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.

Monday 21 January 2013

Some thoughts after a blogging break...

Sooner or later everyone needs tai chi, they just don't realise it. The spiritual seeker is searching desperately for enlightenment, but the instructions are maddening: the more you try, the further you are. The warring sides in any scale of argument:they need to co-exist, and they define each other by their struggle, but how can they play without cutting the other down needlessly? The modern world, seeking a way to keep the juicy edge to life, without sinking into heedless hedonism or stultifying escapism.

Tai chi could be all of these, or none.

To say it is merely "balance" is to underestimate its capacity. In the martial arena, we can strike or act from an unbalanced position, in fact we must. An art predicated on being balanced all the time would be of little use. The push slams into the back, the punch swings in from the blindspot: these are the hits that real life doles out.

The rare treasures of tai chi go beyond balance. How many arts teach and hone a sense of touch, and deepen our sense of immersion in things?

The price of course is time, and it is one that few seem willing to pay. We then have to find shorter ways of involving people, but it it difficult. Most people are, quite sensibly, not motivated by the feeling that they will be attacked. Tai chi is spontaneity and flow in the face of adversity, and if adversity isn't at hand, then you will find it at least in training if nowhere else (how lucky we are if that's the case!)

I value the small-time barbarism of our lessons, the fun that is had with elbows hitting jaws and fingers poking throats...it feels so desperately out of step with much of what else happens around us and yet, deliciously, so akin to some of the processes of nature herself, where the delight in conflict is evident.

As ever, I am trying to think if ways to get the art "out there" without succumbing to the hippies. If you can't beat them though...?

I have the idea that Tai chi is good for men, and I mean men particularly, where they can learn to be strong without overt aggression, learn to be flexible without fear of bowing excessively to the feminine, and learn that their urge to play and compete isn't just a redundant vestige of savagery. So I'll push things in that direction and see what bounces back.

Bye for now.

Wednesday 21 November 2012

Death, and the online tai chi phenomenon...

Like it or not, the martial arts are about death. The thing about death is its inevitability, and what this means is, sooner or later we all lose to the Great Foe. Whatever Promethean or Faustian finesse we are in possession of, it will eventually come to nought. In our culture, death is the failure to end all failures, given the heroism of Jesus: we should all be aiming for his conquering attitude to death, I supppose. Our attitude to death has long held it at arm's length, such that many people die alone and unheeded right amidst an otherwise civilised society. There is another way to see death, a way enshrined in our practice of tai chi, and that consists of getting really up close and personal with it. In the martial arts we die a thousand times and more at the hands of our friends, and maybe in this way we could come to see death (or Death) as the latest in a life-long line of training partners, albeit one that we can't "beat" in the usual way. If tai chi teaches anything, it is that categories such as "winning" and "losing", "leading" and "following" simply aren't the cut and dried  certainties we assumed them to be. Could it then be the same for life/death? If death is anything, it is the great loss; but as tai chi practitioners, we invest in loss and welcome it as part of a whole, without which our art cannot become apparent.

Much as we shy away from death, we now appear to be shying away from real human contact in learning our martial arts. There is a proliferation of online tai chi courses, and some days ago I wrote and published a blog post about these, which I then removed. I removed it because it seemed rather a rant, and after all, who am I to tell people how to practice? I'll just say this: really great tai chi is about contact, about making your sense of touch into something fantastic and artful, and you won't ever get that online. Try online stuff, and then find a teacher. That is my advice.

You see, there was a link between the two...

Thursday 25 October 2012

The spaces in-between

The space that the martial arts create is a unique one. Those that enter to train have agreed to let certain things happen in that space that aren't allowed elsewhere, so the dojo is a liminal, that's to say an in-between space where "normality" is suspended. This space can be dangerous, not least because some teachers will use it to express their own control, power , fear or self-aggrandisement. A gentleman came to train with us recently whose art it seemed was that of martial compliance, thats's to say someone had trained him to die very politely at the application of the slightest force. I felt sorry for him. A teacher of my acquaintance admitted once that he had "run out of things to do" with his considerable crowd of students. This one particularly amazes me: what a gift to have a room full of people all willing to work together, all willing to drop some of the niceties of society in order to learn from blows and attacks!

