The autumn leaves are falling like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are always two cups at my table.

T’ang Dynasty poem

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~


Saturday, December 31, 2011

What is the Chinese Language?

How better to end the year than to contemplate differing visions of the Chinese language?

A friend sent me a link to an article in The Economist which may be read here. As it's a very brief article, I've copied it whole below. The questions raised will surely provoke many comments, so I'd recommend visiting the original to see how they develop.

Chinese

What is the Chinese language?

Dec 13th 2011, 21:34 by R.L.G. | NEW YORK
I HAVE exercised Chinese commenters with a few posts that were seen as either simplistic or biased. So let me offer two competing visions of Chinese that help explain what the two sides disagree on. These are archetypes which few partisans may agree with every word of.  But they are the basic poles of thinking about Chinese, I think. I submit them for the good of commenters, who should debate them to shreds.

In brief, Chinese traditionalists believe

1) Chinese is one language with dialects.

2) Chinese is best written in the character-based hanzi system.

3) All Chinese read and share the same writing system, despite speaking in different ways.

Western linguists tend to respond

1) Chinese is not a language but a family; the "dialects" are not dialects but languages.

2) Hanzi-based writing is unnecessarily difficult; the characters do not represent "ideas" but "morphemes" (small and combinable units of meaning, like the morphemes of any language). Pinyin (the standard Roman system) could just as easily be used for Chinese. Puns, wordplay and etymology might be sacrificed, but ease of use would be enhanced.

3) Modern hanzi writing is basically Mandarin with the old characters in a form modified by the People's Republic. Everyone else (Cantonese speakers, say) must either write Mandarin or significantly alter the system to write their own "Chinese".

There are so many arguments packed into these two ideas that it's hard to start, much less finish, in a blog post. Since I'm (really) on holiday, I'll leave it to commenters to enlighten each other, and me on my return.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

China Resources Page

I just Stumbled onto Jordan's China Resource Page. There's all kinds of good stuff there. Please pay him a visit.


Below is an excerpt from an essay on the Five Elements. 


1. Introduction

Traditional Chinese thought about nature often involves a set of five xíng , named after natural entities (wood, fire, earth, metal, and water). The word xíng, which usually means "walking" or "moving," is sometimes translated "elements" when speaking of the five xíng, but many authors prefer translations like "forces," "natures," "phases," or "transformations" in order to capture the idea that the xíng are in dynamic interaction with each other, i.e., that they are in some sense "walking." Despite its misleadingly concrete implications, I still prefer the translation "elements," since it fits best with the basic terms always used for them: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. (It is hard for an English speaker to think of wood as a "phase.")

Underlying the utility (or, some would say, wackiness) of the concept are a number of additional assumptions:
  1. Each of the five elements has a wide number of correspondences with other parts of the natural world. Thus the element wood corresponds with the color blue, the direction east, and the flavor sour. In general, anything that can be subdivided into five categories, can be aligned to the five elements.
  2. Each of the five elements tends to strengthen, support, feed, give way to, or create one of the others. For example, wood/blue/east tends to support or strengthen fire/scarlet/south.
    (Mnemonic: Wood burns to create fire; fire creates ash/earth; it is from earth that we get metal; metal can be heated to produce liquid/water; water poured on a seedling allows it to grow into wood.)
  3. Each of the five elements also tends to weaken, undercut, or destroy one of the others. Thus wood/blue/east tends to weaken earth/yellow/center.
    (Mnenomic: Wood can grow through earth; fire can melt metal, earth can absorb water, metal tools can cut through wood, water can put out a fire.)
  4. A deficiency or an excess of any element tends to exert unnatural strengthening or weaking influence on other elements, potentially causing illness or distress.
  5. Illness and misfortune can be corrected by restoring the element that is too strong or weak. One way to do this is to supplement those elements that will tend to strengthen or diminish the unbalanced element. Usual applications are in religious ritual (including geomancy) and in medicine.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas


Merry Christmas.



" Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did NOT die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him. He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!"

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Winter Soltice

Today is the Winter Soltice.






We're heading into winter. The amount of reading I get through increases during the winter.

A couple of books I've read recently that I've really enjoyed are - Chinese Texts and Philosophical Contexts: Essays Dedicated to Angus C. Graham, edited by Henry Rosemont Jr  and The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein.

"Chinese Texts" is a scholarly one. The first few chapters were way over my head as they had to do with fine points of translating Classical Chinese, but the rest of the book was very interesting.Some of the essays had to do with things like who compiled the Zhuang Zi, and when was the first reference of the Dao De Jing and the Zhuang Zi together and referred to as a "school" or that the word "elements" in the "Five Elements" is used altogether in a different sense than modern westerners would use that word.

The Art of Racing in the Rain is a novel told from the point of view of a dog who has grown old with his family, is not nearing the end of his life and is now looking back on things. The dog's owner is a race car driver and the observations the dog makes about him and the way his lives his life resonates with the applications of Daoism and Zen in our everyday lives. It's a very good read.

I'm currently rereading Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind by Shunryu Suzuki. It's simply a classic.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Distance is a Relationship

Over at The Classical Budoka, there was an excellent post on the importance of studying distance in martial arts. Below is an excerpt. The whole article may be read here.

44. Ma: Fluid Space in Budo

December 12, 2011

In budo, like other physical endeavors, the interconnected factors of space and time (rhythm and timing) are crucial. In Japanese, the term for “space,” in between objects and opponents is “ma,” and the character can also be pronounced “aida,” as in “in between.” It is the space “in between” yourself and your opponent, the empty field that defines the potential of attack and defense, the ma-ai(the “meeting” space). Like music, however, “empty space” between notes or opponents aren’t “empty” in a sense that there’s nothing there. Potential is there. Fullness is there. Emptiness is necessary for fullness. Spaces between individual notes creates a song, its tension and melody. Space between adversaries define the field in which they fight, and the person who can control the space (and time) best is the one who wins.

