Saturday, August 30, 2008

Beijing leftovers (1)

Wow, day one of Liu Laoshi seminar in Tokyo was great - rapid progress in the motions of ba gua jian, the very long, double-edged sword favored by ba gua zhang practitioners. Liu L in top form as he works his way among three groups (ba gua jian, new and harder versions of the 12 animals in xing yi quan, and a new form in liuhe tang lang quan (six harmonies praying mantis). I would like to study them all, but choices must be made...time is short, so just a few leftover pictures from Beijing, featuring Liu L teaching bagua jian to Greek friend Euthymios.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

back in Tokyo (2)

Unpacking after a long trip or stay is always a joy for me. This time it was especially good. I came back from Beijing loaded to the gills, heavy on the clothes and books. It was all the sweeter because I made it back with two very special presents for myself: a pair of staves and a pair of yuan yang yue. I wasn't too worried about the staves. True, they stood out in their bag at over five feet long but they are, after all, made of wood and are thus not banned from being brought into Japan.
I was much more worried about the 鸳鸯钺 or yue. They are not specifically banned, but I was worried. I have tangled with the people in Tokyo's Narita Airport before and had my tai ji jian (straight sword) confiscated for three months. That sword had been a gift from Chinese friends at the wushu school in 1998. The old Japanese rules said that no steel swords could be brought into the country. My sword was promptly spotted and a magnet was produced and, lo and behold, the magnet stuck = the blade was made of steel = the sword was confiscated (I later brought it into Japan on a different flight, long story).
The logic escapes me. 99% of tai ji swords are not - in the present world - capable of cutting much of anything. They are often wielded by practitioners of an advanced age seeking some vague health benefit from tai ji without having any knowledge or sense of what a sword is used for or the danger of a live blade. I do possess a live blade or shinken which I have used in iaido since before passing 4-dan. A magnet won't stick to it but trust me, it cuts easily and well. And I can, with proper paperwork showing ownership, take it in and out of Japan without incident.
The new rules omit the reference to steel but still ban the bringing of "swords" into Japan. Here is where things get grey. Look at the picture - yue are clearly not swords, but they do have potential cutting edges (9 on the style I use, fewer on others). Mine are not sharpened (though Liu Laoshi's pair, on which I learned from day one, were...) but they could certainly poke an eye out, as the saying goes. And mine are made of steel. Of course there is no problem with possessing them in Japan; I can easily buy a pair, but at about 500 % of the price I paid in Beijing. The question is whether it would be a problem to bring them into Japan.
I bought them as a gamble, deciding to risk confiscation for the price. And the risk paid off - I got through without incident. I had been right in hoping that the long bag with two staves would draw attention, that said attention, once settled, would get me through the door with everything intact. And here we are.
It was actually in China that I had trouble - due to legitimate security concerns, not only was security tight at every venue, but there were also bag searches at most large subway stations. So after I bought the yue, I sailed nonchalantly into a subway station and boom! Spotted on the x-ray machine right away, they caused quite a stir. "You wait a minute" are words that always make me nervous and which always signal a long wait. I was running through every negotiating possibility in my mind when yet another police officer approached, told me to write down my name, hotel room, and passport number in a notebook. And that was that.
To and through the airport with no problem. Cleared at Japanese customs and on my way! The loss of the yue would have been disappointing but I had steeled my heart for possible confiscation. The loss of the staves, however, would have been crushing - I don't know how to use them as well as the yue, but they were a gift from the sticks-in-the-street group, had been personally engraved, and so on. So I got everything home without incident and can start practicing and reviewing. Only one problem -anybody want to work on some knuckle-busting paired staff routines with me?

back in Tokyo

Just a quick update, made it back safely last night. Just getting on the plane in Beijing, I felt like I was already in Japan - surrounded by J people, starting to think/feel in Japanese mode myself. I didn't reach out to people as much. I can't put my finger on the difference, but I know it. I feel more open, more myself in China - and more bound, less expressive in Japan. I don't know if these are actual social constraints or, more likely, the constraints I have formed and placed upon myself. From the start, I created a Japanese self (via language study) who is rigid, introverted, 真面目, always careful with the language. And from the start in China, I created a Chinese self who is more outgoing, went straight for all the shits and damns and more. I just have more fun communicating in Chinese and suspect that in the long run it will become stronger or more natural than my Japanese.

Unlike my leaving for China - in which I worked up until the last minute and even took work with me, my return to Japan is peaceful and unhurried. No work calls this week. And then things heat up with Liu Laoshi's visit to Tokyo with six or more days of training. Then more special trainings on the horizon in other places. So these look to be glorious days before work heats up. Today: family time, unpacking, transforming The Jungle back into a semblance of a garden, five loads of laundry, outdoor practice once the neighbor's car was moved. One of the last bottles of my prior batch of homebrew - a hoppy pilsner. Some language study and review. What more could one ask for?

I'll include a few of my favorite pictures from China, more on the way.

Monday, August 25, 2008

yuan and zen

Work finished early this morning and I have spent a fortuitous afternoon wandering through Beijing – it is really the first day I have had (almost) to myself, with almost no work, and no practice with others.

I needed this day. No time worries, nothing pressing in upon me. First I track down a wushu supply store I visited last year. It seems to serve multiple duty as showroom, warehouse, and apartment and I feel like the proverbial kid in a candy shop each visit. All manner of uniforms, weapons, and VCDs cram the walls and litter the floors.

I can’t afford to buy anything while living in Japan, so I always save up for these chances in China. My eyes are a bit bigger than my wallet, but nothing can be put back. Most important - and most expensive - are a pair of yuanyang yue (鸳鸯钺, the crazy Klingon – bagua weapon). I am gambling with them, don’t know if I can get them into Japan but if asked, they are wall decorations, certainly not implements of destruction.

Also important is a two-meter carrying case for the pair of staves (棍子) I was given last night. A cool shirt, a tai ji fan, VCDs for the tai ji fan form. So much more calls to me, but I am too aware of how little Chinese money remains in my wallet, 600 and some change. I clock in well over 750 yuan. Ouch. I ask for and receive a small discount, though the friendly worker reminds me how cheap the VCDs already are compared to those sold outside the store (true enough).

