Friday, December 19, 2008

day 195: a little bit of everything

  • speed
  • aiming
  • draw
  • release
  • chang quan
  • 7-star praying mantis
  • kyudo
this was the last weekend of the year, so we were pretty much just wrapping things up before Sifu went home to Hawaii. for this Saturday, we were scheduled to have a joint class with the Long Beach Kung Fu Club (at Cal State Long Beach), and so we modified the material to match theirs, with the lesson plan being the an introduction to 7-star praying mantis.

chang quan

my chang quan lesson Friday was just a polishing of chao quan, and then a review of pao quan. we'd originally planned to record me doing both forms, just to create a place marker of where i am, but the sun set before we could get around to it. which was just as well, because there were a number of areas that i needed some refinement anyway.

7-star praying mantis

we'd gotten a little bit of mantis before on a recent Sunday, leaning the lian jian (sp?) form. Sifu decided we'd do the same thing today, and then go a little bit farther. he noted that mantis was easier to teach than the other TCMA styles he knows, since it doesn't have the same complexities in relation to internal actions.

we reviewed the form to the point we'd learned it last time, and then went a little bit farther. there was a few sequences--particularly a joint lock that led into a throw--that kind of eluded me, but made more sense once we saw the applications. Sifu noted that with mantis the emphasis is on speed, with not all movements necessarily being intended as strikes, but instead with a priority on overwhelming the opponent's sensory perceptions and the secondary priority on the option of applying force.

today's class ran about 90 minutes, since that was all that the club was scheduled for. we ended up having a surprise visitor in Alex, who managed to take a break from his baby duties to drive over. he was able to make it this time, since his house is apparently only about 15 minutes away. with class finished, we went for a joint lunch afterwards.


kyudo today had a large class. not so much because of the number of students, which remained about the typical quantity, but because we had 4 guests observing the class. Sensei curtailed the introduction today, cutting out the chanting of the Heart Sutra. this freed up some more time to allow the regular students more chances at shooting, and allow Sensei to gather the newer students and guests for an extended lesson.

because of the guests, part of what Sensei discussed was a review of stuff i'd had before. but we also went quite a bit deeper, with him explaining a number of nuances:

the string--apparently, additional layers of string have to be placed in the area where the arrows are knocked, so as to make the string thicker. but this has to be done carefully since too much glue will cause the string to break.
  • aiming--initially, aiming is done along the upper arm through the elbow, with practitioner able to sight the target above the front elbow. however, as the bow is drawn and the hands and arms extend, the aiming then slides along the forearm until the target is sighted over the hand and forefinger. at the point of release, the practitioner should be able to sight the target over the last knuckle (the knuckle at the juncture of finger and fist) of the forefinger, so that the practitioner should literally be able to point at the target by extending the forefinger.
  • draw--this shouldn't be done as a function of muscles in the body, even though they are employed. instead, it should be perceived as a natural by-product of the skeleton expanding outwards. Sensei stressed that you should visualize yourself putting your skeleton inside the bow, so that the bow is drawn because your skeleton is replacing the volume inside the bow. he noted that the draw should be a function of structure, with the bones playing the major role of drawing the bow and the muscles only serving to supplement the bones. he observed that we know we're doing this because we won't struggle (i.e., shake or wobble) as we draw the bow into firing position, but instead everything will be smooth and stable.
  • release--releasing the string isn't done with a snap of the fingers or a release. instead, it occurs naturally as a function of the hands and arms reaching their full extension. this is because the string is held in a notch on the glove thumb, and slides out once the glove reaches a certain position...which is reached when the arms and hands are fully extended.
we finished late tonight, around 10:30. even though the instruction ended with tea time around 8:30, i ended up staying to watch the informal shootaround and practice my form.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

commentary: hand-to-hand combat (on the high seas)

i've heard multiple times from multiple sources in multiple situations that hand-to-hand combat is increasingly irrelevant in modern society, that the value of learning realistic battlefield or street-fighting martial arts is becoming nullified in an age where the rule of law is becoming commonplace and technology has transformed the nature of violence. these kinds of perspectives often argue that martial arts, if they are to have any relevance--and hence survive--into the future, must transform into sport-oriented activities.

