Saturday, 28 November 2009

An Introduction to the Styles I Study

I thought Id write a little about the styles I learn here. I mainly focus on Mantis, Ba Gua and Qigong, and also do some Taiji and Xingyi.

The lineage of Mantis we practice is Taiji Meihua Mantis, and is local to this area. Mantis was said to be created around the east of Shandong province, particularly Yantai city. Mantis is a combination of internal and external Kung Fu, and it is quite aggressive. In Mantis, we defend by attacking, moving forward into the opponent with vicious attacks and low kicks and sweeps. When striking, the whole body twists to generate power from the back foot up through the waist to the fist. We use a lot of leg sweeps and takedowns as well. In Training we spend a lot of time on basics movements, particularly footwork and developing lower body power. We also train forms and applications, like punch combos, takedowns etc. A good stance and agile footwork is important. Master Qu is very methodical in his teaching, in 1 lesson we may only practice 2 techniques over and over. Also, once we learn a basic movement and can do it well, then we learn different ways to apply it, and also how to follow on from it, counter it etc.

Ba Gua Zhang:
The lineage of Ba Gua we practice is Yin style Ba Gua. Ba Gua is only 100 or so years old and was developed in Beijing. We spend a lot of time on circle walking, which is the foundation. It teaches you to be able to evade attacks, move behind the opponent and deal with multiple attackers. We also practice other basics, our forms and applications. A lot of the applications are locks, throws, takedowns and sometimes it resembles Aikido or something. You have to have a loose and flexible waist, which at the same time is strong. Ba Gua is based on the 8 trigrams in Taoist metaphysics. The 8 trigrams were are an ancient Chinese way of explaining change in the universe and so in Ba Gua they correspond to the 8 palm changes, which are the fundamentals of Ba Gua.

Master Guo teaches the Qigong classes. Qigong is a practice which harnesses, increases and develops your Qi, or your bodies natural energies. The main kind of Qigong we practice is standing meditation, which we do for 15 minutes to an hour. We learn how to focus our Qi into our lower Dan Tian, which is a point in the lower belly, and once you begin to accumulate Qi there, you can harness it to increase your power, fight disease, and at high levels even more esoteric things. We also practice several kinds of moving Qigong to circulate the Qi around our bodies and focus it to different places for different effects. Ive started praticing Hong Sha Zhang, which concentrates your Qi in the palms of your hands, and makes them feel hot and turn red. It can be used heal, or also to inflict heavy internal injury on someone. Ive not got very far yet though. We also do iron palm and iron body conditioning, so that we can break bricks, rocks etc with our hands and take strong kicks to our back, ribs and legs (most of the masters here can have thick wooden poles broken over their bodies).

Taiji and Xingyi:
I dont study these in detail so Il just mention a little. Ive completed the basics Yang style 24 form in Taiji and progressed on to learning the Chen style Taiji forms. Chen style is the original style of Taiji and uses really low stances, flowing movements and sudden bursts of power, so it can complement other arts if as well as mastered alone. Xingyi is an explosive internal art. I has some similarities to Wing Chun in that is uses short explosive movements in a straight line. Again, Im only really learning the forms, not the full style.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

my first full contact sparring match

I had my first full contact sparring match on Friday. I was really nervous and though about not going through before, but felt much better after for having done it. I didnt feel like I did that well, but it was good experience and made me realise a few things. Most of my training went out the window, I resorted to pretty basic head punches. Its really hard to use a lot of techniques you learn when someones pumelling your head.

I realised several things from that fight. I now see the importance in having a wide range of experience in order to teach. Its not enough to be able to validate a technique by talking about such and such an angle, but you need to be able to back it up with action. You need to be able to tell a student it works, because youve really used it. When youre adrenaline is really going, most of what you learn is forgotten. Only the most basic stuff comes out.

Ring fighting and street fighting are very different things, but ring fighting is a good way to test yourself in a controlled circumstance. What I like about the Sanda matches we have here are that there are no winners or losers, its not about flaunting your ego. Its a chance to test yourself. Find out what youre capable of under pressure and find your strengths and weaknesses. How can you know what you learns works, unless you test it. To quote Buddha, "application is the only way to verify truth." Although I dont think I did so well in the fight, I now know more about my own level of skill, and how I cope in that kind of situation. So I know what aspects of my training to focus on improving, mostly my fitness, leg conditioning (my thigh is swollen from taking somer hard kicks) and general technique. I hope next time I can use more technique and strategy in the fight.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

My first month of training at Kunyu Shan

Ive just completed my first month training here. I feel like Im really getting to grips with the basics of mantis and have started my first form. Ba Gua on the other hand is much slower as we only do one day a week of it and its a slow-to-learn style anyway.

Im really getting into Qigong too. I do at least half an hour of standing meditation a day, Ive done a few sessions of an hour. Master Guo says if I want to make real progress then I should do at the very least an hour at a time. The bare mininum should be 30 minutes as that is the time it takes the blood to circulate round the body once. Master Guo told me that when he was my age, he was doing 2 sessions of 2 hours standing and 1 session of 1 hour sitting meditation a day, and could go a week without eating! So I have a long way to go! Im beginning to get a strong feeling of the Qi in my Lao Gong points (centre of the palm of the hand) and Im also getting a feeling, although not so strong, in my lower Dan Tian (the abdomen). Once I accumulate enough Qi in the lower Dan Tian, I can move change my focus to the middle Dan Tian (solar plexus) and then upper Dan Tian (third eye). Once all these points are open then supposedly you can begin to develop some kind of powers, such as healing, or psychic abilities, although you shouldnt focus on developing these, they are your natural potential and they will happen naturally. I dont know about this, but I have much better clarity of mind, and there are times when I can sense things will happen and it turns out right.

