Thursday, February 26, 2009

reader questions

"What are the differences between the styles of tai ji? Is there not one basic set of forms? Are the different styles so apart that one would be hindered by reading texts/watching DVDs from another school's style?

My concern here is that for home practice, would I necessarily need to study materials from the same style as my class?"

OK, at the risk of sounding pompous and spouting off too much, I will take on the above – but only after first inviting readers to provide their own, better answers in the comments section. We need all the help we can get.

And also after complaining once again about my friend who spends all of 30 seconds typing these questions which require hours and hours of overtime from me and my beleaguered staff. Just kidding – keep the good questions coming, but don’t expect timely answers.

Taking your questions in order…

(1) Here goes an extremely loose history of tai ji. There seems to be general agreement that the Chen Style may be the oldest of the Big Five. Chen style is noticeable for being a bit more lively or active in appearance, especially its fajing expressions of power.

The Yang Style probably developed next and may be the biggest influence on the modern forms such as 24 and 48. The Wu (吴, or wu with a rising second tone) style was developed by Wu Quan Yu (or Ch’uan yu) and his son Wu Jian Quan (or Chien-ch’uan), who had earlier made extensive study of the Yang Style. The Wu (吴) style is known for its tendency to have the upper torso leaning forward in many stances (though old photos revealed that major Yangs also developed this tendency as they got older).

Then we have the Wu (武, or wu with a falling – rising third tone) Style, sometimes called Wu (Hao) (武郝) Style, actually third in order of development of the Big Five. This is the style about which I know the least, though one book tells me that one of its characteristics is that the hands are never extended past the feet.

One of the patriarchs of the Wu (Hao) style went on to teach Sun LuTang, who developed the Sun Style. You can recognize it by its abundance of motions in which the upright palms spread apart and come together, as well as by its follow-foot stepping style (think of kendo’s footwork here, or maybe xing yi quan).

Brief digression – the Sha style, which I write about in this blog, was developed by Sha Guo Zheng, a leading student of Sun Lu Tang.

2. One basic set of forms? No, but the tai ji principles apply to all styles of taiji. They are just expressed in different ways by each style. I could answer this another way – there are the modern forms such as tai ji 24, tai ji 42, tai ji 48, tai ji sword 32, and so on. These were developed from the 1950s onward by national sports committees in China by drawing influences from the Big Five. They can be practiced by anyone regardless of style and are seen frequently in competitions.

3. Are the different styles so far apart that one would be hindered by reading texts/ watching DVDs from another school’s style? Ohhhh, good question, bad can of worms. Purists might say yes. I would give a strong and definite “maybe”. The danger is, of course, that exposure to too many influences will result in a useless mish-mash.

If I recall, you have started one of the Wu styles recently, with no prior experience in the Chinese internal martial arts but experience in kendo and TKD.
In the beginning, I would recommend spending 90% of your reading/ viewing time on materials related directly to your teacher and your style. The other 10% or so could be general reading/ viewing on tai ji, but I would not recommend much comparison to other styles until after a couple years with your teacher. Yes, you should have some general knowledge about how your Wu style might be different from the others, but I would absolutely not start trying to learn the motions of any other styles until having spent considerable time with your teacher. (Having said that, learning something like the general 24 form – with the same teacher – might be a good idea).
Think about your kendo experience. Kendo is a relatively open world; people can easily visit different dojos and practice together. Too much of that and you become a gypsy with no recognizable style, but some amount of interchange is quite ordinary. Now think of koryu kenjutsu (or any koryu bujutsu, for that matter). Apart from The Immortals, you need to dedicate yourself to a single ryuha or school for an extended number of years. Sure, you might begin to learn how to recognize characteristic motions or feelings of other ryuha, but you will be studying one school, with one teacher, for a long time. Some people do both koryu kenjutsu and modern kendo, but they are few in number and often criticized from both sides.
Things are not so strictly separated in the taiji world. You can do one of the Big Five styles AND the modern forms at the same time (many people do, and they are respected by those around them IF they separate the unique movements and flavors of each). If your Wu Style teacher is good, stay with them for a long time and let the influence come deeply into your body and spirit.
Back to watching DVDs and all. Sure, spend a little free time on the non-Wu stuff, just to investigate. But I would keep 90% of the focus, time, and energy, on the Wu Style for now. I wouldn’t buy any non-Wu DVDs – it is too easy to find good samples of all the major forms on Youtube and such.

