Friday, 19 December 2008

the philosophy of Tai Ji

In Chinese, Tai Ji (太極), is the philosophy of Yin and Yang (陰陽). Yin represents everything soft, passive, negative and he moon; while Yang represents everything hard, active, postive, bright and the sun. Tai Ji is the interplay between these two forces. In the beginning there was Wu Ji (無極), the primordial state of non-being and complete stillness, but when it was put into motion, it divided into two, Yin and Yang. These are not opposites, but rather complimentary. Everything exists because of this constant change. This is represented by the famous symbol, which is half black, half white. In the symbol, the dark side represents Yin, and contains a spot of white, which is Yang, and vice versa. This shows that there is no pure Yin or Yang, and that they are interdependant on each other. You cannot have day without also having night, you cannot experience pleasure without also experiencing pain. As Lao Zi wrote in the Dao De Jing:

"It is because everyone under Heaven recognises beauty as beauty, that the idea of ugliness exists. And equally if everyone recognised virtue as virtue, this would merely create fresh conceptions of wickdness. For truly Being and Not-being grow out of one another; difficult and easy complete one another. Long and short test one another; high and low determine one another. The sounds of instrument and voice give harmony to one another. Front and back give sequence to one another. Therefore the Sage relies on actionless activity, carries on wordless teaching, but the myriad creatures are worked upon by him; he does not disown them. He rears them, but does not lay claim to them, controls them, but does not lean upon them, achieves his aim, but does not call attention to what he does; and for the very reason that he does call attention to what he does. He is not ejected from fruition of what he has done."

This chapter of the Dao De Jing is very profound, and talks about the interplay of Yin and Yang. Lao Zi says that a wise man should be in harmony with the cycle of change in the cosmos and the same applies to martial arts. In Tai Ji Quan we never oppose the opponents force. Instead we compliment it. We are not, however, floppy and lifeless. Yin and Yang must be in harmony, so if someones attacks, we may feel very hard to them, but that is not opposing or using muscular strength. It is using the mind, and it feels like an inflated balloon. We allow the opponent to fully extend his power and ultimately use it against him - actionless activity. In the Tai Ji Quan classic written by legendary Taoist master Zhang San Feng, he says:

"You must emphasise the use of the mind in controlling the movements, rather than the mere use of the external muscles. You should follow the Tai Ji principle of opposites: when you move upward, the mind must be aware of down; when moving forward, the mind thinks of moving back; when shifting to the left side, the mind should simultaneously notice the right side-so that if the mind is going up, it is also going down."

Friday, 12 December 2008

The Difficulties of Learning Martial Arts in China

Its many peoples dream to come to China and learn from the genuine masters of Kung Fu. It has been my dream for many years to do what Im doing. I had this fantasy that Id arrive in China and go to a park and be confronted by many wise old Mr Myagis or wandering monks, with millenia old secrets and deadly skills, but were bound a code of honour and justice never to use them except to help the weak. I guess this is what many of us kung fu nerds dream of.

However, reality is always waiting around the corner to come crashing down on us and crush our dreams. It is true that I have met people with very high levels of skill, and they have been very friendly and welcoming to me. But I would like to outline a few of the negative aspects I found here, not to badmouth or judge, but just to give the reader a balanced picture.

The first thing I found is that there are many people you will meet who can perform loads of beautiful taolu (forms/routines), they may even be able to show you some applications. In Chinese the word for this kind of kung fu is Hua Zha Zi (excuse my pinyin if its wrong), which means something like "flowery and phoney". However, these kind of people generally know so many different styles, they cannot possibly have an understanding of the principles. They wont teach any fighting, just show you form after form after form. Forms are meant as something like an encyclopedia to a style. They demonstrate all the key principles to a style, through a rehearsed set of movements. In ancient times, these were used as a means to preserve the teaching of a master to be carried down to the next generation. They are not an end in themselve, but a means to aid in understanding an art.

The second frustration is that because foreigners are a relatively new phenonenom in China, for many masters, having a foreign student is a status symbol. There was a couple of occasions with a teacher I had previously, where he would often ignore me and teach others more, but, as soon as someone came to watch, he would immediately come up to me and give me loads of attention.
Talking to other teachers or their students often brings about some jealousy too. That is more of a traditional teacher-student relationship thing, as part of the teachings of Confucius, so it is to be expected, although I personally prefer openness. Kwok Wan Ping, a Wing Chun master from Hong Kong jokingly told me, if you want to study with others fine, I dont mind, when you come back to me your welcome to try it out and if you can beat me, then I will learn from you! That is the kind of attitude I like, open-mindedness and a good sense of humour.

Everybody who has learnt anything about kung fu will want to be your teacher. There has been some times when Ive been practicing in the park alone and some worker has come up to me and started trying to teach me! The masters are very welcoming and friendly to westerners who have travelled across the world to learn their art. The problem with this is that the other students can get jealous, because the master will often give you more attention than other students.

I want to restate that this isnt a stab at China, or anything negative. I just want to put out a balanced view of martial arts in China, so people wont be disappointed when they dont immediately find a wise master.