An understanding of ma-ai (the proper distancing) is important, but many martial artists of even respectively high levels in their specific art aren’t aware of it beyond their particular specializations. Worse, kata-based training (especially when done individually, such as in karate kata and iaido) may make a person ignorant of proper ma-ai.

...


There’s an article that Diane Skoss, of Koryu Books, wrote about being a woman training in koryu budo. She made a comment that, even after years of aikido, she never understood mai-ai very well until she started weapons work in koryu. Then all of a sudden, she had to deal with opponents who came at her with short staffs, long staffs, naginata, spears, swords and all sorts of weapons, long and short.

Such training gave her an innate understanding of the elastic, variable nature of ma-ai, dependant on the situation, attacker, angle and weapon.

That is why, I suspect, that Okinawan karate and aikido included some kind of weapons training in their curriculum. Even Kodokan Judo had weapons work, but discarded them as it evolved into more of a specialized sport, and less of a martial system. If you don’t get out of your comfort zone in ma-ai, you won’t understand proper distancing. So this is an argument, in a way, for studying weapons if you are primarily a grappler or puncher-kicker.

In classical systems, there are various terms to explain ma-ai. The most common are the three different terms of toh-ma, uchi-ma, and chika-ma to denote the three basic distances. Depending on the weapons (or lack thereof), toh-ma is when the distance is too far (toh- is from the word for “far away,” toh-i) for you or the opponent to strike, unless you take steps to close the gap. Although you can begin to engage the enemy at that distance, you won’t be struck easily.

...


 The problem with ma-ai is that there are so many variables. Not just in terms of weaponry, but also in terms of rhythm and timing, angles of attack and positioning of the attacker and you. All of these will affect proper ma-ai. Space and time are not separate entities. They interact with each other.

While we’ve been discussing the physical tactics of handling space, we can’t also forget the mental/psychological and psychic overlay of spacing. In esoteric doctrines in some sword schools, even standing at a distance, you have a kind of  mental uchi-ma; i.e., you can still be too far for a quick strike with your sword, but if your spirit and energy is strong enough, you can already attack the opponent.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The 300 Tang Dynasty Poems, #43: A Song of Changgan

One of the worlds' literary treasures is an anthology of the greatest poems of the Tang Dynasty of China. The Tang Dynasty was a high water mark in culture in ancient China and poetry was especially esteemed. The 300 Tang Dynasty Poems may be found here. Below is poem #43: A Song of Changgan.


043
Li Bai
A SONG OF CHANGGAN

My hair had hardly covered my forehead.
I was picking flowers, paying by my door,
When you, my lover, on a bamboo horse,
Came trotting in circles and throwing green plums.
We lived near together on a lane in Ch'ang-kan,
Both of us young and happy-hearted.
...At fourteen I became your wife,
So bashful that I dared not smile,
And I lowered my head toward a dark corner
And would not turn to your thousand calls;
But at fifteen I straightened my brows and laughed,
Learning that no dust could ever seal our love,
That even unto death I would await you by my post
And would never lose heart in the tower of silent watching.
...Then when I was sixteen, you left on a long journey
Through the Gorges of Ch'u-t'ang, of rock and whirling water.
And then came the Fifth-month, more than I could bear,
And I tried to hear the monkeys in your lofty far-off sky.
Your footprints by our door, where I had watched you go,
Were hidden, every one of them, under green moss,
Hidden under moss too deep to sweep away.
And the first autumn wind added fallen leaves.
And now, in the Eighth-month, yellowing butterflies
Hover, two by two, in our west-garden grasses
And, because of all this, my heart is breaking
And I fear for my bright cheeks, lest they fade.
...Oh, at last, when you return through the three Pa districts,
Send me a message home ahead!
And I will come and meet you and will never mind the distance,
All the way to Chang-feng Sha.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Practicing in a Small Space




We should not give up...our goal...But...we should not be discouraged even though we cannot have it. So actually, as long as we are making effort, that is actual goal. – Shunryu Suzuki

If we wait until conditions are perfect in order to practice, we’ll usually find that we’ll be waiting a long time indeed. The perfect is the enemy of the good. Not all of us can set aside a specific time and location regularly. In that case, we have to practice what we can when time and space allows and ask ourselves “what can I do right here, right now to move the ball forward.”


One of the constraints we frequently face is space. I have always liked the standing practice, Zhan Zhuang, because it takes so little space; in fact nothing special. We only need time. Zhan Zhuang is very adaptable to time - if you have less time, you can hold a lower stance.

Practicing the Taijiquan form can be somewhat challenging. The long form covers quite a bit of ground and to set aside a block of 30 to 40 minutes for one run through isn’t always convenient. You can do things however, that are still useful to your development, like isolating and practicing individual sequences and really hone them.

The Five Elements from Xingyiquan covers a lot of ground, too. Each of the individual Five Elements forms can be done as a stationary practice. This sort of practice may not be “complete”, but it’s still useful.

Even the kihon dosa, the basic movements of the Aikido I learned can be practiced in a relatively small space and regular practice of these movements have a direct positive impact on one’s technique.

 Below is an extract from an article at 24 Fighting Chickens about how to practice one's Karate kata in a small space. The full article may be found here.