4. My concern here is that for home practice, would I necessarily need to study materials from the same style as my class? Basically, yes, for at least a year or more. Reading up on general taiji or other styles is great, but your body has to develop a foundation in one thing right now. My advice would be to try to remember as many key motions, descriptions, and feelings as you can from each class and to start writing your own book. Do you keep notes after each class? I highly recommend it.

One final point – I am winding down a week of day-long intensives with Ma Chang Xun, his son Ma Jun, and senior student Xu Xiang Dong, all famous 吴 Wu Style teachers from Beijing, who are here with us in Tokyo for a while. The son told us that he doesn’t know any other tai ji styles, doesn’t even practice the 24 or 48 forms. It is far too late for me to follow that path, but I would suggest confining yourself to one (good) teacher and one style for as long as possible.

I hope I have started to answer your questions, and I further hope some readers will chime in with other/ different/ better answers, because these are good questions.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

what brought you to taiji?

Someone asked me this question on the evil thing that is facebook. Now that’s just not fair. He spent about five seconds typing that question and I need an hour to answer it. It is true, my vicious denigrators and detractors have, on occasion, accused me most groundlessly of perhaps a bit of wordiness, which might when seen from other perspectives be termed a certain tendency to expressiveness, possibly even expansiveness leading to…but how could anyone possibly answer that question in brief?

I could take the easy way out and answer with one word: fate. I was destined to pursue taiji. Living in China, many people taught me the word 缘 or yuan, something like “connection” or “tie”. Then there is 武缘, wuyuan, which must be a kind of fate that brings like-minded martial artists together. But really, fate or destiny or what have you is a rather unfulfilling answer.

My first taiji experience was an all-too-brief introductory course offered through the university some 23 years ago. What brought me to it? A vague interest in “Chinese philosophy” and a specific disinterest in typical sports. I haven’t met the teacher since then and don’t even know what style of taiji it was. She planted the first seeds, but I suspect it was a bit early in the growing season, the ground still too brittle in early spring.

It was a few years later, somewhere in my 8-year career at university, that I found Di Ma (written about elsewhere in this blog). She is the person who really kindled my interest in taiji and in Chinese martial arts in general. But at this time I was already subsumed in the world of karate, spending hours a day in that glorious time when I had little work and much time and energy. Officially, I majored in English, psychology, and philosophy, though I would have to say I devoted the greatest portion of my studies to the karate club.

So taiji was something secondary, not my primary pursuit. But I could not shake it – I knew that something in its motions and in its overall approach were right for me. Was it mere fate that brought Di Ma to the US, and to Lincoln, Nebraska of all places? That was back when it was not so easy to get out of China, and the family had to come over separately, one by one. Something more than chance was at work, I suspect.

More years down the road – an almost-year in China, daily one-on-one lessons in the taiji 42 form with Mr. Wu (written about elsewhere…). Though I kept up a steady regimen of solo karate practice, my early morning sessions with Mr. Wu soon became my focus. Already my core was shifting from the Japanese arts to those Chinese.

How did I get to Wenzhou, China? A young and talented martial artist left his wushu school in Ping Yang, going from the Chinese countryside to the metropolis of Tokyo, to study kendo and iaido at the same dojo I attended at that time. He and the kendo teacher organized trips in 1998 and 1999 which resulted in mutual demos of Chinese and Japanese martial arts in China. Taking part in them was my first exposure to life in China and led to that almost-year over there.

The next and biggest stage in my taiji development was meeting Mr. T here in Tokyo after returning to Japan from China. There was a brief, three-week intro course being offered in the small park-like area near my home. Its purpose was to gather interested students for a more formal class in a nearby community center.

I knew from the first day that he was the teacher for me. Was it 武缘? I don’t know. What brought me to live in Mitaka, the same part of Tokyo that he lives in and thus brought me in close proximity to several of his classes? Was it fate?

Maybe I was given a second chance, having blown my first one. Back at university, I had experience with kendo, iaido, and naginata, all in the same club. But the core, the absolute center, was karate. So it was ideal for me – deep exposure to and focus on one art, good exposure to others, and all in the same network – the same dojo, the same teachers. And all within the cloistered walls of the university.

Coming to Japan, I wanted to continue my progress in the Japanese arts I was already practicing. But I missed the most obvious point: no single person here in Japan teaches several arts like that. There was no way to re-create the situation I had back home.

Looking back, it is clear that I was doomed from the start. What I should have done (here we go) was live in Hachioji (outskirts of Tokyo) and devote myself to training karate there at the honbu dojo with Okano Sensei. I should have arranged a work schedule around karate. What about kendo? You can practice that anywhere in Japan. Iaido? Okano Sensei was also 7-dan iaido and I had joined his iaido classes on two pre-moving visits to Japan. Naginata? He personally called the head of Hachioji naginata and arranged for my visit out there.