I point out a major scratch on the back side of the case for the yue and manage another 50 yuan discount, putting me in range of the 600+ small change remaining. I start counting it out, getting down to the smallest bills, and joke (honestly) about needing taxi fare. He smiles, hands me back some small bills, refuses my attempts to return them. All the hard-faced, frowning bargaining is gone. I am all smiles after this kindness. But there is more – as I stuff the folding fan into my backpack, he sends an employee in the back to get a bag. Just as I mention that I don’t need a plastic bag, I realize my mistake – he is throwing in a nice cloth bag with drawstring, made just for the fan.

Back on the street, I nab a taxi with those remaining small bills and get to Qian Men, from where I can take the buses, and they are free for those of us here with the Olympics. Still flush with time, I get out at Gu Lou, near the famous Drum Tower. Crowds are down in the wake of the bizarre stabbing murder of a tourist some weeks back.

I stop to use a pay phone in one of the street stalls and have good luck – I reach both of my friends in Wenzhou, China by phone and we share good talk and laughs. By fate or whatever, it turns out my name was just in the Wenzhou newspaper.

At the Olympic wrestling venue, I spent much time getting to know the staff there, being uncharacteristically chatty and outgoing. I got along well with the head of the venue, whom it turns out is from none other than Wenzhou, and his father is even from the smaller city of PingYang. I stayed about a month in the wushu school in that town (read about it in Kendo World magazine or later in this blog) and he knew that school. I gave him a copy of the Kendo World article I had written on kendo in Wenzhou, and he referred to that in a piece written in the Wenzhou paper.

So, back to the Drum Tower. I wander around a bit and find a neat little café/bar type of place and would reallllly like a cold beer but lack the funds. I typically avoid tourist-oriented places like the plague, but this shop had a good feeling. I walk about 50 meters down the road and plunk myself down in front of an empty store. After a while, I figure what the hell. I walk in and explain my situation, ask if I can have a free drink today and promise to send money in the mail tomorrow. Just in the time I was sitting down the road, the owner had come in. She said OK and I got my free coffee (better for writing at the moment).

Turns out to have been quite good fortune once again. She also runs a low-price hotel near the park where I practice with Liu Laoshi, so that could work out well in the future. And her employee is from Kunming in Yunnan Province and knows of my other teachers in China, Sha and Li Laoshis.

That’s almost as good as the night I was at my favorite chuar stall in an unkempt alley munching on skewers and sipping beer and babbling in Chinese with the cook when the guy next to me asks where I am from and actually knows where Nebraska is without being told, knows the capital city, and so on. What a city this is.

Chance and fate. They have been operating in my life a lot lately. Or maybe they always do, and I am just more tuned into them these days. Living in Wenzhou ten year ago, I heard several times about fate or yuan, 缘. I also heard about a special kind of fate which draws martial artists together, wuyuan, 武缘.

Perhaps this is what drew best friend and then-student Wei Li and I together in Wenzhou (next time we meet, though, he will be the kendo teacher, not I). Or Mr. Wu, my teacher of the 42-motion style of tai ji quan every morning in Wenzhou. Or the staff fighting / jingju performance group I have been training with late nights here in Beijing, having discovered them by the chance taking of a different road than usual.

Or, biggest fate of all, living ten minutes away from my main teacher of Chinese Stuff for the past how many years, Mr. T. He offered a one-time only, three-week intro tai ji quan course at the small public area near my home. I think we both knew the first day that something special had begun. And through him, I am fortunate enough to have received direct training with three of his teachers here in China, Liu JingRu Laoshi here in Beijing, and Sha and Li Laoshis over in Kunming.

Was it also fate that he offered that class exactly at a time when I was winding down my karate and naginata training in Tokyo, and thus had available time to start with something/ someone new? It was also about the time I changed kendo dojos, so there was much upheaval in my life and training, and all these little parts fit together. Had the timing been slightly off in any one of these areas…

So now I sit in Zen café, just across from the Bell Tower or Drum Tower, tapping away on my laptop after having been granted sanctuary and an unpaid cup of coffee. [Beijing travelers contact me for their location]All feels right in the world, but I must admit this entire month of work and training in Beijing has also been the result of a chance encounter.

Last year while working at a translation company, I was one of two foreigners employed full or semi-full time. Given that much of their business is translating into English, the logic of not using native English speakers to translate into their mother tongue eludes me. That’s a story for another time and place.

Over the prior year or two, the other foreigner, Zou San from China, and I had spoken with each other occasionally in the office, usually just exchanging pleasantries in Japanese. One night I met him in the hallway. I had had a very long day at the desk and the J-to-E translation course I taught had not gone well that night.

For whatever reason, I spoke to Zou San for the first time in Chinese that night. We spoke a few minutes, then he suddenly realized. He switched into Japanese and asked me to sit down until he came back. Fair enough; I was knackered and collapsed into a chair to await his return.

Long story short, our company had, just that morning, been awarded the contract from the major Japanese TV station to handle media support work at the Olympics. And they needed a native English speaker with good Japanese and, well, not so terrible Chinese. And there I was.

Was it simple chance that I spoke to him in Chinese for the first time on that very night? I don’t know, but I can say I will be going back to Japan tomorrow with new eyes and ears, keeping them more open for opportunities and chances. My life has been too passive, always waiting for the chances that come. These days I feel it is not enough to make good use of those opportunities which present themselves – it is time to take more active control over my life and work to create opportunities and chances.

But even so, I sense that the most valuable or rewarding opportunities will remain those which are not sought after, but those which are presented to us by whatever force it is. And we can welcome them and revel in them or let them pass by…

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Kuai Bar

Writing this as the end of my month in Beijing draws near and events begin to blend together, too many unfinished tasks piled up…Thinking back to one of the first nights I met the group practicing martial arts on the sidewalk down the road from my hotel. I stood and watched a while, ventured to plunk down my bags. They watched me awhile. Then kuai bar man came over and struck up a conversation. – warm and open from the first night I met them.

