Wednesday, February 28, 2007

videos: Shaw Brothers classics (and a few others)

i've become pretty leery of kung fu movies over the years in terms of their accuracy in portraying actual kung fu practice.

i'm sure that there is some kernel of truth in what they show. i mean, much like myths and legends, they have to base their stories on some element of truth, even if they do surround it with distortions and fabrications.

a lot of it, however, is just not real. some of the things you see are very fanciful, and are often unbelievable. flying people, climbing walls, standing upside down from ceilings, bulletproof bodies, immortal characters...these are things out of superhero comics. kung fu masters may have had skills that seemed supernatural, but i seriously doubt they did all the things kung fu cinema shows them doing.

moreover, much of it is not real because cinema, by its nature, has to modify kung fu to tell stories. this means choreography, artistry, and showmanship. fights are not spontaneous, but designed and rehearsed to follow the instructions of the director and cinematographer to create a better image that can be shot and reshot over multiple takes to tell a complete story. this changes kung fu from fighting style to presentation art.

which is why i sometimes cringe at the thought of kung fu movies, particularly when i think of how they've influenced people's perception of kung fu over the years (reference my previous post: commentary: the dork factor).

having said that, i do have to admit there is a certain sense of nostalgia for the cheesy chintzy past, and all the cheesy chintzy kung fu movies that inspired kids like me to try cheesy chintzy kung fu moves in our backyards--no doubt to the great amusement of our parents, neighbors, and friends.

Kieun reminded me of this, when we went off on a tangent during class and started reminiscing about the kung fu memories of youth. especially Shaw Brothers cinema, which were (and still are) utter classics of cheesy chintzy kung fu movies. i mean, come on, old masters with long white beards and bushy eyebrows? heroes fighting while standing sideways on walls? fighters yelling out the names of techniques as they attack each other? horrific english overdubs completely out of synch with the original Cantonese? how can anybody NOT love them? god bless their cheesy chinzty little hearts!

feeling some nostalgia for the cheesy chintzy past, i decided to do a search on YouTube for old kung fu movies, particularly Shaw Brothers classics.

lo and behold, it appears there are other people in the world that share the same feeling. i present some of the movie samples i've found. tell me if you recognize them:
i'm almost tempted to go out and look for them on DVD rental...the key word being "almost."

Monday, February 26, 2007

day 20: circle walking - 3rd palm change (the dervish lives!)


  • combat applications (yellow bird swoops down for food, hawk chasing sparrow, hawk pierces sky, big serpent coils its body)


  • 3rd palm change
  • xiao kai men
the class started with a very small crowd today. most of the baji students were not present this time, and there were only 3 bagua students (me, Laura, and Laura) when Sifu showed up. apparently there was a traffic jam on the freeway which had held up the jian shu students, and they were only make it after abotu 15-20 minutes of class.

Sifu worked with us individually at the start of class, reviewing the 1st 3 palm changes. this was useful, as i found out that i'd been doing the 2nd palm change wrong (particularly pushing moon out the door, which actually involves an upraised arm, as opposed to a horizontal one).

3rd palm change

after a good number of students had managed to make it, Sifu sent everyone out to find individual circles to begin performance of the 3rd palm change in a circle. but he must have seen some things that bothered him, because after a few iterations, he asked everyone to stop and join him by the grass.

he said that we needed to review some of the combat applications of the palm change. he took time to break down the palm change into individual techniques, and demonstrated (using Phunsak and Feng individually as simulated assailants) how each technique was to be applied.

this was important for me, since i had been wondering about the combat applications of the 3rd palm change for quite some time. i don't recall that we had ever covered it in-depth (at least, to the same degree as the other palm changes). to me, i had only seen it as a set of actions akin to a whirling dervish (and i mean that literally: whirling dervishes are a Sufi Muslim sect who believe that whirling is a way of becoming closer to God. you can reference:

following Sifu's demonstration and descriptions, it turns out that there are clear and concrete purposes for each technique:
  1. the initial stance (flying horse soars in the sky) is a parry of an upper strike from the opponent.
  2. the 2nd technique (yellow bird swoops down for food) serves as another type of parry against an upward strike, or can act as a distracting motion.
  3. the 3rd technique (purple swallow skims the water), as mentioned in previous posts, is a reach down to an opponent's legs to strike a pressure point or lead to a throw.
  4. the 4th technique (hawk pierces through the sky), isn't actually about piercing up in the sky, but about directing movement downward by sinking the body, so that the upraised hand is actually a guarding or holding hand against an opponent and the practitioner's sinking of the body and opposing hand is meant to push the opponent off-balance.
  5. the 5th technique (big serpent coils its body)--the whirling dervish part--is a means of moving outside the opponent's line of attack and to their rear, while also reaching to the opponent's throat, head, or torso to throw them onto their back.
  6. the 6th technique (holding a basket with crossed hands) is very similar to leaf covers summer flower, except that it involves both palms facing upwards. this is meant as a finishing movement to big serpent coils its body, in that it actually initiates and carries out throwing the opponent backwards (the practitioner's upper palm is supposed to be the one that reached for the opponent's head, throat, or torso, and the lower palm is supposed to have been in the opponent's lower back).
  7. the 7th technique (single goose leaves the flock) is the same as the other palm changes, with the goal of using the rising hand to parry an assailant's strike and then go into a downward strike against the assailant's arm or body.

this was a revelation. it was also very enlightening, particularly in terms of getting a much better understanding of what the 3rd palm change is supposed to do (compare to my post day 4: 3rd palm change).

after some time going through the 3rd palm change, Sifu had us line up to practice the combat applications for several of the techniques: yellow bird swoops down for food, purple swallow skims the water, hawk pierces through the sky, and big serpent coils its body. Sifu then left us to go work with the baji students.

we eventually found that it was taking too long to go through the entire line, and Art, Lee, and Eric made a mutual decision to have everyone work in pairs so that we could get more repetitions of the techniques. while the line gave each student the opportunity to work against different body types, Phunsak agreed with the decision to go in pairs, but said that we should change partners every so often to maintain some opportunity to work against a variety of partners.

later on, Sifu returned to watch us practice. he made a number of comments about each technique:

1) yellow bird swoops down for food

for this, Sifu showed us that the technique is not actually a wave of the hand in the air, but more a focused action designed for a specific goal of either redirecting an assailant's strike or distracting their attention. the technique is not meant to be a slap or a block. rather, it's supposed to involve initiation of contact against the opponent's arm by the practitioner's forearm, which then maintains contact while the practitioner moves the opponent's arm in a desired direction--Sifu demonstrated how to move it aside, down, or up.

the point is to open up the assailant's gates, whether in their lower body (knee, hips, etc.) or their upper body (torso, shoulder, head, etc.).

Sifu had us work in the line practice, so that we could see how the technique works against opponents with different body types. from what i could tell, it seems to favor smaller defenders over larger attackers, since the physics makes it much easier for a smaller person to get under and redirect an oncoming strike. i found that it was somewhat harder to apply the technique against a smaller attacker, largely because it was still very easy for the smaller person to get under the forearm pressure. in order for this technique to be applied effectively, it's going to require a mindful awareness of stance height and physical movement of both parties, with the practitioner adjusting each according to the body type of the attacker.