All the doors were open. No one in Japan is like that, willing to help someone study more than one art. Things are very closed and outside training is not to be discussed (until you have reached very high rank; then it becomes very good to talk about being deeply experienced in 2-3 arts. But the distance between those two points is long…). Yet here was Okano Sensei, holding every door open to me – what other teacher in Japan would do that?

I failed completely. A friend offered to let me stay in his apartment for awhile (other side of Tokyo) and take over some of his English-teaching jobs as he edged into IT work. I took the easy way, moved in with him (after all, there was an English-using kendo dojo extremely nearby. Fool!). One of those jobs automatically closed off one night of karate practice to me. I drifted into other jobs that gradually reduced my karate attendance to almost nil.

Sure, taking THOSE jobs freed me up for other martial arts practice in the daytime, and I made great progress in naginata and so on. But it became impossible to continue in karate. You can’t hop around various karate dojos like you can (to some extent) in kendo or naginata.

This could take us into a long self-analysis on my personality shortcomings and not taking control of my own destiny…but let’s not wallow in it.

The irony of it all is that, on leaving the university to move to Japan, my karate teacher’s final message to me was to not worry about karate. “Go over there and study something you can’t study over here, and bring it back”. His words could not enter my ears. For seven years, karate had been the absolute center of my life – and he was telling me I didn’t need to study karate in Japan, the heart of it all??

And here I am now, the karate connection completely lost, studying things I could not study back in Nebraska, plunging in ever more deeply.

Studying taiji with Mr. T led me into xing yi, then into ba gua, and more. Trips to China to meet and study with his teachers, forging connections and deepening my knowledge. Several practices a week, regular participation in the local demos and exhibitions. My daily practice, my core, is the Chinese internal martial arts, with other topics in the background.

What brought me here? Fate alone is not enough of an answer. Maybe it was fate that brought me here, that presented the opportunity, but it has been my efforts to take control of the course of my training – and the excellent guidance of my teachers – which has kept me moving in this direction. I can only ask for more such guidance and take personal responsibility to bring it into my life and my motions.

Next question, please.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

a sudden and wonderful spring day

…followed by the cold and bitter winds of lingering winter. But what a day it was – perfectly timed to coincide with all-day outdoor practice in the park. And I am at last getting a grasp on this Chen style taiji form.

And as usual, my sense of accomplishment is balanced by a taste of foreboding. Getting a grasp of this new world, this strange and twisty way of spiraling and corkscrewing, is relatively easy. Working it deeply into my body is not.

This is a group that meets occasionally in the park for half-days or full days of intensive practice, a valuable supplement to my regular training. Each of us is responsible to guide our own development / choose what to practice. Old material is reviewed deeply; new material tends to come in large bursts. Mr. T doesn’t usually teach in large surges during regular classes, so this is a special opportunity to delve into new material.

But then there is the responsibility to maintain it all and to integrate it into my overall curriculum. That may be the hardest part, but it is also rewarding.

I am surrounded by youngsters about half my age and find this to be highly motivating. I also take some quiet delight when they compliment me on becoming even more flexible in my stretching (this 40-something body isn’t done yet!).

We are surrounded by all manner of people. The local karate group who yell “osu” a little too loudly and too often. The young baseball kids, sitting through a 20-minute post-practice lecture by an angry coach. I joked that American parents would step right up and take their kids home in the middle of the droning. “Hm, it might be a bit much for 8- and 10-year-olds” agreed one Japanese friend. It reminded me of the pre-practice 20 minute ramblings of ancient and Most Venerable iaido senseis before any all-Tokyo iaido event.

Here in the park, there are others: various drama groups practicing their routines. Six very geeky photographers (all male) and one rather young and underdressed female. The dog society, who bring their identical little weiner dogs out to yap at the same time and place each weekend.

This park is near a university, and many student groups are out doing their thing, so the distractions are many. But I was most caught by the yo-yo guy, running through endless routines on his own, maybe the only one in the park NOT attached to a group. I felt that he was doing something very similar to what we were – each of us in our own world of motion, practicing alone (within the group), finding pleasure in seeking correct motion, doing it again when things don’t go well.

And all of us out on that fine spring day sandwiched between long days of cold.

Friday, February 13, 2009

kung fu or gong fu???

