad martial arts background--showed us the second half of the 5th palm change, and it became apparent that this was one of the longer palm changes.

Jason had everybody do a couple of run-throughs of the first half, and that allowed me to get my bearings straight and pick up some of the nuances. he then introduced us to the second half of the form.

the 5th palm change begins in something called "lion protects the head," which basically means that both arms are above the head, with one reaching to the side and the other reaching over the practitioner's head. from there the practitioner rotates to a 70-30 stance with both arms lowered to torso level, from which the practitioner steps into a single-leg posture with a hand strike forward before rotating into a crouch facing the opposite stance with the striking hand suspended where it was. at this point, the hands come forward and then perform a figure-eight pattern in the air.

Jason noted that the figure-eight pattern was exactly that: a figure eight pattern, but with variations in vertical position so one side of the eight is at a different height than the other. he explained that the combat application of this was meant to be a warding away of an opponent's strike using the downward portion of the figure eight and then a counter-strike into the opponent's torso or head using the upward portion of the figure eight.

Sifu had us practice the figure-eight pattern, emphasizing again its variations and options. being somewhat newer to this, i was a little more uncomfortable with this movement--or the entire form. but i figure this is something that can be resolved through practice.

we ended the day with Jason reminding everyone that next week was Thanksgiving and that there would be no class. i exchanged contact info with John for a practice session, so i could get caught up and more familiar with everything we'd covered--and also to review the chi kung he'd led everyone on 2 weeks ago.

with that, class was done for the week.


i decided to go with everyone for the post-class meal. this week it was to one of Jason's favorites, a place called Hunan Restaurant. this placed turned out to be GREAT--at least for the stuff Jason ordered. good spicy food.

i kind of enjoy the meals, since it gives an opportunity to discuss background questions about martial arts and Sifu's understanding of them. as a result, i can fill in a lot more of the gaps in my perception of just where his class and teaching fits within the larger framework of Chinese martial arts, both from a modern perspective and in terms of historical continuity.

this week we spent a good portion talking about Sifu's class-mates, and their schools, as well as the apparent division within his teacher's (Liu Yun Chiao) progeny. it's somewhat unfortunate to hear about this kind of thing, since i believe that 1) it's not good in terms of preserving the styles of martial arts taught by Liu Yun Chiao and his Wutan Hall (see my previous commentary on open door schools), 2) it's never good to be afflicted by needless political infighting, and 3) i'm not really superstitious, but i think it's bad karma. Jason apparently agrees, and i sense he's disappointed by the behavior of some of his martial arts class-mates.

as with so many things, i guess all we can do is to control the things we can control, and let everything else just be left to itself.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Commentary: Poetic Titles and Kung Fu

I told Art one time that I was having real difficulty remembering everything that needed to be remembered in performing each form. Apart from the intricacies of the body movements (hands, feet, legs, arms, body, and head), body positioning, alignment, weight distribution, breathing, and the synchronization of all these together, there's also remembering the sequence everything is supposed to follow.

At the time, Art had nodded and said that I needed to recognize that each form--as all forms--can be broken down into individual steps, each marked by a name to help remember them. He said remembering the names help to remember the techniques.

Which brings me to a subject that periodically catches my attention: just what is the deal with all these poetic titles given to techniques?

I mean, it appears very typical with Chinese martial arts. You hear students and teachers reciting the names as they perform the techniques. You see practitioners recognizing each other's style or instructor by the name of the techniques they display.

The names are very imaginative and evocative poetic titles. Here's a sample of some of the ones I've overheard (and what they actually refer to):

  • hawk follows sparrow (refers to: one hand follows another down and across through the air)

  • leaf covers summer flower (refers to: arms stretched across chest--but not crossed--with one palm facing up and the other palm facing down)

  • eagle attacks fish (refers to: outspread hands coming together from different angles and then leaving in opposite directions)

  • lean against the horse and ask for directions (refers to: initial stance in 1st and 2nd palm changes)

  • push the moon out the door (refers to: action in 1st palm change where the practitioner pushes the opponent using a turn out of the initial stance)

  • goose leaves the flock and flies alone (refers to: action in 2nd palm change where the practitioner brings one hand away by itself)

I remember Ching-Tszieh and Art had a conversation about this. Ching-Tszieh said the terms were very vivid, and brought some very bright imagery. Both she and Art had said this was the entire point of the poetic titles: to provide imaginative and evocative labels that reminded the student of ideas that helped to understand the important concepts of each technique.

