Sunday, August 11, 2013

"Beyond System"

               A few years ago, while I was between biology jobs, I spent two months at a grocery store in my home town, making sure I had the money to keep training in Tang Soo Do and Aikido while I worked toward my 1st degree black belt in both (Unfortunately, I left the state before I could test for Tang Soo Do, and haven’t had the time to practice since!). Stocking shelves before opening one morning, I kept my mind busy by mentally practicing forms and techniques from both styles, acting out some of the motions to a greater or lesser degree depending on whether I was the only one in my particular aisle. As I got more bored with the work, I got more enthusiastic; while practicing a knife-hand block and round kick in the air beside a wall of cereal I had just prepared, I heard a deep voice from nearby. “Charles, you do martial arts?”

                I looked up, and saw the impossibly tall, dreadlocked form of my boss, Eric, toward whom I offered a sheepish smile and a nod. Scrambling for something to say, I remembered overhearing him mentioning training at a school nearby. “Aren’t you training in Brazilian Jiujitsu?” I asked, and he grinned. “Yeah! What do you do?”

                A loaded question, from my perspective. I paused. Since going to college and temporarily leaving my home dojo, I had received training in Chen Tai Chi, San Da, Tang Soo Do, Longfist Kung Fu, and wrestling; I sought out any training opportunity I could find, and wasn’t about to claim ownership of any one style. “…Whatever I can get, really.” I managed, then continued, feeling as though that was sort of a cop-out. “I’ve trained in a lot of styles now, but mostly things like karate and Aikido.”

                “Oh,” Eric boomed, pushing his lips forward in characteristically cool fashion and raising his eyebrows. “I get it,” he continued, grinning toothily now, and pointing a long finger at me. “So he’s a Jeet Kune Do man.”

                I don’t remember how the rest of the conversation—or the rest of the day—went after that; it was that last statement that struck me. Until that point, I had never really stopped to consider my position on training in so many different arts and understand what it meant; I was following a doctrine which a friend would later astutely call a “liberal arts” approach to martial arts: Learn from everything, integrate from diverse sources to gain new perspectives and deeper understanding. I would sum this viewpoint up into two primary perspectives: 1) That there is something to be learned from every martial art, and 2) The more styles in which one has trained seriously, the broader and more realistic their total understanding of combat. The latter of these two ideas also implies the corollary that martial artists who study only one martial art may be limited in the scope and realism of their training; though my next post will work against this somewhat, I still believe it somewhat valid.

                Bruce Lee was firmly behind this approach and it is strongly evident in his written works, not to mention in Jeet Kune Do itself. Just from memory, I can recall seeing described techniques from Judo, Aikido, Wrestling, Karate, Wing Chun, Boxing, and Savate in his books. His attitude made a strong impression on me when I had first begun my training, and as I’ve mentioned in other posts it has remained a guiding principle in my approach.

                Lee, for example, always urged readers to be “beyond system”, explaining that “the man who is really serious, with the urge to find out what truth is, has no style at all.” The idea was that a serious martial artist is not after mastery of a style, but mastery of fighting itself (and, arguably, mastery of his or herself). The total knowledge of all fighting could be imagined as a huge landscape, over which each martial art, is spread in a plane and occupies a certain area, with more or less overlap with other arts. No one art covers the entire landscape, though; and focusing on just one art means that only a small fraction of the “terrain” is ever covered. (One can easily expand this notion of “breadth” to also include “depth” in training, which is certainly sacrificed when one studies other styles; this will be mentioned in my next post).

As Lee put it, “If any style teaches you a method of fighting, then you might be able to fight according to the limit of that method, but that is not actually fighting.” There is something more out there to be sought, a sort of “essence” of fighting, and focusing on only a single art can’t necessarily get you there.

                While I am not nearly as dogmatic about this point as I used to be (as I’ll show in my next post) I think it still holds plenty of water. I can no longer count the number of times I’ve seen martial artists practice or talk about techniques and fighting in a way that exposes their utter naiveté to situations and types of fighting outside whatever it is we do. I don’t think they are necessarily to blame if they have never trained outside their own style, but they would gain much in the way of realism from branching out. For example, I once heard a fellow Aikidoka ask rhetorically why someone would ever want to throw a kick, “it just leaves you so off-balance, so vulnerable, what’s the point?”. Dumbstruck, I kept my mouth shut and decided I wouldn’t be the one responsible for teaching him the reality of the situation. The situation is equally bad in other martial arts all over the country and probably the world; there is a degree of fearful ego that comes from parochial views and an unfamiliarity with "the other side".

                In a similar vein, it’s well known that dozens of skilled kickboxers, karateka, and other stand-up martial artists who focused the entirety of their training around stand-up striking found themselves nearly defenseless against grapplers and ground-fighters in the early years of mixed martial arts. Likewise, I’ve seen grapplers whose training has led them to think so myopically about fighting that their entries and positioning tend to leave huge openings to strikes and techniques that would be illegal in their realm of practice. Not to even make mention of weapons; there are countless stories of brilliant fighters being foiled by knives, clubs, and other unexpected additions that were outside their preparation.

                Miyamoto Musashi, the legendary Japanese swordsman, complained about this martial-short-sightedness in The Book of Five Rings, “…martial art is conventionally viewe in a limited way, as if it consisted only of swordsmanship.” Contemporary Aikido shihan Mitsugi Saotome explained the point well in terms of context: “Much can be gained through specialization, but too much specialization greatly narrows perspective and understanding. One small part cannot be understood out of context… If you are narrowly attached to one art, your spirit will become enslaved to that art. For a full understanding, you must have a vision that expands enough to encompass all others.”

                Beyond the clear notion that in the martial arts, what you don’t know most certainly can (and often will) hurt you, studying other arts has tangible and direct benefits to one’s all around skill, and training in a new art can significantly improve the depth of one’s training in their original art. I can still recall how my training in ukemi from Aikido left higher-ranked Tang Soo Do practitioners clueless when trying to apply joint locks and trapping techniques on me during exams, or how the spacing and striking awareness generated by sparring in Tang Soo Do and Karate improved the realism and crispness of my Aikido practice. Without exception, all of the greatest martial artists I’ve ever known or heard of have had significant training in more than one martial art.

                After all, this is a large part of the mindset that started the Mixed Martial Arts movement in the late 80’s and early 90’s, though as I’ve mentioned before the momentum gained from this once liberal attitude is starting to fade as, for better or for worse, MMA begins to coagulate into its own unique style.

                While I’ll never insist that anyone can be perfectly trained for any situation, I am convinced that some inter-disciplinary “breadth” is necessary for a solid education in the martial arts. Just how “broad” will depend on the needs of the practitioner, with the implicit understanding that some “depth” is lost with each addition of other training methods.  Regardless of how you distribute your training among whatever art (or arts) you study, I believe it is essential to maintain the seriousness and reality that comes with being “beyond system”.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

One Style, Many Styles

                My last post, The Way of the Intercepting Fist, reminds me of a debate  which has raged in the martial arts for longer than it may be possible to know, a question to which every martial artist must ultimately find their own answer. The debate is a simple one: is it best to study one style, and concentrate solely a single system of fighting, or is it better to branch out and gain experience in a variety of different styles, potentially sacrificing depth of learning? This question ultimately frames a trade-off like those found throughout the animal kingdom; a limited supply of something (in this case, our energy, time, money, and attention) must be allocated among many possible candidates. This can be compared to different types of animals which allocate different amounts of parental care to their offspring; for example, elephants, which can take a year to even give birth to a growing baby, and then will care for it long into subadulthood. By contrast, sea turtles will lay thousands of thousands of eggs in their lifetime, producing just as many young, but provide absolutely no parental care beyond burying these eggs, and about 99% of young are lost to predators.

                So, do we specialize, like the elephant, and put all our “eggs” in one basket, or do we generalize, like the sea turtle, and spread our efforts far and wide, and gain great breadth of experience in our training? On one hand, we will have great, focused depth in our learning, and on the other a wide range of preparation and experience.

                Starting my martial arts career as a Jeet Kune Do enthusiast, I never thought much of this question; interdisciplinary practice (“cross training” in other martial arts) is a central part of Jeet Kune Do, and I never doubted that it was the wisest and best route. More recently, though, as my training has matured, I have become more moderate in my views, and started to appreciate the rapid progress one can develop in concentrating their training and specializing in a single style.

                I have since then become more moderate in my thinking, and am convinced that the answer to the specialist vs. generalist problem is different for every martial artist; we all come to the martial arts seeking something different, and different combinations of specialization and interdisciplinary training will be necessary to achieve those goals.