In the West, almost everyone knows it as kung fu. The classic song “Kung Fu Fightin’”, the recent movie “Kung Fu Panda”, even a terrible cartoon when I was young referred to it – Hong Kong Phooey.

But in the system of Romanization used in China, called pinyin, it is rendered as gong fu, and that is how I write it here. (Experienced practitioners may/ should know all this already and may skip ahead a bit…) As has been written endlessly elsewhere – yet still has not seeped into general consciousness outside of Asia - is that the words “gong fu” (功夫) refer to a deep level of accomplishment in almost anything – not necessarily martial arts. And these characters, 功夫, are best rendered as “gong fu” in my opinion.

But whether kung fu or gong fu, it is a convenient way to refer to Chinese martial arts (especially if you want to highlight the difference from modern, sports-oriented wushu…but that opens up hours of discussion…) All of this puts me in a funny position here in Japan, with its mania for adopting semblances of foreign words. Two native Japanese can understand each other’s use of words like “sarada” / サラダ, “raito” / ライト (right? write?), and “konsento” / コンセント (electric outlet / socket). But don’t ask any native English speakers to follow these usages any time soon.

Then add in more fake words altered from languages such as French and German, and pretty soon the entries in the Japanese dictionary are more than 10% of these adopted foreign words.

And then there is カンフー, pronounced like “kan fu” (the first word sounds like con, as in con man), taken from the Chinese. Or is it? 1.3 billion Chinese (and growing) pronounce it and write it in Roman letters as “gong fu”. So it seems the Japanese have taken the mistaken “kung fu” from western countries and changed it to fit Japanese pronunciation styles, and the word has thus been doubly distorted.

Recently I have noticed a very small number of publications using ゴンフー, with two volumes of the excellent 達人の道leading the way, which is a much better approximation of the actual pronunciation within the constraints of the sounds of Japanese language (there is no “ng”, for example). But 99% of Japanese people would not recognize this usage, since “kanfu-- / カンフー” has entered standard usage.

Because there have been different systems of Romanization over the years, we have different spellings such as tai ji quan – t’ai chi chuan; ba gua zhang – pa kua chang; xing yi quan – hsing yi chuan; and even names, such as Mao Ze Dong – Mao Tse Tung.

Again, the standard on mainland China is pinyin (the first example in each pair above), but in the West the influence of the Wade-Giles system lingers, offering alternate romanizations. Things get more complicated because on the island of Taiwan, pinyin is not used (go read your history books/ internet if necessary). And a fair number of prominent martial artists … relocated…. from the mainland to the island of Taiwan around 1949 (once again, do some quick googling if necessary).

I don’t know if we’ll ever all agree on how to spell/ Romanize the arts names above, but I do think that “gong fu” should be adopted universally.

(another picture from the Beijing subways)

Monday, February 9, 2009

I think I'm learning Japanese

It’s a pretty simple word, really. tsurugi. tsu ru gi. Three syllables of a language I have been studying more than fifteen years. And I can’t get it right.

It is just one kanji character – 剣。Put it together with 道, the character for road/path, and you get kendo, which you can read about elsewhere in this blog. Kendo. Ken. That’s no problem. But on its own, the reading is tsurugi.

A tsurugi is a sword with a straight blade sharp on both sides. It is quite different in appearance and usage from the typical Japanese blade, which is curved and sharp on only one side.

I was talking about tomorrow night’s tsurugi class and was promptly interrupted. My wife repeated the word with correct pronunciation. I repeated it with incorrect pronunciation. Two repeats of that cycle, then my daughter got in on the action. She admonished me right away and repeated it with mother’s approval.

I don’t think it is fair that almost-six-year-old girls should be able to hear and instantly repeat with correct pronunciation. Or that I still can’t properly pronounce this word which is such an important part of my life. Hell, I can read and write the character and my daughter can’t begin to do that. Yet. There is a reason why I can work as an amateur translator but not as an interpreter. What comes in these ears just doesn’t come out my mouth, not as it should anyhow.

I can’t pinpoint the problem. I am tone-deaf and never never sing. Is it my ears? My voice? I tried every variation I could dream up with syllable stress, intonation, but nothing would satisfy these two nefarious judges of my spoken Japanese, now teamed against me in a none-too-subtle conspiracy. Tsu RUU gi. Nope. Tsuru gi. Nope. “tsurugi” repeats my daughter. “That’s what I said,” I insist. She bursts into peals of laughter, obviously not a proponent of the more humanistic, enlightened theories of education.