How to Practice Kata in Your Room
by Rob Redmond - July 12, 2011

Considerable floor space is required to perform a kata. 100 square meters gives one adult male the ability to perform just about any kata without running into a wall. When the dojo gets crowded, though, sometimes some shortcuts are necessary to make the kata fit the room. As you approach the wall, you pull back your front foot and then step forward with your other foot so that you take the next step without actually traveling anywhere. Then when turning back in the other direction, cut the step again to put yourself in the correct spot in three dimensional space.

But what if you want to practice at home? The driveway works well, unless your neighbors are close by and you don’t like them thinking you are a crazy karate sociopath.

So it’s off to the gym for some of you. Luckily the aerobics room is empty during lunch, so a gym nearby the office is a good thing. For students in school, there may be dance rooms on campus to use during free periods. There may be an empty tennis court for those of you in more temperate climates. The tennis ladies may not approve.

Public parks and fields work well for some of you. Others find those places a little too dangerous.

Besides, karate training doesn’t look like tai chi training. Tai Chi, for some reason, gives the impression that you are a harmless hippie best ignored. Practicing karate kata seems to invite a lot of unfriendly attention out in too public of an arena in the wrong neighborhood. A  racquetball court can work – sometimes.

Indoors you go, and your house or apartment is not that big. What now?

Monday, December 12, 2011

Chinese Folk Tales: The Sons of the Dragon

I received this link from a friend. It's now it the "Links" Section.

It's a website of Chinese Folk Tales. Below is one of them. Enjoy.

From Taiwanese Folk Beliefs: The Sons of the Dragon.

3. Sons of the Dragon
A dragon has nine sons.
The first son loves loud noises, so bells are adorned with the images of dragons.
The second son loves music, so musical instruments are adorned with images of dragons.
The third son loves to drink, so drinking vessels are adorned with images of dragons.
The fourth son loves mountain peaks, so the tops of tall buildings or other structures or places are adorned with images of dragons.
The fifth son loves weaponry, so weapons are adorned with images of dragons.
The sixth son loves literature, so images of dragons are found on movable type.
The seventh son loves litigation, so images of dragons are found in courtrooms.
The eighth son loves sitting, so chairs are decorated with the images of dragons.
The ninth son loves heavy objects, so the images of dragons may be found on plinths.

Friday, December 09, 2011

The China Challenge

Below is an excerpt from an article on the book, On China, by Dr. Henry Kissinger. The full article may be read here.


The China Challenge

Societies and nations tend to think of themselves as eternal. They also cherish a tale of their origin. A special feature of Chinese civilization is that it seems to have no beginning. It appears in history less as a conventional nation-state than as a permanent natural phenomenon. In the tale of the Yellow Emperor, revered by many Chinese as the legendary founding ruler, China seems already to exist.

Dr. Henry A. Kissinger, special assistant to President Nixon is toasted by Chinese Premier Chou En-laii Monday night, February 21, 1972 as the Nixon party was quest at a state dinner in Peking.
The Yellow Emperor has gone down in history as a founding hero; yet in the founding myth, he is re-establishing, not creating, an empire. China predated him; it strides into the historical consciousness as an established state requiring only restoration, not creation.

In general, Chinese statesmanship exhibits a tendency to view the entire strategic landscape as part of a single whole: good and evil, near and far, strength and weakness, past and future all interrelated. In contrast to the Western approach of treating history as a process of modernity achieving a series of absolute victories over evil and backwardness, the traditional Chinese view of history emphasized a cyclical process of decay and rectification, in which nature and the world could be understood but not completely mastered.

For China's classical sages, the world could never be conquered; wise rulers could hope only to harmonize with its trends. There was no New World to populate, no redemption awaiting mankind on distant shores. The promised land was China, and the Chinese were already there. The blessings of the Middle Kingdom's culture might theoretically be extended, by China's superior example, to the foreigners on the empire's periphery. But there was no glory to be found in venturing across the seas to convert "heathens" to Chinese ways; the customs of the Celestial Dynasty were plainly beyond the attainment of the far barbarians.

The most dramatic event of the Nixon presidency occurred in near obscurity. Nixon had decided that for a diplomatic mission to Beijing to succeed, it would have to take place in secrecy. A public mission would have set off a complicated internal clearance project within the U.S. government and insistent demands for consultations from around the world, including Taiwan (still recognized as the government of China). This would have mortgaged our prospects with Beijing, whose attitudes we were being sent to discover. Transparency is an essential objective, but historic opportunities for building a more peaceful international order have imperatives as well.

So my team set off to Beijing via Saigon, Bangkok, New Delhi and Rawalpindi on an announced fact-finding journey on behalf of the president. My party included a broader set of American officials, as well as a core group destined for Beijing—myself, as national security adviser, three aides and two Secret Service agents. The dramatic denouement required us to go through tiring stops at each city designed to be so boringly matter-of-fact that the media would stop tracking our movements. In Rawalpindi, we disappeared for 48 hours for an ostensible rest (I had feigned illness) in a Pakistani hill station in the foothills of the Himalayas—but our real destination was Beijing. In Washington, only the president and Col. (later Gen.) Alexander Haig, my top aide, knew our actual mission.

When the American delegation arrived in Beijing on July 9, 1971, we had experienced the subtlety of Chinese communication but not the way Beijing conducted actual negotiations, still less the Chinese style of receiving visitors. American experience with Communist diplomacy was based on contacts with Soviet leaders, principally Andrei Gromyko, who had a tendency to turn diplomacy into a test of bureaucratic will; he was impeccably correct in negotiation but implacable on substance—sometimes, one sensed, straining his self-discipline.

