Tuesday, March 31, 2009

My meetings with masters in Hong Kong

Today I had the rare honour of speaking with internal martial arts master, teacher and historian CS Tang at his studio in Hong Kong. Over our 2 hour interview we discussed many different topics covering xingyi, bagua (the Gao style of Zhang Junfeng in particular), taiji, Chen Pan-Ling, Wang Shujin, yiquan, shaolin, competition wushu and factors giving rise to change and evolution in all these martial arts systems.

In the context of these discussions, I floated some of my theories of the relationships between various schools. As I predicted, Master Tang had quite a different take on things: for a start we discussed my long-held theory about the relationship between the zhan bu (battle stance) of xingyi (sometimes called "rowing stance" and seen in the "san ti" posture) and sanzhan/saamchien/sanzhan. Master Tang felt that xingyi's stance was of northern origin and was completely unrelated to the southern sanzhan-type stances. The fact that they might share a name or that they might have similarities (particularly in the case of some variations) was, in Master Tang's view, simply a matter of coincidence or parallel evolution.

Rather Master Tang proposed that the various martial systems of China developed independently - much as languages do. You get some "drift" from village to village, but ultimately the language they speak in, say, Harbin in the far north of China is completely different from that spoken in Guandong, Shanghai or Taiwan. Essentially the Master's view was that martial arts styles developed fairly independently in local regions. He sees xingyi as a northern system, for example. That it has spread throughout China is a matter of fact, but it originated in some village in the north. He expressed the view that xingyi lieu he (mind/form boxing of the 6 harmonies) was probably the oldest of all the extant Chinese martial arts.

Our interview got much more interesting when I asked Master Tang to imagine himself going back 500 to 600 years... What would he expect to see in terms of martial arts? The master's answer took me quite by surprise. He said:

"Just weapons."

Master Tang went on to express the view that unarmed systems of combat, as we know them today (and I assumed he meant the wushu/striking type arts with forms), probably only originated around 200-300 years ago. In other words, before that time martial arts in China consisted of practical practice with weapons (as was the trend in the rest of the world, eg. in Europe). For some reason, a couple of hundred years ago something in the broader Chinese culture - a particular zeitgeist - gave rise to the kinds of martial arts we come to associate with China today; form-based systems that cover striking, blocking and qin-na (locking/grappling/throwing) applications. The zeitgeist might have spread, but the arts did not; Master Tang felt that the various arts developed locally - village by village. Clearly neighbouring villages would influence one another. But the notion that one art (such as xingyi) was the precursor of all Chinese martial arts was not correct.

Legends, such as that of Yuei Fei creating xingyiquan, are, in the Master's opinion, just that: mere fables without historical substance.

"In order to understand what I mean you have to get inside the Chinese culture," Master Tang said. He the proceeded to describe the far-eastern notion (which I have described elsewhere) that tradition brings legitimacy.

"In other words," I said, "these legends were made up so that the martial arts would appear to be far older than they are, and therefore make them more 'legitimate' in the eyes of the populace?"

This discussion has given me pause to reconsider some of my theories which are based on assumptions that there is at least some truth to some of these legends, however tenuous or distorted.

One such theory, as stated previously, was my view about the relationship between xingyi's zhan bu and the sanzhan/sanchin of white crane and hakka, and even the "A" stance of wing chun/ving tsun. The link between wing chun and yong chun white crane seems quite strong when one considers their shared creation myth. The myth might be just a myth, but could it at least indicate some kind of close relationship between the arts - perhaps even a linear one?

Curiously I had only just been talking earlier today with Ving Tsun principal and chairman Master Cliff Au Yeung about this very issue. He kindly allowed me to watch him take a private lesson (a very great honour given his level of skill and ability) and I remarked to him afterwards that I thought there was a relationship between the basic stance of his style and the sanzhan of white crane.

"There is a little," he said with a small smile.

What was left unsaid was the understanding that whatever the relationship, it was not linear; one art hadn't evolved into the other. They might have influenced each other, but they evolved on their own. They are no more developments of each other than Portuguese is a form of Spanish etc. They might have a common ancestry for certain "constituent elements", but in other respects they are unique.