I’ll just use the Chinese word at home from now on. Basically the same character (剑), but it is pronounced jian (jee-en, as one syllable??) with a downward/ fourth tone. Much simpler. And anyway, no one in this house can fault my Chinese pronunciation.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

A year of Sun

Yesterday I celebrated a year of working on Sun style tai ji quan’s 73-motion competition form by joining my 4th seminar with Li Laoshi. It was the first time I had gone in knowing the form fairly well, as opposed to scrambling to get the motions and order down. So a bit of the pressure to LEARN IT ALL NOW! was off and I could enjoy a bit more.

Already having a few things to work on in my practice regime, I had not set out in active pursuit of this one. But the right combination of teacher and timing presented itself, and here I am.

Sun style tai ji quan (孙式太极拳, sun being pronounced like the word “soon”), is one of my topics for self-study, one not taught directly to me by my main teacher (Mr. T) but still part of my overall curriculum with him.

Some random thoughts:

1) Last February, just after my first Sun Style seminar, it was mentioned in one of my regular 24-style classes that claims about 24-style being good for health or good for the body should be disregarded. Huh? First I have ever heard of that, as tai ji is usually promoted as an excellent long-term exercise for health. Nope – it is far too right hand dominant, so we need to explore the mirror image of the form as well, if we really hold better health as one of the reasons to practice 24.

I said that I thought the Sun Style must be good for health, since it has left and right versions of most of its key moves. Nope again. The recently-made, 73-move competition form may be so, but all the traditional Sun Style forms are right hand dominant.

2) Every one of these Sun Style seminars has the same environment – Li Laoshi is Chinese, there are several dozen Japanese learners in the room (many of them heavyweights in the local taiji world, a little daunting to walk into the room in the morning…but also nice to be greeted personally by half the room). Then there is me, the sole non-Asian.

Li Laoshi was talking about the most often repeated move in the form, opening and closing / coming together of the hands (开合手). He said the vertical palms, each facing inward, should spread apart to shoulders’ width, then return to the width of your own head. I stepped to the side to check my motions in the mirror on the spot. He laughed and chastised the Japanese learners as a group for their (?) tendency to overfocus on exact precision in numbers, yet still lacking feeling in the motions.

My ears were quite red as I quite agreed with him yet am guilty of the same. He went on to say that most of those people practicing in Chinese parks each morning are full of mistakes in their motions, but they do have the right feeling.

3) A related point, also in sharp contrast to the typical Japanese martial arts class over here – he encouraged us not to worry too much about the details (for now…) and to concentrate instead upon getting the general outline and feeling.

4) About the book cover in the photo – the design with the overhead- sword-wielding – triangle person emerging from green primordial muck … It must have something to do with the general outline and feeling of the form. I sure don’t get it. Looks like I need another seminar, and fast.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009


Met a friend for an afternoon workout and it was just what I needed – too much solo review lately. We focused on two weapons – spear and tai ji sword. The sword was basically drill and review and that was fine and good. The spear was drill and review and partner work.

No protection so we were going slow to half-speed but it was good – thrusting cutting poking occasionally blocking or grabbing the other guy’s spear and moving into close range. I am looking for much more of this kind of practice in the future. Of course the basics are always the foundation and the center of each practice. But at some point, I need to test it out - against an unwilling partner. And much as I love everything I am doing in the Chinese martial arts, the particular arts and practices I have chosen don’t have much of that.

I finished with only the tiniest scrape on one finger. As a long-term project, I want to find protective armor, pad the spear tips a bit, and turn it up another notch. It always comes down to the same problem – trying to find the best balance between combative realism and personal safety. I guess my pendulum has swung pretty far over into the safety range and I am feeling it is time to add a little risk and discomfort.

Another point of interest – I realized immediately what should already have been obvious. What with side-facing stances and long weapons, there is a very similar feeling to this Chinese spear work and the Japanese art of naginata (glaive), and I drew quickly upon those naginata techniques long familiar to me. On the other hand, one key difference between J and C arts is that the former tend to favor single, decisive blows, while the latter tend toward series of attacks. Hence the repeated short thrusts so typical of Chinese spear work, in contrast to the typical Japanese style.

Back home, I worked through a spear form, then switched to the sword and was slightly distracted or disoriented by the shortness and lightness of the weapon – suddenly it didn’t feel that I was using it properly at all and my form – though technically OK – felt quite disconnected.

So despite the excitement and pleasure of productive practice, I also had a streak of disappointment at my inability to shift quickly between two types of weapon. Time to quit blogging about it and get outside and get on it!