Strain was nowhere apparent in the Chinese reception of the secret visit or during the dialogue that followed. In all the preliminary maneuvers, we had been sometimes puzzled by the erratic pauses between their messages, which we assumed had something to do with the Cultural Revolution.

Nothing now seemed to disturb the serene aplomb of our hosts, who acted as if welcoming the special emissary of the American president for the first time in the history of the People's Republic of China was the most natural occurrence.


Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Who Needs Fiction: What Would Zhuang Zi Do?

A very old Chinese Taoist story describes a farmer in a poor country village. His neighbors considered him very well-to-do. He owned a horse which he used for plowing and for transportation. One day his horse ran away. All his neighbors exclaimed how terrible this way, but the farmer simply said "Maybe."

A few days later the horse returned and brought two wild horses with it. The neighbors all rejoiced at his good fortune, but the farmer just said "Maybe."

The next day the farmer's son tried to ride one of the wild horses. The horse threw him and the son broke his leg. The neighbors all offered their sympathy for his misfortune, but the farmer again said "Maybe."

The next week conscription officers came to the village to take young men for the army. They rejected the farmer's son because of his broken leg. When the neighbors told him how lucky he was, the farmer replied "Maybe."

A friend sent me a news story which I've posted below. The original article may be read here. Read the news story, think about the folk story and put yourself in the subject's place.

My brother found himself in a somewhat similar position. He found a suitcase in the street in front of his house. He opened it, hoping to find some sort of identification to return it to it's owner. It was full of jewelry.


The thought of keeping it passed in a moment as he considered all of the possible bad things that could happen as a result of his keeping the suitcase. He turned it into the police.


It turned out to belong to a local jewelry store. I don't remember the explanation of how it got into the street, but the jewelry store gave him a cash reward of something like $500 or $1000 (this is over 30 years ago). Certainly enough to be a reward, but not enough to be another burden.


For myself, I think winning the Lottery would be one of life's greatest calamities.


Man finds $150K in his backyard, turns it in


By Kelsey Williams, SFGate.com:


On Monday, Wayne Sabaj, 49, an unemployed carpenter living in McHenry County, Ill., (about 60 miles northwest of Chicago) found some green stuff in his garden-about $150,000 worth, stuffed into two duffel bags.

The Chicago Tribune reports: "[Sabaj] contemplated his position for about a half hour, then - fearing that the money might have come from a bank robbery and someone might come back looking for it-he called the McHenry County Sheriff's Department."

Sabaj, clearly a realistic sort, did not toast his good fortune at the load of dough that literally appeared in his backyard, but said to his father, "We have enough problems, now we got another problem.  Look what I found in the garden."

At this point the police are baffled by the discovery, and for all they know, it could be that a leprechaun has traded in pots-of-gold for duffels of cash. Still they are examining the bags and their contents for clues and say they will work with Sabaj to see if he can keep the money if no true owner or explanation is found.

All I want to know: What kind of fertilizer does Sabaj use?

Saturday, December 03, 2011

The 48 Law of Power: a Review

The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene and Joost Elffers is one of my favorite books on strategy. First of all, the hardcover is a beautifully produced book. Mr. Effers is an artist who was responsible for the presentation of the material.

Where The Art of War by Sun Tzu is an overview and basically a textbook on the subject, and the 36 Strategies tries to impart the knack of strategic thinking by way of a number of maxims, the 48 Laws of Power is more focused on the psychology of personal interaction; what Greene calls "Power".

Greene illustrates each of the "Laws" with example drawn from both Eastern and Western history and literature. Among my favorite examples are those of famous con-men and con-jobs, such as the swindler who posed as an official of the French government and sold the Eiffel Tower to a scrap dealer. Green also includes counter examples for most of the Laws depicting situations where the Law simply wouldn't work, or a reversal of the Law would be more in order.

Below is an extract from a book review a friend sent me. The whole review may be read here.

American Apparel's in-house guru shows a lighter side

'48 Laws' author Robert Greene acts as chief Dov Charney's informal older brother, preaching 'crush your enemy' but practicing tolerance. His books are big with rappers, executives and prison inmates.

August 30, 2011|By Andrea Chang, Los Angeles Times

When author Robert Greene wrote his bestselling book "The 48 Laws of Power," his win-at-all-costs message turned him into a cult hero with the hip-hop set, Hollywood elite and prison inmates alike.

Crush your enemy totally, he wrote in Law 15. Play a sucker to catch a sucker, he said in another. Get others to do the work for you, but always take the credit.

Greene's warrior-like take on the quest for power, written more than a decade ago, would eventually attract another devotee: Dov Charney, the provocative and sometimes impish chief executive of Los Angeles clothing company American Apparel Inc.

The 52-year-old Greene — a former screenwriter who speaks five languages and worked 80 jobs before writing "The 48 Laws" — has become Charney's guru, a trusted confidant to the 42-year-old entrepreneur and, insiders say, a voice of reason on American Apparel's board of directors.

"There's definitely an older-brother, younger-brother dynamic," said Allan Mayer, a public relations man and fellow board member. "Dov is a very brilliant, creative guy and he can also be mercurial and very impulsive, which are excellent qualities, but sometimes he needs to be reined in. If Robert says,
'Well, hold on, buddy,' Dov generally will."

Charney refers to his close friend alternately as a genius, El Señor and Jesus. The American Apparel founder says he was hooked on "The 48 Laws" the moment he opened its burnt orange cover, with its straightforward philosophies of Machiavelli, the ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu and others. He's handed out hundreds of copies to friends and employees, and readily quotes the laws during board meetings.