2) purple swallow skims the water

here, we practiced reaching for the knee. we did not actually follow through to a strike or a throw. Jason wanted us to simply practice on entering the opponent's lower gates and grabbing either one of our partner's knee, with our leading leg being placed behind the partner's legs and the leading arm (the purple swallow) going down in front of the partner's legs.

from there, he said we had a number of options, including striking a pressure point, pushing the knee back (to cause the assailant to fall backwards), pushing the knee outwards (to cause the assailant to fall sideways onto their back), or reaching behind the far knee (the one away from us) and going into a fireman's carry to lift the opponent.

Sifu also reminded us that sometimes, if we can't reach the knee, we can push on the leading side of the opponent's hip down and towards their backside, which can also serve to push them backwards.

3) hawk pierces through the sky

with this technique the practitioner is supposed to place a leading leg behind the leading leg of the opponent, make contact with the leading shoulder, then sink with the hand and arm of the leading shoulder moving down with the body while the rear hand and arm rises. this will cause the elbow of the leading arm to push backwards into the assailant, pushing them off-balance over the practitioner's leg and onto their backside.

from what i could tell, this is supposed to be done with the practitioner placing slightly greater weight on the leading leg, which is different from what i had been doing--placing equal weight on both legs. Art pointed this out to me, noting that the technique is more effective if i had my weight going into the sinking arm, which seems to help throw the sinking weight of the torso into the opponent, thereby increasing the force pushing them off-balance.

Sifu again had us practice applying this, by first beginning with use of our leading forearm to redirect and control an assailant's reaching arm out of line (similar to yellow bird swoops down for food), then using the forward leg as a pivot to step forward and bring the rear leg to a leading position situated behind the knee of the assailant's leading leg (e.g., if you lead with your right, the right forearm redirects the strike, and then you pivot on the right foot, bringing your left leg forward until its behind the knee of the opponent, resulting in your sinking hand being your left hand and your left shoulder being in contact with the opponent's torso).

from there, we have many options, of which Sifu pointed out a few:

  • sink and push the opponent off-balance
  • reach for the knee and engage any one of the choices given for purple swallow skims the water
  • use your shoulder to bump the opponent
  • change direction and rise, raising the sinking hand to lift the opponent's arm and produce an opening to the torso to push with other hand (basically, the same move from the 5th palm change known as fairy liu-hai teases the toad)
  • switch the hands into leaf covers summer flower and initiate any of the choices connected with that technique
  • raise the sinking hand and move it in a circular motion so that it moves backwards into the opponent's face and forward arm, and simultaneously kick the opponent's leading foot forward, to result in the opponent losing balance and falling backwards (i suspect this is actually a shui jiao move)
i recall Sifu using these choices repeatedly in sparring demonstrations for the class--enough that i have come to believe it (hawk pierces through the sky) be one of his favorite moves (comparable to his observation that one of Gong Bao Tien's favorite moves was white ape presents the fruit). i can see why: while superficially simple, it is very deceptive in that it actually provides a lot of options to counteract an opponent, and it is the kind of technique that seems to match well with Sifu's body type and shui jiao background.

this reminded me of a comment he has made on several different occasions about learning bagua--while it is important to learn all the techniques to truly learn a martial arts style, ultimately we have to adopt and utilize those techniques that are best suited for our bodies and abilities.

4) big serpent coils its body

for me, this turned out be the most difficult technique to practice. i worked with Art, and found a significant amount of difficulty in performing this successfully.

done right, a practitioner begins by stepping to avoid an assailant's strike and then spins to the assailant's rear. from there, the practitioner is supposed to reach behind them in the direction of the spin and then snake their reaching arm in front of the assailant's torso, either to grab the body or reach up to the neck and head. at the same time, the practitioner's off arm is supposed to make contact with the opponent's lower back and push forward. essentially, the off hand acts to push the opponent's hips forward while the reaching hand pushes the opponent's throat or head up and back, sending the opponent off-balance and making them vulnerable to being thrown.

from there, the practitioner should then be able to throw the assailant onto their back by finishing the technique with a transition into holding a basket with both hands, with the practitioner twisting their own torso and bringing the upper reaching hand--and the assailant--in the direction of the twist so that the assailant falls backwards. i suspect, but did not confirm, that the transition is to holding a basket with both hands rather than leaf covers summer flower, because the act of twisting the palm of the reaching hand to face upwards into holding a basket with both hands serves to further tip the opponent's head back and up, increasing their loss of balance.

i worked on this with Art and really struggled to get this right. Art kept revealing my mistakes by counter-acting my spin and pushing me backwards. after awhile (and bemused looks on his part), he pointed out 2 things to me that seemed to resolve my difficulty:

  • to initiate the technique, it is crucial to step outside the line of the opponent, and NOT step across it. stepping across the line only exposes you to the opponent. stepping outside the line (i.e., stepping towards their backside, or "dragon gate"), in contrast, 1) closes off their attack to you, 2) enables you to direct their strike away (i.e., towards their inside, or "tiger gate"), further exposing their backside to you, and 3) positions you to spin.
  • in snaking the reaching arm, it is crucial to do so in a way which 1) lifts the opponent's torso, and 2) angles the opponent's body back. this is what sets the opponent off-balance and makes it much easier to throw them onto their back. Art showed me that in the past Sifu demonstrated this on him by reaching for Art's throat--the Adam's apple, to be specific--and lifting it up and back so that it tipped Art's head in the direction of the throw. this act served to force Art to do exactly what was required by the technique: lift the torso and angle it back off-balance.
Sifu confirmed this, stopping practice with Lee in the position of an assailant and drawing a line extending from Lee's leading leg forward. this, Sifu said, represented the imaginary line upon which we were supposed to confine out footwork to one side--the opponent's backside.

in addition, Sifu also added to Art's observations by pointing out that it was important to observe footwork in the spin, particularly at the following points:
  • at the start of the spin, when the practitioner makes the initial step to begin, the leading foot should be in bai-bu (e.g., if you are leading with your right, your first step is with the right foot to the opponent's dragon gate, and it should land in bai-bu pointing to the opponent's tiger gate). this gives more force to the practitioner's simultaneous hand moves to knock the opponent's strike away toward the tiger gate.
  • at the end of the move, in the transition into holding a basket with both hands, the leg that provided the direction of the throw should be in bai-bu (e.g., if your left leg is forward, with the right arm being the reaching arm and left hand being the lower hand, then the throw is going to be over your left leg, and it therefore needs to be in bai-bu). having the leg be in bai-bu seems to greatly improve the apparent easiness of the throw.
with these points in mind, i started to feel much more comfortable with this technique. enough so that it felt much more forceful and much stronger. it's not really a spin, but a controlled use of rotational momentum and torque forces with changing directions to produce a decisive outcome. to me, this turned the palm change from being reminiscent of a whirling dervish to being more reminiscent of the Tasmanian devil (you know, the whirling, destructive, all-consuming nemesis to Bugs Bunny in the Warner Brothers cartoons).

