My name is mud…

Seriously. Or at least, it should be. I have been very dumb… but I think I can at least give a reasonable excuse….

Let’s talk about our environment, the way ot affects our perceptions, and the consequences for martial arts.

I wrote some time ago about how moving to northern China had given me a new insight into one particular element of martial arts: keeping the tongue pressed against the palate to stimulate the flow of saliva. When I was in Wales and Singapore, this just appeared to be one of those freaky elements of qigong that really had no useful purpose – all the explanations about the saliva stimulating the digestive system – or about ‘connecting the qi’ – seemed plausible, but really, what’s that got to do with my wushu?

Moving to Beijing answered that question definitively. The air here is incredibly dry for much of the year. You must use this technique to get the saliva going, or your mouth, nose and throat will dry out almost immediately once you practice. Simple, really.

I had a similar insight today, and a rather more embarrassing one. Once again, it’s to do with my understanding of the natural environment, but it means that I’ve discovered that ever since I started studying baguazhang, I have completely misunderstood a basic principle. I’m talking about tang ni bu, the mud step.

So, let’s talk about mud.

What is mud? The combination of soil and water, of course. It’s a bit more complicated than that, though.

What does it mean to you? If you’re a city dweller, probably not much at all. Something you get on your shoes in a park or garden. Not significant, really, is it?

I’m from Wales. Wales has a sadly justified reputation for being wet – our mountains are the first point of contact for a LOT of the clouds coming east over the Atlantic. We get lots of rain. We also have lots of hills and mountains, which is significant for my point – because almost everywhere where I’ve been out walking – on relatives’ farms, up in the hills, wherever – the drainage is really good. Rainfall drains off down the hills and into the streams and rivers.

Consequently, if you ask me what the distinguishing feature of mud is, I would tell you “It’s slippery”. After years of hill-walking in Welsh mountains, my main worry about mud is whether or not it will make me lose my footing so that I fall flat on my backside or go skidding down a hill.

So when I see all the books about bagua telling me “walk as if you are in mud”, all of my experience tells me: keep your weight on your back foot, and explore forward lightly with the front foot until you find a solid, reliable place to stand and then shift your weight forward.

This is not the intended meaning, it turns out.

The topic came up in this morning’s class with Sun Lao Shi, who explained that this is partly a visualisation technique. You aren’t walking as if you’re on shallow, slippery mud; you’re walking as if you’re calf-deep in thick, clingy, high-resistance mud, too deep to get your feet out of it, so you’ve got to just drag them through it as you step forward. Suddenly that whole bagua motto of “every step a kick” makes more sense; there’s a lot more energy being directed into moving the back leg forward than the way I had been doing it.

So, the guys who developed bagua and named the steps had a particular experience of mud, and used that to convey their concept. I’m from a different physical environment, and that led me astray.

Wow. Rather embarrassing that it’s taken me this long to figure this out, but I’m also glad that I have at least finally understood.

Heh. When I’m lecturing, I always tell my students to ask questions without fear of embarrassment, because if they are wondering something then it’s a fair bet that others in the class are too. In the same manner, I blog this now even though I feel really dumb, because it’s a fair bet that someone else out there may be making the same mistake!


  1. Very interesting epiphanies there, Em. I particularly like the Bagua one; I never realised that about the tang ni bu. It makes a lot of sense now.


  2. Hi. I’m the tall guy in glasses, the younger one while training Baguazhang in Singapore.
    I thought it’s just foot deep too, until your explanation visualise it better: calf-deep. Better to ask and correct it then doing it wrong for the rest of the life.

    Someone uploaded the application session during Christmas in the school in Youtube. Its:
    and the Xingyiquan(rare footage of Master Sun doing it):

    By the way, madam Ge Chunyan’s father passed away and will fly back to Beijing tonight, 12/08/08. If you are still in Beijing, please sent her our condolence. Thanks.

    Hope to see you back in Singapore soon.


  3. @eastpaw: yeah, we’ve just got to keep on inching forwards; every now and again we get a breakthrough and our understanding deepens!

    @CK Heh – don’t trust what I say, just try it and see how it works according to your own understanding! Also, I should point out that my teacher here in Beijing learned from Liu Jing Ru, and there are many points of difference from Sun Zhi Jun’s style which Madam Ge teaches, even though they’re both Cheng Styles! There’s definitely a big difference with the stepping, so beware of accepting what I say blindly, without considering how it fits with your style!

    I’m sorry to hear about Madam Ge’s father; I knew he was ill, and met her a short while ago when she came to visit him. As it happens, I’m flying back to Singapore tomorrow, Aug 13, so I won’t be around. Looking at the timings, there’s a faint possibility we might bump into each other at the airport, but it’s unlikely!


  4. I assume you should be back in Singapore by now.

    Madam Ge will resume teaching on 1st September, just to let you know.


  5. That is very interesting! It makes me wonder how many other things I would understand better if I was familiar with 19th-century Chinese culture. Keep it up!


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