I may have waited too long, but I decided a few nights back to begin kuai ban (kuai bar), a pair of wooden percussion instruments which Mr. Liu (not my 72-year-old bagua zhang and xingyi quan teacher) teaches in addition to helping teach the group’s staff fighting techniques. We had, over the weeks, shared conversation and a bit of practice but I was still hesitant to take the plunge.

But that night was right. Liu Laoshi was busy, so I went to their little area on the pavement and asked to practice by myself in the open area behind them. I had a long stretch (heard their murmurs of approval), had an excellent solo bagua session, getting ready for the next day with Liu Laoshi.

Somewhere in that long and late session, I was called over and introduced to a partner stick drill which moves at a damn fast pace and left me with a couple sore knuckles and a banged forehead from missed blocks. I hadn’t intended to formally start with this group, but now the wheels were in motion.

We finished well after midnight, maybe 12:30. The school-age members of the group had gone home “early” at 11 PM. Mr. Liu and I walked back partway together, and I invited him to the chuar shop for sticks and beer. Chuar (or “chuan”, in the standard dialect) is bits of various food skewered and slowly boiled in a spicy soup. This particular shop is more of a stall and a collection of stools. It will not win any awards for excellence in sanitation, but the people there (from Anhui Province) welcomed me warmly from my first visit, and I feel more comfortable there than most restaurants.

It was a little crowded, so we moved across the street and sat on some concrete benches. Before long, a slow rain began to fall, so we moved under the eaves. Soft rain, post-practice beer and eats…all seemed right in the world. Then he added to the atmosphere by pulling out his kuaibar and providing a beat for the spontaneous rhymes that began to pour out. I could have sat there all night, munching on skewers and downing beers.

When it rains, they close up shop, so we finished our beers and sticks and moved on. Walking along in less rain, he had me clack out a rhythm on one clapper while he worked a complicated rhythm with the other and did his rhyming. There we were, walking down the street, carrying staves and making music in the drizzle. I could have walked across the city just making my clack-clack-clack noise and watching the taxi drivers watch us.

We reached the bridge and went our separate ways. I listened to the sound of his kuai bar fading in the distance behind me. My time in Beijing is much too short to make much progress with the kuai bar or the staff routines of this group, but I am sure I will make contact with this group again next time I am here.

Friday, August 22, 2008

hungry, thirsty, and gotta piss 4

fang song
Aug. 20, 22

Practice #10, last of the night practices for me. I am keeping Liu Laoshi up too late at night, and he needs to rest before his upcoming trip to Tokyo to teach us over there. Mr. T arrives from Tokyo tomorrow (coach for the Japan team at a major tournament); he returns to Tokyo on 25 August. I go back on the 26th, and Liu Laoshi on the 27th.
Of course I will try to sneak in a daytime practice or two with him, work schedule permitting. He teaches a few people in the morning, his grandson in the afternoons. But he is 72, after all, and teaching three classes a day can be both tiring and time-consuming before leaving for ten days in a foreign country.
So it all adds up to an end to the night-time practices in Tao Ran Ting park, to the post-practice scramble through buses and subway transfers, to all of it. Or most of it – I will be spending much more time with my friends who practice on the sidewalk near my hotel late at night (see posts elsewhere).
The last night practice was a good one. I arrived in the usual state – unfed, thirsty, needing to piss. We relaxed over tea for a while before starting. He unexpectedly ran me through all the xingyi offerings one more time – silly me, I had spent the prior night doing solo review of bagua to prepare for this night. But we got to the bagua at last. And for as much praise as he had just given for my xingyi, he doled out an equal helping of concern for the state my bagua has fallen into recently.
We skipped over the 8 basic palms and went directly into the more complicated 8 palm changes. Aiya, never thought we would get through the first one…we stayed later than intended but my first three palm changes were given a thorough re-working.
Throughout our xingyi work over the prior several days, his single most-uttered word was “aiya”, the quintessential Chinese expression of mild consternation bordering on irritation. The shortened “ai” was a close second and seems to signal a shift from mild to severe irritation. When the aiya’s and ai’s finally gave way to the occasional good news of “haode” and “bucuo”, I could relax a bit.
Relax. Fang song. That was the word of our final night practice. Again and again. Relax and lower the shoulders. Relax and round the chest. Relax and extend the arms. Further. (but I can’t extend them and relax at the same time!). Ah, fang song, fang song.
I remember that word very keenly from my stay at PingYang WuXiao, a martial arts school in the countryside where I lived for more than a month almost ten years ago. At that time I had almost no Chinese language ability, but I did know fang song.
One of the younger students – a short kid for his age so he looked extra young and was thus a crowd pleaser at our demonstrations – watched me working on the taiji quan 42 form. He smiled and offered a single comment: fang song.
Aiya. This little kid is telling me….yes, and he was right. And still is.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