One of Charney's favorites: "Enter action with boldness" — Law 28.

"Everybody practices it every day," he said of the book's principles during a recent dinner of Korean barbecue and beer with Greene in downtown Los Angeles. "These are the rules that govern human interactions.... Robert's book is as much a documentation of your flaws — you just score yourself on each one."

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Red Leaves Cut

How could we possibly think of heading into winter without considering not only the fading beauty of autumn, but also Japanese Swordsmanship?


Below is an excerpt from the Ichijoji blog. The full post is at Autumn Leaves and Their Symbolism. Please pay a visit.

Momiji Uchi - The red leaves cut
Those interested in swordsmanship will probably be aware of its use in Miyamoto Musashi's Gorin no Sho - in the Water chapter is a section describing the Red Leaves Cut. As noted by Victor Harris in his translation, "Presumably Musashi is alluding here to falling, dying leaves." As the technique refers to knocking down the enemy's sword, knocking it out of his hands in fact, this seems very likely.

It seems that Musashi was not the only person to use this term to denote a technique. According to the respected researcher and historian Watatani Kiyoshi, it was used in the Kyo-hachi-ryu... a term that is generally thought to refer to the 8 principle schools taught in the Kyoto area during the Muromachi period, and probably including the Yoshioka school, which, as we know, Musashi and his father both had dealings with. In fact, Watatani identifies it as being specific to the Kyoto area - as Musashi spent some time in the city, this makes it quite likely that he adopted a term already in use.

This is fairly common practice - many schools share terms for similar and sometimes quite different techniques. Some of these clearly share a common origin, while in others, the connection is not so clear.

However, the common name suggests the possibility that the name itself shared a common referent, and possibly included an additional layer of symbolism.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

A Comparison of the Cultural Differences in Japanese and Chinese Martial Arts

Bernard Kwan is the proprietor of the excellent blog, Be Not Defeated by the Rain. Mr. Kwan is in a unique position to comment on the cultural similarities and differences in Japanese and Chinese martial arts. 


He is Chinese, lives in Hong Kong and not only studies a traditional Chinese martial art, but a Japanese martial art as well. 


He was kind enough to provide this guest post. Please pay his blog, Be Not Defeated by the Rain , a visit.

I have been practicing martial arts since 1999, and came rather late into the game so to speak (in my mid 20s), as my parents did not want me to learn martial arts when I was young in case I accidentally killed my brother as we fought a lot. My first experience was learning Aikido in Philadelphia under Henry Smith, 7th dan Aikikai as well as some Yagyu Shin Kage Ryu under Paul Manogue Sensei who taught on the weekends in the Aikido studio. After leaving the US, I spent a lot of time practicing yoga under various "famous" teachers, and also studied Yang Taiji under Chen Han Bing (a wushu instructor in Taiwan), Chen Taiji under KK Chan (a disciple of Zhu Tian Cai) and finally settling on studying Baguazhang and Yiquan under CS Tang in Hong Kong and became a formal disciple earlier this year. I also resumed my Aikido studies under Hitoshi Nagai, 4th Dan, a deshi of Endo Seishiro, 8th Dan.

I was recently asked by Rick Matz of Cook Ding's Kitchen as to what I felt were the differences between Chinese and Japanese Budo and I wrote a couple of posts regarding similarities, in terms of the ideal of the scholar warrior and a code of ethics, but I believe there are several key differences.

1) The Individual versus the Collective
 

Although China has been unified for most of its history, there have been long periods of time when the country has been separated into different states. There are many regional differences, and even now there are conflicts between Shanghai and Beijing in the Chinese government. Due to the huge expanse of space, many regions were loosely administered from the center, especially towards the end of each dynasty, as corruption increased and areas descended into warlordism. Hence there was a lot of freedom for the development of the individual to take matters into his own hands, rather than rely on the state as the "Emperor was far away". Indeed in martial arts novels, many of the martial artists are inhabitants of Jiang Hu, living by their own code of justice, righting wrongs perpetrated by corrupt officials. Martial artists were often viewed with suspicion by the state, and martial arts suppressed during many periods in history, and many martial arts schools along with religious cults were hotbeds of revolutionary activity plotting to overthrow the government.

This can be contrasted against the long rule of the Tokugawa state, which has been described as the longest lasting totalitarian state in history. The daimyos were closely monitored and bankrupted by having to spend a great deal of time in the capital away from their domains. Travel and thought were closely monitored and restricted and the country was effectively closed from the outside world. An ideology of loyalty was instilled in the population and the group was promoted over the individual and social mores were rigidly enforced within each community. Hence when you read texts like the Hagakure absolute loyalty was paramount and even minor transgressions could lead to a show of contrition through seppuku. The Samurai were bound to the state by awarding them status and privileges, such as their own names and ability to carry swords and kill with impunity. Although Ronin (masterless Samurai) existed they were seen as beyond the pale and not ideals to be emulated. Miyamoto Mushashi is perhaps the exception that proves the rule.

2) Taoism versus Buddhism
 

D.T. Suzuki has written much on the role of Zen Buddhism in Japanese culture and indeed the role of Zen is pervades many of the Japanese arts such as tea ceremony, flower arranging, etc. Its spartan ascetic, its meditative discipline and attitude towards impermanence and death has informed the Samurai culture and is captured in many books such as Takuan Soho's "The Unfettered Mind". The role of Esoteric Buddhism is also important, if less widely known as Samurai would ask certain Gods to protect them in battle and may also have inscribed talismans and chanted mantras for protection. Ever since Buddhism came to Japan in the 800s it has remained a national religion alongside Shintoism.