in general, i suspect that all these techniques--as are a lot of techniques--are interchangeable, and (consistent with Sifu's comments, along with what i saw from Phunsak and Kieun, from last week) can be mixed-and matched in any combination desired by the practitioner. i can see how the various options that Sifu pointed out to us in each technique are actually available in the others (i.e., the options following hawk pierces through the sky also naturally follow yellow bird swoops down for food). this makes perfect sense, since a martial art should allow the practitioner to implement and formulate any type of actions to effectively respond and deal with the unpredictable chaotic environment of a combat situation.

xiao kai men and conclusion

class began winding down, and Sifu called class to a close. in the few minutes after the ending, i took the opportunity to ask Phunsak a few questions that had been confusing me about xiao kai men--while i've been practicing it over the weeks, and have started to become more familiar with it (so that it's not so awkward and a lot more smooth), i'm still finding some transition points between techniques a bit tricky. Phunsak helped me as best he could, and i managed to get the answers i needed.

of course, this is only for the linear form of xiao kai men, and i am still completely clueless as to the circular form, which i suspect is actually very crucial in terms of understanding circle walking--and so very crucial in terms of learning 64 palms. i am also certain that i am going to have to take some time at some point for a review session to cover the combat applications of each of the techniques in xiao kai men.

Sifu and Art decided to go to lunch at the Santa Fe shop down the street, leaving the class to go home. i ended up having lunch with Phunsak (who was going to stay for an afternoon session with Sifu) and Laura at the Dumpling Master (that's the English translation...i don't know the Chinese name that's on the sign outside its window). it wasn't the same without the usual lunch crew crowd, but maybe things'll get back to normal next week.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

day 19: circle walking - 2nd palm change (the art of dynamic change!)

  • practicing v. fighting
  • dynamic change
  • footwork
  • algorithms
  • 2nd palm change
today i was not the first one to arrive. the new baji students (Frank, Thomas, Charles, Simon) had evidently arrived a good deal earlier to play some basketball, and were lounging by the courts waiting for class to begin. i chatted with them for several minutes and then went to stretch and warm-up, just in time to be joined by Mike, Laura, Lee, and another bagua student.

this was scheduled as a light(er) class session, since it was the Lunar New Year on the Sinic (i.e., the Asian countries east of Thailand) calendar. we didn't formally start until Phunsak appeared, at which point Mike cajoled him into leading us through stances. we did this in abbreviated fashion, since Sifu was present and there were whispers of taking a collection for a gift (it was coincidentally also Jason's birthday).

circle walking: 2nd palm change

Sifu had us find our individual circles to begin circle walking. we did a quick run-through of circle walking with the 1st palm change, and then he ordered us to begin performing circle walking with the 2nd. he demonstrated how to do it, then watched as we began doing it ourselves.

for the 2nd palm change, Sifu took some time to correct our form, and then stopped everyone to make some statements about several concepts that we needed to understand to properly integrate the palm changes with our circle walking. the statements dealt with the following:

practicing v. fighting

Sifu told us that the saying he was given by his instructors was "practice as if there is an opponent there, fight as if there is no one there." he explained that this means that during our practices we need to visualize ourselves working against an opponent, but that in a combat situation we need to visualize ourselves working with no one else. Jason took some time to emphasize this point. he noted the following:
  1. it is helpful, because visualizing imaginary opponents in practice helps a practitioner better understand the function of each technique, and also the intent behind them. in so doing, it helps a student maintain proper form and aids in ingraining the physical motions into the brain and muscle memory.
  2. it is useful, because engaging in combat as if no opponent is present helps a practitioner to adopt a more pro-active mindset, meaning an attitude that is less defensive and more assertive. a defensive, reactive posture is always more difficult in terms of the pressure it places on reflexes and the uncertainty it generates within the mind, making it more likely for a person to make mistakes or be taken by surprise (this parallels a lot of sports philosophy, which always argues it is harder to play defense than it is to play offense). in contrast, by being more pro-active, the practitioner is more focused on initiating actions in the fight, forcing the opponent to take the defensive posture and forcing the opponent to react to the practitioner. this enables the practitioner to control the situation and "dictate the flow" of the encounter, and thereby increases the chances of victory.
  3. it should be taken with a caveat: this does not mean that a person should fight ignoring the opponents around them. a practitioner should always be mindful of the opponent(s) and what they may be doing. but it does mean that a practitioner should be acting in the face of opponents rather than waiting for them to do something.
dynamic change

Sifu, using Phunsak for demonstration purposes, commented that we need to remember that bagua is about dynamic change, and that this means we need to vary our actions in multiple facets: speed, horizontal direction, vertical direction, angular direction, application, selection, and target. essentially, we need to constantly change the nature of our movements in regards to the 3 axes of physical space as well as in regards to pacing, choice of technique, and aiming point. there are several goals behind this:
  1. creating uncertainty in the opponent's mind (following the above)
  2. forcing the opponent to react to the practitioner (following the above)
  3. exploring and exploiting avenues of vulnerability in the opponent
  4. avoiding the opponent's strikes

this was a thread throughout the day's discussion. in his demonstrations with Phunsak, Sifu repeatedly pointed out the positioning of his feet. he directed everyone to observe the dynamic nature of the footwork, and that it changed as frequently and intricately as the rest of the body. this is something i've observed as being what many have taken as one of the defining characteristics of bagua: its complex footwork. Sifu stated that our leg-and-footwork needs to be as active and changing as our upper bodies. in short, it needs (consistent with the theme of today's class) to observe dynamic change.

Sifu also pointed out that there is a common misperception about circle walking. too many people, he argued, think that bagua in a fight must be applied by a practitioner walking in a circle. he warned us that this was a dangerous pre-occupation, in that it distracts from the actual purpose of circle walking, which is to help the practitioner gain position to either avoid a strike or to launch a strike. for an example, he showed that a defender can take a static posture against an assailant, then take a few steps in the circle to evade an assailant's attack and simultaneously gain position to counter-attack. the point of circle walking is not to walk in circles around an opponent, but to train the student to think about:
  1. moving
  2. moving in non-linear fashion
  3. moving in different directions.

the discussion ended on a note that Sifu has repeated in prior classes--the need to not think in forms. i call it "the dangers of algorithmic thinking." he's clearly made it a point of emphasis to remember that the forms are training tools, and not actual formulas that should be followed blindly in a fight.

basically, his argument is this: forms (xiao kai men, 64 palms, etc.) are meant to help students learn and remember the techniques of bagua, in a way that is easier and more efficient than simply learning them en masse. in addition, they help students see how techniques can be put together in combination, and mixed and matched in different ways.

but it is important to note that the techniques are individual techniques, and so can be assembled in any combination, and mixed and matched in a multitude of ways outside of the forms. we need to use and apply the techniques in ways appropriate for the conditions of a particular fight.