hungry, thirsty, and gotta piss 3

Hungry, thirsty, gotta piss (3): fang song

Practice #10, last of the night practices for me. I am keeping Liu Laoshi up too late at night, and he needs to rest before his upcoming trip to Tokyo to teach us over there. Mr. T arrives from Tokyo tomorrow (coach for the Japan team at a major tournament); he returns to Tokyo on 25 August. I go back on the 26th, and Liu Laoshi on the 27th.
Of course I will try to sneak in a daytime practice or two with him, work schedule permitting. He teaches a few people in the morning, his grandson in the afternoons. But he is 72, after all, and teaching three classes a day can be both tiring and time-consuming before leaving for ten days in a foreign country.
So it all adds up to an end to the night-time practices in Tao Ran Ting park, to the post-practice scramble through buses and subway transfers, to all of it. Or most of it – I will be spending much more time with my friends who practice on the sidewalk near my hotel late at night (see posts elsewhere).
The last night practice was a good one. I arrived in the usual state – unfed, thirsty, needing to piss. We relaxed over tea for a while before starting. He unexpectedly ran me through all the xingyi offerings one more time – silly me, I had spent the prior night doing solo review of bagua to prepare for this night. But we got to the bagua at last. And for as much praise as he had just given for my xingyi, he doled out an equal helping of concern for the state my bagua has fallen into recently.
We skipped over the 8 basic palms and went directly into the more complicated 8 palm changes. Aiya, never thought we would get through the first one…we stayed later than intended but my first three palm changes were given a thorough re-working.
Throughout our xingyi work over the prior several days, his single most-uttered word was “aiya”, the quintessential Chinese expression of mild consternation bordering on irritation. The shortened “ai” was a close second and seems to signal a shift from mild to severe irritation. When the aiya’s and ai’s finally gave way to the occasional good news of “haode” and “bucuo”, I could relax a bit.
Relax. Fang song. That was the word of our final night practice. Again and again. Relax and lower the shoulders. Relax and round the chest. Relax and extend the arms. Further. (but I can’t extend them and relax at the same time!). Ah, fang song, fang song.
I remember that word very keenly from my stay at PingYang WuXiao, a martial arts school in the countryside where I lived for more than a month almost ten years ago. At that time I had almost no Chinese language ability, but I did know fang song.
One of the younger students – a short kid for his age so he looked extra young and was thus a crowd pleaser at our demonstrations – watched me working on the taiji quan 42 form. He smiled and offered a single comment: fang song.
Aiya. This little kid is telling me….yes, and he was right. And still is.

Kung Fu Fightin' in the Street

August 19, 20, and earlier

Almost every night on the way back from training with Liu Laoshi at the opposite end of town, I get off the subway at Haidian HuangZhuang station and walk back toward the gigantic Friendship Hotel. There is a group of people practicing martial arts on the sidewalk nearby and I have gradually built a good relation with them.

They start practice late, about 930 PM, and go seven days a week year-round. Let me remind you that Beijing summers are long, hot, and humid, and that Beijing winters are long, cold, and cold. The group does halt practice in the case of heavy rain, but nothing else holds them back.

There are about ten people there on any given night, mostly regulars (all ages and genders) with a few passersby, like myself. It is pretty crazy – they don’t stop practicing when people approach on the sidewalk. Most people give them (us, I can say by now) a wide berth. Last night I heard the 小心 caution for the first time – whether it was to those practicing or those walking past, I am not sure.

Last night a staff went flying and narrowly missed a pedestrian. He was quite shocked. The staff-twirler, unperturbed, joked that it was a new Olympic sport, a variation on the javelin.

The group practices with staves about 5 feet long every night, though they also have empty hands routines and dadao in their repertoire, among others. The staves can be practiced solo or in a fast-moving partner set called duida 对打.

The first few nights, I borrowed a staff to work on some of my own routines: shuushi no kon sho from kobudo and some spear work (basics, and then plum flower spear 梅花枪). The staves this group uses are slightly heavier and thicker at one end, so the balance works better for the spear work I am accustomed to, though it is strange doing spear work with such a short weapon.

They asked me about working on their staff form, but I declined, thinking my time for training is too short, I should focus on reviewing what Liu Laoshi is teaching me, etc. Last night I stopped by to investigate kuai ban, the wooden clappers my friend Mr. Liu (no relation) teaches (he also instructs staff there).

Reading this blog, you might get the impression that I am a bit over-focused on martial arts practice and have no other interests in my life. You might be right. But recently, I have felt the need to expand my horizons because it seems there are very few interesting things I can do. In particular, I have absolutely no ability to sing or dance. But the kuaiban (kuaibar in Beijing) are a simple percussion instrument that even I might be able to handle.

I was coming home from an excellent session with Liu Laoshi (xingyi quan and bagua zhang) and had no intention of wielding a staff. I clacked out a few rhythms on the kuaibar and then Mr. Liu motioned me over. Oh boy, here we go. Just review of the partner drill we did last night, right? Yes yes yes.

Well, it started with that. Then, sneaky devil, he showed me how that is just one section of the longer form, and how seamlessly it fits in. Just a few moves before it, OK? And a few after, OK?

Gosh, the foreigner learns really fast. Give him some more, comes the voice of the javelin tosser. Oh boy indeed. We finish practicing at 12:30 and all laugh at the time. They have run me through the entire partner routine and drilled me many times. My hands survived with only a couple sore knuckles from whacks with the staff.

So I ended up spending ten minutes on kuai bar and over two hours on the staff routine (shi jia gun, 式架棍, also 势架棍, native to Beijing). And I will be going again tonight, most nights of my remaining time in Beijing, since Liu Laoshi and I had our final night practice last night.

Once I start something, I can’t give it up – thus my practice of, shall we say, more than one or two martial arts. Each time, I say to myself that THIS will be the last new things I pick up; I really have to better consolidate everything I have now. And then something happens, an opportunity presents itself, and bang, there I go again.

I reminded the group that I was currently studying martial arts with a teacher in Beijing and that practicing together with them at the same time might not be diplomatic. The jovial staff-thrower told me not to worry: Liu Laoshi teaches wu shu (武术), or martial arts; their group practices yi shu (艺术), or traditional (artistic??) arts, so there is no problem.

A fine distinction, perhaps, but it works for me, especially since the damage is now done. It will be rough getting up early for work after these post-midnight finishes, but believe me, every practice will be worth it. More to come on this group and on kuai bar.

Monday, August 18, 2008

monkeys (2)

August 9 and 18, 2008

I was born in the year of the monkey, 1968.

Monkeys are said to be inquisitive, troublesome, curious, and so on.

Let’s run through that list. Inquisitive? Yep. Troublesome? Don’t ask about my misspent youth, which is stretching on into a misspent middle age. Curious? We already covered that. It seems I have it pretty well covered.

Even so, something seems to be lacking in me and my monkeyness. I was trying work on the monkey form (猴形) in xing yi quan and it was not going well. It is quite unusual among the xing yi quan pantheon with its sharp turns and unusual finish. In the middle of the main sequence (repeated 3 or more times) there is a leaping motion which I just couldn’t nail.

My teacher, Liu Jingru, is 72 years old and spends his time sipping chrysanthemum tea and teaching in a park near his home. He is gentle and humorous but when push comes to shove, I am sent flying.

