Thursday, June 24, 2010


which one is the evil doppleganger?

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Are Competition Forms Useless (1)

This may begin a series of posts on an important topic. Below is part of the text of a comment I received a couple months back. I have been sitting on it awhile (apologies to the writer) but am now ready to wrestle with it.

From the comment: “I just finished learning the 42 sword form, and I must say it is nothing compared to my trad. Yang style sword. Mostly useless performance moves, with lagging principles and uncertain applications. Do you have better experiences?”

I have been working on the tai ji 42 sword form for a few years now but I have to admit it has not been a priority, as it is one of the few forms I have learned outside the classes of my regular teacher (though with his blessing – all teachers in the same group).

It was created in 1991, not even 20 years ago (shorter than my martial arts career!) and draws motions from 4 of the main tai ji styles. Like other competition forms, it was created with the purpose of an international standard in mind. That way, people from many different styles can get together and compete on the same level with each other. Otherwise, how could we compare two people doing completely different tai ji forms? (This begs the question of whether we really need to do so, but hey….)

Those who practice only the traditional forms, improved and passed down over the generations, may well find the competition forms bland. Those who practice only the competition forms may indeed may be missing out on a lot, since the competition forms are hybrids, drawing motions and inspiration from many sources. Perhaps too much has been lost in the blending. But let’s look at the commenter’s points one by one.

“useless performance moves” – there are one or two movements I would eliminate if I could, but I feel most of the motions are useful and have a grounding in reality. (I write this as someone who has practiced kendo – an art in which people wear armor and actually strike each other with their swords – more than 15 years. Then again, those who practice kenjutsu – no actual physical contact but always done with a partner, much less experience in that area myself – often belittle kendo as being “useless” and so on).

“lagging principles” – hard for me to respond to this one, as I need more specifics from the commenter. But on the whole it feels consistent with the principles I hold to be important in tai ji. What principles are being referred to? Strength in softness? Sinking the qi? These are all over the 42 sword form.

“uncertain applications” – Here again, with the exception of a small number of motions, I would have to disagree. The applications seem clear and generally solid to me (though I doubt you would find me using any of the one-knee-raised, balanced-on-one-foot techniques (poses??) the next time I am fighting on the streets with a Chinese sword).

It may not be the perfect vehicle for teaching tai ji jian, but the 42 form does give us a way to distinguish between dian and pi techniques, dai jian and jie jian, and so on. It teaches the shifting of weight, use of force in opposing directions, and so on. And it introduces beginners to the basics stances, grips, etc.

I don’t know the traditional Yang jian form, though I do know a Yang dao (broadsword) form and quite like it. In terms of traditional sword forms, I am getting more familiar with the Sha family sword forms and I like them quite a bit. Are they better vehicles for transmitting excellence in tai ji? Too early for me to answer, but I sense it is a case of two different roads leading to the same destination- and that these two roads share much in common.

In my case, I prefer the closer, more personal form of transmission of the traditional forms of the Sha family. But I wouldn’t want to do those forms only. My experience in the Japanese martial arts has shown me too many groups lost in small, insular worlds. Too many people who, in the pursuit of purity of transmission of Traditional Forms, do nothing but criticize and belittle other martial artists, especially those doing less traditional arts.

As for me, I continue going to a 32-sword class 1-2 times a week. The 32-sword form was an earlier (and still more common) version of a competition form for international contests. Its history stretches back ot 1957 – much longer than the 42-form but still rather short in the history of martial arts.

While it may be a competition form, I am learning it for myself and am taught finer principles and unrealized applications each week. Many of the motions overlap with those of the 42-form. And many of the motions, principles and applications overlap with those of the Sha family sword forms and other traditional forms.

But I would have to say, I prefer doing the Sha family forms. Going back to the commenter’s question -- “Have I had better experiences?” I can only say that I have been and continue to learn from and be challenged by my teacher. He uses the 32 form (and occasionally the 42 form) as tools to teach. Both forms are quite suitable for large groups of people and are often taught to beginners. Generally, people move into the traditional forms after gaining experience with the competition forms. I followed that pattern and I feel it has served me well.

I am most interested to hear comments from readers on this topic (including the original commenter). Also, look for future installments in this series. I will certainly have to write about Long Fist and Southern Fist in this regard.

(photo of myself and a practice partner doing the 32-sword form about 16 years ago)

Monday, June 14, 2010


Was I just complaining about only moving forward one move at a time in my forms lately, instead of the usual mind- and body-stretching sequences of who knows how many motions?

Silly me. Typing notes and consulting Liu Laoshi’s text on Six Harmonies Praying Mantis Fist yesterday, I discovered that I had, in fact, learned two new motions. That’s right, not one but two. The psychological difference is, in my case, profound.

No longer inching along at a snail’s pace, I am suddenly surging forward and straining my capacity to absorb new material. Double what I thought!

But it still feels like one connected sequence, just a difference in how you count the motions. There are four hand motions, a foot adjustment, and a step forward. Is that one motion? Two? Four?

Enough. Time to get outside and practice. One motion, two motions. Who cares, just finish the fight. And get ready for the next mantis fist seminar, two weeks away, and sure this time to blast forward.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

snail's pace

In recent practices, the theme seems to be slow advancement.

Tonight’s class in Sha Family sword (沙式太极剑), I was hoping for a surge forward in the (first) two-person paired form. Instead, we got a (good and needed) review of the (second) 36-motion tai ji jian form, including four repetitions in all directions, which really messed with the mind if you let it, or didn’t mess with the mind if you didn’t let it. Do you know what I mean?

After basics, 36-form practice, and breaks, there was precious little time left for the two-person form we are learning. We reviewed the first several motions several times and learned a grand total of one new motion in the last three minutes of class. No complaints, mind you – every minute of class is valuable, and I appreciate the review.

Last Sunday, we had a special 5-hour class focusing on mantis fist or tang lang quan. It’s a small and experienced group and my only real chance to review the forms of Six Harmonies Mantis Fist (六合螳螂拳) as taught by Liu Jing Ru Laoshi.

My daughter was not satisfied with four hours of Daddy Time all morning, so I took her to the afternoon Mantis class. She was pretty good (as much as can be expected of a 7-year-old) and ran through the Long Fist Staff form (长拳棍术) with me a few times, but wouldn’t run through any of the empty-hand routines in front of others with me.

Between intervals of playing and practicing with my daughter, I reviewed Duan Chui 短捶 pretty well and reviewed the first 1/3 or so of shuang feng 双封 from last month. We drilled that many times and then learned a grand total of one new motion.

I suppose this theme applies to last week (or has it been two weeks ago already??) when Akamine Sensei came to Tokyo from Okinawa for a weekend seminar in Ryukyu Kobudo. Actually there was no advancement into new techniques for me, only pushing deeper into the already-practiced forms. It was enough, and yet I still felt a hunger, watching as others reviewed forms which I have been through but don’t know well.

So these are days of slow advancement and much consolidation for me, both satisfying and slightly frustrating at the same time. Anyway, I will strengthen my foundations and get ready for there will certainly be great blasts of advancement in the future.

(photo of a snail found by my daughter at the tang lang quan practice space)