It seems that history - martial or otherwise - is not amenable to any "potted account". Historical truth is always a minefield of detail and the deeper you delve,the greater the complexity...

Copyright © 2009 Dejan Djurdjevic

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Memories of Taiwan: the calligraphy master

The most enduring memories I have of my trip to Taiwan are of the locals we met, in particular one or 2 very remarkable individuals. The calligraphy master was one of these.

My good friend, photographer Lucia Ondrusova, had asked whether I would be interested in accompanying her to the master's house/shop. Almost everyone in Kaohsiung lives and works in the same space, and their shops generally stay open till late in the faint hope of extra custom. One of my Chen Pan-Ling martial arts "sisters", Karen Jensen had apparently seen the shop open during the day, and told Lucia, her room mate at our hotel. Having experienced a calligraphy lesson at a Buddhist monastery the day before, Lucia was quite enthusiastic - and I must say that my own interest had been piqued (you can read about the monastery experience here).

As we walked along the ramshackle streets searching for the address it occurred to me that, ostensibly, I not only fulfilled the function of a protective escort (as recommended by the hotel for travel after dark, particularly for women), but Lucia was also under the impression that my (limited) Mandarin might come in useful. In this respect I did feel a tad like the blind leading the blind...

I remember clearly how we arrived at the calligrapher's shop in what felt like the dead of the night; the town had at finally started to shut its doors and put out its lights, leaving us with only the occasional scooter, some yellow street lamps glowing in the haze and the ever-present, sickly-sweet smell of spice, incense, factory solvents and the open sewer.

At first glance the shop seemed closed, but a middle-aged man appeared out the front sidewalk where he had something brewing on a stove top. He glanced up as we approached, his brow furrowed. I was beginning to think this wasn't a place where you could get calligraphy lessons; it was a shop of some kind, but, as I frequently found with older, more traditional Taiwanese businesses, I couldn't make out what they sold. Through the smog-stained glass door behind him I could see some faded, framed calligraphy scrolls; but mostly the narrow, darkened interior seemed to be filled with haphazard books, strewn papers, knick-knacks, festive banners, toy red lanterns and other good luck charms.

"Nǐ huì shuō yīngwén ma (Do you speak English)?" I ventured (it makes life so much easier when you don't have to pretend you speak Chinese). It turned out he did speak a little English - enough to understand that we wanted calligraphy lessons.
     "Lǎoshī (teacher) sleeping - come tomorrow."

So the following morning there we were, dodging the organized street chaos, breathing out polluted fog and squinting in the morning light. The shop, now open, looked less like a school of calligraphy than it had the night before; the stove tops on the sidewalk had multiplied, a dog yawned lazily and stretched as I stepped over it. The myriad cooking smells almost overwhelmed the "standard" street aroma. Next to one stove I could see the curved back of an elderly, impossibly frail looking man, a woolen cap pulled over his head. He slowly and gingerly rose to his feet and turned as we came near, as if he could hear our footsteps over the din of the morning rush hour.

The first thing I noticed about his face was the glint in his eyes - like a drop of moisture reflecting the morning rays; a smile suppressed, but on the verge of erupting.

"Lǎoshī hǎo (Hello teacher)," I said (hoping I hadn't accidentally said "lǎoshǔ" which means "mouse", not "teacher"). He nodded almost imperceptibly.

"Errm... (she)," I said pointing to Lucia, "yào (want?)... xué (learn)... xǐe (write)." My Mandarin having been exhausted, I resorted to the time-honoured tradition of speaking English slowly. Everyone knows that English is universally understood when spoken slowly (and even more so when it is spoken loudly - but I refrained from the latter). "You... teach... her... yes?" I added some scribbling gestures to the mix. The master nodded again and said nothing, his smile omnipresent. I thought of trying my Mandarin again when he raised a shaking hand, four fingers outstretched.
     "Come back. Four. Today."
     "We can't come at four..." Lucia offered. I proceeded to explain that we were away training in wushu... taijiquan... Somehow I doubt I made any sense.
     "Tonight... maybe?"
     The master was still smiling and shaking his head. "No... No time. Too busy." He pointed at the banners and I finally realized their meaning. It was the day before Chinese New Year's eve. Preparations for family reunions were in full swing. Our request for calligraphy lessons had all the timing and eloquence of a sledgehammer.