Our dialogue is in Mandarin Chinese with its growly, rolled R’s but punctuated by an occasional outburst of NONONONO or YESVERGOODA. He is both encouraging and demanding and almost never shows frustration with an overaged xingyi wannabe and his piss-poor Chinese skills.

But the other night I feared I would give him a heart attack. Couldn’t nail the jump. NONONO. Again. Couldn’t nail the jump. NONONO. Again. He usually speaks in simple, easy-to-understand Chinese, but I couldn’t catch any of his mumbled comments that night. Still, I think I got the general drift.

At night, the park is full of those out for an evening stroll. Forget the Olympics - there may be nothing more exciting, more eye-riveting than watching a martial arts teacher grill his foreigner student in the 100 degrees heat/ 95% humidity. More pressure, more tension, more failures. Passersby stopped, gawked, mumbled encouragement. He began to joke with them, lightening the atmosphere and probably avoiding a coronary. I had to laugh at last – and bam, I nailed that damn leap.

Xing yi quan (形意拳) is one of the three primary internal Chinese martial arts, and is certainly the one closest to the more familiar external styles based to some extent on outwardly visible forms of strength. The other two main internal styles are tai ji quan (太极拳), well known for its slow and graceful motions, and ba gua zhang (八卦掌), not so well-known but marked by its emphasis on circular motions which flow into counters from unexpected angles.

Xing yi quan is based on repeated drilling of five basic fists or attack styles. The next stage of practice involves forms named after either 10 or 12 animals. XYQ is not an imitative style, trying to copy the actual motions of animals (as with some animal styles, usually external). Rather, it tries to express some key element of the animal’s motions.

Yan Xing (燕形) is the swallow form, and it features distinctive and quick changes among high and low postures. Only once in the form does the performer’s body take a posture resembling that of a swallow with outspread wings (contrast to many eagle fist forms which are full of postures meant to resemble an eagle in physical appearance). So the point of yan xing is to show the ability to shift rapidly and effortlessly among high and low postures rather than try to physically copy the body of a bird.

Hou Xing, on the other hand, emphasizes the quick and agile hand motions of the monkey. One name for the leaping move is pa gar (爬杆), referring to the monkey scrambling up a stick or pole – hands moving all the while. Some nights after the above was written, I was doing well on the leap but had lost the correct hand motion (a series of four strikes). Seems I can’t put it all together and I have a ways to go before grasping the essence of monkeyness.

Friday, August 15, 2008

monkeys (1)

Monkeys (part one)

June 7, 2008 and August, 2008

A year ago? Two years back? Yearly special training (gasshuku) with OO University’s Gong Fu group in the countryside.

The second night, I woke up early, very early, maybe 5 AM, to the sound of scratching on the roof. This was not the sound of a branch scraping the roof in the wind. Something was moving across the roof. I got up and saw that one of the students was also awake. We saw a monkey outside on the second floor balcony and were drawn irresistibly to the window.

Outside we saw a pack, an army of monkeys, all moving down the hill and across to our right. There seemed to be no end to them. They kept coming and coming in a spread-out swarm, sometimes hopping across the rooftops of nearby second homes but mostly scrambling along the ground.

All ages and sizes. They didn’t seem to be in a particular hurry but they were definitely moving together toward a destination. Glimpses of wildlife are rare in Japan. We weren’t really that deep in the countryside, either, so this was all the more surprising.

A few more moments and they were gone, continuing their pre-dawn exodus, moving on down the mountainside.

A strange and magical chance, watching them as the two of us stood side by side at the window. Magic – there is none of it in modern (post-modern) Japan. Everything runs smoothly and with precision. There are few surprises, and everything seems familiar.

In contrast, it seems that much magic and mystery remain in China though here, too, they are being swept away. One of my favorite books ever is Mark Salzman’s Iron and Silk, which draws me back again and again. He was in China at the perfect time, just after it began re-opening to the outside world. Moreover, he had all the right introductions and good language ability.

I am filled with new motivation each time I read the book – but also feel a tinge of regret, at being stuck in a Japan empty of magic and having spent too long here not getting deeply connected with the best teachers of Japanese arts.

Why I didn’t make these connections is a long story for another time, but much of the fault lies with me, not landing in Japan with a clear plan and determination to go straight to the best. 13 years in Japan, and I am now looking back at how very differently I could/ should have done things.

Midway through my years in Japan, I spent most of a year in China, one of the best periods of my life. I sampled mystery and magic at that time, but returned to Japan before having tasted deeply.

Maybe I doomed myself from the start, coming to Asia with the naïve idea of grasping the language and martial arts of not one but two countries. There is a proverb about trying to catch two rabbits and missing them both, and it has dogged me since my arrival.

Now I train on occasion with these kids from the university who are exactly half my age. I float on the fringes, in principle part of the group but in fact an outsider in every way. No matter – I am after more training time with Mr. T, not seeking acceptance from kids younger than my stepson.

I am quite fortunate to have been invited to take part in special trainings with this group. I have gotten intense scrutiny from Mr. T and exposure to chuojiao fanzi quan and ba ji quan in addition to my regular work with ba gua zhang and xing yi quan.

I have joined their monthly special practices for a couple years now, usually an 8-hour outdoor marathon. Each practice has been excellent, but my strongest memory may be sharing that moment, watching those monkeys making their way among the houses and cars of sleeping humans, on their way to who knows where. Did they have a clear plan for where they were going? Will they look back and reflect on missed opportunities?

olympics3:practice, bowing, judo

Olympics3: practice, bowing
August 13-16, 2008

(1) I grew up with little interest in sports, and had virtually no interaction with the athletes in high school. Volleyball could be fun, as could baseball when played for fun with friends. But otherwise, it was me and my books. The closest I got to sports was the competition of chess.

No sweaty locker rooms for me – much better the exhileration and excitement of academic challenge. My greatest moment of athletic glory may have been instigating a lunchtime snowball fight on a rare day of Texas snowfall – then leading the pack in running away when a wayward snowball hit the school library window. After all, I worked as a librarian assistant in the afternoon. Thanks to that glorious sprint, I escaped unseen and slipped in to work safely a few minutes later. But that was it, my greatest athletic exertion for an entire school year.