                As a resource for myself and fellow martial artists, though, I would like to lay out this debate as it has played in my head and write on both side of the argument. The martial arts are full of deception and contradiction; teachings can seem antipodal and mutually exclusive, yet in my experience, the clearest truths most often arise from the simultaneous acknowledgement of seemingly irreconcilable views of reality. In many arts, for example, students are first told to be "relaxed, but tense", or told to "use less muscle, be less forceful" one moment, and "give it all they've got" the next; at first, it sounds like the teacher is contradicting his or herself, but often one finds that such contradictions are only in appearance, and beneath it all there is a unifying truth.
              The two sides of this debate are one expression of the Yin and Yang of martial arts training, two inseparable parts, opposite forces which tug at the student, and in which she or he should fine her or his personal balance, matched to their individual needs and goals. Through the awareness of polar opposites, like a tightrope walker balanced by two ends of a long stick, we find our center point. It's my hope that in exploring this debate I can offer a resource to examine the truth underlying this central contradiction in martial arts training.

                For my next two posts, I will outline my thoughts supporting each side of this debate, which I will call “One Style, Many Styles”, and encourage readers to examine their own preferences along the spectrum of specialization to generalization. Please comment and share your own thoughts and experiences on the subject; I welcome the input and am always looking for new insights into this fascinating argument.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Way of the Intercepting Fist

Bruce Lee's symbolf for Jeet Kune Do. Photo credit:
            Like a many other martial artists, I owe my martial arts career largely to the inspiration, charisma, and talent of Bruce Lee. It was his incredible, dynamic energy that drew me in; an incredible mixture of ferocity and tranquility, of strength and intellect, warrior and philosopher. Lee wasn't a hulking brute--in fact he was almost exactly my size--but nor was he some mystical monk with a flowing fu manchu and seemingly supernatural powers. Lee was logical, scientific, and straight-forward about his study; he achieved great mastery through hard training and open-mindedness. He was adamant that anyone else coudl do the same. Like so many others, I was inspired by his modern philosophy.
            Though I had always been more bookish and intellectually inclined, it was not until I learned about Bruce Lee that I began to take physical endeavors more seriously. It started with lifting weights and physical conditioning, then moved on into reading his books, and progressed into an insatiable appetite for training; whatever style, technique, or school would take me. Whatever art or system I studied after that, Bruce Lee’s philosophies, the core ideas of Jeet Kune Do, were always in the back of my mind; simplify, keep what is useful, discard what is useless, use whatever is effective, and don’t be limited by rules, have “no style” so you can match with “all styles”; don’t limit yourself with rules, orthodoxies, or barriers.

In all my time studying martial arts I received only very limited direct training in Jeet Kune Do, starting with less than a year of infrequent classes with a private instructor who had been teaching a friend, and later former JKD students I met through other martial arts. While I studied the arts I had the time and resources to practice throughout college—primarily Aikido, Tang Soo Do, and bits of wrestling and Brazilian Jiujitsu—I was constantly tucking things away in my mental arsenal, assessing what parts would work best as part of a more total system. As I gained more knowledge and experience, I was able to start teaching myself from Lee’s books without the fear of learning totally incorrectly, and gradually refined techniques with experience. Through all this, I have eagerly awaited a chance to train at a genuine JKD school.

Jeet Kune Do has always been the “sought after” system for many martial artists; it is—with the exception of Bartitsu—the first popular fusion of Eastern and Western martial arts and philosophies, and has gained almost mythical status from the legendary prestige of its founder. Yet, with a focus on self defense instead of competition, it did not gain nearly the popularity of the Mixed Martial Arts; besides this, Lee’s untimely death left a dearth of qualified teachers, which makes good schools even harder to find.

It’s not hard to imagine my excitement when a friend of mine at Princeton University mentioned that his girlfriend was studying Jeet Kune Do at a school in town, and that when I came to visit I was welcome to attend a class. I was beside myself with excitement, and was browsing the web for the school’s website days in advance of my trip. The school, Princeton Academy of the Martial Arts (PAMA) featured lessons in nearly a half-dozen styles ranging from Muay Thai to Kali. The head instructor, Rick Tucci, had certifications in more martial arts than I had ever heard of, and most importantly had direct lineage to Lee himself, through one of Lee’s most well-known students, Dan Inosanto.

                By the time I walked in the door on a rainy evening in Princeton with a pair of friends, my excitement had been blended with nervousness; would my “dream art” be all I had imagined it to be, now that I could study with professionals? Would techniques I practiced years ago, or taught myself independently deliver when I put them to the test?

                My friends and I met one of the assistant instructors, who explained to us that though Sifu Tucci was out of town, they would have instructors to teach a basics class for my two friends, and if I liked I could attend the advanced class. We then got a tour of one of the most impressive schools I have ever seen. Not only did their facility host two large training floors, a small store, offices, mens and womens locker rooms, a kitchen, and a weight room, but the entire place was beautifully decorated with cultural icons that I’d expect to see in a traditional school in nearly any other Asian country. Buddhist statues and calligraphies, traditional weapons and shrines from Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, Thai, and  other cultures littered the walls, interspersed with pictures of students and teachers, certificates. I was particularly thrilled to see a reprinted photo of some late 19th century gentlemen practicing Bartitsu. One wall in the main training room sported a huge image of the Beatles, and another in the lobby displayed the daunting array of Sifu Tucci’s rank and teaching certificates from at least a dozen martial arts associations.

               Not to get too carried away by the scenery, I restrained my staring and admiration at the library of books on JKD and other martial arts in their shop and headed to the locker room to change. By the time I was done, class was about to begin, and as I walked out on the main training floor I was immediately greeted by the teacher of the advanced class, easily recognizable in the instructor’s uniform of a smart black polo shirt and sport pants. He introduced himself as Mike Lee (no relation), and interviewed me excitedly about my previous training, even remarking that he used to train at Sityodtong Boston in the early `90’s. Class started with some complex bowing that I assumed was derived from Wing Chun training, and that I did my best to emulate, but it was over before I got too far, and had other things to worry about.

To my delight, we practiced a number of traditional Wing Chun techniques, including straight center punches, parries, and knife hands (the Cantonese for these escapes me) and I loved the compact, quick, and explosive feel of the movements. I soon gathered, however, that we were not there to practice Wing Chun; we were there to practice Jeet Kune Do, and that was an entirely different thing; as Lee frequently described it, it is a dynamic, active, and explosive art. As the practice continued, I was reminded again and again of things I had read repeatedly in Lee’s writings, and was thrilled to see how well the school seemed to adhere to Lee’s teachings.

(Bruce) Lee spoke and wrote about making practice “alive” and preventing stagnation by any means necessary; given his distaste for conventional training, it was said he tended to play music during his practices to prevent too much navel-gazing seriousness and instead encourage the type of dynamic action he expected from Jeet Kune Do. Our practice intensified accordingly as we spent a solid chunk of time practicing freestyle footwork (Lee expressed in several books that footwork, above else, could not be overemphasized in its importance) and moving about the space as quickly as possible, avoiding other students while trying to cover ground, shift direction, and control our equilibrium. This and the rest of the class went on to an upbeat soundtrack prominently featuring the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and I’ll be the first to admit that this rather unconventional training technique did keep the pace of the class up and prevent too much thinking. Further, it helped establish what Lee always called “rhythm”, a dynamic awareness of spacing and timing in martial movements which makes effectiveness without the need for conscious thought and analysis.

After spending at least ten minutes on shadowboxing and footwork alone (according to Bruce Lee, two of the most important elements of good martial art) we broke into small groups and began practicing striking combinations demonstrated by Mike. I watched Mike’s hands fly through techniques which combined trapping, beating, and pulling techniques from Wing Chun with the cross, hook, and uppercut from Western boxing and an array of snapping and pushing kicks. I was excited to practice mixing techniques from various disciplines I had studied over the years, and until then hadn’t truly realized just how confining it felt to be restricted to, say, backfists and reverse-punches in Tang Soo Do, or just jabs, hooks and elbows in Muay Thai.

Now, we were stringing together techniques that I had picked up from many arts throughout the years; a hammerfist might fly out after an uppercut, a snapping heel kick after a cross, etc. as we practiced what I remembered were key techniques of Jeet Kune Do, including “jamming the attack”, applying a “stop hit” to counter an incoming blow, trapping, weaving, and so on. We moved on to padwork next, and I was delighted to practice techniques from JKD that had been neglected by other striking arts; above all, a personal favorite of mine, the hopping side kick.

More or less interchangeable with a back-kick depending on the angle, this particular technique was almost entirely responsible for drawing me to martial arts in the first place. I’ll never forget watching Lee send a padholder flying into a stack of cardboard boxes in “Return of the Dragon”, or the ample footage from demonstrations where he would use the kick to send a heavy bag flying like it had been hit by a truck. The directness, the aggressive explosiveness of the movement has always fascinated me, not to mention the power when used correctly. There is ample footage of Lee showing the power one can achieve when applying the technique correctly, putting the whole force of the body behind it.