For example, hawk follows sparrow is meant to ensure the student remembers to have one hand start from a high position and follow the other hand as it goes down along a leg while the student descends into a low stance; leaf covers summer flower is meant to remind the student to remember to keep one palm upwards facing the sky while the other palm faces down; eagle attacks fish is meant to tell the student to bring two hands in front from opposite directions--one hand from a outstretched high position, the other from the other low outstretched position-- like an eagle swooping down to intercept a rising fish, meet, and then go off in opposite directions again but different from the ones they came in on. Likewise, goose leaves the flock and flies alone is meant to remind the student that the hands start close together, but then one hand leaves alone by itself while the other hand remains stationary.

Of course, this means that the historical Chinese martial artists weren't really using poetry, but instead just whatever seemed very memorable for them. Jason suggested this, saying that a lot of martial artists (particularly those who were illiterate) just used whatever terms they could find that were easy to remember and very illustrative of techniques. Lean against the horse and ask for directions, for example, came from farmers and journeymen who would rest against a horse with the back of their shoulder while they planned an activity or surveyed a direction. Similarly, he said push moon out the door came from front doors of houses and nights with a full moon--things common and auspicious to Chinese culture--to help the practitioner visualize that they're standing next to an open door and pushing the evening moon out by using the shoulders, arms, and hands with a rising twisting motion from the legs and hips to close the door.

Jason said that the continuing practice using such evocative terms were a vestige of history and tradition, and that in truth anybody could use any system of names to remember techniques. He said music or tools would just as well, and that is why some modern kung fu schools sometimes use different terms to describe the same techniques, with some schools retaining the historical terms and others switching to more modern ones.

I have to admit, remembering the terms kinds of helps. It's analogous to a mnemonic device, basically giving the human mind keys to more detailed memories. Here, the poetic titles are the keys that help the practitioner's mind unlock the memories of the many actions involved with a technique. I find recalling the terms does indeed bring up visual images of each technique, and stimulates the muscle memory into performing them.

I guess more modern terminology (music, tools, movie titles, books, whatever) might serve the same function, but while they could act as mnemonic devices to spur muscle memory, for certain they wouldn't have the same evocative power, illustrative connotation, or visual imagery. And they most definitely would not be anywhere near as pretty or pleasing.

I dunno. I know kung fu is about combat, health, and spiritual enlightenment. But my vote is with the traditional. I think there's something to be said for aesthetics. It just seems more human.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Commentary: Origins, Part 2

Just who came up with this stuff?

That's a question that periodically crops up in my mind with kung fu. All I'm studying is one style of kung fu, and a single version of that style at that, but there is a lot of stuff in it. A lot of stuff.

Just who came up with this stuff?

Oh yeah sure, everybody knows the founder of bagua (or bagua zhang, as it is more properly known) was a man named Dong Hai Chuan, who formed the style sometime in the mid-1800s.

But can we honestly believe that 1 man made all this stuff up?

Again, there is a lot of stuff. Hand drills, foot drills, pole drills, single-person and 2-person drills. Walking drills. Mother palm. 8 Palms. Xiao ka men. 64 Palms. Throwing techniques. Locking techniques. Striking techniques. Parrying, blocking, opening, closing, movement, rooting, stillness. Chi kung. Breathing. Hand work, foot work. And all this ignores the multiple combat techniques taught and practiced in sparring...and the subtle body movements that increase the effectiveness of the techniques, or the integration of internal and external energy, or the adjustments and variations of each technique, or all the other random nuances that crop up in class and that students take as things to learn but conveniently forget to contemplate as to origin.

How did 1 man make all this stuff up?


And these questions pretty much apply to all the rest of kung fu. Just who came up with this stuff? And how did they do it?

I've heard the argument that founders of kung fu styles were dedicated to the martial arts, and devoted their entire lives to it. Meaning that they basically were focused on kung fu 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. With that kind of focus, combined with a corresponding measure of skill, intelligence, diligence, and attention to detail, kung fu masters were presumably in a fertile position to develop fighting styles.