In China, the role of Buddhism declined after the Tang dynasty and never regained its prominence as a national religion. Although the Zen schools originated and flourished in China during the Sung dynasty, they also went into almost terminal decline. While Shaolin is a Buddhist based martial art it has been Taoism that has been the more influential philosophy behind martial arts, especially in the internal arts. Aphorisms such as being like water, or the hard overcoming the soft, or Wu wei all stem from Taoism. Indeed in Chinese culture bagua, taiji and the five elements are pervasive through the Chinese arts such as music, medicine, feng shui, chess,, statecraft and the art of war.

3) Importance of Lineage
 

In the Japanese Koryu a great deal of effort is placed in preserving the art exactly as was handed down by the previous generation without any scope for substantive innovation. This is the same for many traditional Japanese handicrafts such as pottery, or sword making. In this respect the Soke or headmaster of the school is the ultimate authority on orthodoxy and the student is to defer to Sensei is all respects. Before the second world war there was still sufficient scope to be somewhat innovative as a menkyo kaiden or license to teach could be obtained after 3-6 years of diligent practice. Post war, it may take 10 or more years to obtain such a license and it may only be awarded to one or two individuals each generation making it difficult to have the authority to innovate within a school. Even in Aikido, the third Doshu is trying his best to standardize Aikido teaching at Hombu so most of the newer Shihan look the same.

In China, due to the cultural revolution the relationship between the teacher and student has become less rigid with the decline of traditional mores and broken lines, and lineage has also become a trickier subject due to the Chinese diaspora into Hong Kong and Taiwan. But even in the past, the evolution of Taiji into different schools has shown that there is room to evolve and change. In a more modern school like Yiquan, the marked difference in the styles of the various students of the founder attest to a much looser mechanism for enforcing conformity and as long as the basic principles are adhered to there is a great deal of room for innovation and change.
 
4) Gaman versus Heart Method

There is a emphasis and glorification within the Japanese character of the ability to "endure". Thus it is not uncommon for a student of Japanese Budo to repeat a basic exercise without question until the Sensei tells him to stop. This relentless focus on the fundamentals shows in the craftmanship of their products and also the basic skills of the Japanese players in sports where they excel, such as baseball and the the recent win by their football team in the Women's World Cup.

For Chinese students there is a corollary in that one should "eat bitter" in order to master an art. But for ever student that eats bitter, there are 10 students who would rather find out the "heart method" or short cut. Hence the glorification of stealing the martial arts manuals in wushu literature and killing your Sifu to learn his secrets.

5) Personal Experiences
In my personal experience with a Chinese and Japanese Sensei, my relationship with Chinese Sifu is more like a father and son, where I can question and challenge, but I defer to his authority and he encourages me to explore and innovate. My Japanese Sensei, will allow me some room to explore, but he brooks no argument in matters of authority and his word is the final word. He often emphasizes that the Dojo is not a sports club. I understand that not all teachers are like that and some Chinese are authority figures akin to Japanese. But on the flip side the Japanese dojo is a collective endeavor where there is a hierarchy but yet people are encouraged to progress together and to socialize together, whereas the Chinese way is a more lonely endeavor where we come together to train, but progress at our own pace and different students are taught different things according to their strengths and interests.

These are by necessity broad brush strokes but would be interested to see if other people share the same thoughts as me.



Links:


http://benotdefeatedbytherain.blogspot.com/
http://cstang.www3.50megs.com/
http://www.aikidodoyukai.com/
http://aikidophiladelphia.org/
 

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Giving Thanks for Your Training

The excerpt below is from a post at The Classical Budoka. The full post may be read here.

So the tagai no rei is done throughout a class. It hopefully develops proper respect for each other. You want to train hard, but you want to train with people who respect you enough that they won’t deliberately try to maim or hurt you because they have no regard for you as a human being. They respect you, and you should respect them. Budo is dangerous enough as a physical training system without having to deal with a psychopath as your partner. The tagai no rei ritualizes that respect. For some people, that ritualization may not mean all that much. They may still look at you as merely a punching bag at their disposal, but at least the form of respect tries to embody respect. It’s better than showing no respect at all. And if you find such a fellow student, just avoid the jerk.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Why Practice Slow?

Below is an excerpt from an article which was posted at The Better Movement blog. The full article may be read here.

Why Slow Movement Builds Coordination

I’ve written quite a bit on this blog about the benefits of moving slowly for improving coordination. Of course, my two favorite movement practices, the Feldenkrais Method and Z-Health rely to a great extent on slow mindful movement as a primary means to develop coordination. Many people will look at very slow and gentle movements and think – how can these possibly do anything? Isn’t harder and faster better than slower and softer? This post is an answer to that question.

There are several excellent reasons to use slow and gentle movement as a means to develop coordination. Probably the most interesting reason (I’ll start with that one) is based on an obscure principle called the Weber Fechner rule. The Weber Fechner rule describes the relationship between the magnitude of a particular stimulus and the brain’s ability to sense differences in the amount of the stimulus. The basic rule is that as you increase the stimulus, the ability to tell a difference in the amount of the stimulus decreases. This is a very common sense idea. Imagine you are in a dark room with only one candle lit. It will be very easy to sense the difference when one additional candle is lit. But if you are in a room with two hundred candles, you will have no idea when an extra candle comes on.
This rule works for all varieties of sensory perception, including sensations of muscular effort. So, imagine you are holding a one pound potato in your hand while blindfolded. If a fly landed on the weight you would not know the difference, but if a little bird landed you would know. Now imagine holding a fifty pound potato. You wouldn’t be able to feel the little bird landing. It would have to be an eagle. The point is that when you increase the weight from one pound to fifty pounds, you become about fifty times less sensitive to changes in the amount of muscular force you are using to lift the weight.