Ive been going to the weekly Buddhist classes, and sometimes Im the only one there as its on a Friday night. Master Wang, who is from Shaolin gives the class and he oftens talks about his personal experience of life at Shaolin, which is really interesting. We think our training is tough, its like a holiday camp compared to their life. They trained most of the day, and "rest" periods were usually spent doing work, like carrying supplies up the mountain, cleaning etc. If they misbehaved the masters would beat them and make them stand facing a wall for long periods of time. Master Wang is also a world Sanda (Chinese freefighting) champion and he has a certain presence about him that commands the respect of everyone.

All the masters here are unique and worthy of respect. My master, Master Qu, is also a Chinese doctor, and is really strict during class, but also likes a joke and really cares about us. He learnt Kung Fu the real traditional way, and is in a direct lineage from the Laiyang San Shan, 3 masters all with Shan (mountain) in their name. They were the greatest masters of Mantis Kung Fu. He is also highle skilled in Ba Gua, the other style he teaches and is also in a direct lineage of Yin style Ba Gua. He teaches us a good balance of lots of basics, training drills like pad work, sensitivity drills etc, forms and conditioning.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Kung Fu Training at Kunyu Shan mountains, China

Ive just completed my first full weeks training here (here being Kunyu mountains njear Yantai, Shadong province). Im learning 2 systems, Mantis and Ba Gua Zhang and taking extra classes in Qigong twice a day and some bits of Taiji and Xingyi. The school is set at the just outside a national park, in the mountains, so the environment is really peaceful and the air is fresh. There are 4 masters at the school, 2 of them Shaolin monks, called Big Wang and Little Wang, and the other 2 are Master Qu, who is my main master, for Mantis and Ba Gua and Master Guo, who teaches Wing Chun and Ba Ji, he teaches the Qigong and other optional classes. There are about 30 students here, from UK, France, Belgium, Australia, South Africa, America, Canada and other places.

The training is much better than I expected, I was a little worried it would be a lot of Wushu forms and acrobatics and no real Kung Fu, but actually, it is exactly what I wanted. My Mantis class has just 6 of us, and Master Qu is a really good master. He is friendly and caring, but at the same time, is very strict and has high standards. Everyone here comments that Mantis class is of a high standard. Master Qu is in his 30s, but looks much younger, he is strict in class, people who mess around or swear have to do 40 push ups or hold horse stance for 5 minutes, and is someone is slacking, he gives them a little slap or whack with his bamboo cane. We have a good balance of physical conditioning and technical training. We spend a lot of time on basics, sometimes in an hour and a half session, we will work on 2 or 3 basic movements, first just doing them in the air, then on the punch bags, then as a partner drill. Afternoons we often do more application work, learning how to use our basics or forms. We do 2 or 3 mile runs a week, then Friday we run up and down the mountain 4 times, which is hell. We have a power training session, which is like strength training, we do things like doing basic movements or holding stances with bricks in our hands, practicing our grip strength on wooden poles and whatever other pain Master Qu wants us to go through. We also have a power stretching session, where you hold a stretch as deeply as you can, then someone pushes you even further, ignoring your screams and holds is for a minute, it feels so good after though! Then we do forearm and shin toughening on trees and learn to take kicks to different parts of the body.
The only downside here is that Id like to do more Ba Gua, we do Mantis 4 days a week and Ba Gua only 1. Ba Gua is a good style for me because Im small, and its all about evasion and moving round the opponent, so its good for multiple attackers. It works on redirecting force through circles and getting behind the opponent for takedowns, chokes etc.

I really enjoy the Qigong class with Master Guo. He is really friendly and approachable and seems to always smile. His Qigong is his own families system, which is very effective. We do it twice a day, standing for half an hour, the first 10 minutes we focus on the Qi in our Lao Gong points, which are in the centre of your hand, you have to build up a magnetic feeling between your palms by moving them together and apart, and when you get it, it feels great. Then, you move your focus to your lower Dan Tian, in your belly, which is where the Qi is stored. You can feel a warm and inflated feeling there. One day a week, we learn Hard Qi Gong, which is how to use your Qi to break bricks and things, which will take a while for me to get the hang of before I really try! Then we do Taiji every morning with him, although its pretty much just the form, and we do Xingyi Quan twice a week in the afternoon after Qigong, I like doing it, but I think he only really teaches the basics as its an extra class. Master Guos internal power is amazing, apparently a few weeks before I came, the Masters gave a performance, and Master Guo broke a marble slab, balanced on tofu, with 2 fingers. Although he broke 1 finger in the process, but then he used Qigong and healed it in a week.

Weve also had theory classes in the evenings, learning massage, acupuncture theory, Buddhism, Taoism, Kung Fu theory, history and philosophy and calligraphy. I really enjoy the training here and highly recommend Kunyu Shan to anybody serious about Kung Fu training.

Monday, 21 September 2009

Applying traditional kung fu concepts to modern self defense

Recently, Ive seen a lot of videos on modern self defense, and also, people who feel that traditional martial arts dont cut it in real life situations. While Im probably not the most qualified to criticise professional instructors, I feel that there is a lot of misunderstanding about traditional Chinese concepts in martial arts. A lot of this is due to mis-translation, such as Qi being translated as energy etc.

