Answering some questions

First of all a bit of good news: I’ve managed to locate the Siberian, who hasn’t been trafficked into white slavery after all but “after travelling to 4 cities and getting 3 job” (in the last month!) is now in a completely different part of China and seemingly happy. We may not be a couple any more but we’re still friends, and it bothered me that she’d vanished!

Anyway, from Omsk to Ankh-Morpork. In Terry Pratchett’s Making Money the city Postmaster, Moist von Lipwig, creates a “Dead Letter Office” because:

The people of Ank-Morpork took a straightforward approach to letter-writing which could be summarized as: if I know what I mean, so should you. As a result, the Post Office was used to envelopes addressed to ‘my brofer Jonn, tall, by the brij’ or ‘Mrs Smith wot does, Solly Sistres’.

I seem to have fallen into the same way of thinking. Prompted by comments from chickenrice and transit , I looked back again at my post ‘TV Kungfu Monk’ – and realized that it didn’t explain what I meant as clearly as it had seemed to when I wrote it. Worse, it is actually fairly easy to read it and take it to mean the exact opposite of what I meant. Oops!

What I wrote was this:

Tabbycat says taiji is pure energy, get the body out of the way. Rick at Wujifa speaks of fascia, and connection. Scott talks about the big muscles of the back.

The thing is, they’re all right! I would submit that you start with what Scott’s talking about, move on to where Rick is, and eventually get to Tabby’s astral plane, the key, the connector, being a clear mind, an empty mind, that’s able to observe, learn, change.

Retrospectively, I can see that this might be read to mean that if you work on the body starting with the back muscles and eventually progressing to the fascia, then eventually “true internal power” comes – and that isn’t what I meant at all! In fact, I was trying to convey my feeling that “internal power” begins and ends with the mind, the intention or yi, encompassing the qi and then the body on the way.

Let me approach it from another direction: everyone has this power, just as everyone has Buddha nature. We don’t realize this, however. Why is that? It’s because we have too many filters in place: filters that block our energy and of which we are normally completely unaware.

These filters exist for very good reasons. If I were to randomly select a date from ten years ago, would you be able to tell me what you were doing then? Probably not. That doesn’t mean that you can’t remember. The existence of photographic memory is well-established, and there are people who could tell you what you were doing. Perhaps many of us would like to have such memory, but those who possess it often regard it as a curse.

When we suffer some trauma, time usually heals the wounds, partly because our brains forget details about the event, and so our emotions are becalmed. But if we recall everything, this cannot happen.

Every detail is recollected as if it is happening afresh, and this for every single traumatic event of one’s life, every gaffe, heartbreak, pain, embarrassment and loss. The emotional toll it extracts explains why Jill Price was so willing to give her time to the scientists; in the hope that the uncontrollable memories and emotions could be understood and ultimately brought under control.

In the same way, our senses take in everything, and I mean everything, that happens around us – but our mind filters it out, to save us from being overwhelmed. The mind stores the memories, though (and the pain, and the tension, and the emotion, and it stores it physically, in our body tissue – because what else is there, after all?)

These filters are largely cultural, which explains why shamans could once kill with a word, but were unable to after their culture was exposed to Westerners: the mind-body connection was mediated by a new set of filters. This connection is clear: for example, drugs and alcohol are physical substances, and yet they clearly affect the mind and personality. The two cannot be separated.

In vipassana meditation, as in yiquan’s zhan zhuang the practitioner is stilling the mind, and beginning to address and study the filters and barriers of mind and body. As the mind passes through the body, it notices tensions and blockages and misalignments that it previously had filtered out. Once it notices them, they can be corrected. The shoulders are the easiest to sense, which is why low-level practitioners such as myself may get these first. Then we move on to sense and relax the ankles, the back muscles, the fascia, and so on – and eventually, through all of these “gross physical sensations” (as S N Goenka calls them) to the karmic seeds of memory.

So, I wasn’t intending to say that working on these muscles builds qi. I meant to say that the mind, directing the qi around the body, gradually grows more sensitive and is able to detect subtler tensions in deeper materials. Thus, directions such as “tuck the tailbone in” are misguided, since they would encourage the learner to add tension to the tailbone – rather than discovering the tensions elsewhere that are causing the tailbone to stick out!