and given the course of life of most people i've encountered, these kinds of voices would be true.

but then every once in a while i come across something that reminds me that the real world doesn't always follow the voices of opinion, and that life always throws you something that defies statistical probabilities. and that includes the reality of battlefield and street-fighting combat.

here's one:
i've put the full text of the article at the bottom of this post. it's about the piracy situation off the coast of Somalia. ostensibly, the article is about the Chinese (People's Republic of) navy expanding its international role and sending ships to protect shipping against the Somali pirates.

but note near the end of the article where it talks about the incident that spurred the PRC navy to action: a Chinese merchant ship was boarded by pirates, and the crew then fought back, using hand-to-hand combat.


how much you want to bet this involved some martial arts skills? even if rudimentary, i bet it did. and i'm willing to bet it wasn't fighting for points. the merchant crew were not military, nor street thugs, but i'm pretty sure the combat was about as close to battlefield or street-use martial arts as you can get.

and i also suspect that the merchant crew probably started their careers thinking that the chances of engaging in hand-to-hand combat on the high seas against pirates was an archaic figment of the imagination, and something they'd never have to deal with in the modern era of globalization and international trade.

just goes to show you that real life is a little different than what you'd think. you just never know.

but the point is the same: you just never know when and where traditional battlefield or street-fighting martial arts skills will be necessary...and the way life works, when and where those skills become necessary, they'll invariably be in situations when you really need them--as in: your survival. in which case, statistical probabilities will be the least of your concerns, and the only thing that matters is if you can defend yourself or not.

China confirms its navy will fight Somali pirates
International Herald Tribune
By Mark McDonald
Thursday, December 18, 2008

HONG KONG: The Chinese government confirmed Thursday that it would send naval ships to the Gulf of Aden to help in the fight against piracy there. The mission, which is expected to begin in about two weeks, would be first modern deployment of Chinese warships outside the Pacific.

The announcement came as the captain of a Chinese cargo ship that was attacked Wednesday in the gulf said his crew had used beer bottles, fire hoses and homemade incendiary bombs to battle a gang of pirates that had boarded his vessel.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Liu Jianchao, said Thursday that 1,265 Chinese merchant ships had passed through the gulf this year. Seven have been attacked.

"Piracy has become a serious threat to shipping, trade and safety on the seas," Liu said at a news briefing in Beijing. "That's why we decided to send naval ships to crack down on piracy."

He gave no details about the size of the naval mission, but a Beijing newspaper, The Global Times, reported that the navy was likely to deploy two destroyers and a supply ship.

"We absolutely welcome all nations, because as we've said all along, piracy is an international problem that requires an international solution," Lieutenant Nathan Christensen, a spokesman for the U.S. Fifth Fleet, said Thursday from Bahrain.

Cyrus Mody, a spokesman for the International Maritime Bureau in London, a clearinghouse for piracy information and maritime-safety issues, also welcomed the news of the Chinese mission when told about it.

"It's definitely a positive development, and it will be welcomed," he said. "The sea area being threatened there is vast, and the number of assets from the international navies is not sufficient."

The maritime bureau said 109 ships had been attacked in the gulf this year and 42 had been hijacked. Fourteen ships are currently being held for ransom, including the Sirius Star, a Saudi supertanker, and the Faina, a Ukrainian cargo ship carrying 32 armored tanks and other heavy weapons.

Mody said Thursday that negotiations with the hijackers were continuing for the release of the ships. "But the owners don't like to talk about that, for the safety of the crew members," he said.

The Chinese Navy, officially known as the People's Liberation Army Navy, has long concentrated on coastal defense and regional maneuvers. But in recent years it has embarked on an ambitious modernization plan.

The principal mission for Chinese naval vessels in the Gulf of Aden would presumably be the escorting of Chinese cargo ships and oil tankers from the Middle East bound for Chinese ports. Policing patrols, some maritime experts suggested, would be secondary.