When I was learning Taiji in China, a senior student told me that i lack Shen (神)in my form. I didnt really know what Shen meant, or how it applied to martial arts. I just knew it translated as spirit, and it was something to do with Taoism. So I asked him to explain, and he said when you train martial arts, you develop Shen, it is something like spirit, but I think rather than being spirit as in soul, it is more spirit, like warrior spirit. A state of mind which has complete focus and determination in what you are doing. So, when I do my forms, I should be focussed, like my life depends on each movement being perfect. After spending a lot of time doing zhan zhuang, standing post meditation, he said I will increase my Shen. Later on I read that kung fu masters often have a glint in their eye, this is a sign of highly developed Shen.

This reminded me of a few things Id seen on TV. On Mind, Body and Kickass Moves, I saw an Okinawan karate master, who was sparring with the presenter, Chris Crudelli. But Chris couldnt touch him, every time he moved in, the master just glared at him and moved forward and Chris had to retreat. Its nothing supernatural, its the same kind of stuff Derren Brown works with when he does his tricks and feats of mind control. I saw a documentary about the life of Mike Tyson, and he was talking about his early fights. He said when he stepped into the ring, he stared into his opponents eyes, and didnt let them out of his gaze. As soon as he saw their gaze drop for a second, he knew hed already won the fight, so as soon as the fight started, he annihilated them.

These are examples of using Shen, which manifests as kind of piercing gaze, a deadly focus, and you will find that all self defense instructors will talk about psychology in a fight, using your fear and adrenaline as a tool to increase your power, well, adrenaline starts as a feeling in the pit of your stomach. Where does Qi originate? In your dan tian, the pit of your stomach, so isnt using your adrenaline the same concept as using Qi and your mind/intention (Yi) to increase your power. Have you ever noticed that some people have an air of power around them, and if they get agressive, you feel scared, well what if you can turn the tables on them and be mentally stronger than them. When I was young, my dad told me that being mentally strong is more important than being physically strong. It took me a long time to understand that. A lot of people avoid eye contact, feeling intimidated by it, so you can use that in a fight to psyche the opponent out, just like Mike Tyson and the Karate master.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

In 2 weeks, Im returning to China, to Kunyu Shan to study Kung Fu full time. It appears this blog site is blocked in China with their heavy censorship, so I may have to find another site, or get someone from home to post for me. Il let you know if I make a new site.

Sunday, 23 August 2009

Carefree Rantings

Since the end of June, Ive been at my mums house in Italy. She lives in the countryside of Piemonte, surrounded by green hills covered in grape vineyards and hazelnut groves, with medieval villages and large villas dotted around. My mum and stepdad grow most of their own fruit and vegetables themself at the end of the garden in a patch the size of a small backyard. With all kinds of butterflies, bees, insects and lizards, its the perfect place to sit and ponder life. I often go down the garden with my Chinese tea set and spend hours just reading and drinking tea. Its a good place for me to get some intense Kung Fu training too. Generally I have 2 or 3 hour sessions of Kung Fu a day and spend the rest of the time doing some jobs for my mum like gardening, digging, picking fruit and vegetables, or reading and pondering life with my Chinese and Japanese teas.

Ive been reading the Chinese philosopher Zhuang Zi (also spelt Chuang Tzu) a lot recently too. He is a very early Taoist philosopher, from around 2000 years ago, whos views on nature and stillness of mind are more attune to most Zen writers and poets of 10th century China and Japan than they are of the typical esoteric teachings of religious taoism that concentrates on immortality and new age practices. He was a wanderer, who liked a life close to nature and in tune with the Tao, that indescribable and impersonal force which guides the universe and keeps balance in all things.

Being in this environment, away from the greed and corruption of society, surrounded by nature, time to ponder and clear my head, has helped me to understand Zhuang Zi's ideas and to appreciate the harmony of nature. The flowers grow from the soil, the butterflies eat the nectar and help to cross pollenate, the dead flowers fall off and are eaten by insects and make new soil for the plants, and the insects are eaten by lizards, who are eaten by birds. Its all just so perfect and it makes me believe that if there was no force to regulate it all, there would be chaos and the universe would fall apart. Its just too perfect and it is also a very delicate balance. One which people seem determined to detroy with deforestation, mining and pollution. It makes me wonder if we really NEED the things we think we do. Do you really need a TV that big and expensive? Or all those expensive clothes made by children in Asian sweatshops? It seems to me, that in the west, the government controls people with debts, consumerism and celebrity gossip. People are too busy thinking about what new haircut David Beckhams got, than to do something to contribute to making the world a better place. People are more interested in buying the latest phone cum MP3 cum video camera cum sat nav cum whatever stupid invention they make next, rather than giving a few pounds to help starving people in Africa.

On the Kung Fu side of things, Ive had time to put together all Ive learned from different teachers, realising the similarities over the differences. Ive evolved my own training routines, so that I focus on all different aspects, including strength, fitness, flexibility, skill, basics, force training, arm/leg conditioning, Qi cultivation etc etc. Ive put together some drills and techniques I think are useful, combining elements of Wing Chun, Taiji and some Shaolin, along with bits Ive picked up from books, like Mantis, Xing Yi, Ba Gua etc. Ive also made a good workout that does all the important muscle groups and deep stetching for the whole body. ive actually found that rather than contradicting each other, the different styles compliment each other, and anyone who disagrees has probably not tried, WITH AN OPEN MIND, to do this, but in my experience, it works well.