Sifu noted that too often there is a belief in martial arts (and apparently propagated by many teachers) that a particular form can be applied to all fight situations against any potential opponents--in essence, that a form is a "formula" or "algorithm" that can be magically applied to the variables in a specific situation and magically produce victory. Sifu said this is just simply wrong, and that each fight is different, and that each one has its own unique set of variables. it is useless to expect any one or any set of forms (algorithms) to solve such a variety of problems. it is far better to use the techniques in a more non-formulaic manner. that is, a practitioner should exercise greater initiative and creativity in applying techniques, and should feel free to apply them in any manner most effective for a given situation.

this was consistent with today's themes, since it held to the idea of using techniques in a formless way and working in a state of constant change. it's very Taoist in a way: formlessness, living with the way, accepting change...i'm starting to see some of the Taoist threads in the origins of bagua.

in addition, i can see something about the nature of bagua, in that it seems in part to be about changing perspectives on fighting--particularly Western conceptions of fighting. so much of stereotypical Western culture (at least, American culture) involves the idea of confrontation, face-to-face encounters, and direct onslaughts. this is reflected in the ideals of fighting and fighters portrayed in American movies (think about it: Rocky? Raging Bull? Cinderella Man?), which frequently feature boxers slugging it out "man-to-man" in head-long battles with their enemies.

bagua, in contrast, is about anything but direct confrontation, but rather misdirection, redirection, avoidance, deception, surprise, and motion--all things which in the West is seen as ways of fighting that are labeled as "strange" or "cowardly" or "unmanly" (which is funny, because these are concepts that are the centerpiece of insurgencies, and America is a culture founded in large part on the actions of insurgents against the British Empire, and hence if anything more American than face-to-face means of battle). as a result, bagua calls for a Western student to alter culturally ingrained notions of fighting (i.e., away from direct confrontation) towards something much more flexible, free-flowing, and unpredictable...something which Westerners can conceptually grasp, but may take some time to actually learn to apply on an intuitive and instinctive level.


after delivering the discussion, Sifu instructed us to practice walking the circle applying the 2nd palm change. he told Phunsak and Kieun to lead, and then left to teach the baji students.

Phunsak led for a few minutes, and then started correcting our technique. Kieun pointed out several flaws that i seemed to be suffering (dropping the lower guard hand in the starting position, leaning down instead of keeping my back straight up in leaf covers summer flower, not raising my hand up in goose leaves the flock, etc.). all these are bad habits that i've been trying to work on, and i suspect are residues of bad habits picked up in childhood (i mentioned this in last week's post--slouching, staring at the ground, shuffling feet, etc.).

as people started taking a break and exiting their circles, i noticed that both Phunsak and Kieun were starting to walk the circle outside the 2nd palm change. in varying degrees, they seemed to be mixing the techniques and using them in different combinations, performing techniques individually or in groups of 2-4 as they walked the circle and changed direction. i could see that this was an expression of Sifu's comments, and a corollary to the manner in which Jason had us apply the 1st palm change in the circle last week--first doing each technique individually before changing direction in the circle, then doing the technique in increasingly larger combinations, until finally doing an entire form.

i made an attempt to do the same thing. i found that this involves a certain level of articulation and sensitivity with the techniques, in that you have to know 1) what it is you want to do, 2) when you want to do it, and 3) the direction you want to go. this entails a deeper understanding of the techniques and their nuances with respect to purpose, limitations, capabilities, and feasibility. it also requires a developed sense of coordination, balance, and timing. which leads me to a conclusion that is a constant truth: the better you want to do something, the greater the level of skill needed, and so the greater the level of practice demanded.

a lot of this is analogous to music, particularly the discussions i've heard on the art of improvisation within a live performance. most competent musicians can improvise music (indeed, they arguably wouldn't be musicians if they couldn't). the issue is if they can do it well. to do it well--to make it look smooth, easy, effortless, but at the same time gratifying in fulfillment and joy--requires a supreme level of expertise that very few ever master.

so the moral of this story? same song, different verse: i need practice. and a lot of it.

apart from that, i'm starting to realize that walking the circle is not that far an extension from the linear forms--at least for individual palm changes. based on what we were doing, it appears that performing the palm changes while circle walking is effectively the same as doing them along a line. the major difference is that there's a greater issue of balance and speed while circle walking, as well as awareness of where you are relative to the circle. having said that, i think the forms are much easier to learn in line, and significantly eases the transition to walking the circle.

of course, this raises the question as to how to link the forms together, so that a practitioner can walk the circle continuously while progressing from one palm change to another. i suspect that there is a linking element we haven't covered yet. this may have been what Art had been referring to in a prior class when he told me that the linking form between palm changes was in some ways actually much harder than the palm changes themselves.

by this time class was starting to wind down. i could tell people were ending things a little early, and they had begun clustering around Phunsak. everyone discreetly handed money to him for the class gift to Sifu. the baji students who were still around (Frank, Thomas, Simon, Charles) chipped in as well.

when Sifu called us together to formally close class, Phunsak gave him a red envelope (and i learned that, apart from other things, the Chinese New Year involves gifts of money inside red envelopes). Sifu accepted it gratefully, and then wished us well.

class ended on that note, and most everyone went home for the day. a few of us (including Art) went for a post-class lunch with Sifu, which turned out to be one of the larger (and more enjoyable) meal sessions we've had, due in no small part to the Lunar New Year preparations going on in Monterey Park.

Monday, February 12, 2007

day 18: circle walking - 1st palm change

  • walking in a circle
  • fluidity
  • review: palm changes 1-8
  • circle walking: introductory application
  • circle walking: 1st palm change
  • xiao kai men
i arrived somewhat early today, and so apart from a woman and her baby i had the park to myself. no big deal. i find that i always need to do my initial 15-20 minute session of stretching and warm-up before i can really engage in physical exercise anyway (it's actually mandated by most physical therapists i've dealt with, since it helps flush out damaging oxidants and excites the regenerative systems in the body). that, and there's something about standing outdoors on a quiet spring morning and letting fresh air blow through the's just simply better for the mind when experienced alone.

i had enough time to go through stretching, followed that with a session of level 1 bagua qigong (as far as i know it...i suspect i don't have the breathing down quite right), and then went into stances. i was just wrapping up stances when everybody else showed up.

there now appears to be equal numbers of baji and bagua students, which is good, since it makes for a much livelier atmosphere for Sifu's makes it seem like there's an atmosphere of energy in the park, and seems to help move things along. Ching-Tszieh introduced another one of her friends, whose name i unfortunately forgot (Ching-Tszieh seems to be quite good at promoting bagua zhang with her dance colleagues--i count at least 6 dancers she has introduced over the time i have been in the class).

we began with Sifu leading the class through the bagua hand drills (single-hand and double-hand). i suspect that from an instructor's viewpoint we're using the hand drills as a warm-up exercise, with the additional benefit of ingraining muscle memory of some of the more fundamental bagua hand moves.

review: palm changes 1-8

following the hand drills, we went through a review of the first 8 palm changes (i'm going to say "first" 8, since i now understand that we have only learned side A of the 8 palm changes, and there is another entire set of side B). Kieun led this time, since Sifu left to see that the new baji students got started with their lessons.