So last night's training had a quiet edge to it. We zombied for well over half an hour, working on efficiency, flow and herding tactics. There's such a fine balance between letting them come, and pro-actively deterring the zombies. If you go in every time, you find yourself at their tactical mercy, as you have to keep turning in order to maintain awareness, and this is pretty disorientating. Sometimes it's better to let them sail past, using just a small evasion and cover, and hitting them as they go. Fists are fine, but open hand keeps forearms in play for smothering, chokes, locks and elbow-through-shoulder barges and hits. Our training in moving-step pushing has improved the use of lower body techniques, and I found that where top and bottom worked in co-ordination, the zombies balance and footing disappeared quickly and without warning...

There's not so much "teaching" going on. We can all, regardless of ability or experience, point out patterns or holes in people's movement (though experience improves this ability). If you've got a mob of keen people, and don't know what to teach, then don't teach: play, mess around, and thrash it out between you all. There's enough there to occupy several lifetimes. The lure of "the system" or "the art" gets them through the door, but what goes on once inside is much freer and vital than any system will ever be.

Friday 14 September 2012

Tigers & Porcupines

 Tigers are beautiful and mysterious, powerful and deadly, and many martial artists wish to become like a tiger amongst the livestock of the human population. Many martial arts give the impression that they can turn out tigers through the process of their teaching. I am of the opinion that one is either a tiger or not, and, as in nature itself, there are fewer around than we think. There are lots of mynah birds who can do a good impression of a tiger call, or a few cats which, when viewed from a distance, look a little tigerish ( as happened in Essex, England recently.) but very few actual tigers and the first you'd probably know about them is when they knock your head off with one swipe. I have realised that my training, and the art in which I train, is not one that will magically imbue me with ferocity and the killer instinct. It is much more a case of being unappealing prey, much like a porcupine or a sea urchin. When and if someone chooses to attack me, I want them to very quickly get the impression that 1) it hurts to attack me, 2) that attacking me will not be a casual thing which they can end quickly in their favour and 3) there are much safer bets for preying on. The ego, of course, can raise real objections to all this, because really we want to be tigers and not porcupines. Perhaps there will be times when a pre-emptive strike is needed, and perhaps a porcupine won't be much good at that. But my life isn't so violent, and the likeihood for such an incident small, so I train according to my life.

Wednesday 22 August 2012

Here be Dragons

There is a story about  a man who loved dragons: he had paintings and sculptures, tapestries and vases all depicting dragons. But when a real dragon, curious about the man's passion ,appeared at his window, the man dropped dead in fright.

 There are times in training when you realise it’s all for nothing. All the hours of training and teaching can add only the merest iota to what the cosmos already has going on. You could take this in one of two ways: you could become dejected and defeatist and give up your training. Or you could accept the fact that this feeling of “there’s nothing much to be done” or “I am not in control” should in fact form the backbone of training rather than being an occasional flash of inspiration.
In the martial arts it is very, very easy to become complacent about conflict, to think “I could handle that.” Some martial art teachers even boast of instilling confidence in their students.
We got stuck into some intense training the other night, in a way that we‘ve not done for ages. I was not as “good” as I thought I would be which shows how complacent I was becoming. Because thinking that you are “good” at this stuff is simply not the point.
What’s crucial to bear in mind is that we are not trying to improve our sparring proficiency. Our training partners are not fellow competitors but rather training aids for us. Our goal is not to defeat martial artists in some tournament: it is to try and open ourselves in readiness for when life comes along in the form of someone who wishes to cause us harm.
Intense and pressurised training is a reality check. In the midst of chaos, there is no style, no technique, no winning, no losing, no action and no reaction. This may not sit well with the image we have built up of what our training is about. It may even make us feel like giving up. An unexpected dose of reality or near-reality can be difficult for someone who isn’t absolutely, totally ready to lose. "Invest in loss" isn’t a pretty aphorism: it is an essential imperative.
There isn’t some Truth to be proved in martial arts, some gritty baseline that only certain grizzled fighters can lay claim to. There is only that which life throws in front of you. There isn’t a Truth in the martial arts; but there are lots of opportunities for self-deception.