Somehow (somewhy?) we blundered on. The master even took us into the comfortable mess of his shop where he tried to locate something (what he was wanting to give us I still don't know). Lucia asked if he had a book he could sell us but the old man shook his head and pulled out one of his own ancient dog-eared textbooks, written entirely in Chinese characters. Nothing there was for sale.

After more tortuous attempts at discussion the master relented. "Come back. Tonight. Eight."

And so that night we found ourselves back at his shop, sitting in yellow lamp-light at a tiny card table that had been set up for us next to the stoves.

The master emerged wordlessly from the shadows with a brush, an inkwell and an ancient exercise pad, each leaf of paper yellowed and brittle. He placed the items methodically onto the table with his quivering, desiccated hands. Then he opened the book from the back as is Eastern tradition, flattening the spine with the heel of his palm.

We watched hypnotically as he dipped the brush into the inkwell and raised it tremulously. For a moment I pondered whether he had enough motor neuron control even to hold it. After all, I had chickened out of the lesson on the basis of my own (benign) hand tremor. For what seemed an eternity the quivering brush descended slowly and erratically toward the paper. When it finally touched all either of us could do was gasp.

The shaking was gone. In its place was sheer beauty. The master's brush swept the page effortlessly, each stroke precise, eloquent, intended; each flourish an act of perfection. He finished 3 characters - the same ones you can see written at the top of this article (not his calligraphy), then turned the page around to Lucia and gave her the brush.

I spent the next couple of hours watching Lucia attempt the characters time and time again. In each case the master would not let her proceed to try another until he was satisfied that she had reached a particular "legible" standard. I was quite impressed with Lucia: she was learning quickly. As I watched, I reflected upon my own training in Taiwan doing Chen Pan-Ling's martial arts; what she was attempting to learn in one lesson was analogous to the material I had just been practising 8 hours per day for 8 days (not to mention for some decades before). It was microcosm of the larger sweeps and movements of taiji.

Occasionally the master would gently say: "Skoshi (little)," showing Lucia how a particular stroke had to be smaller. I was surprised to find myself translating a Japanese word spoken by an elderly Chinese gentleman. It transpired (through minimalist dialogue) that he had been raised under Japanese occupation and that his teacher, whom he fondly remembered, had been Japanese. His own nostalgia for that time was betrayed only for a moment when his eyes focussed dimly into the distance.

My own mind was cast back to earlier that day when we visited a Hakka museum. There I saw a picture of a pre-war group of school students with their teacher, all dressed in neo-militaristic Japanese uniforms and hats.

The lesson ended in the manner of his brush strokes; with certainty and finality. Nothing needed to be said as he packed away his things. I glanced to Lucia and said to her in Serbian:
     "Plati mu nešto (pay him something)." Of course, Lucia is not Serbian, but Slovak. And our languages, while related, are as mutually intelligible as Portuguese and Spanish, which is to say, not really. However Lucia understood enough to whisper:
     "Koľko (how much)?"
     "Pet sto (500)?" I suggested.
     "Ty mu daj (you give it to him)," she said, shoving the note to me under the table.

I spent the next 15 minutes or so imploring the old master to accept our gift for his time. Every exhortation was met with the same gentle smile, the glint in his eye and the small shake of his head. Eventually we parted, wishing we could give something to him in return for what had been a truly remarkable experience. But in the end the master was right. Some things exceed any material value - so any attempt to reduce his gift to a monetary equivalent would have been pointless.

Rather Lucia's room mate Karen suggested that she show her appreciation with her own art; photography. So the next day Lucia went back and took portrait pictures of the master on New Year's Eve. Even on this occasion he seemed to understand her intention with almost no dialogue, posing with dignity at the card table with his ink and brush while Lucia snapped away. When she finished he handed her the ancient exercise book in which he had made notes of exactly the order and direction of the strokes for each character. Then, after ruffling through his store he emerged again with a business card and pointed to the address to which the photos should be sent.