But I seriously wonder about this. People had to take time for other things than just fighting, or training to fight. People had to eat. They had to sleep. They had to visit mom and dad. They had to pay bills and pay taxes to the local imperial administrator. They had to avoid road rage of horse carts, peasants, and nobles. They had to make nice with the local cops. They had to travel by walking or paying for a horse or cart. They had to stopover at the local noodle house. They had to visit the doctors sometime. In short, they weren't 24/7 into kung fu.

I strongly suspect that when people say a particular person "invented" a style, they don't necessarily mean that individual person "created" the style as in magically conceiving everything in their minds and offering it to the world fully developed, but rather that a person "invented" a style in the sense that they likely "synthesized" it from things they knew or had observed or had picked up during their lifetimes. As a result, a founder of a style probably incorporated their own original work with a pre-existing accumulated body of wisdom acquired from prior teachers or popular knowledge.

This shouldn't be interpreted as discrediting anyone. There is as much skill in synthesizing something from disparate sources as there is in making something entirely original--you can analogize to musical artists who use "sampling" of other musical works to create unique and new works of musical art, in that you can hear something familiar in a song but still see it as something distinct and special. As a result, Dong Hai Chuan really is the founder of a style called bagua zhang, since he was the person who distilled a cacophony of ideas and concepts and techniques into a recognizable coherent style united under a particular philosophy of combat marked by its title ("bagua" is roughly interpreted as "trigram"--as in the trigrams from the Taoist I Ching--and "zhang" is translated as "open palm," which makes "bagua zhang" the fighting style of open palms based on the trigrams of the I Ching). But I still suspect that he relied on pre-existing things he noticed and acquired from the real world as much as he relied on new and undiscovered things he imagined in his mind.

Of course, this suggests that the various styles are in truth a product of a far broader, far older, and far richer base of contributions than is popularly recognized. It concurrently suggests that the history of kung fu truly is an integral thread in the fabric of Chinese history, with the entire body of fighting wisdom a development of thousands of years of empirical observation, experimentation, and conclusions.

I hypothesize that the mass of martial arts knowledge in ancient China grew with each generation, and became so great that invariably certain individuals took it upon themselves to organize the information in a way that made it more digestible and easier to learn. Given the quantity of information gathered over the millenia, there were a multiplicity of ways to organize them--and with more than 1 way being effective in achieving victory in combat. These ways or organizing information, if found effective, likely became what people consider to be "styles" of kung fu. The individuals, either working alone or in conjunction with others, who devoted themselves to synthesizing and distilling the information so that it could have the organization and effectiveness necessary to be recognized as a "style" became the popularly recognized "founders."

As a current practitioner, this all likely doesn't really make much difference. I mean, if all you want to learn is to fight and win a fight, you really don't care who's giving you the information and skill, you just care about the effectiveness of the information and skill themselves.

But I think it's important for the following:

  1. Understanding and seeing the connection between various styles, and recognizing that they may have similarities for a reason.

  2. Seeing which styles may use similar sources of knowledge and philosophies, and hence be compatible in terms of being combined with each other by a martial artist seeking to expand their skill sets.
  3. Tracing the development of techniques, since it helps highlight what aspects of a style may have appeared at what points in time, and so have been an endemic component of the "original" style or a subsequent addition made by later students seeking to change the style. This helps in preserving a particular kung fu style as a discernible "style."

Having said all this, I have to admit it brings no real answer to the original questions: Just who came up with this stuff? And how?

I mean, I am really curious as to who the random peasants, farmhands, merchants, nobles, monks, politicians, policeman, soldiers, whatever really were who actually stood around and played with their legs and arms and hands and feet to determine what techniques were effective. I am equally just as curious at to how they did this. Did they really stand around and look at each other and discuss how to beat people up? Did they really punch bricks and trees to see what strikes were most effective? Did they really compare punching with a fist made one way with a fist made another way?

And just why does this work the way it works?

I don't have an answer. But following the ways of Tao and Zen, I believe that sometimes having the question is necessary to find the matching answer, and I at least have the question(s).

For the last question, at least, I probably already have the answer--as somebody in my class drily commented: "Dude, it just works...That's why it's called kung fu."