So, all this is getting me ready for my return to China to spend a year taking my Kung Fu to the next level at Kunyu Shan Shaolin Kung Fu Academy, in the mountains of Eastern China.

Monday, 10 August 2009

The Role of Forms in Wing Chun

Wing Chun is very unique in the world of Chinese martial arts. It only has 3 empty hand forms, 2 weapon forms and a form on the wooden dummy. The forms are put together differently too. Rather than being put together in a beautiful way, like a lot of other styles, the forms are like an encycopedia that show the basic principles and ideas of Wing Chun.

The first form, Siu Lim Tao, gives you the basic structures of Wing Chun and the core ideas, such as centreline, triangulation, straight lines etc. Siu Lim Tao gives you the ABCs of Wing Chun and translates as "small intention". This gives a clue as to the fact that Wing Chun, although being slightly hard in appearance, is an internal art. The form differs from most other Kung Fu forms, as it contains no footwork, or any other movement other than the arms. This is deceiving, as the body is in fact moving in a coordinated way (which will only be realised at higher levels), and the techniques, which are driven by the elbow, are in fact supported and driven by the whole body due to the structure. The stance is called Yee Jee Kim Yuen Ma, it is narrower than classical horse stance, and has the toes pointing in. The Dan Tian is pushed forward and it is a very compact and strong structure.

The first section as called Saam Bai Faat, which means 3 prayers to buddha, and is done very slowly, driving the elbow forward. This accustoms the practitioner to the basic pathway of having the elbow on the centre and when practiced slowly and regularly, builds up the internal power. At this part of the form it is especially important to concentrate the mind on the movements, in order to build up the internal power. The second and third sections train you to develop your Fa Jing, or force emission, which is a springy, explosive kind of power.

The second form, Chum Kiu, means searching for the bridge, and formally introduces footwork, pivoting and more complicated structures. Once you have learnt the basic structures, you need to learn how to find the "bridge", which is contact with the opponents arms/legs. Wing Chun is a small frame art that specialises in trapping and sticking to the opponent and it redirects rather than blocks force. Chum Kiu is generally the level where a practitioner would become a proficient fighter, as grandmaster Yip Man said, someone who fully understands Siu Lim Tao and Chum Kiu should never lose a fight. Chum Kiu also introduces the student to Qin Na (Cantonese, Kam Na), which are locking and controlling techniques. These are important in modern times, as the law states that you must use reasonable force to defend yourself, so they can avoid a lot of trouble for you later on.

The third form, Biu Jee, is also known as first aid hand. Biu Jee itself translates as Thrusting Fingers. It was traditionally only taught to the students with the highest level and understanding of Wing Chun, the masters inner circle of trusted disciples. Biu Jee teaches you how to get out of bad situations, to fight off centreline and to regain centreline. At this level, the "rules" of Wing Chun have been learned well and practiced, and so the student can progress beyond the "rules" and explore the art him/herself. Biu Jee doesnt contain any "secret" or "hidden" techniques, but as with all forms, requires a lot of study, so that every movement, no matter how insignificant, is understood as a possible technique. The student should think outside the box, and explore the forms, not relying on a "Sifu says" mentality or being a robot. Biu Jee changes the structure too, it introduces the student to more circular movements, helping to internalise their power further.

I will only briefly introduce the weapons and dummy forms here, as I dont feel I am qualified to write about them in detail. The wooden dummy form throws everything from the hand forms into a melting pot, mixes them up and throws them out. It develops the students understanding of angles in a way that an empty hand form couldnt. It further develops power, as the dummy is wooden, you have to use the correct springy kind of power, or you risk injury. It also helps to condition the forearms, toughening them to deal with impact. The time at which a master teaches the student to use the dummy varies, some will teach it before Biu Jee, some after. The knife form uses 2 short Chinese broadswords, sometimes called butterfly knives. It takes the empty hand techniques as its basis, but due to the extra length of the knives, extends them. It develops wrist strength and very explosive power. The pole form uses a long pole, which can vary from 6 to 9 feet long. It is a simple form, having 6 movements and 1 "point". The pole form encourages the student to focus their power down a long pole, developing incredible internal power and develops the upper body strength too. Both these weapons have a whole lot more depth to them than I have written, like I said, they are above my level, so Im not qualified to explain them thoroughly.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

my new google group

hi guys. if you like what you read here, i've created a google group where like minded people can meet, network, discuss etc.

Sunday, 5 July 2009

Gong Fu Tea

In China, there is a special kind of way of drinking tea. Gong Fu Tea has nothing to do with karate chops and flying kicks, it is a very refined and cultured way to drink tea. In Chinese, the word Gong Fu (功夫) means a skill attained through hard work and perseverance. The first character, Gong, is made up of the particles work and strength, which implies what I said above.

So Gong Fu tea is a method of preparing tea which takes skill. It is also a way of clearing the mind of troubled thoughts and getting back to nature. The sound of pouring water has a calming effect and and the delicate flavour and smell of tea is symbolic of purity. Another name for Gong Fu tea is the tea ceremony, or Cha Dao (way of tea), but these are more often associated with Japan, whose tea culture is very different. The Japanese tea ceremony (correct me if Im wrong) seems to be more about the preparation as a ritual or an art in itself, whereas in China, it is more about the tea that is drunk.

Different teas all have their own brewing methods, using different shape teapots and different temperatures of water. A full set is required, a teapot, Yixing Zisha is the best, a pouring jug, small drinking cups and sniffer cups. The tea is poured from the pot into the jug and then into the sniffer cups, which are long, thin cups that hold the fragrance of the tea inside. The small cup is then put on top of the sniffer and it is turned upside down, the sniffer cup is taken away and then it is drunk.