We parted with a bow, a handshake and a wave that lingered like his smile - and the glint in his eye.


My friend Jeff Mann, a university lecturer, made the following comment on a thread in the Traditional Fighting Arts Forum which I felt was apposite to this article:

"One of the hallmarks of a good calligrapher is that there is absolutely no hesitation while the brush is in motion - which you were able to witness, it seems. I have read that you can see the difference between an expert and a novice when you look at their work through a microscope. It has to do with how the microscopic particles of ink lay on the paper and line up smoothly. The impression we have at the macro level exists because of a real difference at the micro level.

This overcoming of hesitation, or what Takuan called "the mind not stopping," is as important in calligraphy as in martial arts, especially the traditions of swordsmanship. It is no wonder that men like Omori Sogen Roshi were expert calligraphers and swordsmen (and a Zen priest to boot). When the mind can flow freely, without hesitation or conscious deliebration, one will excel at calligraphy, martial arts, and, I suppose, life."

Copyright © 2009 Dejan Djurdjevic

Friday, March 6, 2009

The naming of "naihanchi", "naifuanchi" or "naifunchin"

Hot on the heels of my blog article "The naming of sanchin", here are my thoughts on the naming of the kata most widely known as naihanchi, but otherwise known as tekki (in shotokan), naifuanchi, naifanchi and naifunchin.

For the purposes of this blog I shall refer to the kata as “naifunchin” (our preferred name). This is because this is how my instructors were taught to refer to it when they were in Japan and Okinawa in the 60s. The name is not often used now and the more common "naihanchi" predominates.

It is said that naifunchin is to the shorin styles (shuri and tomari te) what sanchin is to naha te: the fundamental conditioning (heishugata) form. There is some evidence to suggest that Chojun Miyagi practised the form even though it was not included in his syllabus.

There are various legends associated with the origins of naifunchin, however no written records of this kata survive. All that is known with any certainty is that it was passed down from the source of all the “shorin” schools, Sokon Matsumura. Researcher Akio Kinjo1 speculates that it is derived from southern White Crane. Its side-to-side embusen (line of movement) is also strongly reminiscent of many southern Arhat/Lohan/Monk fist schools.

It is interesting to note that the name of the kata has only ever been written in katakana, not kanji1. Kinjo1, 2 suggests that the kata may originally have been called "nohanchin". He and others believe that the name refers to the use of the inside sweeping motion of the knee and leg (nami ashi). This is presumably on the basis that the kanji "nai" ("nei in Mandarin) means "inner".

However this proposal relies on two potentially flawed assumptions: first, that the character "nai" survived "Okinawanization" where the other characters in the name mysteriously did not, and second, that the nami ashi is such a fundamental characteristic that it warrants naming the kata after it. In fact the nami ashi only occurs twice and is hardly representative of the form.

If there is any characteristic feature of the kata, it is the horse stance, known in Mandarin as "mabu" and pronounced in Japanese and Okinawan as "mabu/mafu/maho" (literally "horse step"). It is important to note that the kata is traditionally regarded as meaning "horse riding kata", prompting Gichin Funakoshi to rename it "tekki", meaning "iron horse" or "iron horseman".

Another salient point is that naifunchin is regarded in the Shorin school as a fundamental kata in much the same way that sanchin kata is a fundamental kata in all of the Naha te systems (eg. goju-ryu). It seems odd then that while the latter is named after its principal feature, namely its stance, the former is not.

Accordingly the Occam's razor principle might suggest that the name naifunchin is nothing more than a mispronunciation of "mafuchin" (meaning "battle in horse stance"). Similarly "naihanchi" could well have come from "mahochin" - another rendering of the name. The idea that "n" was mistakenly substituted for "m" over time in a largely oral tradition is hardly surprising given the similarity between the two consonants. The mistaken addition of further vowels and consonants is also hardly inconceivable if one considers the Okinawan pronunciation of kata such as "suparinpei".