Saturday 7 July 2012

Creation Myths

It's the done thing these days to imagine a "prologue" to the main events: witness the recent film "Prometheus" as one of the very worst examples of this to be found in popular culture...
People like to do prologues to tai chi chuan as well, to explain the "backstory" as it were. Many of them, in fact most of these are very unconvincing. Particularly the ones that edit out the martial content. Tai chi chuan has always seemed to me like the art that was designed to be done after having trained in some "hard" style. It is, in my opinion, more of an approach to martial situations than a formal style of movement. It has now become a style, of course, out of necessity: it's very difficult to market a concept, particularly when one is surrounded by schools who are very sure of their lineage, the effectiveness of their art, and the skills of their founders. I'm not just talking about nowadays: I imagine it was the same in China two-hundred years ago. When someone says "demonstrate your art" what do you do if you don't have a "form"? Is is possible that the tai chi form arose out of a desire to have something concrete to demonstrate to prospective students? Obviously the Handform has benefits in and of itself, but I wonder...
It used to de rigeur ten or so years ago to talk about tai chi chuan as having sprung out of the combination of Xing-Yi and Ba-gua, which makes total sense to me on a physical level. Seven Stars looks like pure Xing-Yi and when I did Nine Palace Stepping recently in front of some Shaolin guys, they asked if I  had ever trained in Ba-gua. These two arts are rarely mentioned in connection with tai chi chuan's genesis today, presumably to give weight to tai chi chuan's miraculous virgin birth several thousand years ago, as some would have it. Others would point out that tai chi chuan became what is recognisable to us today right about the time George IV was illegally marrying Catholics and burning his way through the country's finances in the pursuit of various architectural follies.
I like to imagine tai chi chuan being cooked up by a bunch of worldly-wise and weary old salts who simply no longer possessed the vim required for extreme conditioning, or  acrobatic high-kicks, but whom were essentially still damned kick-arse. Using their pooled years of youthful high-jinks and encounters, and perhaps mixing in some basic Taoistic wisdom which favours the less frenetic approach to life, they came up with something none too fancy but which worked even if you were a bit overweight or had a dodgy knee or whatever.  Whoever they were, and however it came about, I salute and thank them for their cleverness, and their bloody-minded lazy-arsed effectiveness.

Thursday 24 May 2012


Whether it's with weapons, or empty-handed, the thing is this: we can't hang back. We can't be purely defensive. If it takes too long for us to catch the turning tide of their attack, to spot an opening, we will simply be overwhelmed. Tai chi is certainly counterattacking, but it isn't and can't be purely defensive. If our technique is good, perhaps we can cut down on the lag-time between attack and defense: ideally they are simultaneous. The weakness with many Pushing Hands drills is that they subconsciously train us to allow five, ten or twenty attacks to go without a decisive response. Repetition is key to making the movement a habit, but we don't want to make  a blind habit where something is applied in an inappropriate manner. The point of Five Element Arm, for example, is not to be able to deal with five punches, but to deal with changing and varied punches. But really, we don't want anyone to land two shots on us, or even a single one if possible. This doesn't mean however that in training we don't ever let anyone land anything on us...It's tricky stuff this. We need to train the swift response, and the seeking out of the gaps, and general non-compliancy. We also need to feel what it's like (to a certain degree) to take a bit of a pasting. But it's important to know which we are training, and to realise that neither has the monopoly on "realistic".

This brings me to something that I've been thinking about. The benefit of some random, non-compliant, free-response training is boundless, simply because of the non-linear nature of the martial arts. A picture being worth a thousand words, anything that approaches a "whole" or "total" situation will encourage learning in a way that broken-down, linear-organised drilling simply won't. The danger in the first case is that it's easy to confuse with "reality". Now, five of your training partners coming at you in an intense and unpredictable way is a good training tool, and nearer to the "total" picture than is, for example, Seven Stars Stepping drill. But it isn't "total". "Total" can only happen in those nasty real-life happenings outside (hopefully!) the dojo. No-one is going to confuse Seven Stars with a "real" situation.
When you throw new people (or even more experienced sorts) into the "free" situation (and there are still plenty of rules and provisos for sure...) they can flounder and panic. This is where the more limited drills come in: they give the person the courage to enter fully into the "free" situation. They may even enhance their skills when they are in there. But what they also do is to give a kind of "spotter's guide" as to what's happening there amidst the hurly-burly, so they can identify and learn. It's like giving someone on safari some binoculars and a book which identifies the relevant beasts, but the obvious wonder of the safari is in its immersive quality and not for example, in the exact total number of wildebeest spotted. We want to get people to the point where they can spot for themselves, because then the real learning appears rather than the copying, mimicking or following.