Yet here I am for a month at the Beijing Olympics, having plunged headlong into the world’s largest and most important sports event, surrounded by athletes and those watching, recording, and cheering their performances.

I have just finished a several-day stint with a Japanese tech crew at the swimming venue. Most of my time has been spent ensconced in our makeshift cabin, tapping away at the computer, doing venue research, or cramming Chinese language. Once in a while trouble arises and then I get called in. Trouble arose only once today – 5 minutes before I was to finish work. It looked like a quick ten-minute job.

Two hours later, the problem remained unsolved but the contests were finished, so we returned to the cabin. No complaints, mind – it was my first chance for an extended look at the actual competition. And it turned out to be more interesting than I had expected.

The best part was the underwater turns where the swimmers kick off the wall and roll their bodies over underwater, captured perfectly with an underwater camera. The beginning also caught my eye – the preparation and readiness. The splash of a handful of water on the face, a final stretch, the crouching position, and the initial dive, followed by that underwater wiggle which precedes the first strokes.

The crowd, however, is looking for something different – all eyes are glued on the finish. They want the fastest, the strongest, and they use this as a measure for the best. My eyes are also drawn to the finish, but I cannot share the roar of the crowd, no matter which country’s athlete is drawing attention. Of course a huge cheer goes up whenever a Chinese athlete takes the floor – and a bigger cheer erupts whenever China nabs another medal.

Each country’s athletes have ardent supporters. Yet I don’t feel any special connection to the athletes from the States (or from Japan, for that matter). I have never felt any particular allegiance to athletes from a particular school, region, or what have you. Maybe that is part of the reason for my ongoing interest in the martial arts – all the practice, all the training, are for oneself, to challenge and improve oneself.

So what about judo, wrestling, tae kwan do, even boxing or fencing? Yes, I would have more interest in watching any of those (and not just the preparation and practice). But what I really want is not to watch it but to do it myself, to work on my own forms and motions….

(2) At the moment I am with a TV crew covering the final day of judo competition. My background is in karate and weapons-based Japanese martial arts – I lack experience in any grappling arts, Japanese or otherwise. So the world of judo is at once foreign and familiar to me.

Inside the arena, I watch a few bouts and am not terribly impressed, apart from the brilliance of a French judoka who is clearly a crowd favorite. Back in the cabin with all the equipment and wires, I glance up at the monitors occasionally and see one thing which greatly impresses me.

Tsukada Maki is doing extremely well, moving closer and closer to the finals. Her wins are not what grab me – it is her bowing. Before and after each match, her bows are sincere. I sense that judo is more budo than sport for her. I do not get that sense from many other competitors with their half-assed non-bows, like chickens pecking at something on the ground, thrusting or tipping the head forward an instant because the rules require some semblance of a bow.

Even if she had not been successful in terms of win-loss, I feel she would have been the real winner. And that she maintains her sense of respect and decorum on top of a winning record…well, all the better. I have the feeling she does judo for the practice moreso than for the victory.

Update – later that night, she lost the final round to Tong Wen of China. The crowd was worked up throughout the match, then surged as one to their feet when Tong won the bout.

My eyes were on Tsukada. I can’t imagine her disappointment, having come so close to the gold medal. It was over in an instant but what we saw in a flash must have passed so slowly for her, with the awareness that she had been thrown, that her body was about to crash into the mat below.

The referee gave the signal, both judoka returned to their starting positions, Tong’s arm was raised by the referee. And there was Tsukada – deep and sincere bows to her opponent, the referees…more than a victory or a medal, this sight gave me hope for the future of judo as something more than a sport focused solely on winning or losing.

za shi chui

August 14-15, 2008

Seventh practice with Liu Laoshi today. And I got damn lucky with the weather and the work schedule. It was a long day, pushing 15 hours with transportation time included. But in the middle of it I had a five-hour break. Liu Laoshi is waiting for a call from me each day regarding my availability for night practice. I am extremely grateful for his flexibility in working with my schedule. Especially on days like today, when I call him in the late morning and ask whether he is available for afternoon practice. He is. I am out the door.

And into the rain. Just a few drips when I walk out, but there are great rolls of nasty-looking grey clouds not far away. People are running about and backup generators are being fired up on orders from above, meaning things could be bad.

By now everyone is familiar with Beijing’s efforts at weather manipulation, firing rockets into the sky at all hours. The main goal was to prevent rain during the opening ceremony, and that was accomplished. But the thing is, that rain has to come down sometime.

And down it came, at least waiting until after I had gotten on a bus. Beijing is a massive, sprawling city and it is famous for having heavy rain in one area and rainless skies in another (it is not a city famous for clear skies, ever). Pushing meteorology to the limit, Beijing has been issuing separate weather reports for Olympic venues in different areas within the city. But this was not necessary as I moved south across the city – there was heavy rain everywhere.

One bus- subway- taxi commute later, I arrived at Tao Ran Ting park. The rain was still falling, but not quite so heavily. I had been going on sheer faith, hoping that Liu Laoshi had in fact ventured out into the rain. In our morning phone call, we had not discsussed the possibility of rain. Nor had I thought until then about whether he would be willing to teach in the rain.

No problem, no problem, as I often hear over here. I found him sipping tea under the roof of his usual teahouse. After the usual chatting and sipping, we got started right there, among the twenty-some people who were still seeking shelter from the rain. Space was cleared for us and off we went.

Fortunately, xing yi quan 形意拳 is characterized by forward movements along a mostly straight line, unlike some of the more flamboyant forms (long fist 长拳 comes to mind) which feature running and jumping all about.

We started with review – up and down the floor with the five basic fists. I could not get the piquan 劈拳 strike right (a recurring phenomenon these days), though I got his nod pretty quickly on the other four basic strikes. Several of those standing about were idly mimicking the motions and commenting on the foreigner in their midst.