We finished the class with some light sparring drills defending from a leg kick. Defense started with the types of blocks and kick-returns I had learned from Muay Thai, but gradually progressed to a handful of intercepting kicks to the knee, pelvis and chest. One of my favorite lessons was in transitioning between ranges; specifically, we learned to bridge between kicking range to striking range, from striking range to trapping range, and from trapping to grappling range by applying a rear naked choke.

The lack of rules, customs, or limited repertoires of techniques was as liberating and exciting as I think Bruce Lee would have wanted it. Throughout my time at PAMA, I continually felt like disparate techniques and movements from my past training in other martial arts were being brought together and synthesized in a more complete, cohesive framework. I could see them all in context with one another, which was an even better feeling than learning an entirely new technique.

When the class drew to a close, we bowed together as a class and thanked our partners amidst a feeling of camaraderie and good cheer; the attitude of my fellow students was relaxed and intense throughout, and when training was over people were eager to introduce themselves and talk to me about the training. Unfortunately, my friends and I were late for our dinner plans, and had to leave in a bit of a hurry; I’m already looking forward to the next time I can visit PAMA. Though many fear that Lee’s art died with him, I am confident that it lives on in schools like this one, where not only the skills and techniques but the attitude of the style are preserved. Studying at the Princeton Academy of Martial Arts, one sees the Way of the Intercepting Fist as Lee saw it; dynamic, intense, all-encompassing and liberating.



Thursday, May 30, 2013

Handle Big Problems Gently

Master Zhao Liang teaching me the basics of Push hands

Tai chi has always had a special place in my heart. I first learned of it as a freshman in High school while doing research for a school project on Taoism. I can still remember being fascinated by the gentle fluidity of its movements; they were so far from how I had begun to imagine martial arts, from friends who took karate and Tae Kwon Do, and the dozens of martial arts films I had been watching. As an art, Tai Chi manifested the attitudes of its spiritual foundations in Taoism; balanced and natural, nothing out of the ordinary; never striving or struggling, never particularly strong or particularly weak, but always somehow firmly rooted in natural, principled movement. As Lao Tzu said, "The Master doesn't try to be powerful; thus he is truly powerful. The ordinary man keeps reaching for power; thus he never has enough" The movements of tai chi seemed at once casual and filled with power, displaying the greatness of what Bruce Lee called “being nothing special”.

I had the great fortune of learning some of the basics of Tai Chi movement from friends of mine who practiced various forms of the art; one who studied Chen style, and another who studied Yang.
                It was during the end of my trip in China (staying with the latter of my two Tai Chi friends, mentioned in my last post) that I had the pleasure of meeting not just one yang-style instructor, his mother, but also her instructor, a man named Liang Zhao, whose father, Youbin Zhao, is a renowned master of the style.

I met him just a few days after my experience with Master Yan, in an apparently pre-arranged encounter in a park not far from where I was staying. The contrast in the nature of our meeting was blatant from the start.

                Master Zhao was  not nearly as imposing as the last martial artists I had met. Rather than formal dress, he wore blue jeans, a black windbreaker, and some New Balance sneakers. He had short black hair cut like a schoolboy’s, a pair of thick-rimmed glasses, and a round, soft-featured face. He greeted me expressionlessly and shook my hand, and spoke distantly toward me in nearly perfect English. He looked like anyone I would have met on the street; nothing but good, relaxed posture could have even hinted at his training.

                I suppose this was a product of his training and its philosophy. Be natural, be real, and that will be what survives; the sharp edges, the extremes, are what gets removed by nature, while the moderate remains. Be ordinary. Be nothing special.

I am ashamed to admit I was initially skeptical of master Zhao’s capabilities; despite years of lessons of “don’t judge a book by its cover” throughout my martial arts training, I momentarily allowed myself to imagine that master Zhao was not the martial artist I had been expecting. Naturally, as we found a “quiet” (and I use this in relative terms, as there are no quiet places in the city in China) place to practice in the park, I found I was about as wrong as I could be. Master Zhao demonstrated a few Yang Style Tai Chi forms, one of which I remember learning in part from Nick, and then practiced several variations of pushing hands with Nick’s mother.

If you are not familiar with pushing hands, I would highly recommend looking into it. My knowledge of the training method is fairly limited, too, but my understanding is that it is a practiced employed most often in Tai Chi, of meeting hands with a partner and exchanging pressure and whole body force in an attempt to unbalance the other. For the beginner, emphasis is simply on learning to diffuse and redirect the power being exerted towards you, while at more advanced levels it becomes possible to manipulate the partner’s balance at will, and blend with their movements to unbalance them—sounds awfully Aikido, I know. While I could—and probably will—spend an entire blog entry on push hands, I’ll refrain and return to my experience with Master Zhao.

                Master Zhao politely asked that I demonstrate some of my martial arts training; he did this without a hint of the intimidating edge that Master Yan and his student had, but with a faint smile and a polite sort of awkwardness. I made my way through one of the forms I learned with the Nam Hong Son school, and another that I had learned as a red belt with the Tang Soo Do Mi Guk Kwan. He then asked that I demonstrate some Aikido techniques on him, and show him some of the chin na (joint locks) used in the practice. I obliged, and rather than toss me across the park he watched with the same sort of quiet, innocuous politeness, occasionally mentioning that something was interesting, or very good, or what have you.

As politely as possible, I asked if I might practice push hands with him—Nick had told me this was a stretch, since my skill in Tai Chi was poor, and that I probably wouldn’t learn much from push hands until I was a bit more talented. I was willing to accept that reasoning, but, in a hard-headed dumb American sort of way, was eager to at least have my lack of skill proved to me.
                To my excitement, Master Zhao obliged. In fact, he gave me a private lesson in push hands that lasted long enough for Nick’s parents to get bored and sit on a bench nearby, while I struggled to maintain my balance and blend with Master Zhao’s movements. Without a single joint lock, or trip, without throwing a punch or kick or using fancy footwork, he managed to throw me off balance and have me almost throwing myself off balance time and time again. He used no excessive or extra force; he made no show of his technique, he didn’t laugh at me or try to prove a point. He just practiced, and moved, and did so with such a flowing, natural, and bodily-unified sort of power and subtlety that I was helpless against him but could never tell where the power came from.

At one point, while he shifted our hands toward me and began pushing me far off balance, I made a quick attempt at some evasive footwork to chance our distance and rearrange our spacing to my favor. For all my frantic movements, I produced a minimal change in our spacing, and Master Zhao accounted for this with a subtle shift of his shoulder, which sent me reeling off balance again. I shook my hand out in frustration; my shoulder was getting sore from the power of our exchange; clearly I was using the wrong muscle group.

Master Zhao looked at me plainly, his down-turned lips pulling back into round cheeks to give something close to a polite, neutral smile. “You don’t need all that.” He explained as I pushed forward to take his balance, watching him cast my force casually aside. “Handle big problems gently.”

I was struck immediately with a samurai maxim I had heard repeatedly in my Aikido and Karate training: “Handle matters of great importance as though they are trivial, handle trivial matters as though they are of great importance.”. It was all about mindset. If I could keep calm and not lose my mental composure, if I could look through the fear and flusteredness of being off-balance, I could find the simple, easy solution to reverse the technique. As the great swordsman Miyamoto Musashi described, it is important to constantly maintain "ordinary mind", especially in times of great danger or importance, because this ordinary mind can make the best decisions, or, more appropriately, can step aside and let the body do what comes naturally (especially in the martial arts, this is usually the best solution).

Master Zhao guided me through the motions a few times, and I gradually began to get the feel for it; staying relaxed, reacting only how is necessary and no more, keeping myself from getting fancy or technical or revved up; just staying ordinary, nothing special.

We trained for some time, and invited Master Zhao out for lunch, wherein I had the pleasure of chatting with him about Chinese martial arts for some time, and even got a few more demonstrations in the restaurant.

