Friday, August 05, 2011

day 314: subtleties of the miao dao

  • body & blade movements
  • small movements
  • tip location
  • borrowing energy
  • bouncing energy
  • body movement & center
  • miao dao
we went a lot farther on the miao dao in the last Sunday class. we spent the initial half going through the basics, but then Sifu said he wanted us to start working through the applications in the form, saying that we'd understand the basics a lot better if we saw how they were used in practice.

miao dao

we worked on the first moves of line 1 of the miao dao. Sifu said that there's a general misunderstanding of these moves, with most practitioners using large, sweeping motions. he said that this was a dominant misperception, with many people taking the miao dao as a weapon requiring large slashing movements.

in Sifu's view, this is a mistake. the nature of the weapon is not large movements. given the size of the weapon, large sweeping motions invariably open up large openings which an opponent can attack. in addition, because its size means greater mass, the inertia generated by large movements makes it very difficult to counter against attacks made in tight space.

according the Sifu, understanding the movements and their application requires an understanding of how it was used on the battlefield. the miao dao was made large with the purpose of providing greater range, with the goal of taking down attackers mounted on horseback. soldiers who expected to stay alive against mounted attackers needed to exploit the range advantage of the miao dao while still being able to quickly engage defenses. this meant movements that extended the miao dao to penetrate an opponent's gates while still keeping your own gates closed.

Sifu demonstrated what he asserts is the right interpretation of the moves. he stressed the following:
  • that in the 1st few movements of line 1, the body is actually doing the majority of the activity and the blade, relative to the body, is actually doing a minority of action. as a result, the work is being done by the body rather than the blade.
  • the blade movement is actually small. Sifu said that if we observe the path traced by the tip of the blade that it actually follows a small, tight path, and that in contrast our bodies are tracing a much larger path across the floor.
  • the tip location is important. the tip essentially marks a vector following a curve, with the force of the blade moving parallel to the direction of the tip. wherever the path of the tip goes, so goes the application.
  • on defense, you're not supposed to block the opponent's blade. instead, you have to receive it in a way that allows you to borrow the energy of their movement. the idea is to take the magnitude of their force, but then redirect back into your attack against them.
  • redirecting energy involves a slight bounce. Sifu cautioned that this doesn't mean a bounce off their blade, since this is just a type of block. bouncing off the blade means that you're bouncing without redirecting their strike. he stressed that we have to receive and redirect their energy first, and then bounce off their energy vector. the idea is that you take whatever force they're applying and sending it off in a direction that is sufficient to ensure your safety and opens their gate for your attack.
  • the magnitude of the force vector in the blade is not from the arms. Sifu said that it actually should be a combination of the force from the opponent's attack and the force generated from your body. as a result, body movement is critical. Sifu said that this requires movement driven not so much by the arms but rather by the center, with the body moving the center so that you maintain a single structure capable of conveying power without loss.
this, of course, is harder than it looks, and it's counter-intuitive, since the instinct is for you to use your arms to deal with threats identified by your eyes. it's different using your body, and involves a certain measure of conscious effort, which in turn requires a certain measure of composure--which is hard to do when there's an opponent with a 6-foot sword coming at you.

Sifu took some time to note that every movement in the form has an application, including the opening and closing. as a result, it's important not to distort any of the movements for aesthetic effect, since they all should retain some connection to their applications.

i have to say that this was actually enjoyable. it's a bit of a workout, but it's illuminating to learn the miao dao in the context of history. it gives a sense of logic and purpose behind the form. it's also interesting to me, because it gives more insight into history, particularly in terms of what ancient Chinese soldiers actually had to do. if i had any historians interested in Chinese history to talk to, i'd really recommend that they try this.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

day 313: fighting, principles, techniques, forms

  • ting jing, hwa jing
  • gate control, gate entry
  • proactive v. reactive
  • set-up
  • vertical v. horizontal
  • lian fa, gong fa, da fa
  • fighting v. applications v. forms
  • principles v. techniques
  • maintenance
  • hsing-yi
  • kyudo
this post refers to Saturday, July 30. i missed class on August 6, and so this brings things up to date. we're heading into the dog days of summer, so it's been getting warmer lately.


we've completed going through the 12 animals for Shanxi hsing-yi. Sifu says he now wants to spend some time showing how to translate everything we've learned into actual fighting. he says there's a big difference, and that we have to learn the connection between the 2.