I think that I had intellectually grasped some of this from reading before I came to Beijing, more from my Vipassana experience than my martial arts studies, but it’s only since I started training in yiquan with Master Yao Cheng Rong that I’ve begun to really feel it.

That kinds of leads me on to chickenrice’s question, to compare taijiquan and yiquan, given that I’ve studied them both.

I have to say that the concepts I’ve written about here are the way it seems to me based on my experience so far plus reading; I wouldn’t dream of saying “this is how it is”. This is just the way I’m piecing together my few insights so far. Regarding taiji and yiquan, as i replied in the comments, I don’t feel qualified. I’m a mediocre student of both (and of meditation, come to that), and I wouldn’t describe myself as a credit to any of my teachers.

Fortunately, Tabby Cat has just posted a comparison. Knowing something of Tabby’s martial arts history, I’ll say that he knows what he’s talking about. Generally speaking, I would go along with what he says, with a few additional comments.

  • I’ve trained at the same yiquan wuguan as him, so his comments (in this post and other) are, in my personal experience, bang on the mark.
  • However, I much prefer training at my current yiquan wuguan, with master Yao Cheng Rong; the overall age is a lot higher, and attitudes are far more relaxed.
  • I have in the past read that taiji used to be taught by means of holding the postures, and that the form was far less important. Based on my yiquan experience, I can now understand this; however, I was never taught taiji in that manner myself.
  • I’ve never been taught ‘orthodox’ taiji, I guess. I trained in the CMC/ZMQ-37 form, which is a variant of Yang-style, and also in the Nam Wah Pai school’s Wu Tu Nan style, which is also a variant of standard Yang family style. I didn’t go through any qi work with my CMC-37 teachers; I know that some simply didn’t do any integrated qi work, whereas with others I probably just wasn’t with them long enough.
  • The Yao family branch of yiquan has no explicit qi work. However, I often find that while I’m in zhan zhuang I can feel my hui yin point activating, so something is happening. In another yiquan line, Lam Kam Chuen has reintroduced qi work, which is rather interesting.
  • Yiquan’s founder, Wang Xiang Zhai, was entirely open about his purpose: he wanted to establish as effective a fighting system as possible. It very clearly has health benefits, but these are secondary. (Incidentally, a number of old ladies turn up for classes at Master Yao Cheng Rong’s school, by which I mean 50 and 60s; clearly, they’re not coming for the martial skills. These are standard-issue, tightly-permed, working-class Beijing matrons, none of your intellectual middle class hippies like, um….
  • Moving on (ahem): if you want primarily to fight, and also get health benefits, go for yiquan. If you want enlightenment and health, and also some kickass fighting ability, then properly-taught taijiquan is the goal.
  • Of the taiji training I’ve had, the most powerful overall was from the Nam Wah Pai school. This is no criticism of anyone else. In particular, the experience of training with master Yao Cheng Rong is one I would recommend to anyone.
  • Tabby concludes that the CMC/ZMQ taiji wins out. My experience is different – it depends more on the teacher than the form – but I also edge towards taiji overall, not least because taiji offers the chance of winning without hurting.
  • YMMV. Work according to what’s best for you, in your own experience, not according to what bloggers say.

To finish up with more Terry Pratchett, this time from Feet of Clay. Corporal Angua points out that bogeymen go away if you put your head under a blanket. That is, if you can’t see them, or take steps not to see them, they don’t exist. I have suddenly realized that this explains entirely the behaviour of cars, cyclists and pedestrians alike on Beijing’s roads.


  1. Some additional thoughts:

    – one reason I rave about Nam Wah Pai’s taiji is that they teach taijigong ie integrating qigong energy work with the taijiquan, which activates the yi-qi-body unity I’m talking about above

    – for anyone who is looking first and foremost to use an internal style for combat, you could do far, far worse than going to Singapore and training with Master Zhou Yue Wen (, who teaches xingyi, liuhebafa, and baguazhang. He’s used them in real life-or-death situations (, and doesn’t shy away from teaching the stuff many other teachers don’t, such as eye-gouging, testicle-grabbing, and other attacks too nasty to describe here.


  2. In Wujifa we like to say… You are where you are and that’s where you start. The real trick is knowing where you are so the place one starts is functional. Thanks for the shout out in your blog. I remember meeting with Yao in Beijing back in 2000, Yiquan is a really nice practice… Enjoyed reading your blog… Will be sure to stop back in and read your postings.

    Rick from


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