1. See Mario McKenna's article "Naihanchi"

2. See Joe Swift's article "The Kempo of Kume Village" in Meibukan Magazine No. 6

Copyright © 2008 Dejan Djurdjevic

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Sanchin in Chinese martial arts

Further to my article: "The naming of sanchin"...

I have heard it said in crane circles that there is a different sanchin for every student, or words to that effect. I don't know if that is true, but every variant of crane seems to have a sanjan/sanzhan/saamchien.

Ngo cho kun (5 ancestor fist) is based on 5 shaolin styles of which crane is one, hence they have sanchin.

While Kanbun Uechi's art seems to have been a compilation of his all his various studies, I think it was most heavily influenced by white crane. Uechi certainly looks a lot like Fujian white crane (in my view much more than goju).

For downloadable videos check out my friend Martin Watt's site: http://www.fujianbaihe.com/. He does Yong Chun white crane. His site has links to his Chinese school's site (which has more videos).

Also have a look at Eric Ling's sanjin on http://www.goju-ryu.info/ (Fuzhou Ancestral Crane - said to be the crane form that lead to all the crane variants - calling crane, flying crane etc.). Eric also has a version of happoren/paipuren/baibulan (a kata said by some to have formed the basis of tensho). It has the same name as happoren (ie. same Chinese characters) but to my eye looks completely different.

For uechi ryu sanchin, see: http://www.uechi-ryu.com/videos/u_kata.html.

Of course, Youtube is full of relevant videos.

Pat McCarthy tells me that dog, monk, tiger and lion all have sam chien / sanzhan (sanchin). This makes me wonder whether these arts are “crane derived” or whether sanzhan predates crane. Given the importance of the number “3” in sanzhan (3 battles, etc.) it is possible that sanzhan is a Arhat/monk fist derivation with Buddhist significance (I’m told that the number 3 is of some importance in Ch’an Buddhism, hence the repetition of sequences 3 times in southern Shaolin forms and in karate - see the opening sequence of sanchin, seisan, sanseiru and suparinpei, for example).

However I have also seem to recall that the stance used in xingyiquan's "san ti" posture was referred to as "zhan bu" or "battle step" by Hong Yi Xiang in Taipei. I'm starting to feel more and more certain about my theory that sanchin stems from xingyi...

Copyright © 2008 Dejan Djurdjevic

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The naming of "sanchin"

Further to my article on the numeric names of kata:

In Chinese schools (eg. ngo cho kun) the kata is called "saam chien / sanzhan" while the stance is called "chien be / zhan bu" (battle stance) . The latter is probably the more "correct" description/name of the stance. By comparison, in karate we could perhaps call sanchin dachi "chin dachi".

The kata name "sanchin" means "3 battles" and my theory is that the "battles" referred to are not "mind/body/spirit" or some other elaborate philosophical concept. Rather, I think the explanation is more straightforward: The kata is named after 3 sanchin dachi steps:Given my thoughts on the pragmatic kata naming conventions in Fujian in the 1800s (again, see my article Numeric names of kata) I think the present kata name is shortened from the full Chinese name of the kata: "san zhan bu / saam chien be" — ie. “3 battle steps”. In this regard, bear in mind that the kata is performed with 3 forward "battle steps" in most of its incarnations - in Okinawa and China.

Because the number 3 in sanchin is already qualified by "battles", it would have been easy to drop off the "bu" or “step” from the kata name. Note that other numeric Okinawan kata names are commonly referred to in their shortened form — eg. sanseru, sesan, etc — even if their formal name is accompanied by “te” etc.

Ockham's razor would favour the simplest explanation for the meaning of “sanchin” and I feel this is it.

However a complicating feature in relation to the naming of sanchin stance and kata is that it is possible that the stance derives from the stance used in xingyiquan's "san ti" (3 heavens) posture - a stance I am told is sometimes referred to as "zhan bu" or "chien be" - ie. "battle stance (see above).

The stance used in the "san ti" posture corresponds to what is known as "seisan dachi" in IOGKF (in seisan at the point of the uppercut). The IOGKF seisan dachi is a longer version of the seisan dachi used in the shorin schools - which in turn happens to be identical to the sanzhan used in many Fujian white crane schools, including Yong Chun (back foot is out, front foot straight) — see my article titled Seisan — the universal kata?.