But Mody said Thursday it would be important for the Chinese effort to be melded "on an operational level" with other navies already patrolling in the gulf. The European Union recently began an anti-piracy operation in the gulf, and several other nations have a naval presence there, including India, the United States and Russia. "We would like to see cooperation so everyone is in the loop," Mody said. When a hijacking attempt occurs, "whoever's closest can respond as fast as possible."

Peng Weiyuan, the captain of the Chinese cargo ship that was attacked Wednesday in the gulf, gave a harrowing account of his crew's battle on deck with the Somali pirates. His remarks came in an interview with China Central Television.

After seven pirates managed to board his vessel, the Zhenhua 4, Peng said his crew fought the gang to a standstill using whatever was at hand until the pirates "gestured to us for a cease-fire." The crew then retreated to a locked area on the boat and sent a distress signal.

According to a duty officer at the Piracy Reporting Center in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, a nearby Malaysian warship was alerted and sent a helicopter to the scene. When the helicopter fired around the Chinese boat, the pirates panicked and fled in a speedboat.

The Malaysian warship did not apprehend the pirates, Mody said, because international rules are still unclear about where the pirates could be detained and how they could be tried.

Mody said the Zhenhua 4 operates under the flag of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. At 26,000 tons, it is an average-size cargo vessel that might have been carrying machinery.

Friday, December 12, 2008

day 194: even more packed full!

  • editing
  • extrapolating
  • chen short form
  • kuen wu jian erlu
today was a busy day. since we had a higher turnout of students, Sifu decided to see if we could fit the chen short form in before he left for Hawaii. in addition, Lance showed up later in class, replete with a Taiwanese manual showing Liu Yun Qiao doing kuen wu jian erlu, and Sifu decided to see about reconstructing the erlu form shown in the book.

chen short form

Sifu's plan was to try and cover the chen short form in 2 days--this Sunday and the next. however, we went so far today that the class figured we might as well cover the entire form today. we ended up spending more time than usual, since we were so close to finishing.

Sifu noted that historically there was short form in chen, at least not in the lineage we're learning from Du Yu Ze. however, at some point in time Adam Hsu decided to construct a short form. apparently, he kept finding that audiences weren't comfortable sitting through the entire chen long form in demonstrations and students weren't patient enough to stay with the long form in class curriculums. to deal with this, he created the short form, which was meant to be more digestible to both populations.

the short form is essentially an edited version of the long form, at least from what i can tell. almost all the techniques come from the long form, with only a few differences. the main issue is remembering the sequence--and this is where i'm struggling. it was a lot of pack the short form into a single class, and i remember a fair amount, but i think i'm going to need some more practice to really get it down...particularly to remember it but still distinguish it from the long form in my memory.

you can see the chen short form in this video:

incidentally, i should note Sifu did a customized performance of the chen short form for the Pau Hana end-of-quarter celebration at UCLA. you can see it in this video:

kuen wu erlu

following the chen short form we picked up with kuen wu erlu. Lance showed Sifu his book showing Liu Yun Qiao doing the form, which was in Chinese and from Taiwan (apparently there's no English translation sold). Lance noted that there were major steps missing in the sequence of photos, and wanted to try and reconstruct the form so that we could learn the original as practiced by Liu Yun Qiao. Sifu said he'd have to extrapolate from his memory, but he'd have to go through the photos step-by-step to figure things out.

Sifu took us through the form up to the point that we knew, and then he began referencing the book, trying to fill in the missing movements using his memory from what he had learned. this ended up taking the remainder of class, with Sifu and Lance trying to sort out 1) what was missing from the photos, and 2) what was supposed to fill in the missing gaps.

we finished the day with Sifu saying he'd try to come up with a final version this coming week, so that we could finish learning the form next Sunday. Lance also noted we should make a video, since there is no video anywhere on Youtube of anyone doing kuen wu erlu. hopefully i'll be able to do this next Sunday.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

day 193: packed full!