The Yixing Zisha teapot I mentioned is made of a special purple clay from Yixing region in Jiangsu province. Zisha means purple clay. The teapot should never be washed with soap, as the clay absorbs the colour and flavour of the tea. Instead it should just be rinsed with water. If you dont use the teapot for a while, you should occasionally leave some tea and hot water standing in it for a night.

History of Taiji

According to legend, a Taoist immortal named Zhang San Feng (12th century) created internal martial arts. It is said that he had studied Kung Fu at Shaolin and later became an ascetic at Wudang mountain in central China. After observing a fight between a snake and a crane and seeing the interplay of Yin and Yang, he is said to have mixed what he learnt at Shaolin with Dao Yin, a primitive type of Qigong, and the principles of Taoism into a martial art. He was said to have created the 13 principles of Taiji and wrote them into the first part of the Taiji classics.
Zhang San Feng was believed to have taught a man named Wang Zong Yue. Not much is known about him, other than that he wrote the second part of the Taiji classics.
However, there is no concrete evidence that Zhang San Feng existed and the first written evidence of Taiji comes from the Chen clan in Henan province. They migrated from Shanxi province in ancient times and settled in Chen Jia Gou, a village close to the Yellow River and Shaolin Temple. Chen Wang Ting (1600s), a Ming dynasty general is credited by the Chen family as the founder. It is certain that he codified various theories and techniques on internal kung fu into two long forms and push hands excercises. Some sources suggest that Chen Wang Ting had learnt this internal kung fu from Wang Zong Yue.
Chen Chang Xing is another famous master of the Chen family. It was him who in the early 1800s taught the first non family member, a man named Yang Lu Chan. It was said that Yang learnt Taiji by working as a servant for the Chen family and pretending to be deaf and dumb. This way the family were confident that Yang wouldn't let out the secrets of Taiji. Yang practiced what he saw and heard in secret. Eventually, the Chen family found out what happened, but were so impressed at his skill level that Chen Chang Xing accepted him as a disciple. Yang eventually moved to Beijing, where he taught his sons Yang Jian Hou, Yang Pan Hou and a man named Wu Yu Xiang, creator of Wu (武)style and writer of the third part of the Taiji classics, from whom three generations later, a disciple named Sun Lu Tang, a famous internal martial art master, created Sun style. Yang Jian Hou passed it to his son Yang Cheng Fu and Yang Pan Hou passed it to his disciple Wu Quan Yu, who created Wu (吴) style Taiji.
Yang Cheng Fu is credited as codifying what we commonly see as Taiji today.He took away the hard, powerful movements, jumps and stomps and made the form softer and more flowing, with expansive stretching movements. This was more suitable for the general public and he became a very famous master in China. Yang Cheng Fu had a famous student, a man named Zheng Man Qing (Cheng Man Ch'ing),who feld to Taiwan with the Guomindang before moving to America and being one of the first masters to teach westerners. He simplifiedyang style further into the 37 movement form, which is very soft and is commonly practiced in the west.
The name Taiji (太极), often seen in English as T'ai Chi, roughly translates as The Supreme Ultimate and represents the interplay of the forces of Yin and Yang. The symbol of Yin and Yang is known as Taijitu in Chinese.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

correct translations of wing chun terminology

In the west, there are thousands of people who practice Wing Chun. Unfortunately, they often translate the words wrongly, so I thought I would outline some basic techniques, with the appropriate characters and translations.

詠春拳 (mandarin: yong chun quan/cantonese: wing chun kuen) literally: sing spring fist. the simplified version of the first character (咏)is made up of 永(forever, also pronounced yong) and the radical 口(mouth). there is no reference to beauty in the meaning of the character.

小念头 (xiao nian tou/siu lim tao) literally: little/small, and the second and third characters together mean thought/idea/intention

寻桥 (xun qiao/chum kiu) literally: seeking bridge

标指 (biao zhi/biu ji) literally: shoot fingers

摊手 (tan shou/taan sao) literally: spreading hand

膀手 (bang shou/bong sao) literally: wing hand (the first character has many meanings, including shoulder, wing, upper arm and swollen

覆手 (fu shou/fuk sao) literally: cover hand

黐手 (chi shou/chi sao) literally: glue/stick hand

Saturday, 20 June 2009

My Experience of Teaching English in China

As my time in Qingdao draws to a close, I want to reflect on my year and a half teaching here. Its been over 2 years since I first set foot in China, back in Xi'an, and it feels like a lifetime ago.

When I first arrived in Qingdao airport, my new boss was due to meet me at the airport. I couldnt find him anywhere, and then I decided to walk around outside the airport where I eventually found him. He had been waiting for me in the wrong place and then asked me what took me so long! This pretty much set the tone for things here- crap organisation! I had no experience in teaching or qualifications to do it, but that didnt matter in China, I had a white face and spoke English.

The first day we went to the school to meet our teaching assistants I was pretty nervous. I met my assistant, who seemed to be under the impression I knew exactly what to do and I had to make a lesson plan with no help or suggestions. I didnt even know where to start and when I asked for help, she just said to me "you're the foreign teacher, you decide." Then we went to a classroom and taught our planned lesson in front of all the foreing teachers and assistants, with a couple of superiors taking notes. That was probably the most nervous I felt during my time. So that concluded what was supposed to be a weeks training; doing a practice lesson and never getting any feedback.