After a while we sat down for another sip of tea but before it was sipped, he said “za shi chui” and we got right back up and into it. Enough of the review – on to the new. Za Shi Chui is a neat, compact form, easy to learn because it uses many familiar motions from other xing yi routines (yet without crossover problems). The new motions are straightforward and flow well.

So, for all my weather-related worries, it turned out to be an extremely productive afternoon. It was still raining as I walked out of the park toward the bus stop, but the rain felt good, and the break from days of heat and humidity added to my comfort. True, I was going back to work, but that was a long bus ride away, and my mind was filled with the excitement of plunging into a new form, one more piece of the puzzle which forms this particular martial art.

Monday, August 11, 2008


Had an unexpected day off, so I scuttled off to morning practice with Liu Laoshi - the first time I have seen Tao Ran Ting Park in the daylight this trip. They have completely redesigned, redecorated and improved the entire place since my visit last fall. This is quite significant because the park is nowhere near any of the Olympic sites, most of which are scattered all over the northern part of town, quite far away. I hate to mention it, but a toilet report is obligatory. This park passes, with flying colors. Morning and night, it is clean, has toilet paper, etc. I expect such changes near the Olympic sites, but to see such changes far from the venues is especially encouraging.

I did some wandering around between buses near Qian Men, one of the main gates / bus stops / subway stations near that big square that starts with a T. Bought some Olympic goods, and the obligatory folding fan, took a long wander to find my second bus. Did more wandering after the second bus and saw someone in red shorts with a big N on them, which can only mean one thing. That big N stands for nowledge at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Sure enough, emerging from an alley onto a shopping street far from my hotel, I had stumbled upon 3 Nebraskans, though not gymnasts or athletes as I had imagined. Go figure.

Other news - it rained and poured yesterday, when I spent the entire day inside the tech crew cabin, only got soaked going to the toilet. Today - my day off - it is actually a bit cool and a bit less humid than it has been every day so far, so I feel quite blessed. So everything has worked out in my favor on the weather front.

The only problem is that I have just been run through all 12 animal forms (xing yi quan) in four sessions and need time to review, review, review. At the end of today's practice, Liu Laoshi told me we would start a new form next time, one I have never learned (or even seen) in Japan. Not a complaint, mind - this is exactly what I came for.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Olympics2: work

Olympics2: work

You can read about the background, the opening ceremony, and the significance of all the 8’s elsewhere. From my perspective, we got the first TV broadcasts off in Japan without trouble and I can relax a bit. I am working as an interpreter for one of the Japanese camera/tech crews but my services are needed only on occasion (this may bear witness to a brief surge in blog postings…). So I have scattered points of intense activity followed by lulls of recuperation and waiting.

When things are getting set up at a certain venue, I am the interface point between Japanese and Chinese staff. My job is to be out of the way but instantly able to leap in and help resolve whatever trouble may arise. But once things are rolling, my job is merely to stay out of the way (and be prepared to leap into another 30-minute adventure).

This is by far my longest exposure to the world of interpreting, and it is far more exciting and stimulating than that of translation. In fact my skills as an interpreter are limited, yet to be honed. There are a couple members of the Japanese media team who are pros. They are the ones down on the floor, interviewing non-Japanese athletes for the press.

Another part of my job is simple human relations, doing what I can to ensure smooth workings among people from many nations and cultures. English is the de facto universal language here. Most native speakers don’t know to effectively communicate with non-natives (this does not mean speaking loudly and with a very few words, as most seem to think). Many non-natives (some with quite high levels of English) don’t know how to ask the natives to change their speaking style (a numbered, bullet-point style is good; avoid idioms; occasionally stop and check that the listener understands the message; etc.)

We have the entire range of accents going as well: Japanese English, Chinese English, French English, and so on, each speaker with their own ability level. Put all this together and add in people from different teams with different objectives/concerns and things easily get tense when communication fails. Throw in some specialized vocabulary (never thought I would be talking about coaxial cables in Japanese…), add obnoxious background music being blared inside the stadium, and matters are made more difficult.

So I am collecting names, building relationships, initiating conversations I would never have otherwise – all of this quite awkward and forbidding for the socially impaired introvert that I was.

But no more! A bold and bubbly new being is emerging out of my staid old shell. Eyes and ears (and mouth) open, exploring a new world and seeking new challenges. The strangest part of all this is that I am not, have never been, an athlete or even interested in athletics.

Remember the geeky kid with glasses who sat in the front row of class, attentive to the teacher’s every word? That was me. Recall the loose group of outcasts who didn’t fit into any other group and certainly didn’t play any sports? I was there. How about the kid who played right field in that long year of softball in elementary school? That was me.

I rose to some minor fame as a goalie in my brief junior high school soccer career and even scored a goal when we put the squeeze play on some team we beat mercilessly. By high school I ventured onto the cross-country running team for a year and came in dead last every practice except that glorious day when my nemesis – Chris, who always came in second-to-last, and who stood a full head shorter than I – had a cold.

I matched his pace for a while but the lust for fame overtook goodwill and I turned it on, my long-neglected legs and lungs given full vent at last. I left him in the dry Texas dust and claimed the Second To Last position for a day. That was the day, the only day, that I tasted what it is world-class athletes must know when they perform well. It was not that I had beaten Chris; it was that I had pushed myself and attained something I had not previously known.

That is the same feeling which captured me during my first karate classes as a university student, and which has continued to move me through the years as a martial artist. I have never had much interest in “normal” sports like basketball or football, and have instead been rather over-focused on Japanese and Chinese martial arts.

And I have somehow ended up in the midst of the world’s foremost athletic competition (and reputedly the biggest in Olympic history, by every measure), surrounded by athletes of all nations. I will learn more about sports this month than I have in my entire life. I may not ever do any of these sports, but I will finish my work here able to converse with sports fans from around the world.

Don’t worry, some things can’t be changed. When not cramming baseball or wrestling vocabulary in Chinese, I am running through tai ji quan routines upstairs as the crew works their technical magic downstairs. Things look good today – no troubles below means more free time for me above. And when the day is done, I am out the door, off to get in some martial arts training in the park.