Saturday, November 04, 2006

day 7: review and breathing

  • yin and yang
  • breathing

today was a short day. i arrived late to class because of a standardized exam i had to take. i arrived at about the half-way point of class.

it appeared that Sifu Jason was having everyone review the first 4 palm changes. Art indicated as much, telling me after i had warmed up that it appeared to him that Sifu wanted to consolidate everyone's performance of the forms. i did a couple of run-throughs of each palm chnage, and then gathered with everyone else during a break.

yin and yang

Sifu Jason, who had been spending time with his baji students, came back after a few minutes. he had everyone group around him, and then started talking about breathing, and the breathing techniques involved with each of the 4 palm change forms we'd learned to date. he emphasized the concept of yin and yang in the forms, particularly in synchronizing it with the movements and the breathing involved, as well as in terms of describing the orientation of the body's energy.

according to what Jason said, yang corresponds to movements up or rotations outwards, and yin corresponds to movements down or rotations inwards. in terms of energy, this means movements upwards or outwards are viewed as "yang energy" and movements downwards and inwards as "yin energy." so if a body is still, there is zero energy (or yin equal to yang). any shift in legs rotating the body left means there is a net amount of energy rotating the body left, likewise for a rotation to the right. if the body rises, this means a net amount of energy leading upwards, likewise a movement downwards.

Sifu Jason went on to state that said these can be applied to each body part in a form, not just the entire body, with the sum of yin-yang states creating a net amount of yin or yang energy leading in a particular direction. this results in a constant flux of yin-yang energies in a moving body, with a net sum that is non-zero so long as the body is in motion and reaching zero when the body is stationary. this can be understood following an entire form from beginning to end; take, for example, the 1st palm change going left (NOTE: "outwards" meaning leading and "inwards" means following):

  1. initial stance facing left in Leaning Against a Horse and Asking for Directions: stationary state = zero energy
  2. starting to rotate left into Pushing Moon Out the Door: left arm and left leg are rotating outwards = yang energy, right arm and right leg are rotating inwards = yin energy, torso is descending = yin energy, net sum of energy = yang rotating left and yin going down
  3. pushing hands left, finishing Pushing Moon Out the Door: left arm pushing/rotating outwards = yang energy, right arm pushing/rotating forwards = yin energy, torso rising = yang energy, net sum of energy = yang, going out and left, and yang rising
  4. rotate left into Leaf Covers Summer Flower: arms cross = both in yang energy, opposing directions, left leg rotating outwards = yang energy, right leg rotating inwards = yin energy, torso lowering = yin energy, net sum of energy = yang going left and yin descending
  5. pause in Leaf Covers Summer Flower: stationary state, but here yin energy = yang energy
  6. starting to rotate right into Leaning Against a Horse and Asking for Directions: right arm rotating out and rising = yang energy rotating right and up, left arm rotating inwards = yin energy right, torso lowering = yin energy, net sum of energy = yang going right and yin descending
  7. finishing facing right in Leaning Against a Horse and Asking for Directions: right arm lowering and extending forward = yin energy descending and yang energy going forward, left arm motionless = zero energy, torso rising = yang energy, net sum of energy = yang forward and yang rising
  8. finishing stance facing right in Leaning Against a Horse and Asking for Directions: stationary state = zero energy

(yes, i know, the names of the techniques...see my commentary on poetic titles and kung fu)

NOTE: in steps 6 and 7, the right arm is rising as the torso is falling and falling as the torso is rising. Sifu Jason didn't say it, but i think is an expression of the concept of "fire rising and water falling," with the right hand being "fire rising" and the torso being "water falling." "fire rising" is supposed to equal "water falling" and so result in the 2 cancelling each other out. i wonder if this means the net sum of yin-yang energies in the right arm and torso is supposed to sum to zero.


after some time discussing and answering questions about yin-yang concepts in the forms, Sifu Jason then expanded the lesson by stating that the synchronization of yin-yang energy in the palm changes is also meant to tie into breathing. from what i could tell, breathing in is a yin state and breathing out is a yang one. i inferred that breathing is tied to the net sum of yin-yang energy.

so going back to the 1st palm change sequence above, this means that in step 2, where the net sum of yin-yang is yin (in terms of the torso falling), the practitioner is breathing in, and in step 3, where the net sum of yin-yang is yang (in terms of the torso rising), the practitioner is breathing out. similarly, in step 6, the net sum is yin (at least in terms of torso falling), the practitioner is breathing in, and in step 7, the net sum is yang (at least in terms of torso rising), the practitioner is breathing out.