My first day at school, I was also really nervous. That moment I first walked into the classroom was a big moment in my life. I saw 50 plus Chinese kids all staring straight at me, and then this 20 second piece of classical music played which signalled the start of the lesson (I guess it's more imaginative than just a bell). Then my assistant gave them a speech in Chinese and it was my turn to start. The first words I said were "hello, my name is Will and I'm from England." I shakily wrote my name on the board. We went through the lesson, which was based on a chant:

"Spring is green,
Summer is bright,
Fall is golden,
Winter is white."

Then at the end we played a game where I hide a card under someones desk and a kid has to find it while the other kids all shout the word louder as the kid gets closer. After that initial lesson, I got into the swing of things and it became natural. Now I feel so much more confident in myself from this experience.

Morning break consisted of the kids going to the playground, standing in perfect lines while military themes play from loud speakers and a man bellows Mandarin at them. Then some happy music plays and they all do a strange dance in perfect formation. Sometimes they got in circles and danced too. Every Monday was a flag raising ceremony which involved military themes and all the teachers had to wear formal dress (as opposed to normal days, when teachers wore anything they liked). Now, I think the strangest thing for any westerner, is the eye excercises every morning at 11 o'clock. Some really trippy music plays while the kids massage their eyes for 10 minutes to the count in Mandarin "yi, er, san, si, wu..." As this is going on, the monitors walk around with canes and hit their classmates if they do it wrong.

The monitors are glorified grassers (tattle-tale for the Americans reading) basically. Their job is to keep discipline in class when the teacher isn't there. It's a job all the kids want, and when they get it, they become little drill sargeants. Hitting, however is technically forbidden, although some teachers do it, and hard.

Chinese students are excellent as memorisation, a lot of their education involves memorisation of textbooks, phrases etc. This has it's good points, but it does kill their indivuality and imagination. When we give them the oral exam (which we are not allowed to fail any kids at), they usually have a standard reply to a question:

"How are you?"
"Im' fine, thank you and you?"

"What are you doing?"
"I'm watching TV."

Teaching them new words, we were told to make them repeat it twice in English, twice in Chinese, sometimes we could spend up to 20 minutes doing this- "big big, da-de, da-de."
"little little, xiao-de xiao-de."

In my time here, I really bonded with the kids. I felt like all 600 of my students were like a family to me, and I was always happy to see them in the streets or shops outside school. I would love to come back and teach again, it is an amazing experience, something you probably only realise after you finish. it's changed my life anyway. China will always have a big place in my heart. Not the government, but the common people; the taxi drivers with dirty suits and bed-head, the old men who sit on the street and miss out all the consonants in words when they speak to you, the geeky looking teenagers who shout hello at you in the street and run away, the man at the market who pretends to get offended when you bargain the price down, the women whose job is to stand at the supermarket door and shout "huan yin guang lin" (welcome) at you as you walk in.

Monday, 27 April 2009

Tea Culture in China

Tea is as much an indispensable part of Chinese culture as Confucianism and plays an important role in the daily life of the Chinese people. In modern day China, tea is not a product solely for the bourgeoisie upper class, a flask of green tea can be seen carried by every factory worker and labourer.

According to legend, around 2737BC, Shen Nong, legendary Chinese emperor and founder of agriculture and medicine, was said to have been sitting under a tree drinking boiling water when a leave fell into his cup. He saw the water change colour and tasted it, being surprised by the pleasant flavour it produced. Another legend involves the founder of Zen Buddhism, Bodhidharma (Chinese: Puti Damo 菩提达摩), who meditated for 9 years facing a cave wall and then fell asleep. Angered by his laziness, he cut off his eyelids and where they fell to the ground, tea plants grew.
The Chinese word for tea is chá (茶). In ancient Chinese it was known as tú (荼), and then changed to being called míng (茗), which it is someones still known as, particularly in Taiwan. The English word tea originated from the Fujianese/Taiwanese dialect, which pronounces the word as "tê".
In China serving someone tea can be seen as a sign of respect. In old China, during a wedding, the bride and groom would offer tea to their parents, and during the ceremony of a Kung Fu master accepting a disciple, they would offer the master tea. If he accepts it, then he accepts the student. Typically, someone of a lower status would serve the person in a superior position (boss, teacher, older person etc) tea, it wouldnt be expected the other way around. In the south of China people will tap the table with the fingers to say thank you when being served. This is because an Emperor once travelled China in disguise. He served a servant tea and he was so happy he wanted to bow, but couldnt, so he just tapped his fingers so as not to give the Emperor away.

There are 5 common types of tea sold in China. Green tea (绿茶, lu cha) , jasmine tea (茉莉花茶, molihuacha), which is green tea scented with jasmine flowers, wulong (乌龙), which is semi-fermented and makes the water go a golden colour, pu er (普洱), a strong black tea which comes from the Xishuangbanna region of southwest China, on the borders of Burma and Laos, in jungle areas and tieguanyin (铁观音), a variety of wulong which comes from Fujian and Taiwan, in the southeast of China. Green tea is the most widespread and is grown in many different areas around China, particularly the south. Some good types of tea are Long Jing (龙井), which comes from the West Lake in Hangzhou, Biluochun (碧螺春), which comes from Jiangsu and the area where I live, Qingdao, sells a lot of Laoshan (老山) tea, which is grown at the local mountain, which is a sacred taoist area. Tea is never in teabags, its always loose leaves or bricks.