Kieun tried leading us without counting or announcing the shift in techniques within each palm change. but i think Art had some disagreement with this approach and after a few minutes made an insistent "suggestion" that we start counting our way through the techniques to keep everyone on the same pace. Kieun complied and switched over to counting. i didn't seem to notice much difference, but i was at the end of the line and so couldn't see what the cause for the change had been.

the review itself was relatively straightforward. it turns out i was doing the 1st palm change wrong, using a bow-and-arrow stance for pushing moon out the door, when it's actually supposed to be done out of 60-40. i also noticed that there was a significant bit of difference in how some students and doing some of the palm changes, and it left me a little confused as to what was the correct technique. i figure this is something i'll have to ask Sifu during a class break, since i'm now having doubts as to whether i'm making mistakes i could be avoiding.

circle walking: introductory application

after finishing the review of the palm changes, Sifu returned and announced that we were going to begin walking the circle incorporating the palm changes. he gathered us together and made some comments about the nature of bagua, particularly in terms of how it is applied and how circle walking is related to its application. he did a brief simulated combat demonstration with Phunsak, describing his actions as he went, emphasizing the particular points of bagua and circle walking.

i'll summarize his points as follows:
  • circle walking is commonly seen as the defining characteristic of bagua. however, while it is a core principal of bagua, it shouldn't be viewed as so immutable that it detracts from other aspects of bagua (i.e., surprise, deception, change)--or from the chaotic conditions of a fight
  • circle walking should be smooth and quick, with no pauses or awkward movements, the extent that it is like a fluid
  • circle walking should be changing, with constant variations in direction, stance, speed, height, and intent
  • circle walking allows the practitioner to place the body around an opponent in a way which disguises the practitioner's hands, arms, feet, and legs from the opponent's view, making it hard for the opponent to read the practitioner's moves and thereby making it more difficult for them to respond--and bagua is about deception and disguise
  • circle walking enables a lot of other bagua techniques, since it helps the practitioner get into positions around an opponent to apply bagua techniques in a way that reduces the need for large or exaggerated hand or body movements. this reduces the body signals given by the practitioner, and again makes it harder for the opponent to read the practitioner's moves and thereby making it more difficult for them to respond.

the last 2 points seemed to be the most important, since Sifu took some time to show just how much typical hand and feet movements can be reduced by proper use of circle walking. he commented that in learning the palm changes along a line, we have been exaggerating some of the physical movements of each technique. this is actually good, and is by design, since it is meant to help ingrain good technique into our movements. he noted, however, that in "real world" application, the practitioner shouldn't be using such large movements, but should instead use the footwork in circle walking to initiate the techniques.

this recalls another apparent defining characteristic of bagua: footwork. i seem to come across comments on the internet about bagua being noted for its intricate footwork, and the extensive amount of time bagua students spend learning it. i suspect a lot of this is connected with circle walking, and learning how to integrate circle walking with other bagua techniques in combat applications.

circle walking: 1st palm change

following his comments, Sifu ordered everyone out onto the asphalt (not all our practice is on grass). he performed the 1st palm change while walking a circle, then showed us that it wasn't that different from doing it in a line. he told us that we would learn circle walking with the palm changes by starting with slow iterations of each palm change, and then progressing into faster and faster iterations of each one.

he ordered everyone to choose spaces of our own to practice circle walking alone, and to practice doing the 1st palm change in the circle.

this was actually easier than i had expected. i had been concerned that there would be a fair amount of confusion comparable to the first experience with circle walking (reference: day 10: drills and beginning the circle). but it appears that prior exposure and subsequent practice reduced the awkwardness i had felt before.

of course, i also found that i had picked up some bad habits since that time--Sifu made some corrections to my technique. apparently, i wasn't raising my arm high enough in the finishing transition from leaf covers summer flower to lean against the horse and ask for directions, and i also appeared to have somehow regressed to an adolescent habit of shuffling my feet.

xiao kai men

Sifu left us again to return to the baji students. after some time practicing circle walking with the 1st palm change, people began stopping for a break. i decided to take advantage of the time to ask Art and Phunsak for some help with xiao kai men.

Art worked with me for a few minutes, but then handed things over to Phunsak, stating that he needed to meet with Sifu and that Phunsak had better form. Art seemed to be right, since i definitely noticed Phunsak had much more stylized stances and movements, which may be more true to the form.

i found this useful, since i could see the form much more clearly working with Phunsak after having a week to think through the movements. i also was able to get some explanations about the combat applications of each technique, although we didn't have enough time for me to practice them.

Phunsak noted that there was quite a bit more connected with xiao kai men, and that after learning how to do it in a line, i'd need to learn the combat applications, and then learn how to do them while circle walking. this i had already expected, since i've had previous conversations with other students in the class on what the bagua curriculum covers and just how much of it they had covered.

by this time Sifu returned and announced the end of class for the day. he told us that he would remain for a few more minutes to answer question, but that he wouldn't be going with us for the customary post-class lunch. with that, he dismissed us and let us go.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

commentary: the dork factor

since i've started taking kung fu lessons, i've gotten no end of teasing and ribbing from people in my life.

dude, kung fu?
dude, seriously, kung fu?
dude, these crazy ass moves?
dude, WHAT are you doing?
dude, you have GOT to be kidding me!

friends, strangers, acquaintances, random people walking by, it's all been the same. a lot of it is good-natured, and just meant to be humor. but sometimes it crosses over into outright taunting and mean-spirited heckling, with a good mix of derision and sneering.

for the most part, i've chosen to ignore it. that's about the best you can do when dealing with what can only be considered as ignorance. especially when they're college students. drunk frat boys. snotty sorority girls. over-testosteroned jocks. undereducated spoiled brats with no knowledge of the world. people tend to belittle things they don't understand. and sometimes, they express that lack of understanding with hostility. it's something that unfortunately we have to expect to encounter in this life.

sometimes, if addressed by someone who's actually curious and expressing an open mind, i'll try to be patient and explain things as best i can. but i'll also hint that this is something personal and thus not something i'm really interested in seeing mocked by others.

in part, i know that i do open myself up for teasing and taunts, seeing that i usually practice in the only safe, open, well-lit, and readily available areas (those are all key terms...and the combination is surprisingly difficult to find) that i know of: the track stadium on campus where i go to school, or in local parks near where i live. these are public spaces, and so my practice is open for basically the entire world to see--including all my mistakes, moments of confusion, and times of deliberation to sort things out. this means that people get to see a strange man occasionally falling over, frequently staring off into space, or continuously repeating the same strange movements over and over again, all of which would induce most of us into making at least some kind of jest at another human being's expense. given this, i'm surprised i haven't gotten more derision or worse, been challenged to a fight.

but for all this, there is still some wonder on my part as to why all this invective exists. not just against me, but against the entire concept of kung fu in general. i mean, it's interesting that kung fu would incite this kind of negative response in people, and that they would adopt such views on it.

for me, personally, it revolves around a number of questions: why do people see kung fu as something unnatural, uncool, and unrespectable? why is it not something that is accepted with the same level of recognition as other sports like football, baseball, basketball, or tennis? for that matter, why is it not something given the same appreciation as other martial arts like boxing or wrestling?

to distill this down to one central point: why do people give kung fu such a high dork factor?

i've given this some thought over the past few months, and i've come to believe it revolves around issues of the "other," media overexposure, and marketing overpromises and underdelivery. on each of these issues, this is pretty much what i've come up with:

