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 31 May 2011

A plug for The Stink of Zen: my new blog!

So you may or may not have noticed on the blogroll on the righthand side, that there's a new one there, "The Stink of Zen." I figured that you tai chi and martial arts people shouldn't be troubled with Zen or Buddhist nonsense anymore, so I have made a dedicated home for it. If you are interested, then check it out..
It's a bit of an experiment to see if I can run two blogs at once without going mad. Ta, Nick.

Tuesday 24 May 2011


It has taken us a good while to truly get a handle on the role of softness in tai chi chuan. Softness is directly related to what we call listening, by which we mean the ability to detect and follow the intent of the opponent through our sense of touch. Ian describes it in terms of volume: we dial the volume right down in our pushing hands drills, so that eventually, any excess force (and that could vary from person to person) seems very "loud" and we react instantly. Sceptics may say "but an assailant won't attack you softly". Indeed they won't: their attack will be akin to someone yelling right in your ear, and thus will definitely activate our honed sensitivity, which hopefully will lead us to reacting appropriately. The corollary of this is that we have have to train safe reactions to such stimulus. If we train say, a series of head level chained punches in reaction to a heavy use of force, we may end up hair-triggering on an innocent bystander. Pushing Hands drills should teach us to move, clear any immediate threat, and control the assailant. At this point hopefully it would be clear if further escalation is required.
This idea of softness relates to the section in the Classics, from the Tai Chi Chuan Ching: 

"A feather cannot be added,
A fly cannot land,
Nobody knows me,
I alone know them,
A hero thus becomes invincible."

Wednesday 11 May 2011

Zen and the Art of Martial Arts Maintenance

We don't have one of those "showroom" models, in terms of our way of doing the martial arts. You can't just get the finance, grab the keys, and roll her out onto the beckoning highways. The main reason for this is that we're still figuring out exactly how this classic vehicle fits together.
We can move, we can "use" tai chi chuan to a certain degree, and we know this from real experience of people trying to hurt us. So we can drive, a little. We're not like formula-one drivers or anything; we're not killers or MMA fighters or what-have-you.
When  you start to teach others, you look back over not just what you've learnt, but how you've learnt it, and you can't help but think: "Is there a better way? Where did we waste time? Where are the flaws, the blindspots? What would have helped us out back at the beginning all those years ago?" Of course, there's a certain amount of meandering that you can't cut out. Everyone has to put in the work at some point.
Going back to the vehicle analogy, we could say that everyone who trains with us gets to see the whole damned thing stripped, cleaned and assembled. They say there are two things you shouldn't see in the process of being made: laws, and sausages. But I think it's vital to know your martial art inside out in this way.
Zen and the art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a book which now is more often parodied than read, but it's one of my favourites. In it, the main character discusses at length the difference between the way he owns a motorcycle, and the way in which his friend owns one. His friend buys an expensive BMW, a machine expected to rarely break down, and therefore never bothers to learn its workings. When it does break down, it generates huge anger and disbelief in its owner, as well as incurring costly mechanic's bills. The teller of the tale approaches his motorcycle from the inside out, and when it breaks down he can adapt ad-hoc repairs, and tell what's wrong just by listening to the engine turn over. He doesn't freak out because he knows how to fix it, and what that involves.
A martial art can break down, become stale or let you down at the crucial moment. So make sure you know your art for yourself in your bones, and haven't just been sold a slick machine with a convincing warranty.

Friday 6 May 2011

Tai chi is super duper so there....

It’s easy to complain about tai chi, (as you’ll know if you’ve been following my blog….) but despite my whinings, I feel it’s time to give this art its due. Which other art would have allowed me to explore martial questions without requiring a smart uniform and the bending of my stubborn will to that of an almighty “sensei”? I’ve never been particularly good at hierarchy. When I tried Judo at the age of thirteen, I was used merely as a test-dummy for those larger and more bellicose than myself, and I think that turned me off the martial arts for a long while.

Whilst tai chi has its pedants and its fanatics, it is an art which is growing still: there’s plenty of room for innovation, and each new generation gets to figure out anew just what tai chi means to them.

I love (and at times, hate) the fact that tai chi to most people just looks like some nutty hippy dance-thing, and that people find it ridiculous, because it means I know something they don’t about the effectiveness, precision and intent of the art. No-one is likely to say “You do tai chi: reckon you’re a bit tough then?”…and that’s the great thing, you don’t have to think of yourself as tough. You can just be, as Ian calls it, “the grey man”, and melt into the martial background. I love that the teachers who brought tai chi within my reach were and are hardy and earthy, real people: you’ll find no ethereal snake-oil merchants in our lineage. We’re not training to be killers; but neither are we training to be saints.

I like to play, and tai chi gives me, a thirty one year-old man, the excuse to play for hours every week, to mess about with swords, spears, body mechanics and wildly imagined scenarios of every kind. It’s a game, it’s a craft and it’s an art. It is driven by the highest aspirations, yet is completely everyday and ordinary. There are many worse ways to spend your time, that’s for sure.

Hurrah then, for tai chi chuan.

Next time: back to the customary bemoaning and beefing...