Why do we care? Because if you want to make your movement more efficient, you have to be aware of when you are working too hard. If you slow down and thereby increase your ability to sense differences in muscular effort level, you increase the brain’s ability to sense and correct any potential excess and unnecessary effort. Imagine that every time you try to extend the hip, you are at the same time slightly contracting the hip flexors instead of relaxing them. This means that your muscles are cross-motivated – the flexors are fighting the extensors a little in their effort to extend the leg, making them work harder. You will be much better able to sense and inhibit this inefficient co-contraction by moving very slowly and easily. By contrast, if you move fast and hard, you will never be able to sense and correct the problem.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Daoist Piano Mover

Have you ever moved a piano? They are heavy and awkward. There's nothing good about moving pianos.

Mr. Gong was a piano mover. His method of moving pianos exemplified the principle of wu-wei. Zhuang Zi would have appreciated the way he went about this business.


Perhaps the world's premier piano mover has passed away. Below is an excerpt from an article about him. The full article may be read here. Below that is a video about him and below that is another video about moving pianos that you might enjoy.

Edward Gong, who moved 7,000 pianos, dies

Sunday, November 6, 2011
Legendary for his moving piano technique, Edward Gong of Berkeley was admired not for how he interpreted Mozart or played a concerto, but for how he moved pianos. Literally.

He did it single-handedly, although he sometimes called upon his astonished clients to roll a dolly or grip a corner.

"Almost everyone I know in Berkeley has used him or knows about him," wrote "Rinky N." on Yelp's urban legends section. "Years ago he moved a roommate's piano using the three of us weaklings as pivot points. It's like watching Superman or an optical illusion!"

"It's physics," Mr. Gong, who had a degree in that subject from UC Berkeley, would explain.

Mr. Gong died at 85 at the Veterans Home of Yountville, where he'd gone to live last year. He moved pianos until age 80 - more than 7,000 of them over 45 years - said his niece Miko Lee.

"He was the epitome of the word eccentric," she said, fondly recalling the man with the "serious giggle" she called Unc.

On the Berkeley Parents Network site, "Nicole" wrote: "He arrives with a little pickup truck and an amazing stair contraption, and uses brains and leverage to move these amazingly heavy and awkward objects. He's goofy as heck, and he chats a mile a minute ... but always manages to get the piano where it needs to go."

His piano-moving outfit consisted of checkered polyester shorts, gum-sole shoes and the bulging muscles he'd hone for hours, bench-pressing at the gym. When not working, Mr. Gong favored bedroom slippers, once showing up in snowy Munich carrying luggage filled with books but no shoes besides the pantofles on his feet.

He had gone to Europe for the World's Fair because he adored fairs, often hanging out for hours to watch a calf being born. He also danced ballet, sang opera, played instruments and studied Mandarin and drawing, making up in enthusiasm what he lacked in skill, Lee said with a laugh.

And despite limited funds, Mr. Gong attended stellar performances - often inviting his young relatives - by serving as an usher at the ballet, opera and Cal Performances.

Born Aug. 9, 1926, Mr. Gong was one of 11 children whose parents ran a laundry in Madera. An Army private in World War II, he served as a medical aide and chauffeur at Presidio Hospital in San Francisco.

Mr. Gong joined his family in Berkeley in 1947, where they opened the Victory Market at 1443 San Pablo Ave. to pay tuition at Cal for Mr. Gong and his siblings. His brothers and sisters raised families, went into business or became professors, scientists or teachers.

Mr. Gong did his own version of those things, too.

In 1988, The Chronicle followed Mr. Gong, then 62, as he maneuvered - in five minutes - a 400-pound upright piano from the rear room of a house into his pickup using a dolly, a wood box wrapped in an old rug, and an iron tube he'd laid across the truck bed.

For his second move, the story said Mr. Gong "stood on a stone step with 500 pounds of piano in his thick arms while three men half his age tried clumsily to wedge the dolly under the other end" as he schooled them in tilt and torque.

"He lived a remarkable life," said Harry Yoon, a Los Angeles film editor who shot an 11-minute short, "7,000 Pianos," about Mr. Gong at 75 in 2002.





Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Warrior Ethos: The Lord of Discipline

The excerpt below is from a post at Steven Pressfield's blog. Mr. Pressfield is the author of many great books, including one of my favorites, Gates of Fire. The full post may be read here.


One of his recent books is The Warrior Ethos


Chapter 26   The Lord of Discipline
In the Gita, the warrior Arjuna is commanded to slay the “foes” that constitute his own baser being.

That is, to eradicate those vices and inner demons that would sabotage his path to becoming his best and highest self.

How is Arjuna instructed to do this? By the practice of self-discipline. In other words, by the interior exercise of his exterior Warrior Ethos.

Arjuna’s divine instructor (one of whose titles in Sanskrit is “Lord of Discipline”) charges his disciple to:
Fix your mind upon its object.
Hold to this, unswerving,
Disowning fear and hope,
Advance only upon this goal.
Here is the Warrior Ethos directed inward, employing the same virtues used to overcome external enemies—courage, patience, will, selflessness, the capacity to endure adversity—but enlisting these qualities now in the cause of the inner struggle for integrity, maturity and the honorable life.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Hard and Soft in Karate

Today we have a guest article by Matt Apsokardu, from Ikigaiway. Please pay his blog a visit.


