Welcome to The Palace Guard, the tai chi chuan and martial arts blog for intelligent martial practitioners. As the blog develops, I hope to feature other writers with a fresh take on the martial arts and related subjects. For now, I hope you enjoy my posts: feel free to leave comments, or email me at the address available on the profile.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Fists or palms?

Our most recent tendency has been to emphasise open-hand techniques, for the reason that they seem to be quicker and more adaptable than the good old fist. The trouble with making a fist is that it seems to instantly instil a kind of bad boxing mentality, where we are tempted to stand our ground, toe-to-toe, and slug away forgetting about disrupting the structure of the opponent or attempting to make a break for it. Now our thinking is swinging back the other way, as we realise that the punch is an excellent structure-breaker in itself, and that many tai chi techniques and principles work only if you've already hit or disrupted them in some way. Also, as we have personally experienced, the fist tends to keep people at bay. Maybe an open palm slap would do the same, but I've never tried it. Then of course it may also depend on your target: fist for the body, slap for the face? It seems that you can't really emphasise either without detriment to the other. In the real situation that I experienced, using fists came quickly and naturally, and that seems to be the case for most people. The difference between tai chi punches and boxing punches is that boxers are ultimately trying to stay within a sweet range, so they can keep knocking chunks off the opponent with combinations. Tai chi punches come with the intention to move, whether closing to grapple and "finish" or moving out of range to escape.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Tai Chi Chuan vs the Mob...

For me, the beauty of tai chi chuan lies in one person weaving through a group of others: they may be people in a crowd. They may be training partners. They may be dedicated assailants.
It seems to me that the "stand-up fight" is a rare thing nowadays, the one-on-one duel, if it ever existed, now seems a thing of the past.
There's a line in the Classics which never sat right with me: "How can an old man withstand the attack of a group of youths?" Our response for a long time was: "He bloody well can't." After a real-life encounter with the hitherto mythical group of youths, the classics didn't seem quite so silly. Perhaps an unfit man of seventy or eighy years of age would be unlikely to withstand such an assault; but a slightly younger, relatively fit and trained individual? Maybe he or she would stand a chance. Notice that the claim was only that the old man would "withstand" the attack. Not trounce, or beat the attackers to a pulp. Merely survive.
Tai chi chuan is difficult to categorise as a martial art. Its strength lies not in competition sparring, nor particularly in striking, and definitely not in kicking. It contains no groundwork. It is a civilian, family art so it had no place on the battlefield. In the eyes of many martial artists, I'm sure this seems to add up to a flawed art. But imagine one person against a small group, and sudddenly it begins to make sense. The emphasis on flow becomes pertinent, because to halt and fix in place in order to deal with a single assailant lays you open to attacks from the others. The same reason deals with the lack of groundwork, although escapes from ground positions I think would be really useful, and are not included within tai chi chuan as such. The emphasis on destroying balance rather than doing damage per se makes sense: it's quicker and allows of more movement than does standing toe-to-toe and knocking lumps off an opponent. If you can strike as you move, well that seems to work just fine, and fits with the tai chi notion of punching like a ball on the end of a chain. Try it for yourself.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Yin and Yang

I’ve been thinking about yin and yang recently, and really appreciating the teachings of this now ubiquitous symbol. On a simplistic level it is possible to look at the yin and yang, or tai chi diagram, and see opposites: good/bad, light/dark and so on. “There’s a balance between good and evil” someone might say. Or they might perceive the motion of the diagram, and imagine that we should aim for balance, or that “what goes around comes around”, some sort of “justice” in the way things are (the Buddhist notion of karma is often misunderstood in exactly the same way…what a legalistic bunch we Westerners seem to be.) Neither of these really captures it. The tai chi diagram must be swallowed whole. Where there is one, already there is the other. It’s not so much that we aim towards balance, but that things are instantaneously balanced. In our training for example, if we make effort, then ease appears in terms of better technique and a refined learning process. If we seek to make ease by cutting corners, then difficulty arises as holes appear in our knowledge and confusion and disappointment set in. In the pursuit of strength, perhaps we lift some weights. But at the same time, the weights we lift don’t attend to the body as a whole, so weakness is inherent as we over-refine our musculature. As soon as you act, two sides (at least!) arise in what Buddhists would call “co-dependent arising”. It is not so much that we aim for balance, or that balance will come sweeping in like a supernatural judge, but that balance is inherent: it’s not possible to not be balanced. It’s just that the manifestation of that balance may not be agreeable to us, as with the Gaia theory of climate change where the Earth achieves climatic balance but to the detriment of humankind. The “balance” of overeating might be said to be diabetes or a heart attack. Once we realise that each action contains this dynamism, this multi-faceted quality, then we can hopefully avoid becoming one dimensional in our training, or sharpening one area to the detriment of all others. We may also realise that to feel and embody certain qualities, we may need to approach them obliquely; or if we attack them directly, that we will at some point feel the frustration of diminishing returns.