  • posts
  • intent
  • bagua
  • chang quan
this was a bit of a different weekend. because of Sifu's involvement with the Pau Hana celebration at UCLA, we rescheduled my private lesson chang quan to Saturday afternoon following regular class. in addition, because it was the end of the UCLA quarter, i scheduled an end-of-quarter dinner with my TAs & readers to reward them for their hard work, which unfortunately conflicted with kyudo and meant i had to skip it Saturday evening.


the Saturday class today focused on post training. obviously, we don't have posts in the park, nor anything of the appropriate dimensions and distance apart, so we substituted humans. Sifu said this is fine, since that what the posts were meant to represent anyway.

Sifu had us start by practicing the forest palm first. after a little time, during which he started the baji students, he came back and then had me and Feng serve as fake posts, with Phunsak then demonstrating post training.

essentially, post training involves doing forest palm--or any other bagua form--in between posts, with the posts serving as targets against which the practitioner can then apply the form techniques. any number of posts are useful, although traditionally there are supposed to be 3 or more. they're arranged around each other, and close enough that the practitioner can move from one to the other pretty quickly in the same way the practitioner would be facing multiple opponents.

the goal of post training is to help get a feel for how techniques are supposed to work in terms of spacing, orientation, and force, and how the techniques are supposed to be integrated with the footwork. in addition, it's supposed to help inculcate the primacy of constant movement and changes in direction and location when facing multiple attackers.

for today, Sifu said we should just get an idea of how to do post training, and try to work on it gradually. he said it takes time, and not something easily mastered. he also noted that in post training, you eventually get to a point where you don't just do forms against the posts, but actually engage in a free-form exercise applying any technique of your choice at any time in any combination against any post, thereby training you to learn how to work in a continuous, fluid manner--much the way you need to in a real fight.

chang quan

chang quan today was spent finishing chao quan. there wasn't that much more to add, and we managed to get through the last of the form pretty quickly. however, there was one technique near the end that proved somewhat elusive, and it ended up taking me the better part of the session trying to get it down--the hitching point seemed to be that it involved the arms moving in 1 direction but the waist in hips moving in another, with everything synchronized in a slightly off-beat rhythm.

once i managed to get the problems somewhat sorted out, Sifu had me practice the entire form, ironing out some of the major issues as we went along. things are still a little rough, but i notice that my form seems to be better when i focus my yi (intent) on the purposes of the techniques. this appears to help adjust my movements, and get me on track to doing them the correct way.

we finished around 6, taking a few minutes to discuss plans for January. we also talked about next week, which would be the last weekend before Sifu goes back to Hawaii for Winter Break. he said we'd continue refining the form next week, and try to get me set up to a point where i can work out things on my own while he goes away for Winter Break.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

day 192: finishing stick seminar

  • applications
  • shaolin stick
this Sunday was a continuation of yesterday's stick seminar, and also ran the full day. while yesterday covered basics, today covered applications.

shaolin stick

we began with a brief overview of some of the basics as a warm-up, and then went on to the applications. i won't go into all of them here (again, that's to leave an incentive to go to the seminars), but i can say that it was comprehensive. Sifu cautioned that the applications we got today were just the basic applications, and that there were more advanced ones that we didn't have time to cover this weekend. he also said that just like anything else in TCMA, there were forms associated with stick, but that we didn't have time for them this weekend either.

here's a sample of what we covered today:

also, i should note that we had a special guest today: Master Su Zhi Fhang, whose son Yuan has been learning baji quan from Sifu. Su Zhi Fhang is originally from China, but Sifu says her lineage is related to ours in varying ways. she teaches bagua, xing-yi, and tai chi, but i also understand that her knowledge also includes other styles. she was present today to give a brief introduction on weapons, particularly on the principles common to both short and long weapons.

here's the video excerpt i managed to record of her:

we finished a little after 4, and then went home after saying our goodbyes.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

day 191: full days

  • jumping
  • basics
  • memory
  • chang quan
  • stick seminar
  • kyudo
this was Thanksgiving weekend, and Sifu decided it was a good weekend to hold a seminar this weekend on Chinese stick fighting. as a result, we had 2 full days, going from 9am to 4pm Saturday and Sunday. i went to both days, and also maintained my schedule with chang quan and kyudo.

chang quan

chang quan was pretty straightforward today. Sifu went over my bagua forest palms first, since he saw me practicing it and wanted to correct a few points. following that, we also went through and refined several areas of my chao quan. from there, we went a few moves further into the form.