Since our encounter, I have concentrated on dealing with big problems gently; whether they be at work, in my social life, or (especially) the martial arts. Practicing Aikido or Muay Thai, when confronted with a powerful or overblown attack, I try to mentally train myself to react the opposite way my body tells me to. If someone attacks hard with clenched muscles, I try to relax, and respond with even less effort than a weak attack. Naturally, some of the time I just get clobbered; this is to be expected; I’m not a master of Tai Chi or any other martial art. Yet once in a while it works the way I’m sure it’s supposed to; my attacker is caught entirely off guard, and is at the mercy of my next movement. They’re so geared up for the crashing impact or the rapid exchange of techniques, that the simple, effortless movement they meet instead (whatever it may be) is devastating. It’s worth a shot in your own practice. Don’t get fancy. Be nothing special. Handle big problems gently.
Until I can get my own videos uploaded, here is a clip from youtube of a Tai Chi demonstration by Master Zhao and his father, Youbin.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Two Rivers

 Left to right: Mr. Tang, Master Yan, Nick, and Myself
                 I awoke with a start to the domestic sounds of children playing in a park, and the distant and melodious chirping of birds. Laying beneath a pile of clean-smelling sheets and staring up at a spotless white ceiling, I could feel my groggy, sleep-addled brain slowly regain function as I tried to remember where I was. My inner ornithologist set off alarm bells at the chirpings outside; these were not the birds I remembered hearing in Hanoi. I shot upright and looked around the tidy, spacious room. It was beautifully lit by diffuse sunlight coming in from a courtyard outside, and fresh air made light blue curtains sway invitingly nearby. I squinted into the sunlight and moved to the edge of the bed, beginning to recount events that had brought me there.
                Due to airline issues, I had been forced to fly from Vietnam to Japan, and then back to Hong Kong, where I had planned to visit friends from college who lived in the area. After about 20 hours of travel and a sleepless night, I found them, and we had hit the town for a very, very late evening. My good friend Nick, a native of mainland China with whom I would be staying in China, had managed to drag my exhausted, delirious self through Chinese customs and border control and into the city of Shenzhen, where his family lived. After a night of exploring and partying in Hong Kong, we made it to his family’s apartment on the mainland by around four in the morning, and then there was wine to be had. I had slept like the dead… at least until that point.
                The door opened quickly and quietly, and Nick poked his head in, cleaning the lens of his glasses on his T-shirt. “Charles, you should get up now. My mother will take us to see the Xinyi master.”
                ‘The Xinyi Master’? I had almost completely forgotten, but months before, when I had been arranging to stay with Nick after my study in Vietnam, I had mentioned off hand I would be interested in meeting and possibly training with some martial artists in China. Nick’s mother was an instructor of Yang Style Tai Chi Chuan, and evidently had connections in various martial arts circles around Shenzhen. Given that I had asked to see something “uniquely Chinese”, Nick and his family—in characteristically considerate, polite, and discrete fashion—had arranged it all perfectly, months in advance, without saying a word.
                I dressed as quickly as I could and rushed into the kitchen, where I was introduced to Nick’s parents. Using my Mandarin vocabulary of “good”, “hello”, “delicious” and “thank you”, I managed to converse my way through a delicious breakfast of home-made noodle soup, and before I knew it was being ushered outside to the car. It was evidently a family outing; I was grateful Nick would be along to translate.
                After braving the aggressive traffic in Shenzhen (it made Boston’s drivers look tame and tractable) we arrived at another massive apartment building, parked and went inside. On the third floor, we were welcomed into a beautiful flat with ample hardwood flooring by a sturdy, hygienic-looking fellow with a broad head, neatly combed hair and a strong handshake. He wore a beautifully tailored wine-red suit of traditional Chinese style—precisely the type American martial artists might recognize from Kung Fu films, or nearly any other formal event. His wife was a small and friendly woman with short, well-kept hair and an easy smile. I finally shook hands with a younger man, perhaps in his early forties, in a suit of a similar style, but formal black in color. He had a short buzz cut and stood with tall, relaxed posture like the older of the two. From the way their arms hung at their sides, I was already sure these were the powerful martial artists we had come to see.
                Nick introduced me to my hosts. The stouter, shorter fellow was Hongtao Yan, the head of the Wudang Tai chi school in the area, who teaches various forms of Tai Chi as well as Xing Yi; both powerful internals arts of ancient origin. Nick and his mother had clearly taken my words very seriously; I couldn’t have been more pleased. The taller and lankier of the two, the younger fellow in the black suit, greeted me in fluent English with a strong accent. He had a soft voice but the same firm handshake, the same relaxed movement of the arms which bespoke the capability for great, relaxed force. His name was Jihai Tang; he was a recent student of Master Yan’s. I learned later he had learned English while studying biochemistry at Harvard University.
                Still exhausted from the night before, I let my guard down a little at the informal and initially casual nature of our meeting; Master Yan’s family—including a teenage daughter, aunts and uncles, a grandfather and several young cousins—were bustling about the apartment as we spoke, and the sounds and smells of lunch being prepared had lulled me into a state of ease. The party around me had commenced conversing in fluent mandarin, and my mind wandered as I examined a rack of Chinese training weapons mounted neatly on a nearby wall.
“Charles,” Nick began, gesturing toward the open floor space of the room in front of the weapon rack and shrine. “Sifu says he would like you to demonstrate your Vietnamese martial arts.” Head reeling with exhaustion, I did my best to seem awake and attentive, and obliged cheerfully; I had no intentions of seeming disrespectful when my hosts—both Nick’s family and Master Yan’s—had taken the time to arrange this meeting.
                I performed Long Ho Quyen and Khai Tam Quyen, making occasional adjustments for the size of the room, and bowed nervously to cheerful applause. I was then hurriedly ushered to sit by a beautiful hardwood tea-table, where Master Yan, Nick, Mr. Tang and I enjoyed repeated cups of ceremoniously-poured tea. Master Yan told me about his training and his school of martial arts, and showed an instructional DVD his teacher had made perhaps a decade before. I sat and drank the fine teas—I would later find out from an expert friend that these were some of the most expensive teas in China—as I watched, finding that my cup was stealthily refilled every time I looked away.
We discussed training philosophies and insights, or previous teachers, how long we had been practicing, why people study martial arts, and so on.

                As all conversations about martial arts go between martial artists, more than half of it was spent standing. Inevitably, Master Yan, Mr. Tang and I were on our feet, they demonstrating a set of Xinyi movements, a form, and finally a form from Chen style Tai Chi, and myself some of the internal breathing exercises I had learned from my Aikido training. Watching Master Yan, I could recall learning the forms he demonstrated from a friend and fellow martial artist in my early years of college, but I had never seen the movements performed so powerfully. Master Yan’s techniques were executed with a precision, control, and unity of body that made me feel increasingly ridiculous for the applause I received after my earlier demonstration. When he stomped the ground at the beginning of one form, I felt the whole apartment quake, and when his fists and feet lashed out in various kicks and strikes, a rush of air would follow the crisp snap of his suit’s broad sleeves.

                Through Nick, I spoke my praise of Master Yan’s forms, and explained that I had always wanted to see a master of these internal arts in action. Through Nick once more, Master Yan asked if I would demonstrate some forms from Aikido. Hesitating, I replied that Aikido did not have "forms" per se; it always required a training partner. This was my first mistake.
                “No problem,” I heard Master Yan say in Mandarin—one of the phrases I had picked up since my arrival—and soon Nick was relaying the rest of the message. “He says you should try to throw him.” My heart leapt. This wasn’t going to end well.
                Seeing no point in delaying the inevitable, I closed the distance between Master Yan and I and, in the style of chi sao or double pushing hands, I  put our forearms together and began trying to create an opening to unbalance him. With the sensitivity I had picked upfrom years of Aikido training, I could already feel the impossible rootedness and power behind his stance and posture; I could hardly budge him, and his arms were pliable and flexible, blending with my movements yet with each shift drawing me further outside my own balance. Growing desperate, I began to make more frantic, less “Aiki” (internal, blending) and more “jutsu” (technical, external, physical) movements in an attempt to unbalance him. I advanced, changed our spacing, tried to step around his guard, and even tried to trip him with a foot reap; nothing worked, and before I knew it he had trapped my arms and redirected one of my more ambitious shoves into a push that sent me hurtling back toward the weapon rack. Sparring with MMA fighters, state champ high school wrestlers, Judoka, and other experienced grapplers I had found myself able to shrug off most attempts to cast me off balance, a simple shift of this man’s waist had sent me hurtling out of control; it was the type of feeling one gets when thrown from a bicycle at about 20 miles per hour. Just waiting for impact, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
                But, with equal power, a hand seized my wrist and yanked me back on balance before I could bring Master Yan’s apartment to ruin. He re-established the positioning of our hands. I looked at his face briefly, and could see the calm seriousness of his features; dark eyes had shifted to Nick beneath furrowed brows. He spoke something in a soft and commanding voice. “Sifu says you should just throw him. Just use a real throw, you know, a Judo throw.” I grunted, feeling my face flush; despite myself I was embarrassed and frustrated to hear my best attempts at good Aikido being considered something other than “real”. Using what I had learned of Judo from friends in the past, I slid around Master Yan’s guard, gripped the material of one sleeve and his collar, and yanked hard to one side to pull his weight onto one leg. I would follow with a leg reap, and send him flying to the floor.