In China the most common way to brew tea is using a gàibēi (蓋杯), which is a lidded cup, a small jug and a small cup. Firstly, the teaware is all rinsed with hot water to heat it up. Then, tea is put into the gaibei, and then washed quickly with hot water to remove dust and it helps prevent bitterness. Then, more hot water (around 70-80c depending on tea type-the blacker the tea, the hotter the water) poured over it and left until the tea leaves open, then it is quickly poured into a small jug, from which it is served, typically in small cups. Tea can be reused several times. Another way is called Kung Fu tea and originates in the Chaozhou region in Guangdong. It is where you put a large amount of tea into a small teapot and put hot water in for a very short time, and serve it immediately into tiny shot glass sized tea cups.

Monday, 13 April 2009

my journey so far

I was first introduced to martial arts when I was 6 years old. After watching power rangers I told my parents I wanted to learn Karate, which I did for 2 years, and then when I moved to York, I started Taekwondo, but I have forgotten most of both styles.

Then, when I was 14, I began learning Wing Chun after watching some Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee films. I studied for 3 and a half years, going to class 3 times a week and doing a private lesson once a week. I got my black sash after just less than 3 years. At that point I began to seriously doubt what I had learnt, after training with people from other Wing Chun classes and the fact that our training lacked intensity. Most classes I attended I ended up teaching in and when I did the black grading, I was disappointed how easy it was, everyone thought I was really good, but I felt like I wasnt, just that they all rushed through easy to pass gradings the same as me. Plus the Sifu, was always saying his way was the only way to do martial arts and other ways were no use etc. Feeling like I would never improve if I stayed there, and that I still had so much to learn, I quit.

Then, a big milestone came. I met my second Sifu, who has been my most influencial. An old school friend was also learning Wing Chun and invited me along to his class. This Sifu taught Foshan Wing Chun and was really active and enthusiastic in class and we did a good mix of training, making me realise how much was missing before and how much I still have to learn. We always had an intense warm up with running, push ups, stretches etc for fitness, stamina, strength and flexibility. Sifu thought it was important to build up the body, not jut learn drilled techniques. He was open minded to all styles and ideas and his art was alive and dynamic and I really enjoyed it. Still now I regard him as my Sifu and as the biggest influence in my attitude to martial arts.

Then I took 5 months out to travel China (including Tibet), Nepal and India. The first 10 weeks I volunteered in Xi'an and I met a buddhist monk there who taught me the basic stances, kicks and punches of Shaolin. Then, I went to Hong Kong and spent a few days training with Master Kwok Wan Ping of Yuen Kay San Wing Chun, who was a true master, and confirmed what my second Sifu taught me was right. He was almost 70 and still covered in muscles and his arms were like steel. I knew he could still fight. I went back the following year to train another few days with him. On both occasions he was welcoming to me and his wife cooked me dinner several times and they treated me in a nice restaurant.

Then I had several personal spiritual experiences in Tibet, Nepal and India, stayed in some buddhist monasteries, stayed with a Tibetan nomad family and other amazing experiences. I returned back to the UK to work for a while, saved money, studied Wing Chun again and finally found a job teaching English in Qingdao, China.

The first Shifu I met there was an old man who taught in a park on the university campus every morning. He didnt charge and didnt teach any particular styles, just techniques he thought were effective and theories from different styles like Mantis, Shaolin and Mizongyi. Then, I met after a couple of brief encounters with some different styles, I met a teacher who taught me the basics of Shaolin and a basic form. He was very strict and not very friendly to me, which taught me perseverance and discipline, but then it appeared he wasnt interested in me real kung fu, he just wanted to teach me loads of forms.

The third big milestone came when I met my current Shifu, who is a Taiji master I was introduced to by the dad of a girl I was tutoring English. He doesnt teach forms, but focusses on Tui Shou (push hands), Qin Na, and Zhan Zhuang (standing meditation). I really enjoy learning from him and his skill is amazing, he is 70, but I cant move him or touch him.

Lao Zi said "a journey of a thousand miles is started by taking a single step." I feel like all I have learnt so far is the first step in a life long journey towards mastery of myself; mind,body and spirit. In the classical Chinese novel Journey to the West, a buddhist monk, Xuan Zang, journeys to the Western Heaven to get scriptures from the Buddha. He is accompanied by a monkey, a pig and 2 other students. The monkey, Sun Wukong, is mischievous and violent, but intelligent and the pig, Zhu Bajie, is greedy. These 2 characters can be seen as a metaphore for aspects of the monks mind. The monkey is always causing trouble and represents the intellect, and the pig is always eating and wanting sex, and represents desire. In martial arts we strive to discipline ourselves by training our body, calming our mind and honing our spirit. It is easy to talk about this, the hard part for me is actually doing it.

This September my real journey will begin. I am going to study at a Shaolin Academy in the mountains of Kunyu Shan, Yantai, in Eastern China. Studying martial arts full time has always been my dream and will take me to a high level that I could never achieve from doing it casually.