Friday, August 8, 2008

hungry, thirsty, and gotta piss 2

August 6, 2008

Three days much the same – start my nebulous Olympics work in the morning, explore Beijing sites in the humid heat of the day (Olympic venue research), try to prepare for a job which still lacks any description. Afternoon crawls into evening, hope and hope for an early release from work, move toward the exit once the OK is given.

I carry a second backpack each day with a complete set of clothes and shoes for practice – just in case my work schedule allows it. Liu Laoshi is exceedingly kind and understanding and is basically on standby, waiting for my call each day…Yes, I can go….No, I cannot make it tonight…

First three days were all go. Race through the madness of Beijing transportation during the Olympics (a taxi – subway with three transfers – bus combination works the best, about 90 minutes one way) and then hustle through the park once I arrive. And there he is, waiting in his usual place, sipping tea in the evening breeze.

Yes, by the time I get there it is evening, past evening in fact and on into night. Each day I arrive in the same condition: have not eaten dinner, am quite thirsty, and need to use the restroom. Pissing is taken care of easily enough, and we start each lesson by sitting, chatting, and sipping hot water. The hunger is soon forgotten once in motion.

Each lesson feels too short. It is full and fulfilling in every way, but I want more. It is early in my one-month stay in Beijing, but already I fear it will pass too quickly and I will leave wishing I had found more time, even one more lesson, with Liu Laoshi.

It is dark by the time we finish and the breeze is wonderful each time we sit down for a short break. He is pushing me hard, but not into total exhaustion. I am covered in sweat within the first few minutes. The breaks are welcome, but I don’t want to waste a minute. But this is part of it – learning to relax, to slow down and not be driven to fill every minute. The tea-shop man waits for us to finish as usual, then helps us clear up the chairs and table.

Liu Laoshi guides me through the park to the back exit (open later than the others) and we separate near my bus stop. He says to call him the next day, anytime is OK. And off he fades into to the darkness. I dodge all manner of vehicles while crossing the street and let out a huge sigh once on the bus. Finishing this late at night has one more good point: a guaranteed seat on the bus.

I scribble post-practice notes as we wind through the Beijing night, grateful for the breeze coming in the windows as we move. At Hepingmen, I get out and re-fuel with beer and cheap-and-delicious Sichuan-lite fast food (nowhere nearly as spicy as the real stuff, but just right for me). Three subways later I arrive at Haidian Huangzhuang for a long walk back to the hotel.

Along the way, I stop and watch my newfound wushu friends. They practice on the sidewalk quite late every night. We exchanged nods the first night, words the second, and demos thereafter. Much more to come on this group…

The final stop before the hotel: a second refueling, with beer and chuar (various foods boiled on skewers). That provides enough energy to get me home, showered, internetted and into bed for the most needed recharging: sleep.

Friday, August 1, 2008

hungry, thirsty, and gotta piss

First complete day in Beijing and everything is good. Work is not terribly exciting yet, just driving around this vast and sprawling city, checking out various Olympic sites before the games open. 

The real story starts at 6 PM, when work is finished. I called Liu Laoshi and was surprised and happy to learn he would meet me this very night for our first practice. No time to waste, I sprinted toward the subway station.

Three subway transfers and a taxi ride later, I arrived a few minutes late and there he was, waiting for me as scheduled. My Chinese was put to the test but unnecessary - I was so glad to see him again after my solo visit to Beijing last November, few words were necessary. 70-something and still spry, he was just as usual - that growly Beijing version of Mandarin, using his two English words (yes and no) with great frequency, so eager to share his knowledge and experience.

Hearing that voice again is a great comfort. And I need some comfort. The hot water assuages thirst. But lunch was quite a while ago. Once I am in motion, though, I forget about the hunger instantly. That also solves the piss problem. Hot water does not help that but I can deal with it later, after the lesson. Work may interfere with practice at any time, and I need to get the most out of each class. 

730 PM means twilight and respite from the heat and humidity. My work schedule here in Beijing is extremely irregular but most days will be filled completely. He is quite willing to work around that schedule, to my relief. Even if it means going until 9 PM and later. This great flexibility of his (so different from many teachers of Japanese martial arts...) adds further comfort. 

745 PM, sit down and chat over hot water in the evening breeze as pink and orange fill the sky. We grab chairs and a table from the tea place he visits every day and passersby zoom in to check the conversation. We get up to stretch then get down to business and the passersby move along. 

Before coming to Beijing I had reviewed all my ba gua zhang well. But tonight he took me immediately into xing yi quan review. I was rusty but put in a good performance. He nailed me hard on the five basic fists but was relatively pleased with one of the forms (xing yi lian huan). 

We stopped a time or two for more water, a look at the stars, a listen to the leaves overhead. Then back into the motions, up and down the line. I wonder what it is like for those who live here in Beijing and study with him on a regular basis. True, my teacher in Tokyo is his student and maintains a very close relationship. I can move instantly from practicing with one to the other. But living far away, making a visit like this, adds a kind of magic to each meeting, a hunger to make the most of each moment. 

And that hunger is enough to overcome all the bodily needs crying out for attention. 

I recall nights going out to the outskirts of Tokyo  for karate in Hachioji- an almost two-hour commute each way after work. Same story - no time for dinner, no time for the toilet, but that forgotten once I put on the karate gi (uniform) before starting. Then, after practice, too tired to worry about food, only water was enough. But I have to confess, sometimes after practice as we sat kneeling in seiza and listening to various points, the urge to piss became almost overwhelming. While moving it was forgotten, but once still in seiza, my bladder began to scream with urgency, demanding attention and release. 

I also recall the glory days as a university student, spending more time in the dojo then on all my classes. 10 minutes to walk from morning class to the dojo for a daytime practice, eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on the way. Two of those classes back to back, an hour each. Then ten minutes to shower, change, and walk to an afternoon class (eating peanut butter and jelly sandwich number two on the way). I didn't think anything of it at the time. Nor did I think anything of going on to night class four evenings a week (at least with a full stomach). 

No longer in my 30s, I lead a bit more comfortable and staid life. But nights like tonight remind me of what is important, what needs to be given up, and what can be gained.