                But I didn’t make it to step 1. As I shoved hard to take his balance, I felt like I was pushing a wall. A meaty palm collided with my side and sent me spinning off balance and subsequently to the floor. Master Yan laughed good-naturedly at his easy dismissal of my technique, and said something in Mandarin to Nick. I struggled to my feet, and catching my breath stated my astonishment at Master Yan’s skill, through Nick. “Sifu says perhaps you should try on his student, instead, you can take him off balance.” Said Nick. I glanced at Mr. Tang, who even in calm politeness had a gleam in his eyes; it was the look I’ve seen at many martial arts schools I’ve visited… the gratification of showing an outsider the skill of one’s school, especially the hard way. It is not a malicious intention, and can be quite good natured, but it seems ever-present to me.
                I met the same fate with the younger, thinner, and less experienced Mr. Tang. We locked arms as before, and though he did not feel nearly as solid or immovable as Master Yan, the result was inevitably the same. I managed to blend with and neutralize some of his more ambitious attempts to unbalance me, but I was thoroughly outclassed; if at any moment my best attempts to stay balanced and maintain a unity of body form I strayed just slightly from a powerful stance, I was swept immediately off my feet and went careening to the hardwood floor below.
                This went on for some time, with much laughter all around—my own included, I did my best to remain humble despite the obvious humiliation—until Master Yan decided there might be ways to further demonstrate the power of their training. Calling Mr. Tang, he made a fist and gestured a straight punch, then waved my way and continued in Mandarin. I looked between the two, puzzled, until Mr. Tang spoke, stepping toward me. “Hit me.” He said in the same overpowering accent. I glanced at Nick, who nodded, adjusting his glasses and waving an open hand encouragingly. “Sifu says you should punch him in the abdomen.” I hesitated as Mr. Tang adjusted his posture, then gave a smooth, relaxed, but light hook to the body with my right. It bounced off harmlessly. “Hit hard!” Mr. Tang said emphatically, straightening his posture further. I ratcheted it up to about 50%. “Harder!” Mr. Tang almost yelled. Keeping with the rhythm, I put more of my body behind it. It felt like I was punching an overfull balloon; my fist bounced off in a way it didn’t when striking the heavy bag. “HARDER!” Mr. Tang yelled this time, and before I knew it I was landing full-force punches.
                Now, I’m no professional boxer, and probably if anything a mediocre puncher, but I was hitting him with about as much power as I could muster, and hearing nothing but “HARDER!” in response to each strike. Next, he patted his shoulder casually, unphased by my punching, and said “Kick me.”
                After 5 years of Tang Soo Do, some Karate, and now nearly a year of Muay Thai, I take my kicks a lot more seriously than my punches. But even these seemed hardly to effect him, and I got the same treatment. Kicking as hard as I could muster, I drove my hip through him and sent a fierce left round kick his way; still each time he yelled “HARDER!”, as I got more winded. Nick’s mother cried out in surprise when I started kicking full force, but Mr. Tang handled it without batting an eyelash
and, after ushering me back to the tea table and shaking my hand, went on to display other feats of internal strength, like pushups on the tips of his thumbs, and a sort of inverted headstand. With regards to his earlier feats, “breathing” through my onslaught of kicks and punches, Mr. Tang reminded me of a video I had once seen on youtube of practitioners of Systema (a Russian martial art with internal training methods) who had done the same thing. I find this tremendously impressive; my only understanding of it is the type that comes from having experienced it and knowing it is truly possible.
                The “tea party” continued in the way a tea party is likely to go between martial artists. After a few minutes of exchanging viewpoints on martial philosophy—Master Yan was apparently impressed with my thinking on the subject of styles and the difference between “Western” and “Eastern” martial arts training—we were back on our feet again. This time, I was on the observing and receiving end of a number of chin na, wrist-locking techniques, and throws from Xin Yi and movements of Tai Chi; all of which coincided exactly with Aikido techniques I had been learning or trying to employ earlier in the afternoon. Naturally, Master Yan’s movements were far more refined and powerful than my own; I was nearly thrown into the wall at least another dozen times.
                We returned to the table for another few cups of tea. Master Yan had me reiterate my views on different styles of training. I had been explaining that I viewed martial arts training along a continuum, from the close-minded and competitive to the open-minded and cooperative. I argued that ideally we seek the “middle ground” between the two; where overly competitive training requires too many rules to prevent serious injury or death, and thus constrains realism in practice and the use of valuable techniques for self defense, and overly cooperative martial art, where movements are strictly pre-arranged and, if there is a training partner, they do not resist or react in any way, leads to an unrealistic view of an entirely cooperative opponent and techniques that may not “really work”. In order to get this “middle ground”, I explained it was best to have trained at both ends of the spectrum, and to practice taking the mindset of one while physically doing the other. Master Yan agreed emphatically, and explained calmly that I was truly talking about Yin and Yang forms of training, both of which form a cohesive whole for good practice. He called them “the two rivers”, and explained that both needed to be navigable to really reach one’s destination in martial arts training. There were other rivers, too, all related, and these we discussed in depth as well; particularly “Eastern” vs. “Western” fighting forms, and internal vs. external.
                Before long, Master Yan’s family served us an enormous and luxuriant lunch; Nick explained it was in the traditional style of Shenzhen. I was persuaded to drink half a dozen glasses of strong rice wine with Master Yan and Mr. Tang as a show of mutual respect, and struggled with the combination of that and blisteringly hot peppers in the soup I was eating.
                After lunch, Master Yan gave Nick and I formal lessons in assuming several postures of Xin Yi, and making the first few movements of a Chen-style Tai Chi form. His attention or detail and scrutiny of our posture and form was acute; my legs were burning with exhaustion from staying in a back stance for close to ten minutes while he constantly readjusted my hands, elbows, neck, jawline, hips, then returned to find that my fingertips had wandered off, and my shoulders grown tight while I made some other adjustment.

               He took pictures of us in the postures we were learning, and finally took a number of pictures with us and his family. I was also honored to stand beside he and Mr. Tang in a photograph of the traditional style of martial arts teachers and their students; I recall seeing pictures of Bruce Lee and Yip man taken in the same fashion. Master Yan told me that if I ever come back to Shenzhen, that I should train with he and his students. I told him I would do it in a heartbeat, and hoped the metaphor translated reasonably well.
                After we had said our goodbyes and were lurching and screeching back through Guangdong traffic, I found myself reflecting on the whole experience and how it compared to my experiences in Vietnam. What had at first been an intimidating, if not even belittling experience had, after a show of mutual goodwill and through much conversation, become incredibly inspirational. After spending the last 8 months or so training mostly in external arts like karate and Muay Thai, I had gained a steadily more restricted and simplified view of fighting; it was all crosses and hooks and leg-kicks, and much of the complexity of the classical street-fighting or battlefield attitude had been lost. Though I’m a huge fan of kickboxing as a sport and martial art, it had certainly begun to drain some of the flavor from fighting.
                With Master Yan and Mr. Tang, I was shown glaring evidence that external power and striking alone would not suffice against traditional techniques. Internal power, sensitivity in movement and trapping were all crucial, not to mention the less “sportsmanlike” techniques like knee-pushing, foot-stomping, eye-gouges, strikes using the fingers and different parts of the hand (not possible with boxing gloves), etc. Master Yan had almost literally knocked some sense back into me, and returned my standing on the martial arts to a more balanced, centered, and holistic one. The MMA and Muay Thai training and I had enjoyed before my time in Vietnam, and the forms and kata I practiced with Sifu Duc were all different and necessary parts of a "whole" experience in the martial arts. Returning to the United States, I kept in mind that in my continued journey I should be sure to spend time on each of the two long rivers of martial art.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Forest of Literature, Ocean of Kung Fu

