Oooh, the pain! The pain!

So, I’m sitting here in clouds of Tiger Balm vapour, having doused my shoulders in the stuff in the (probably vain) hope that they will hurt less tomorrow. Yes, I’m back from another yiquan lesson.

As I was setting off from my apartment, my bike experienced what I shall call a ‘completeness discontinuity’ – in other words, a fairly important part suddenly and unexpectedly fell off. In the dark, it took my a while to find it again, and even longer to re-attach it. This meant that I got to the class a bit late, and missed almost all of the zhan zhuang section.

So… it was straight into the tui shou sparring exercises. The story gets a bit eventful now.

Let me be clear: I have no idea what I’m doing with yiquan. OK, I tried it out for a few weeks earlier in the summer, but – and I don’t care what good reasons there may or may not be – I was taken through it really quickly, and didn’t have much opportunity to really do anything in depth. So I am not at all clear what I am supposed to be doing when we do the sparring exercises – I will try to improve my Mandarin, but right now it’s not sufficient to get the drift. So, for me, the sparring is simply: try not to let the other guy hit me.

With the first few guys I sparred with, I landed a few solid punches, and actually made one lad’s lip bleed. This was all totally unintentional: our forearms were pressing against each other, we were both sweating, and my arm just slid over his with the result that my fist suddenly slammed into his face. Genuinely accidental. Unfortunately, I think a couple of the lads got the impression that I was trying to throw my weight around, and the language barrier didn’t help here, and this evening the other two foreigners weren’t around to help me out with that.

So: observation #1. These guys are faster, stronger, and way more experienced than me. They were certainly going easy on me. But: they’re not defending themselves as fully as they should be.

Fairly soon, a little bit of aggro surfaced. One of the younger guys came over for a go. Very toned, must do a lot of work in the gym. This guy wasn’t giving me a break. As soon as we went into stance, WHAM BAM, he would break my guard, spin me around, and throw me into the wall. Now, I don’t mind this last part, because everyone was doing it; it’s obviously part of the culture there, so OK, whatever. He didn’t leave it there, though. Once I was turned around and thrown flat against the wall face-first, he would follow it up with a lot of punches to the back and the back of the head. No real force, of course, but enough to keep me pinned there. So… hmmm. On the one hand, I was just non-resisting, trying to send out the vibe: look, I’m only here to train and learn, not to look for trouble. On the other hand, I was thinking, well, I’m new here, is this some kind of hierarchical thing, and he’s trying to establish himself as some sort of top dog? Because this pummeling really isn’t serving any useful purpose that I can see, when I’m already clearly outclassed and unable to do much. After a while, the whole non-resistance thing clearly wasn’t changing anything, and his act was – excuse me – getting REALLY F*****G ANNOYING. On this basis, the next time he threw me into the wall face-first, I reached back, firmly grasped his balls, lifted and twisted. At the same time, I outlined my view that he’d made his point simply with the wall-throwing business, and that while one or two follow-up punches to reinforce the point were natural, the rest were unnecessary, and I would appreciate it if he would take that on board. This was in Chinese; as we’ve already established, my Mandarin sucks. Since, after this, he was more moderate I think I have to say on this point: non-verbal communication FTW!

Observation #2: these guys rock. Yiquan is a really, really devastating martial art. BUT: these guys (from my limited observation so far) are limiting themselves to “sparring by the rules”. They seem to be vulnerable to the ball-tearing, eye-gouging, ungentlemanly ways of behaviour that Master Zhou Yue Wen, for example, often demonstrated in our bagua classes.

Master Yao, and another student, came over to work with me a bit later on. I managed to communicate that I really had no clue what I was meant to be doing, and so each sparring bout was, for me, simply a matter of instinctively trying to stay on my feet whilst trying to use what I thought it was we had been doing in the zhan zhuang session. This cleared the air, and the student spent a good while talking me through things slowly, showing me the precise movements, and letting me practise them. This was extremely helpful.