1) the "other"

this is a concept derived from social science literature, and largely refers to the distortion and fabrications made when a particular society (or culture) describes another society (or culture). for the most part, the theory argues that a society will often objectify, stereotype, oversimplify, misrepresent, or outright falsely label any other society it considers strange or different, particularly in situations where power are involved. for example, in political circles, it is used to illuminate how European imperial powers of the 16th-20th centuries disempowered and ultimately subjugated the peoples of Asia, Africa, and America during the process of colonization. essentially, it deals with the notion of how people alienate and antagonize each other, not just physically, but also socially, economically, politically, and culturally.

the creation and continuation of the "other" is perceived by social scientists as ongoing today. for example, it is seen in the ways mainstream American society still views ethnic cuisine as "exotic" rather than as the staple diet of a segment of the American population, or that certain religions such as Hinduism, Islam, or Judaism are still "unusual" or "not normal." a classic example is that Asian-Americans are often viewed subconsciously as not "American" but as "Asian," and so are often asked "where are you from?" (with the answer expected to be outside the U.S.), "what is your first language?" (even though the person may have grown up in Orange County), or "i bet you're really smart in math and science, but suck at sports, huh?" (despite the fact the person being asked is a scholarship athlete at an NCAA Div. I school and dumb as a rock).

this kind of behavior is taken by social scientists as perpetuating (intentionally or accidentally) historical patterns of discrimination and suppression by the mainstream against those deemed as "other." they point to the continued marginalization of minorities from corporate leadership (i.e., "the glass ceiling"), exclusion of minorities from government posts (i.e., the lack of minorities nominated for political office because they're not seen as capable of broad appeal), and suppression of minorities from mass culture (i.e, the dearth of minorities in fashion magazines, TV shoes, movies, etc.).

i suspect that kung fu, at least in modern American life, is no exception to this phenomenon. kung fu, by its origins and by its public representation, is seen as something uniquely Chinese, and hence as something specifically Asian. in which case, it is accorded the same view that Asian-Americans are accorded in mainstream America: as the "other." this results in kung fu being perceived with the same labels given to Asian-Americans: exotic, unusual, different, mysterious.

combine this with the human tendency to belittle something seen as mysterious or unusual, and you get result of people taking the next step and mocking kung fu.

not that everyone does this--since not everyone is guilty of holding to concepts of "other," but enough people do it to make it more than just occasional.

2) overexposure

kung fu has gotten a lot of publicity. a LOT. particularly within the living memory of most people, which has witnessed the explosion of communications and media technology. magazines, comics, books, trading cards, VCDs, CDs, DVDs, tv shows, movies, video games, internet, you name it, kung fu is everywhere. people can't help but not avoid it.

but not all of this publicity has been good. in fact, some of it has been downright bad.

i mean bad in the sense that the publicity has made kung fu a caricature of itself, converted it into childhood entertainment, distorted it into fiction, and reinforced the negative impact of being connected to the "other."
  • caricature--so often the popular media expressions of kung fu have been forms that contributed to public mockery of it. for example, the 1960s, 70s, and 80s witnessed the distribution of kung fu action movies with low production values and poor translations to the West, resulting in Western audience perceptions of kung fu as the domain of cheesy, stilted movies rife with bad accents and bizarre English overdubs. another example has been the spread of movies that used kung fu and kung fu practitioners as a source of humor (e.g., Kung Fool, Shaolin Soccer, etc.). either way, the effect has been to make kung fu an object of scorn.
  • childhood entertainment--a large part of kung fu images in the media has been in the form of comics and animated features. while in Asia these are typically seen as forms of entertainment for adults as much as they are for children, in mainstream America these are still viewed as something unique to childhood. particularly when the manga (comics) or anime (animated features) involve cartoonish, stylized characters and behavior. the result has been the association of kung fu in mainstream American minds as something reserved for children, and nothing any self-respecting adult would ever do.
  • distortion--mass media has also tended to make outright distortions about kung fu, bypassing its history as a genuine form of self-defense for ancient peoples sincerely interested in protecting their lives and possessions, and instead highlighting it as a medium populated by centenarian sage masters with flowing white beards, heroes capable of flying through the air and climbing walls, secret techniques of indescribable power, and magic weapons and talismans of divine origin. in short, media has taken kung fu out of reality and put it into the realm of myth. meaning that it has made kung fu something mystical, or worse, fanciful, with no relevance to everyday life.
  • reinforcing the "other"--ironically, the dissemination of kung fu in media didn't lift it out of the problems of being part of the "other," but instead served to legitimize this practice. the popular media, while propagating kung fu, did so in a way that maintained its association with Asians. so much so that anybody Asian is automatically assumed by Americans to "know kung fu." the media actually made it easier for mainstream America to construe kung fu as "an Asian thing" and hence hold it with the same attitudes historically held against Asians.
admittedly, there is extensive diversity in the way media presents kung fu, and with varying degrees of intent to take it seriously, humorously, or derisively. but that's not the issue. what is the issue is how audiences react to media presentation, especially Western ones. frequently, media representations that would be harmless or good-natured in Asian audiences end up being taken as the basis for harmful or malicious interpretation in mainstream American society.

the common perception is that any publicity--good or bad--is still publicity. but i think a review of kung fu in the media would suggest otherwise, particularly when it is interpreted by mainstream American society.

3) overpromise and undelivery

of all the factors described here, i'm beginning to think this may be the most damaging of all. because the one way to dispel scorn is to simply prove people wrong. for all the teasing, taunts, laughs, belittling, misperceptions, misunderstandings, or puzzlement associated with kung fu, they could easily be dispelled by proof of kung fu for what it originally was and hopefully still is: an effective form of self-defense as viable as all other forms of self-defense in the world.

this, however, is too often not the case.

rather, the more common situation is the damaging cycle of overpromise and undelivery taught in most business school curricula as an example of a bad business practice:
  • overpromise--whether motivated by the priorities of business, self-promotion, or validation by kung fu schools or practitioners, kung fu is frequently asserted as an automatic solution to assault and guarantor of instant physical domination and victory in a physical altercation. compounding this is that kung fu is further packaged as a provider of all manner of benefits (sexual potency, longer life, better job performance, etc.). to an outsider or stranger to kung fu, this gives it the appearance of something marketed as a 1-stop all-powerful solution for every person's every ill...which a sensible person associates with as something "too good to be true" and reminiscent of the dubious business ethics of P.T. Barnum, with his promotion of "snake oil" to people he described with the infamous tag line "there's a sucker born every minute."
  • underdeliver--people who accept the marketing claims about kung fu dedicate more than just their time and their money in it. they also dedicate their faith. and that faith is predicated on the truth of promises that kung fu does indeed provide the guaranteed solutions to all their fears and insecurities (i.e., that kung fu will make them more physically more dominant, more sexually capable, longer living, better at their jobs, etc.). that faith, however, can be shattered. particularly if they attempt to use kung fu and find themselves still unable to solve the problems they were promised kung fu would solve.
the truth that is so often obscured from students is that learning kung fu does not instantly make you "super-kick-ass-mystic-warrior." kung fu is not a "magic secret" that ensures victory over all opponents in all settings at all times.