            I awoke at 5:30am after a long night of practicing Kung Fu and talking with Linh and Sifu Duc, and headed over to Ho Giam park to warm up and prepare for that morning’s practice. The weather was cold by Vietnamese standards, perhaps below 60 degrees, and faintly rainy. The air had a clammy, heavy humidity to it, which, in the way that anything short of a hot day does when you wake up too early, had me shivering by the time I was out on the street. That early hour was just about the only time when the streets were relatively quiet and peaceful; a handful of people were awake in the gloomy pre-dawn, sweeping their storefronts or lighting small coal burners to begin preparing breakfast. Sporting my Nam Hong Son Kung Fu uniform and a new pair of flat-soled sneakers I had purchased especially for practice, I must have looked like an especially odd tourist to the early risers I marched past. I received no shortage of curious stares, though without fail I always received a warm smile when I said “Xin Chao”
                I reached Ho Giam and spent a good deal of time trying to bring circulation back to my bruised and stiff forearms, which had been getting the brunt of my conditioning so far. I spent a good fifteen minutes warming up, stretching, and practicing the forms I had been learning (the first, Khai Tam Quyen, I had learned to completion the night before, and the second, Long Ho Quyen, I was about half way through from my previous morning sessions). This practice continued such that when Sifu Duc and Quang arrived, I was already sweating, and in my state of excitement greeted them perhaps too loudly for 6 in the morning.
                They didn’t seem to notice, though, and both remarked (as best I could tell in Vietnamese) on my uniform and new shoes, while ushering me over to a tree to continue butchering my forearms for a time. This time, Sifu taught me a few matching conditioning exercises; putting the fingertips together against the tree’s bark, then kicking the feet out and leaning on the fingers with the head to strengthen the tendons, slamming the palm against the trunk and pulling away with the fingertips clawed to practice grabbing and harden the striking surfaces of the hand, and finally knuckle pushups, of which I had painful memories from my training with the Tang Soo Do Mi Guk Kwan.
                With raw and trembling hands I then commenced practicing Long Ho Quyen (which I later learned translates to “Dragon-Tiger form”) as I had learned it thus far. In typical traditional style, Sifu had me repeat the form a few dozen times, then showed me a new movement, had me practice that a dozen more times, and then began the cycle again. Out of shape as I was after almost a month of nothing but academic meetings and honorary dinners at Vietnam National University, I was really enjoying the workout. We ended practice with the “Dragon Horn” kick I had mentioned the night before, and covering a few options to counter that technique by closing the distance, kicking the support leg, throwing, etc. As always, Sifu’s movements were simple and easy; they looked casual in their level of relaxation, yet there was a formidable power and grace to them; I never held back when I attacked him, and was ever relieved glad he held back in response. At least twice he sent me flying onto the muddy ground so hard my ukemi was put to the test, and I resolved to wash my uniform as soon as possible.
                “Okay, okay.” Sifu signaled the end of class, waving his hand in the direction of the street corner where we always had our dozen cups of tea. “Tra kay si.” I nodded, and using a phrase I had been practicing since the night before, loudly announced what probably came across as “I PAY FOR TEA NOW PLEASE”. Quang and Sifu had a good laugh and nodded. “Okay, okay,” Sifu conceded.
                We went to our usual street corner, and after our first four cups, were joined by Linh. This allowed our conversations to proceed much more smoothly (once again, we had exhausted our verbal conversation skills with the same interview as before; whether I liked Vietnamese martial arts, and whether Vietnamese girls were pretty. I answered positively to both, as before, prompting the same mirth from my companions).
               “Sifu would like you to come to breakfast with us.” Said Linh, downing the rest of his tea as the others did the same. There was a tacit understanding that suddenly we were leaving. I nodded my assent and paid the owner of the tea stand, then stood to join the others. We walked down a nearby street to the type of roadside family-owned restaurant I had come to love in Hanoi, and seated ourselves at a steel picnic table inside.
                Before long we were slurping down massive bowls of scalding hot Pho and chatting excitedly about martial arts through Linh. We discussed the differences between straight punches with a vertical versus horizontal fist, how to get the whole body behind a punch, vital points to strike with the fingertips, and later more philosophical ideas; notably that martial artists of all styles tend eventually to attain a similar level of mastery. It reminded me strongly of Bruce Lee's quote to the same regard; that as long as people have 2 arms and 2 legs, there is only one real way of fighting.

               I was also asked to give details on my time in Vietnam and what I did in the U.S.  We shared a few glasses of a vodka-like rice wine (not my top choice for breakfast) and were laughing heartily by the time our bowls were empty. I had a moment of déjà vu when all three men rose together once more, and Linh looked toward me as he put on his jacket. “Sifu would like you to come have coffee with us.”
                I did my best to pay for breakfast, but was intercepted by Linh, who said this one was on him. He and I hopped on his motorbike, and followed Sifu and Quang to a nearby coffee shop. The world was spinning in a euphoric mix of caffeine high, rice-wine buzz, and the tingling remnants of hot pepper sauce around my mouth; I hardly winced as we wove our way through speeding traffic and narrowly evaded pedestrians; the near-death experience of a motorbike ride in Hanoi was gradually becoming something commonplace, but this type of food-based substance abuse certainly helped.
                Before I knew it, I was seated in a comfortable chair by an elegant coffee table beside Sifu Duc, and across from Linh and Quang. The Spanish-speaking older fellow from the tea stand arrived too, and joined us for a cup of the black, thick, and deliciously pungent brew. Between this, the tea, the rice-wine, and all the soup I had gulped, I made about a dozen trips to the restroom in the space of the hour we were there.
                Sifu’s questions about my training and my experiences in Vietnam became more and more pointed until I realized something was afoot; he had last asked me when I would return to Vietnam, and I had answered that in all honesty I did not know, and that I wanted very badly to have the opportunity to return. By now, he was speaking at length with Linh, who ignored me, and I was oblivious to the conversation. Sifu gestured toward me with one hand and grunted something that apparently bade Linh to tell me something. He turned to me after ordering another coffee, and regarded me seriously.
                “Sifu would like to test you this week, before you leave, so you can practice Nam Hong Son when you get back to the US.” I stared dumbly through my caffeine-alcohol haze, and gave Sifu an astonished look. I managed to bow my head about three times in a second, and gestured that I couldn’t possibly accept such an offer. Mercifully, Linh cut me off.
                “You will finish learning Long Ho Quyen and Khai Tam Quyen, and the face-to-face kata, and you will give a demonstration on class on Thursday night before you leave. Then, Sifu will give you a belt and certificate, and you will have something to remember us by.” I bowed profusely to both of them, and repeated “Cảm ơn” (Thank you) about as many times as I could. Sifu smiled boyishly and nodded, and was out the door before I knew what was going on. According to Linh, he was walking back to his apartment to get the certificate, so they might fill it out with my information.
               By the time I had finished my second cup of coffee, and had resigned myself to a heartrate of 120 beats per minute,  Sifu strolled back into the coffee shop and handed Linh a folder. He curtly interviewed me on my date of birth, address, etc., and wrote these down, but didn’t mention the certificate further or show me a thing about it. Clearly, I was actually intended to earn the thing. I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
                We talked for another half hour or so, and in that time I realized I’d never be able to make the Thursday night class and catch my flight to Tokyo later that evening. My heart sank at first when I told Linh, and he subsequently told Sifu, but the two solved the problem in a most unexpected way:
                “It’s all right. Sifu says you will come to the children’s class in the afternoon on Thursday and test there. That way, you can test and still have time to make your flight. You will practice every morning this week, and then test with Sifu.”
                My head spinning with excitement for the upcoming test—and the horrid concoction of Pho, tea, alcohol, and ink-black coffee roiling in my stomach—I was unaffected by a breakneck motorbike ride back to the hotel, and cheerfully thanked Linh before taking my leave. It was only about 10:15 in the morning. It was going to be a long last week in Vietnam.
                The week itself passed in the sort of frantic blur as weeks are wont to do when they are your last in a country; I trained hard with Sifu in the mornings, and in the cramped space of our hotel in the evenings, when the professor with whom I shared a room was out somewhere else and not in kicking range. I practiced knuckle-pushups and smacked my forearms into any hard surface I found on the streets. As days rolled by, I grew more and more anxious.
                Linh came and picked me up at about 4 in the afternoon of our last day in Vietnam. Speeding through the Hanoi streets at early rush-hour, I tried to keep mental track of our turns so I would know how to get back to the hotel in case things ran late, or I couldn’t get a ride back; I couldn’t afford to miss that flight. For the first few blocks along the main roads, this worked fairly well, and I was feeling awfully proud of myself, until Linh slowed, dragging one foot to ease the motorbike into a sharp turn, and surged into what I would have called a cramped alleyway.
                But in Hanoi, it was still a street. And a busy one. The motorbike snarled down the bumpy, uneven pavement about six-feet wide between two rows of buildings, buzzing past people’s feet or swerving around oncoming bike traffic. Once, we had to pull up onto a sort of front patio of a restaurant to let a small car by. This road soon sunk into an urban labyrinth of similar roads; all thickly lined with buildings which loomed far and close overhead, giving one the impression that they were entirely indoors. I lost my bearings completely, and instead was focused on clinging to a bag of gifts I had brought for Sifu (including several bottles of rice vodka and his favorite brand of cigarettes), which smacked into any number of people as we sped by at unreasonable speeds.
                All at once, we erupted out into the open, and I found myself nearly gasping for breath. We roared in through a wide gate, above which was printed a long Vietnamese name which included the word I knew meant “school”. We soon arrived at a clean, tile-floored courtyard filled with children and young adults ages 7-14 or so, all in matching Nam Hong Son Kung Fu uniforms.
                I was greeted by Sifu and Linh’s brother, who was also an instructor. I presented Sifu with my gifts, which included a long, translated thank-you letter  which I had written with the help of a friend. I tried my best to get across how deeply I respected Sifu Duc and his skill in Kung Fu, how much I had to learn, and how he had provided a great inspiration for me to continue my training despite the demands of the rest of my life. “Okay,” Sifu smiled as he finished, nodding his head, and giving my hand a firm shake. He explained something earnestly to me, gesturing vigorously with his hands, then smiled and nodded to Linh.
                “Sifu says you have a great attitude as a foreigner and martial artist. You are very happy to learn from others and you leave your… how you call it, your mind, your ego behind you. He says you can always consider Nam Hong Son your home away from home of the martial arts. Also, he says he is still just a student, that there is always more to learn in Kung Fu. He quotes a famous kung fu saying, you know, ‘Forest of literature, ocean of kung fu’. If all the literature in the world is a vast forest, Kung Fu is even bigger, it is like the sea.”
                I remarked how much I liked the quote, but hadn’t much time to contemplate it; I was rushed to the front of the class after putting my bags down. Sifu, Linh, and his brother introduced me to the class, and I bowed back to a courtyard full of fidgeting youngsters. I sat off to the side with the other red belts, and watched the students of various ranks perform their various forms. The students chanted the verses which went along with each technique in unison. We saw a pair of higher level students (I later discovered one was Sifu’s 13 year old son) perform a complex kata, once again complete with the sort of theatrical intensity I had mentioned in my last post. Then, it was my turn.
                Though performing in front of a group of children should have felt like less pressure than a class full of adults, I found it so unfamiliar and unsettling it may perhaps have been worse. At the very least, I was anxious not to do anything to embarrass Sifu after he had treated me so well the last few weeks. The first few movements of Khai Tam Quyen came shakily, and I caught myself forgetting things I had done a thousand times before throughout the week without the slightest problem. State of mind is everything.
                I gradually calmed as the forms continued, and I made it through them in a blur. Next thing I knew, I was performing the face-to-face kata with the student I had trained with at Ho Giam park the week before, and bowing to the cheerful applause of the children’s class. It was difficult not to smile as I bowed in return, or hide my excitement when Linh and his brother presented me with my certificate.