Sifu's been spurred by conversations he's had recently in his college instruction and participation in local panel seminars. he's gotten questions about the difficulties TCMA practitioners seem to have in applying what they've been learning in actual fighting. this is a common issue in TCMA, and a regular observation about current TCMA made in the larger martial arts community: a lot of TCMA practitioners don't seem to be able to use what they've learned in fights. it's given TCMA a dubious reputation in Western societies, particularly in comparison to the more popularly known fights in boxing, MMA, etc.

Sifu had us pair up, with each pair being sparring partners. Sifu told us not to engage in full-contact sparring, but to work on sparring drills. for today, each pair had 1 partner work on defense and the other partner work on offense. the offensive partner was to try to utilize only the 1st 2 animals: dragon and tiger. the defensive partner was to counter or escape.

Sifu had us do several drills out of this. drill 1 was no contact, with the focus on sticking to each other while both partners were largely stationary. drill 2 was the same, but incorporated more footwork, so each partner was free to move across the ground/floor. drill 3 was no sticking but sensing & receiving while moving freely. drill 4 was greater contact with sticking, incorporating light strikes, but again stationary. drill 5 was light contact with sticking and footwork. drill 6 was light contact with no sticking while moving freely. we rotated partners once we had gone through these drills.

Sifu said there were a number of things to focus on with these drills:
  • ting jing (sensing): we need to become accustomed to reading the opponent and getting a feel of what they're trying to do at any given moment. this doesn't mean point fixation (i.e., locking onto a single point and following it), but rather general awareness of their overall behavior and general demeanor.
  • hwa jing (receiving): we need to become familiar with reading and receiving an opponent's movements, so that we can neutralize them or avoid them.
  • gate control: each person has to learn how to protect their gates to deny the opponent an entry for attack
  • gate entry: each person has to learn how to locate, open, and enter an opponent's gates
  • pro-active v. reactive: each person has to learn how to be pro-active on offense and defense. it is okay to be reactive, but it is always harder to respond to something than it is to initiate things (as so many team sports teach: offense is easier than defense). in addition, in a fight, it's important to control the overall engagement (from initial encounter to ending resolution), and this requires being pro-active to set the direction of the fight.
  • set-up: applications can't be applied directly. they have to be set up, in the sense that the opponent has to be lured into making mistakes regarding their gates and their structure. every application has a counter, and so an opponent can always defend against an attack. for an attack to work, the opponent has to be manipulated so that they are not able to defend against the atack.
  • vertical (dragon) and horizontal (tiger): Sifu asked us to recognize the overall orientations of dragon and tiger as being vertical and horizontal, respectively. in the drills, he said we needed to get a feel of offense and defense both vertically and horizontally. he noted that we should try to get an intuitive sense of this in terms of ting, hwa, na, and fa jing, whether sticking or not sticking to the opponent.
we spent some time in between partners discussing the pedagogical philosophy (i.e., teaching philosophy) behind this type of training. Sifu said that in the modern era TCMA has a major problem in that many practitioners don't know how to use it in actual fighting. fighting skills are not trained or taught as commonly as it was in the past. in the West, this is largely a function of how TCMA was introduced to Western audiences. in the East, this is because TCMA was suppressed during the Cultural Revolution. as a result, TCMA has lost a lot of respect. it's also led to a lot of misperceptions about TCMA.

Sifu said we needed to dispel these misperceptions. TCMA has substance to it, and it is valid, but not in the ways so many modern practitioners seem to think. Sifu pointed out that fighting--whether tournament, street, or battlefield--is not like forms or meditating or thinking or anything else. unfortunately, in his view, too many people inside and outside the TCMA community think that TCMA is just the latter. the connections are not taught or not understood. as a result, people don't see how TCMA translates into actual fighting.

Sifu stressed that knowing how to use martial arts in a fight involves several different types of education: lian fa, gong fa, da fa. all these types of education must be taken together as a martial arts pedagogy (teaching method). lian fa is forms, gong fa is conditioning, and da fa is sparring. lian fa has the purpose of teaching fundamentals, including structure, principles, and techniques. gong fa has the purpose of conditioning a person's attributes for fighting in terms of physical fitness, power generation, etc. together, lian fa and gong fa provide the mental and physical building blocks, respectively, to be used in fighting. da fa is training in how to take those building blocks and use them in actual fighting, using various forms of sparring to progressively teach how to fight.

according to Sifu, in the modern era too much of TCMA instruction is lian fa. in fact, in his opinion, almost all of it is. based on what he's witnessed, very few TCMA practitioners are being taught gong fa and da fa, and as a result hold extremely dangerous misperceptions about fighting and their own martial skills. Sifu has commented on this in the past, saying that lian fa and gong fa do little good without an understanding of da fa, and this is the reason why you sometimes see street fighters with no training who are able to defeat trained martial artists--because they've gotten da fa through the hard experience and understand the reality of fighting, whereas the martial artists often have not.