Finally, I sparred with one more student. He repeated something that a number of people had said during the evening: I have a strong tendency to raise my arms high, pushing my opponent’s arms up as well. In yiquan, this just lets them overbalance me, and then come smashing through my centre-line. Bad habit! It was interesting, though that when this guy mentioned it, I suddenly had an insight into why I was doing it. I’ve been studying taijiquan for quite a long time, but the only tui shou we’ve done has been very polite, static, cooperative work. I’ve also been studying bagua for a few years, but never done tui shou (except for a bit with Master Zhou; we didn’t have time to do too much, though). Most of my taiji teachers knew no applications whatsover (some did/do, but I’ve not got to that point with them). With my bagua teachers, some are expert fighters, but when I ask them how a move is used, they’re like BAM BAM BAM you do it like that, and when I pick myself up off the floor I say ooh that’s interesting and carry on not much the wiser. So, the last time I did non-cooperative sparring with people who were even close to my level was actually about 14 years ago, when I studied Thai Boxing for a while during my MSc. Now, at that time, I was pretty much the shortest guy in the class. I couldn’t use roundhouse kicks or standard punches, because everyone else had a longer range than me. The only tactic I had left was to get in close, try to lift their arms from below, and then weigh in with elbows and knees.

Observation #3: old habits are hard to unlearn.

OK, this has been a long post. I’m just trying to relate what’s been going through my mind this evening. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, or if you know me IRL, I hope you already know that I do try not to have a bad attitude. Sometimes, not being able to communicate really is an issue, though. As far as my sparring tonight goes, it reminds me of something I read somewhere about sword-masters: they could face expert swordmasters with equanimity – but stood in terror of the novices who didn’t know what they were supposed to be doing. Or something to that effect.

My main conclusions, though:

  1. I may need to switch to the Sat/Sun small-group classes. I need to ask more questions, and take more time making sure I really understand what I’m supposed to be practising.
  2. Yiquan is fast, aggressive, powerful and very effective. I already knew that theoretically, but now I have practical insight of just how overwhelming it is.
  3. I’m never going to be as good as these guys, and will never be able to beat them using yiquan alone.
  4. If you know that people are better than you, make sure you know something that they can’t, or won’t, do, and keep it up your sleeve to be used only when absolutely necessary.

Let me be absolutely clear: I am really enjoying my experience so far, and I really am trying to approach it in a serious, respectful manner! I’m not, in the observations above, trying to be arrogant, superficial, or boastful. I’m simply recognizing that a) for various reasons, I wish to be able to defend myself against whatever I might be faced with, b) there will always be people who are far superior to me in any given style, and c) I have physical and postural problems that will likely always weaken me. Given b) and c), how do I achieve a)? I’m just thinking that question through, and trying to reach some useable answers…

Anyway, so this is cool, and I’m learning a lot. Right now, the unaccustomed sparring is leaving my shoulders in PAAAIIIIN! I have a date tomorrow evening, and I’m afraid I will have lost the use of my arms by then. I’ll be incapable of raising chopsticks as high as my mouth, and will be forced to ask the young lady in question to feed me. Heh. I’ve already mentioned this possibility via MSN. She laughed at length, and then agreed. She’s a martial artist too, she understands 🙂

Feel free to weigh in with advice, comments etc.


  1. Ha ha – well, having the secret special technique is one way to stay above the others, BUT you gotta make sure it is top shape! (Might be better to just make sure you practice twice as much as the others in yiquan 😉 )


  2. For this kind of pain and injuries, Tiger Palm will not help much, sometimes even be of negative effekt, by warming, though cooling is needed.

    I swear on Taiji Yaojing, it’s manufactured by Tan Ching Ngee from Singapore, BLK 21, Ghim Moh Rd., 01-151, Sing. 270021,
    Tel. 65-6463 2094.

    Make some frieds send you a few small bottles (50ml each) or find something from a good Chinese Medical shop.

    Hope you stay healthy, for the ladies, man.


  3. @Ed Yeah… I’m trying to arrange my time to get more solo practice in. Not so easy just now, though….

    @Yiming Tan Ching Ngee? I know him – I actually studied the Cheng Man Ching style taiji-37 with him for a short while way back in early 2003. As for the Tiger Balm, it actually seems to have really done the trick – my shoulders are hurting a lot less. I have another, much more liquid, balm that I got from a pharmacy here in Beijing, but it just doesn’t seem as effective…


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