I think it is very likely that the long history of associating the number "3" with the stance that we now know as "sanchin" makes it hard to be sure whether the chicken came before the egg...

For more information related to this topic, see: Sanchin in Chinese martial arts.

Copyright © 2008 Dejan Djurdjevic

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Numeric names of kata

I was asked on a forum why the suffix “te” is added to numeric kata names (such as “sanseru te”, “seisan te”, etc.). Furthermore why not the non-numeric kata names (eg. kururunfa)?

The Chinese martial arts often add "step" (“pu” or “bu”) to the name of a technique or a form in order to give it some sense. Hence "mabu" is their term for shiko/kiba dachi and it means literally "horse step" . The same goes for zenkutsu dachi (gong bu - forward step). This is to avoid the absurd labels "horse" or "forward" without any qualification. In this case "bu" or step has the same function as stance or "dachi".

They sometimes use the suffix "ji" meaning technique, but if the particular technique involves a stance or moving, "bu" or step is preferred.

In Okinawa it is traditional to add the character "te" after kata instead of "pu/bu/ji". This is a cultural tradition that distinguishes Okinawa from Fujian. The use of "te" reflects their native influence of Okinawa te/ti and is comparable to the Chinese (lesser) use of "ji".

(Note that sometimes "zhang" (palm - in bagua) or "shou" (hand - see Yong Chun's "ba shou") is used as a suffix for Chinese forms, however this is less common.)

Because the external southern arts (as distinct from the northern arts) are very stance/rooting focused (mabu/shiko and sanzhan/sanchin being the principle stances) , inevitably their forms would follow the same naming convention by adding the suffix "bu" or "steps" where a qualification is needed to an otherwise meaningless label such as "36".

As an aside, stances are so central to the southern Chinese external arts that sometimes the forms take the name of the principle stance used or vice versa. Examples might be sanchin and naihanchi/naifuanchi/naifunchin kata – where both the stance and kata have the same name (I’ll deal with the naming of these kata in separate articles).

Sometimes a number is qualified by something more elaborate (eg. Yong Chun's "san shr tai bau" meaning 13 "treasures" ) however this is an exception to early numeric naming conventions and might suggest more a modern influence.

My friend Martin Watts performs san shr tai bau - note his sanzhan stance (to download the form see http://www.fujianbaihe.com/fujianbaihe/main.html).

It seems to me that in the 1800s and early 1900s the Fujian people were generally quite pragmatic with their kata names (where today, forms can have quite outlandish names - eg. I can show you a Taiwanese form called "5 tigers come down from the mountain").

In my view the Chinese versions of the goju numeric kata were almost certainly named after the number of steps taken in the kata. So sanseiru had, at some point, exactly 36 steps.

The designer, being mindful of cultural superstitions, would not have settled with 35 or 37 steps, but would have modified it until it was a "lucky" or auspicious number. Buddhism certainly influenced numerological superstitious conventions, particularly in the context of Shaolin martial tradition (founded on Chan or Zen Buddhism), even in predominantly Shinto Japan/Okinawa.

Having said all this, it is not just the numeric kata names that might have attracted a term such as "bu" as a qualification. A suggested example is seipai:

The standard kanji of seipai mean “18”. The pronunciation is an Okinawan rendering of the Fujian (Hokkien or Amoy) dialect. "Sei" means 10, and "pai" means 8. It is thought that this name was given because the kata has (or originally had) 18 steps or techniques.

However given the similarity in technical emphasis and tempo to seiyunchin, it is possible that seipai might have originally shared seiyunchin's kanji "sei" (meaning "to control" ), while "pai" might have been the character "pu" or "bu" meaning steps. Accordingly seipai might have originally meant "controlling steps". This would seem to be quite an appropriate name given the bunkai of the kata which effectively control an opponent during consecutive steps forward and back.

This leads me to the naming of sanchin kata... [read more].

Copyright © 2008 Dejan Djurdjevic