Sunday, 15 February 2009

An Encounter With a Taoist Master of Taiji

While wondering around Qingyang temple in Chengdu, I saw a westerner sat with an old monk, who waved me over. As I got closer, I saw a sign in English and Chinese saying Taijiquan school. The westerner had signed up to a month of studying here and not speaking Chinese, it was his first day. The master spoke some basic English, and I spoke to him a little in English, before switching to Chinese, when I told him Id learnt Wing Chun and a little Chen style Taiji. When he heard that, he said Wing Chun is too hard, and that it dispersed your Qi and that internal martial arts take you to a higher level. I felt a little skeptical of him, but was respectful, especially because of people being able to sign up for a months training. But after a while, he took my inside and invited me to push hands with one of his students, a young monk. He was like water, and every time I pushed on him, he flowed round it, and I was only able to unbalance him once, but kept getting unbalanced myself most times I tried. Then the master invited me to try with him, he told me to push him in his stomach, and I felt it go solid, and then he sent me flying, with a little push from his abdomin. It was a strange feeling. I tried to push him several times, and each time he sent me flying off. I was really impressed, and exchanged contact details, so hopefully we can meet again next time I visit Sichuan. He is the head of a large association for Yang style Taiji, and has many students around the world.

Some other minority people I came across on my recent travels

The Zhuang people are native to Guangxi province in southwest China. They are Chinas largest minority and have largely incorporated Han Chinese customs, but still retain a unique language, closely related to Thai. We stayed in a village on top of the Dragons Backbone rice terraces, high up in the mountains and slept with a family there. They were very friendly, and spoke enough Mandarin to be understood. We sat in a wooden house with no chimney and got smoked out by a fire in the middle, which was cooking a hotpot of pigs liver, potatoes and rice and drank home made rice wine.

The Dong people live mostly in northern Guangxi and southern Guizhou and have unique culture and customs. We stayed in Zhaoxing, their largest village for several days for the Chinese New Year and their own Taiguanren festival the days after. Their unique Drum towers and covered bridges are places for the locals to meet and are always full of old men, smoking and drinking. Their language sounds a little like Cantonese, but has 16 tones! Their religion is the worship of different spirit animals and buddhism, but they have no temples or organisation. The Taiguanren festival was held after Chinese New Year, and saw the locals dressing up as animals, ghosts, peasants and royalty, and parading through town singing and throwing fireworks around.

The Miao people can be found all over southern China and Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, where they are known as the Hmong. They have even emigrated in large numbers to America and France. They were traditionally very rebellious to the Han Chinese, which led to their oppression. They have many different sub groups, such as the Flower Miao, Red Miao, Black Miao, Long Horn Miao etc. We stayed in a village called Basha, where the locals cling to ancient traditions, such as wearing traditional clothes, and the men still carry huge daggers or swords and shave their head, leaving just a topknot in the middle. In fact, the people in the village were all crazy, it seemed like the whole village was drunk, children included. They often sang, danced and were really rowdy, all night long. I heard they are some of the biggest drinkers in China!

The Bai people inhabit the foothills and valleys in and around Dali, in northwestern Yunnan province. They were traditionally rebellious and up until the time of Kublai Khan, had their own kingdom. They are believed to descend from the inhabitants from the Angkor Wat in Cambodia, but how they came to China, I dont know. They are well known for the artwork on the sides of their building, which are otherwise white washed. Old women in traditional clothes are often found selling hash to tourists in the streets of old Dali, although they dont smoke it themselves, just eat the seeds.

The Famous Dr Ho of Jade Dragon Mountain

While in Lijiang I had the fortune of meeting Dr Ho, a Naxi Doctor made famous by several books and documentaries, including Michael Palins Himalayas. As you walk along the otherwise typical street of the Naxi village of Baisha, just outside Lijiang, you will see a big sign saying "most admired man" and clippings of newspaper articles about this friendly, but slightly eccentric doctor.
So me and my friends walked into his clinic, and he greeted us in perfect English, then led us outside to sit in the sun, drink his home made herbal tea, and read articles about his fame. He lived a hard life and was poor and sick, during the political instability of 1950s and 60s China. So he taught himself herbal medicine, healed himself, and then began healing other villagers for free. He had learnt English from Dr Joseph Rock, a famous botanist, who lived in the area in the 1930s. Dr Ho is in his mid 80s and is in excellent health, and very happy (he says the best medicine is happiness). Despite his fame, he is humble and welcoming, and will give you a check up and prescribe some herbal medicine (which he collects from the mountains himself) for free, although for tourists, he asks a donation of what you think its worth or you can afford.
He told us about how several westerners suffering from cancer and other terminal illnesses had come tohim for treatment, and years later are still alive and stable. He showed us their medical reports, showing they refused kimotherapy to prove it.

the Naxi people of Lijiang

While recently travelling in the southwest of China, I visited the city of Lijiang and its surrounding areas. Although a really touristy place, I really fell in love with the Naxi people and their culture. They are said to have been descended from Tibetans and moved off the plateau in ancient times to settle in the fertile valleys where they live today at around 2,500m above sea level.

The Naxi were traditional a matriarchal people, which means that all inheritance, including family name, riches and land, were passed onto the female of the family. This is still practiced by the Mosuo people, who are closely related and live to the north of Lijiang, around Lugu Lake.
Their indigenous religion is a kind of mixture of animism, shamanism and ancestor worship, which is governed by the Dongba, which are the local shamans. The Dongba were traditionally the only people who could read and write the native language, which is the last remaining heiroglyphic language still in use. The common people would use Chinese. The spoken language sounds a little like Tibetan. Culturally, the Naxi have taken aspects of Tibetan and Han Chinese culture and given them their own flavour.
I found the Naxi people to be very welcoming and hospitable, and to have an interesting culture and history. If you want to read more on them, I would recommend reading "The Forgotten Kingdom: Living With The Nakhi of Likiang" by Peter Gouillart, a Russian who lived in Lijiang during the 1930s.