                I received it, and also an embroidered white sash, which Sifu tied about my waist in yet another show of respect to which I would have objected if I could have communicated effectively. I bowed to the instructors and students once more to additional applause, and was soon surrounded by the class as we posed for a seemingly endless number of photographs. Just like at Heyman's Martial Arts Academy,  I had earned the lowest testing rank of an art, but felt great pride in the training; just to have an association with such great martial artists, and to have earned their respect through hard training, was more than enough, and I had added yet another set of tools to my growing toolbox of techniques and experiences in the martial arts.

                After photographs had been taken, I was treated to a full Kung Fu class of mostly private tutoring with Sifu Duc and Linh. Linh’s brother demonstrated a sword form in two parts, as well as a “Tiger” form. I practiced my forms and face-to-face at least a dozen more times, and a kicking drill with another student, and also got plenty of time to further aggravate the severe contusions on my forearms with conditioning drills.
                The class died down after another hour, and most students had by that time been picked up by their parents. I realized it was about time for me to go, so I thanked Sifu one last time, and exchanged parting wishes with he and the rest of the instructors. Clutching my certificate, I climbed aboard Linh’s motorbike and headed back to the Hotel just in time to catch our shuttle to the airport. Fortunately, I was able to change out of my Kung Fu uniform.
                Sitting in an aisle seat on our JAL flight, I could only laugh when I rolled up my sleeves to eat, and prompted a gasp of surprise from a nearby stewardess. The bruising and impact wounds have since faded, but the Nam Hong Son school has left a permanent mark on my martial art, on my Kung Fu. Even after nearly 35 hours without sleep, on my way to my next destination in Hong Kong, I couldn’t help but feel that some long-lost part of my martial art had been regained; I felt immersed in it once again, in the thick of the training, and was eagerly looking forward to how much more I had to learn. I realized, then, that Hanoi had been something like a port, and I had once more set sail on the ocean of Kung Fu.

Friday, February 8, 2013

A Late Night in Hanoi

Sifu Duc and I, with my new uniform. The man takes on a whole different aspect when wearing his own.
                The weekend after I met Sifu Duc and the other students, I was invited to a formal class in a larger park near the center of the city. After bowing out early from dinner with a friend and doing my best to ignore her advice that I could get mugged, stabbed with a needle full of AIDS, or otherwise assaulted in that park at night, I struck out into the busy streets of Hanoi to navigate my way to Lenin park with nothing but a puny hotel map to guide me. I called Linh, Sifu’s one English-speaking student that I knew of, and confirmed I would be attending. He told me where to meet him at the park, and thinking I had some idea of where that was, I assured him I’d be there.
                Upon reaching the park proper (having performed several death-defying road crossings, no small feet in that city, especially alone and especially at night) I realized that it was absolutely gigantic, and I would not simply be able to look around and pick out some rather conspicuous martial artists, as I could at the park near my hotel. Instead, the place stretched on and on down a main road of the city, and was bustling with people taking evening strolls, attending public dance or aerobics classes, listening to concerts, etc. Linh and I exchanged a dozen or so frustrated phone calls in attempts to find one another. I was 45 minutes late by the time I found him at yet another gate from the one I had been pacing around; he insisted on driving me via motorbike the last 100 yards or so.
                And it was bumping along on the back of a snarling motorbike that I pulled up to a class full of kung fu students; all neatly dressed in black robes with sashes of various colors; I could pick out yellow, blue, white, and red. The men wearing red sashes, in their general bearing, were obviously the highest ranked, and when I saw sifu approaching I knew this to be the case.
                Sifu Duc was an entirely different man in a traditional Chinese kung fu uniform; a phenomenon I’ve noticed with many of my teachers in the past. My Aikido teacher, Bill Gleason, seems to grow feet in height after changing into his Gi and Hakama. The contrast between an old cotton long-sleeved shirt and beautifully sewn silk robe was striking, and I couldn’t help but blurt out “sifu!” and give a traditional bow as he calmly approached with a contented smile. “Cha, cha!” he barked my name, waving a few other senior students to be introduced. He gave their names, and I babbled out my best “My name is Charles” and “Nice to meet you” in Vietnamese while bowing profusely. “Okay,” Sifu said insistently, thrusting a black bundle toward me.
                “He give you a uniform for tonight, and black belt.” Linh explained, putting a hand on my shoulders and pointing to a cluster of bamboo trees nearby. “Go and change into them.” Hearing “black belt” said that way, I failed to realize that black was the typical “no-rank” at this school (which was obvious from the other black-belt students, who had been sent off to a corner away from the class to practice nothing but arm-conditioning exercises), and objected as politely as I could, trying to explain that I was definitely not a black belt. Knowing what I know now, I hope in some ironic way my humility was not perceived as arrogance.
                Urged on, I jogged back to the bamboo patch, stripped down in front of an elderly couple walking a dog, and changed as quickly into my Kung Fu uniform. I enjoyed the feel of it immensely; it was very soft, light, and flexible. I could move easily in it without feeling restricted.
                I jogged back out to the class, where people were generally paired and working individually with one another. Most of the senior students were sitting crosslegged with Sifu by a bench. It looked to be a sort of intermission in the training. “Charles,  come sit down. You should drink some herbal mixture.” Linh said, while Sifu Duc let out a couple “okay” ‘s and urged me to sit across from him. Another senior student in a red belt, a much older gentleman probably around 60, poured me a glass of what looked like black kool-aid from a large pitcher and handed it to me. “It’s good herbs for Kung Fu.” Linh explained as I accepted and took a sip. The taste was like herbal tea and diluted Gatorade; I quite liked it.
At least one of the other senior students spoke English, and Linh translated readily for Sifu Duc, and so I managed to have a bit of conversation while sitting there, feeling official in my uniform and sipping herbal Gatorade. Sifu Duc, as he had at the tea shop, explained with a touch of pride my past experience with Aikido and Karate, and then, presumably, what he had been teaching me so far. He laughingly seized my sleeve and yanked it back to reveal the severe bruising on my forearms, which prompted a lot of good-humored laughter on the part of the surrounding red belts. I mimed the motions I was doing and shook my hands out melodramatically to simulate what I had been doing the last few mornings.
Linh explained that what we were practicing was Nam Hong Son Kung Fu, which a friend of mine later translated as “Great Western Mountain” or something to that effect. Given that Kung Fu is a Chinese style, I tried to extract from my companions whether this was some sort of Vietnamese Kung Fu or a Chinese style practiced by Vientamese, but never quite got the message across, and my companions continually responded that yes, indeed, they were from Vietnam, and we were practicing Vietnamese martial arts because of it. If anyone else has other information on Nam Hong Son, I’d love to hear more about it. It’s a beautiful style of martial arts with many spirited and talented practitioners.
Which brings me to my next point. While I conversed jovially with another English speaker, Linh rose and grab my shoulder “okay, enough talking, time for training.” I apologized quickly in Vietnamese to the fellow I was speaking to, and, feeling a tad sheepish, rushed off after Linh to where the other “blackbelts” were training.
We started immediately with arm-conditioning exercises, which drove my pulped forearms yet further down the road to path to complete annihilation. I continued despite the pain, and could clearly see the exercise in willpower which comes with such training; it took all my concentration to keep on striking; enough that Linh had to call me several times to get my attention. My partner, a middle-aged gentleman, was probably too polite to stop me.
We then began learning Khai Tam Quyen (a rough approximation of the spelling), which was translated to me as “first form”.  The movements were strong and slow, involving a lot of deep front stances and horse stances, and featured primarily one block and one strike executed while moving forward or standing still. The rudimentary basics were absolutely hammered upon, as they should have been, and I was caught dozens of time with awkward footing or a shallow front-stance, having to readjust after a loud reprimand from Linh. We repeated the form with the sort of endless rote repetition that is important for developing body memory. My legs were trembling by the time we were given a break, but I kept right on practicing; it had been years since I had been taught a form, and I had no intentions of losing this one, not while it was momentarily fresh in my head. After all, when would I likely find myself in Vietnam again?
I drilled the form relentlessly until told rather sternly that we were taking a break, and I should too. I nodded reluctantly and instead did some stretching exercises, trying to take control of my breathing, enjoying the glowing heat from my body. There is an curious, very natural and powerful feeling which comes from the correct practice of traditional forms, which I still have not found elsewhere. It is an awakeness, an aliveness, a complete “whole body-feel” which I still have yet to find in practicing non-traditional martial arts or other sports. It is not the same exhaustion and soreness, but an invigorated state; the circulation feels strong and movements well-coordinated. Tom Bisio explains the difference between traditional movements and some more westernized or sport-related movements, and how these would result in such a difference in feeling; interested readers should check out his book, A Tooth From the Tiger’s Mouth, which I reviewed in part in an earlier post.
        After our short break, we began learning a choreographed partner exercise of alternating attack and defense. My partner was the older red-belt who had poured my herbal Gatorade earlier that evening. He was a genuinely friendly and cheerful fellow, excited to be training with me, and to speak to me in the few words of English he knew. He taught me one “side” of the exchange of blows and blocks, and repeated it with me for nearly an hour.  The movements were smooth and performed at first with a sort of Taichichuan-like slowness, though as we gained trust in one another’s blocks we began to execute our kicks and thrusts with more realistic snap and force.