i'm at the point in the form where it's becoming more strenuous. today Sifu took me through a sequence of moves that involved consecutive tornado kicks, with one going left and another going right. this follows a series of other jump-kicks. the form seems to be hitting a peak involving a lot of jumping. i'm sensing that chao quan is like pao quan in the sense that the intensity level goes up the deeper you go into the form. Sifu confirmed as much when he said we're getting near the end of the form, and can probably finish it before he goes home for the winter break.

because of this, my Friday private lessons are going to have to be re-arranged a bit. starting in January, my schedule won't allow me to make it to the park on Friday afternoons, but Sifu said we could try Saturday afternoons following lunch. he said we'd try it this coming weekend, since my Friday class is going to be cancelled because of Pau Hana, which is a UCLA event for students to present their projects and is on Friday evening, meaning that Sifu has to go.

stick seminar

Saturday class was replaced with the 1st day of the stick seminar. i'd managed to get a pair of sticks--as well as pairs for several others in the class--and so came with equipment. following Sifu's recommendations, i'd managed to secure a waxwood staff (thanks Sakura Martial Arts!) of a straight length and diameter and cut it in half (waxwood is surprisingly easy to cut, but strangely difficult to dent).

Sifu began the seminar by noting the differences between what we were learning versus various other styles of stick fighting. stick fighting is widely known, since it's such a basic weapon so easily obtainable anywhere, and is a component of just about every society in the world (there's traditions in European styles, African styles, Native American styles, Asian styles, etc.). Sifu said we were learning Shaolin stick, which involves stick lengths that go from the ground to just below the navel. much of the principles and movements in Shaolin stick are related to those in other weapons (sword, saber, etc.) and empty hand actions, and so are transferable to many other areas.

we spent today learning the basics, working through ways to hold a stick, learning how to change grips and change hands, and learning different movements. we spent a good portion of time also doing drills, first stationary while standing, and then moving. Sifu stressed that these are the kinds of drills we need to be doing on a regular basis to improve stick fighting skills, since they form the foundation of Shaolin stick and the basis from which the combat applications originate.

we finished a little after 4pm, at which point everyone went home to prepare for tomorrow.


kyudo had a very large turnout today. normally class size has been around 8-12 students, but tonight it was 20. it made for a packed environment, with some challenges in spacing things out to allow everyone to sit and move.

Sensei had the beginners focus on the form. he asked to hold a dojo bow, and to try doing the form with the bow in our hand. he also took all the junior students--including the beginners--aside to show us the nuances of the bow grip. he made a number of points:
  • the line of the palm (going from the forefinger side to the small finger side) should line up with the edge of the bow (looking down the arrow, it should be the left outside edge facing the target).
  • the forefinger should be loose, to the extent that if can actually point at the target.
  • the cuticles of the middle, ring, and small fingers should line up vertically, and the tips of the fingers should line up with the cuticle of the thumb.
  • the hand grip should be loose (which occurs when the cuticles are lined as described above), so much so that the weight of the bow should only be felt in the bottom of the grip by the small finger.
  • when drawing the string, the pressure in the hand should transfer from the bottom of the grip to the soft portion of the hand at the intersection of the thumb and forefinger. the pressure should be great enough that you should be able to open your grip and still have the bow stay in this location.
he also reminded us to practice during the week outside of class--apparently a number of students are continuing to exhibit the same mistakes and bad habits that he's commented on in previous classes. in particular, he noted that people were still not full expanding from the center in drawing the bow. he said this was important, because doing so created proper structure, and that good structure made drawing the bow easier and more stable, and hence more accurate. he reminded everyone to remember the lessons he's been passing on.

during the tea break, Sensei reviewed the fees for the class, upcoming events, and also said he'd be gone next week but that class would still be held.

i stayed after the tea break with Phunsak (he's started taking the kyudo class as well) for the informal shoot. we worked on our form, using the dojo bow and performing iterations of the form. my memory is getting better, enough that i can devote more focus to technique, which now seems to be my main concern. this went on until the informal shoot ended, which was around 10 pm.