there is nothing that does this.

the truth that needs to be told is that self-defense is an act dependent on many unknown variables: instruction, learning, practice, timing, reflexes, physical conditioning, situational awareness, target fixation, surprise, amount of light, the weather, overall health, etc. etc. etc. and the list goes on. and these variables, by definition, are not fixed. they vary, for every time and place and opponent. in essence, they constitute probabilities rather than certainties.

kung fu can't address all these variables. all it can do is improve the odds.

and kung fu doesn't even guarantee this.

because another truth that is so often obscured from students--and which students need to be told--is that kung fu's ability to improve the odds is itself a variable. it is a variable affected by a student's learning of kung fu, and learning of kung fu is an act of education. education is a participatory process involving a 2-way interaction between teacher and student. while a teacher can teach, a student must also learn. this means that the teacher must be extremely proficient in the subject taught, as well as attentive, patient, responsive, clear, and truthful in their instruction. it also means that a student needs to be involved in trying to understand, explore, and practice the lessons given to them by their teacher. it further means that a student needs to see learning as more than just gaining knowledge, but also about beginning on the path to wisdom through application of that knowledge.

for kung fu instructors, this means that a practitioner's proficiency level is based on having a quality teacher. quality meaning 1) a teacher who truly knows what kung fu can do, whether in self-defense, health, or personal growth, 2) a teacher who can truly teach, 3) and a teacher who can actually fulfill the promises they make.

for kung fu students, it further means that a practitioner's proficiency level is not just based on knowing techniques. it's based on knowing the techniques the right way, understanding their purpose and reasoning, and practicing their application. moreover, since kung fu is a form of self-defense, and self-defense means defending yourself against other people, it also means that a practitioner's proficiency level is also based on practicing kung fu against others...and practicing until the techniques become second nature, so that the practitioner can apply them effortlessly, quickly, and without thought.

to illustrate this point, i was once told a story that an advanced kung fu practitioner of many years was defeated in a free sparring match by a high school wrestler who had only been on the varsity squad for 2 years. the intent was to dismiss kung fu as an effective fighting form.

but after some questioning for further details, my response to this story was that:
  1. the high school wrestler was as familiar and skilled in his wrestling techniques as the kung fu practitioner was in his, meaning that skilled technique encountered skill technique
  2. the high school wrestler had been practicing wrestling almost every day of his high school career, while the kung fu practitioner had not, which illustrates that the best way to develop familiarity and instinctive reflexes is to practice continuously
  3. the high school wrestler had been using wrestling against other opponents, while the kung fu practitioner had focused primarily on solo forms, demonstrating that the best teacher to teach fighting against an opponent is to go fight other opponents--frequently
  4. the high school wrestler had the conditioning and physical coordination of a superior athlete, which made up for many factors against the kung fu practitioner, who had less conditioning and possibly less physical coordination. martial arts, for all their "internal" aspects, still involve a physical "external" side, and so still place a premium on physical ability
kung fu can do many things, and for all the exaggerations, lies, and half-truths that have been associated with it, there are kernels of truth in the hyper-promotion. but these kernels require work and practice and focus and diligence on the part of the student to come to fruition.

techniques are just techniques, they don't do anything on their own, and only have as much life as given to them by a good teacher and a good student.


i'm pretty much resigned to the fact that i'm going to be seen as a dork by the observing public for my practice of kung fu. i don't plan on changing my places of practice (for matters of convenience and necessity), and i don't expect people's views on kung fu to change. there's just too much inertial mass of skepticism, disbelief, and ridicule on a societal level for 1 person like me to overcome. and i can understand why, for the reasons i've discussed above.

all i expect to do is to continue my kung fu education to the best of my ability and for my own personal reasons, and to continue doing what i have been doing: ignore the ignorant and the malicious, open to the open-minded and the curious. by doing this, i can do what i as a kung fu practitioners can do: represent the best aspects of the art, understand the larger scope of the art, and changing the things i can change--1 person 1 place and 1 moment at a time.

Monday, February 05, 2007

day 17: 8th palm change application & review

  • encountering resistance
  • documents
  • review: palm changes 1-8
  • combat applications (sweeping aside 10,000 men)
  • xiao kai men
we had new students who joined today for baji. there were 3, and for the life of me i can't remember their names. they join Siwann-da (sp?), along with a couple of returning baji students, making the baji side of the course suddenly much greater. today i counted 7 baji students in total--and there were still a few baji regulars missing, which is quite a change from several months ago when there were just 2 or 3 each day.

the new students made for a bit of confusion for the morning warm-up. since they arrived before Sifu arrived with the students from the jian shu class, we ended up involving them in the stances. Art and Mike suggested the warm-up be divided into 2 groups (but adjacent to each other), with 1 going through the bagua stances and the other going through baji stances.

this kept everyone pre-occupied until Sifu appeared, and the group then divided into separate baji and bagua sections.


i had posted a request on the Yahoo! group for some bagua documents that Mike and Phunsak had mentioned in a previous class. the documents provided the names of the techniques for 64 Palms, as well as for Xiao Kai Men (the introductory form for bagua). Sifu had promised to bring the 64 Palms sheet, and later Mike had said there was actually a whole set that he had.

Sifu and Mike kept their words. i received what i consider to be a treasure trove (at least, it is for beginners)--the kinds of reference material that should probably be treated as a packaged set to be given to new students as they join. this is what i got:
  1. terms of the 15 forms in bagua zhang (!!!--all this time i thought the only forms were just Xiao Kai Men, 64 Palms, and then weapons, but this means there's a virtual avalanche of material to learn)
  2. terms (in Chinese, with English translation) for the techniques in Xiao Kai Men
  3. terms (in Chinese, with English translation) for the techniques in 64 Palms (side A)
  4. terms (in Chinese, with English translation) for the techniques in 64 Palms (side B)
  5. description, diagrams, and illustrations (in Chinese, with English translation) for bagua zhang qigong
this made me pretty happy. not that i can read Chinese, but i figure that as a matter of intellectual and pedantic integrity it's important to preserve the original Chinese as things often get lost in translation, and sometimes mistakes are made (and they apparently have been...i noticed Sifu had hand-written in corrections to some terms).

because of some requests that had been e-mailed to me, i am taking these documents and scanning them for upload to the Yahoo! group as JPEG or PDF files. i think this should make it easier for new students (or current students) to find them. in essence, this can start the creation of a "reference library" for students to help them learn and remember class lessons.

review: palm changes 1-8

Sifu held onto the terms sheet for 64 Palms (side A)--which is apparently what we've spent the past few months learning. he said it would be a good exercise to go through the palm changes identifying the name for each technique, and had everyone line up.

this was actually a very useful exercise. in a previous post (see: Poetic Titles and Kung Fu) i noted that Art and Ching-Tszieh (sp?) had said that the poetic titles in kung fu serve the purpose of helping students remember the techniques, particularly their order within each form. more than this, because they tend to be very evocative and vivid, they also remind students of certain key elements necessary to ensure the effectiveness of each technique.