Sifu noted that too often, TCMA practitioners think that fighting needs to look like applications or forms. he said this is a mistake, and that a fight scenario is never as clean as an application or form, especially against an experienced fighter who knows what they're doing. reality is never an ideal environment, while applications and forms always take place in ideal environments. Sifu said that we have to understand the role of applications and forms--they're not to teach actual fighting, but rather to teach fundamentals and building blocks to be used in learning fighting. applications teach a student the basic movements to apply principles contained within the forms, and neither actually teaches how to work them into a fight.

to learn how to fight you actually have to fight so you can learn how use the movements applying the principles against an opponent who is not cooperative. the issue is to do so safely. Sifu said this is why there is sparring, with different forms of sparring designed to lead a student on a progressive understanding of how to deal with the chaotic and hostile reality of fighting.

Sifu emphasized this is why he keeps telling us to not fixate too much on application techniques or obsess too much on forms. he said this will actually mislead us from concentrating on the most important thing, which is principles. the danger with techniques is that you fixate on them, and try to catalog them in your mind, so that you become a database of techniques and forms. unfortunately, it's hard to choose techniques and follow forms in an actual fight, where the situation is random, confusing, and fast. in order to match the randomness, confusion, and speed of a fight, you have to be mentally and physically flexible in your actions. this means that you understand the principles and have an intuitive feel of how to move to express those principles.

Sifu's talked about this in the past, with comments about the distinction between "empty" understanding versus "substantive" understanding. "empty" understanding is seen in someone who is "married to the form", in the sense that they do applications and forms as movements without understanding the principles in them. you see this in practitioners who do them as physical movements without a recognition of the intent and awareness of the physics. the hallmark symptom is a practitioner who just fixates on the form and insists on always sticking to some version of a form without being able to offer a fight-based explanation why. in contrast, "substantive" understanding is seen in someone who can modify and work through a form, with physical movements that display some evidence of intent and understanding of the physics, to the extent that the practitioner can explain what can change and what can't be changed and why in terms of what might happen in the context of a fight.


the continuing theme for kyudo this week was maintenance. oh sure, we did shooting. in fact, we did a lot of shooting. more than the usual class. but a lot of my attention was on maintenance issues, which i am realizing i really need to spend some time learning.

superficially, maintenance seems mundane, and not really a contributor to the art of shooting a bow and arrow. but the art involves equipment, and so the condition of the equipment relates to the development of the art. a lot of people tend to gloss over maintenance, but i'm starting to recognized that it's something worth devoting time.

i thought i'd fixed my string last week to fit the nock on my arrows. however, the shrinkage and drying of the glue had apparently resulted in a shape that only fit the nock from a certain angle. this is a problem, since the string has to be free to move on its axial rotational plane of motion to minimize distortion and energy loss in the arrow.

fixing this, unfortunately, meant stripping away all the work i'd done last week and re-gluing the string. and with more care and attention than i had done last week.

while i was at it, i also decided it was time to add more pine tar. i've suspected i needed to apply more pine tar in cleaning my string. Sensei told me i should be able to smell the pine when cleaning the string, and i rarely do. the pine tar is hard, and so has to be softened. as a result, it involves a measure of time to soften the tar before i could apply it.

unfortunately, i apparently misjudged the amount of tar i needed. Wilton happened to notice what i'd done and he appeared shocked, noting that "uh...that's a LOT of tar." i realized when he meant when i tried to rub the tar down, and instead found that i'd just made the string a long sticky piece of twine. i ended up having to spend a good portion of time trying to remove tar from the string.

of course, all this is with equipment that i've been told is low-maintenance. i'm using a fiberglass bow and synthetic string. others have told me that the traditional bamboo bow and hemp string are much more labor-intensive and require much closer monitoring in terms of maintenance.

hmmmmmmm...i think i'm going to need to take some time out and just work on learning maintenance. i may ask Sensei for a class on this.