breathing is important, since it can have major impact on the expulsion of power. this a concept that is recognized in Western medicine, and is something that is readily accepted and applied in athletics, so i pretty take this as a given. in weightlifting, proper technique is taught with any eccentric (pushing) muscle movement tied to exhale and concentric (pulling) muscle movement tied to inhale. sprinters in 100m and 200m are taught to treat their races as one long exhale. for sports and medicine, exhaling is already known to increase the amount of power a body can transmit.

of course, i'm a little puzzled as to just how yin-yang breathing is matched to yin-yang movement. for example, in the parts of the 1st palm change above, the net sum is the net of the rising and falling of the torso--not the net sum rotating left or right, which seems to be on a different schedule (step 2 has a net sum of yang energy rotating left, but net sum of yin energy in the torso going down). in order for the synchronization of breathing, energy, and body movement to work, it has to be related to whether the torso is rising (yang, so breathing out) or falling (yin, so breathing in).

complicating this is that Sifu Jason said that whether one breathes in or out depends on the intended action. he mentioned this in reference to combat applications of the forms, where each movement can be varied and changed to accomplish different tactical objectives. Jason said that whether one breathes in or out has to match the function of a particular movement.

take the initial movement of the 4th palm change. this was the movement that came to my mind when he talked about the connection between breathing and intent. in this particular movement, the practitioner reaches out with one hand and arches their back (this is the "Bob's Big Boy" pose that Jason joked about in a previous post). in combat, the arching of the back and reaching out is supposed to drive the practitioner off the line of the opponent's hand attack and allow the practitioner to reach over the opponent's reaching arm to the opponent's head.

taking my question on this, Jason said that if the practitioner reaches out with the intent to block, then this is a state of yin energy and so the practitioner should be breathing in. in contrast, Jason said that if the practitioner is reaching out with intent to strike, then this is a state of yang energy and so the energy should be breathing out.

i said that this seems to make the initial movement of the 4th palm change significantly more complicated, since the subsequent movement--a twist into dragon stance but with the non-reaching hand pushing back and down against the opponent's thigh/knee area to push him or her off-center--involves breathing out. this would mean that the practitioner is having to increase the steps in their breathing going from the initial reach-out to the immediate turn. Sifu Jason said this is correct, and that is why breathing is such a topic deserving of specific attention--and also practice.

i am, however, still puzzled as to just how breathing is tied to yin-yang. as i mentioned above, i'm under the impression that breathing in is a yin state and breathing out is a yang state, and that anytime the torso is descending is yin (and so means breathing in) and that anytime it's rising is yang (and so means breathing out). this seems to make sense.

but it's completely wrong in dealing with the 4th palm change's turn from the initial reach-out to the downward-pushing dragon stance. Sifu Jason said the twist and push-down is supposed to occur with the practitioner breathing out. but this means breathing out (yang) when the torso is falling (yin), which contradicts my understanding.

the only way i can make sense of it is that the intent of the practitioner is focused on a movement involving yang energy (pushing the opponent), and so determines that the practitioner is breathing out. this would correspond to Sifu Jason's comments on the initial reach-out's connection between breathing in or out and the practitioner's intent during the reach to either block or strike.

if this is really the synchronization that is supposed to occur, this means that the timing of breathing in (yin) or out (yang) is NOT connected to the net sum of the yin-yang energies in the body as it is moving, but rather tied to the intent of the practitioner to achieve a specific yin or yang state as he or she drives the body. this means that the practitioner can decide to pursue a yang objective (such as striking or pushing or throwing) that engages the body to go through a flux of yin-yang states (such as turning, rising, or falling), but with the objective--or the intent--determining whether the practitioner will ultimately breathe in or out.

this is still somewhat of a puzzle. i suspect (as with so many things so far) i'm going to have to discuss things further with Sifu Jason and the class.

Art noted as an aside to me that Jason hadn't taught this aspect of 64 palms the previous times he'd gone through it. he said he found it interesting that Sifu Jason was taking time to focus on breathing. he suspects that Jason is trying to get everyone to consolidate these 4 palm changes and get them down before moving on.

the class ended rather quietly after that. Jason called the class to an end, and everybody went their various ways.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Commentary: Origins, Part 1

I'm starting to wonder if a lot of the attributed origins of martial arts styles--particularly older ones like those found in the Chinese martial arts--are in varying degrees a mixture of legend, myth, exaggeration, and in some instances outright lies. Not that this means that I think everything should be categorically discounted; legends invariably have some basis in fact, and myths have sometimes turned out to be derived from facts that have been corroded by time and miscommunication over multiple generations.