doing the review of the palm changes with Sifu identifying the name of each one also revealed another important value of the poetic titles--they help distinguish very similar techniques from each other. apparently, in several of the palm changes we had gotten techniques confused with each other and were incorporating techniques that were different (albeit very similar) to the ones specified by the palm change. this is problematic for the following reasons:
  • this a corruption of the bagua system--it does not conform to the recognized "canon" of the bagua zhang system. while all kung fu styles evolve over time (e.g., tai chi begat Chen style, but later gave rise to Yang, which gave rise to Wu, etc.), corruption is a bad form of evolution in that corruption is change NOT done for a specific purpose or desire to improve the system while evolution is change done for a clear purpose or attempt to improve the system (e.g, Yang tai chi was directed at emphasizing more "internal" manipulations of energy, and so was less physically aggressive than Chen tai chi). as a result, corruption can lead to a decrease in the effectiveness of the system, which is something entirely contrary to the intent of the people who have contributed to it and to the needs of the people who are learning it.
  • this interrupts the fluid nature of the palm change--it became apparent that there is some method in the order of techniques in each palm change. following the techniques specified by the "canon" i got a discernibly greater feeling of fluidity and intuitive movement progressing from one technique to another, whereas applying some of the techniques we had earlier thought we were supposed to use i had experienced moments of awkwardness and physical discombobulation.

having said this, Sifu noted that in combat we should not actually feel obliged to follow the same exact order of techniques as they are prescribed by the palm changes. in fact, he made it clear (and has made it clear throughout the classes) that this is probably one of the worst things a person can do and that we need to focus on reacting and applying techniques in response to the actions of our opponent(s). he pointed out that the listing of terms for each palm change is an important part of training, but it's only a part.

this is pretty consistent with what other people have told me about martial arts--and even warfare in general. combat, if anything, is chaos, and chaos means very rarely does anything ever follow a prescribed pattern, and the best a person can do is to make enough sense out of chaos by making the engagement an expression of fluid, controlled, natural fighting. i suspect this is part of the definition of "effective" fighting (this is also reminiscent of the saying from boxing: everybody has a plan until they get's what you do when your plan falls apart that decides if you win or you lose).

combat applications

after review of the palm changes, we took a minor break while Sifu went to teach the baji section. we all gathered around to discuss the bagua documents and the titles. i commented that it reminded me of the old cheesy kung fu movies from the 70s and 80s where opponents would yell the names of techniques at each while they fought (which would never happen in a real fight...seriously, why tip off your opponent as to what you are doing?). Kieun joked that this was typical of Shaw Brothers kung fu movies, and this is why the Shaw Brothers films were classics (because they were just so cheesy).

eventually, Sifu came back and gathered us together to show us the combat applications of another technique in the 8th palm change. i referred to this before as a 360 degree turn into a forward lunge with both arms reaching forward. it turns out that this is called "sweeping aside 10,000 men" (see what i mean by evocative and vivid?--the movement really does evoke a vivid image of turning and lunging and sweeping aside an invisible army of warriors in your way).

Sifu showed us that this technique is actually a throwing motion, with the lunge going under an opponent's guard and the turn and arch meant to drive the opponent off-balance to their backside. both arms are involved in the lunge, so that they can interrupt the opponent's other arm (and potential counter-strike) and work together to push the opponent. Sifu pointed out that the performance of the technique in the palm change is actually exaggerated, but that this is intentional since it is meant to ingrain proper performance of key elements of the technique:

  • turning into the direction of the throw
  • reaching with both arms under the opponent's strike, so that one hand is higher than the other and coming under the opponent's chin or face and the other is into their chest
  • positioning the feet to facilitate the direction of the throw, so that as the practitioner steps forward to come under the opponent's strike the lead foot goes bai (points outside from the center line)

Sifu then ordered us into the line drill from previous weeks to practice this, and then went to teach the baji section.

i found this particular technique to be somewhat easier than last week's combat application of the "big bird" stance. for some reason, it didn't seem to have the same level of subtleties to it. after awhile, figuring that i needed it more, i decided to backtrack and take a few moments with Art and Phunsak to review the combat application from last week. i think i managed to make better sense of it--enough that i can probably do it about as effectively as this week's "sweeping aside 10,000 men."

Mike made a comment to me while we were discussing application of the techniques with Phunsak and Keiun that reminded me of something Sifu alluded to in earlier classes. Mike said he normally doesn't practice applying a technique against someone offering resistance. he said this is because bagua is about avoiding resistance, and that in bagua, if a practitioner senses an opponent resisting a technique, then the practitioner should change to another technique. this is pretty consistent with some other things Sifu has said in passing about the nature of bagua in combat. without going into too much detail, i'll summarize them as follows:

  • if you feel the opponent posing resistance, it means the opponent can read your move and is setting up a counter-strike
  • bagua is supposed to involve surprising a opponent or keeping them unsure of your move. neither is being accomplished if the opponent is reading your moves well enough to offer resistance to them
  • bagua is supposed to be fluid, and about simply going in directions that are natural. attempting to overcome resistance is not natural and not fluid, and just creates a point of struggle
  • bagua is about avoiding direct confrontation of force with force. attempting to overcome resistance is nothing more than a direct confrontation of your force with the opponent's force
  • bagua is about change. if an opponent resists a technique, you should change to another one

after awhile, in an attempt to try and move the line faster (it was moving pretty slowly with 10 people in it), we broke it into 2 separate lines of 5. this seemed to accelerate the line, and gave everybody more chances at practicing the technique.

xiao kai men

everybody seemed to stop together after some time and take a communal break. people began to slowly break off into groups to review particular things they wanted to learn--some went over the palm changes, others over some of the combat applications. i decided it was a good time to start learning something i knew i had missed in the curricula: xiao kai men.

xiao kai men is an introductory level form for bagua. in the curriculum, as far as can tell, it's supposed to be learned after stances, hand drills, mother palms, and walking the square. and from what other students have told me, it was traditionally used as the test by ancient masters to decide whether to allow a student to continue learning the more advanced levels of bagua (e.g., if a student couldn't perform xiao kai men, the master would tell the student they would not be allowed to learn bagua and should try another style).

i asked Mike to start teaching me xiao kai men. we spent a number of minutes reviewing the techniques and their order. i was a bit surprised to learn that it was just 4 basic techniques performed in a sequence, and which could be performed either in line or in circle. but i guess this makes sense, seeing that xiao kai men is an introductory level form and so would presumably be much simpler than the palm changes in 64 Palms. Mike just started me off with learning the techniques in line. which is fine, since i figured i could work on just this, and get more in subsequent classes.

final words

Sifu ended class by surprising me with the duty of closing the lessons. usually Mike, Art, or Phunsak does this. i was so shocked i completely forgot how to close the lessons. i ended up relying on Art to tell me what to do--students are supposed to line up, and then say (translated into English) "Students: Attention! Students: Bow! Sifu: Thank you!" (to open the lessons, the ending is "Sifu: Hello!"). my pronunciation of the Chinese words was bad, and i ended up having to take a few minutes with Ching-Tzsieh to figure it out (although, i suspect based on her laugh, i didn't even come close).

i guess this is something else i'll have to work on for the future.