Karate’s Hard/Soft Way

I’ve noticed something as I’ve continued to research, study, and watch karate grow. In general, the art is becoming more and more rigid, snappy, and formulaic.

Attend any karate tournament and you’ll likely see deep stances accompanied by high kicks, lung punches, and extended kiai. Even among traditional circles the focus is often on body conditioning, toughness, and impact.

Interestingly, in its early years karate was intended to be a combination of both hard and soft methods. Indeed, one of karate’s branches (Goju Ryu) was originally named with such a concept in mind.

Consider some of the major influences on karate, most notably those from China. Chinese arts such as White Crane, Bagua, and Wushu utilize flowing motions. Those arts stress a relaxed body wherein impact comes from a whip-like motion as the body’s force comes together.

In the early days of Okinawa, many Chinese emissaries and merchants traveled and shared their experiences with the higher Okinawan classes. As such, we see serious influence on early karate from Chinese resources.

When one researches early karate texts and views some of the old practitioners the softness of their methods is unmistakable. However, due to a combination of social, military, and business agendas, the harder aspects of karate became favored and received overwhelming focus.

Once Japan caught wind of karate’s practice, it decided to try and integrate the art as part of their school system. Their agenda was to strengthen the youth of their nation as well as engender a sense of militarism, behavior, and nationalism early on.

America, which experienced karate mostly through military personnel in the early days, had a similar experience where tough soldiers saw and took the toughest aspects of what they perceived karate to be.

Back in the states, the most visually impressive and marketable parts of karate were those hard, board breaking, punches and kicks. It took little time for American artists with entrepreneurial spirit to bend what they saw into a salable product.

Now, with the improvement of communication and technology, it’s possible for more and more artists to see what else is out there, to view videos of the old masters, and interact with practitioners of older, non-marketed karate methods.

It’s my hope that the curtain of “hard only” on karate is slowly being lifted, and some of the more “soft” methods come back to help make more people’s karate complete once again.
---------------------------------

Matthew Apsokardu is a practitioner of Okinawa Kenpo Karate and Kobudo. He is the author of IkigaiWay – Martial ArtsBlog.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Courage

Below are excerpts from an article at The New York Times. The full article may be read here.

The Good Short Life

BALTIMORE

I HAVE wonderful friends. In this last year, one took me to Istanbul. One gave me a box of hand-crafted chocolates. Fifteen of them held two rousing, pre-posthumous wakes for me. Several wrote large checks. Two sent me a boxed set of all the Bach sacred cantatas. And one, from Texas, put a hand on my thinning shoulder, and appeared to study the ground where we were standing. He had flown in to see me.

“We need to go buy you a pistol, don’t we?” he asked quietly. He meant to shoot myself with.

“Yes, Sweet Thing,” I said, with a smile. “We do.”

I loved him for that.

I love them all. I am acutely lucky in my family and friends, and in my daughter, my work and my life. But I have amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or A.L.S., more kindly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, for the great Yankee hitter and first baseman who was told he had it in 1939, accepted the verdict with such famous grace, and died less than two years later. He was almost 38.

I sometimes call it Lou, in his honor, and because the familiar feels less threatening. But it is not a kind disease. The nerves and muscles pulse and twitch, and progressively, they die. From the outside, it looks like the ripple of piano keys in the muscles under my skin. From the inside, it feels like anxious butterflies, trying to get out. It starts in the hands and feet and works its way up and in, or it begins in the muscles of the mouth and throat and chest and abdomen, and works its way down and out. The second way is called bulbar, and that’s the way it is with me. We don’t live as long, because it affects our ability to breathe early on, and it just gets worse.

At the moment, for 66, I look pretty good. I’ve lost 20 pounds. My face is thinner. I even get some “Hey, there, Big Boy,” looks, which I like. I think of it as my cosmetic phase. But it’s hard to smile, and chew. I’m short of breath. I choke a lot. I sound like a wheezy, lisping drunk. For a recovering alcoholic, it’s really annoying.

There is no meaningful treatment. No cure. There is one medication, Rilutek, which might make a few months’ difference. It retails for about $14,000 a year. That doesn’t seem worthwhile to me. If I let this run the whole course, with all the human, medical, technological and loving support I will start to need just months from now, it will leave me, in 5 or 8 or 12 or more years, a conscious but motionless, mute, withered, incontinent mummy of my former self. Maintained by feeding and waste tubes, breathing and suctioning machines.
 --
I think it’s important to say that. We obsess in this country about how to eat and dress and drink, about finding a job and a mate. About having sex and children. About how to live. But we don’t talk about how to die. We act as if facing death weren’t one of life’s greatest, most absorbing thrills and challenges. Believe me, it is. This is not dull. But we have to be able to see doctors and machines, medical and insurance systems, family and friends and religions as informative — not governing — in order to be free.

And that’s the point. This is not about one particular disease or even about Death. It’s about Life, when you know there’s not much left. That is the weird blessing of Lou. There is no escape, and nothing much to do. It’s liberating.

--

Last month, an old friend brought me a recording of the greatest concert he’d ever heard, Leonard Cohen, live, in London, three years ago. It’s powerful, haunting music, by a poet, composer and singer whose life has been as tough and sinewy and loving as an old tree.

The song that transfixed me, words and music, was “Dance Me to the End of Love.” That’s the way I feel about this time. I’m dancing, spinning around, happy in the last rhythms of the life I love. When the music stops — when I can’t tie my bow tie, tell a funny story, walk my dog, talk with Whitney, kiss someone special, or tap out lines like this — I’ll know that Life is over.

It’s time to be gone.