But the problem is, sometimes it is difficult to distinguish just what is fact and what is fable, particularly when working with origin stories conveyed via oral histories or unverifiable written documents. Often, determining the truth becomes an exercise in faith: faith in the oral recollections passed by prior believers and faith in the veracity of written records penned by dead, missing, or unknown chroniclers.

And faith, unfortunately, has a questionable habit of altering facts to suit ulterior motives.

I suppose it shouldn't really matter. I mean, people learning martial arts usually learn it for reasons ground in the present: self-defense, good physical and mental health, self-discipline, and principles of living. None of these really require knowledge of a particular martial art's origins; a student can fulfill their motivations for study without ever having learned about the formation of their martial art. You don't need to know an origin story to learn how to properly perform a fist strike or body throw or joint lock, you don't have to care about ancient history to learn breathng methods or chi generation, and you don't have to delve into the distant past to learn meditation or philisophical principles. To this degree, the origins of martial arts styles are largely just matters of historical curiousity.

However, I still persist over questions about the past. I think it provides context that may illuminate the present, and may contain lessons that can be applied without the potential pain of re-discovery. Understanding how things were created can help the understanding of why things are the way they are, and perhaps indicate avenues for modification, change, or improvement.

For example, it's useful to know that taizu chang chuan is a martial arts form created during the reign of Song Dynasty Emperor Taizu in the 10th century. The legend and revered folktale is that he was the creator of the style, and hence its namesake. Truth be told, it's highly likely that he was responsible for ordering the synthesizing, recording, standardization, and organization of the various types of related kung fu collectively labeled chang chuan that had proliferated during the Song Dynasty into a haphazard legion of inter-connected styles. It is also possible taizu chang chuan was supposedly the style practiced by Emperor Taizu's guard. Because of its origins along the long river in the wide-open spaces of northern China, it is also sometimes referred to as "northern long fist."

For reference:

As a result, recognition of this history helps explain the wide number of kung fu styles classified as chang chuan, and helps to comprehend their similarities: forms involving long wide postures, attention to long-distance attacks against an opponent, and use of a variety of kicks. This would mean a style such as taizu chang chuan would reflect these concepts. In which case, a practitioner wouldn't necessarily rely exclusively on taizu chang chuan for situations calling for grappling or wrestling, and hence would want to look to fighting styles with a relatively greater emphasis on close-distance confrontations.

For these kinds of observations and insight to occur there has to be some accuracy in the material being studied. Unfortunately, however, this is often hard to come by.

Take the origin of tai chi chuan. Folktales ascribe the source of tai chi chuan to a single individual named Zhang Sanfeng. However, they also give conflicting time periods as to when he lived, with some saying he lived in the 10th century and others saying he lived in the 13th century. Still others go so far as to claim that in creating and practicing tai chi chuan Zhang Sanfeng became immortal, and that is why he appears twice in historical records.

Confusing these stories is the more readily verified attribution of tai chi chuan to the Chen and Yang families in the early 19th century. Each family developed a namesake form of the style, which were subsequently modified into a range of modern differently-labeled variations.

For reference:

The historical haze creates a number of puzzles, all of which pose questions to modern practitioners. Are the various styles currently labelled tai chi chuan the same tai chi chuan developed by Zhang Sanfeng? If not, then have the principles of the original art been corrupted, eroded, or lost? If they are the same, then what changes have been made over time and why were those changes made? Were those changes a reflection of lessons learned in combat or personal whims of teachers? What limitations of tai chi chuan were discovered by past practitioners, and what capabilities were discovered? Does tai chi chuan really have the extra-martial capabilities of improving health to the extent that it can prolong life?

While it's clearly possible to become a highly skilled and proficient practitioner in the modern era without an extensive knowledge of a style's origins, the questions related to--and consequent questions generated from--the obscurity and veracity of martial arts suggests that there may be things being missed, overlooked, or worse, lost. That is: yeah sure, people can become good just knowing what is known now, but maybe they could become even better knowing what was known then?

Situations like these are unfortunately rife in martial arts, given the age of so many of the styles. Because of the passage of years, the histories have become interwoven with the fabric of culture and people, so that there is an almost seamless mixture of fairy tale and fabrication with reality and truth. Some of it sounds too good to be true...and sometimes it is. It makes me wonder just what can be believed.