A fellow student and I performing the first kata later that week
I was interested in the way these “kata” were performed by the higher level students, in stark contrast to the way that Japanese martial artists practice. The Japanese (in my experience, in Karate and Aikido, especially in sword practice) way of training kata is a stoic practice of concentration and precise form. The most emotion a practitioner will show is a piercing kiai; all the attention is on the details, the angles, etc. It is clean, sterile, and precise. As we continued, our Kung Fu kata showed a vitality and emotion that would not have been tolerated in a dojo. The movements were loose and relaxed, not imprecise, but adaptive; in that if I took a larger step back than usual in one step, my older partner would throw his kick just a tad deeper to reach me, giving a different cry as he did so. There was an almost musical rhythm to the movement, and it was alive with almost theatrical emotion. As I landed a kick on my partner’s chest at the end of the movement, restraining it so as not to injure him, he made an melodramatic and astonished face, cried out “Owwwaahhh!!” and, stumbling back as though I had absolutely nailed him, fell to the ground and performed a neat back-roll to his feet. Others around us were doing the same with each strike, acting things out as though they were in an action movie.

As a martial artist with a primarily traditional Japanese training background, I was baffled by this type of attitude; it seemed so exaggerated, so fake, so superfluous to me, yet as I took the time to think about it, I realized that these men were actually adding a degree of realism to the training; a degree of emotional substance which might otherwise be missing. Students learn what effect they might expect from a solid hit, and how to relax and adapt if receiving one of great force. At the same time, it adds a vitality and enjoyment to the practice that keeps minds engaged and bodies moving with a precise martial rhythm. I think this may be some of what Bruce Lee was explaining in his lecture on “emotional content” , and what military psychologists have called “tactical performance imagery”. By adding a little imagination, you can get a lot more from a training exercise without losing the reality.
Sifu Duc came over next and critiqued our kata and Khai Tam Quyen, then had us practice some of the real-life applications of movements from the form, demonstrating these at full speed on one of the higher-level students. I was thoroughly impressed by the power and timing of the movements, how seemingly meaningless adjustments in the angle of an elbow or knee turned an opponent’s balance on its head. Sifu Duc took me aside and showed me a few counters to a knife thrust, and also how to jam an opponent’s kicking leg to imbalance them and cut off their changes of landing a blow. After going back and forth with these movements a few times, he waved a hand toward the rest of the class behind us. “Okay, okay.” He explained, and I bowed and rejoined the class, who were by this point all standing in neat rows facing the front of the little courtyard in which we practiced.
        I positioned myself as far back in the ranks as I could, with the most junior students, and followed along as we performed a few rounds of calisthenics, which, though not particularly difficult on their own, were agonizing after a couple hours of hard training. They kept my muscles, especially in the legs, from getting tight and cramped, though, and I was grateful for it the next morning.  Sifu Duc led the class with the type of authority I recognized from watching Kung Fu movies in my younger years, and the faded-black tone of his well-worn uniform added yet more authority to his demeanor; I knew now that the talented yet otherwise unimposing martial artist who had been tutoring me in the park on early mornings was not some local martial artist, but a well-known master in the Hanoi martial arts community. Linh explained this to me thoroughly the next morning when I asked.
Though I didn't understand much at all of Sifu Duc’s lecture, I watched as he paced back and forth before the class and spoke with an earnestness so palpable I felt I understood him outright. From his facial expressions, gestures, and so on, it was clear he was discussing the mission of the martial artist, the drive to develop one’s self, and the moral and ethical codes associated with studying the martial arts. Shortly thereafter the group recited a chant in Vietnamese which I later learned was the oath of the Nam Hong Son school. We then bowed as a group and ended the class with satisfied applause. My fellow students, the youngest around my age, began to slowly disperse, and I was quickly rounded up by Linh and Sifu.
“Sifu says you should hold on to the uniform. You can have it temporarily while you’re here, its alright.” Linh said, gesturing again to the bamboo patch. “Go and change, we should have tea.”
It was at least 11pm by this point, so I figured another hour or so of conversation and fun couldn’t hurt. I rushed back to the bamboo, changed with little concern of who was watching, and before I knew it was on the back of a motorbike speeding down the nearby main road—along the side, and… against oncoming traffic. With professional ease, Linh hopped the motorbike up onto the sidewalk, and, following Sifu Duc’s silver vespa, we made short work of a kilometer or so to a nearby roadside tea stand. There we sat for at least an hour, drinking tea and discussing martial arts. Sifu and I, through Linh, talked at length about Bruce Lee and his philosophies, his fame, and which of his “moves” we liked best. I demonstrated a sort of short-distance side-kick he used that I was particularly fond of. Linh explained to me that the name of the technique in Vietnamese was “Dragon horn”; it was appropriate that I liked it, he said, because I was born in the year of the dragon.
I forked up all of $2.00 to pay for our party’s tea (there were 6 or 7 of us, perhaps), and stood as the rest prepared to leave. I was mentally preparing myself for a rather long walk home, and checking my hotel map, when Linh bid my farewell and sped off on his motorbike, but Sifu gave a vigorous wave of his hand as he climbed aboard his well-groomed vespa “Cha, cha,” he called with a laugh “Okay, okay!”. I bowed gratefully and climbed aboard, and soon we were speeding down the main road (fortunately with traffic) at at least 50 miles per hour. I lost my bearings perhaps a minute into the trip, and spent the rest of my time staring dumbly at the cars, buses, motorbikes, and most of all pedestrians whizzing past us as Sifu wove deftly through the streets of Hanoi, still somewhat crowded at this hour. “Italy!” he explained while pointing to the motorbike. I nodded vigorously, and made my best Vietnamese attempt at saying it seemed like a good vehicle. I think I said something along the lines of “It’s delicious” or “It’s healthy”. Oh well.
        All at once, we reached my hotel, and Sifu Duc graciously dropped me off by the front steps. I thanked him profusely, and watched him speed off. I headed up the stairs, head spinning from an overwhelming evening, and was asleep before I hit the pillow. In 5 hours or so, I’d be back at Ho Giam park for morning training.