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.

Wednesday 29 June 2011


In response to an advert in the Tai Chi Union magazine...


You can learn this fabulous martial art of "tai chi chuan" in just a few decades!
You could even be a teacher!
Being a teacher gets you:
-A lifetime commitment to something most people couldn't give a monkey's about
-A very modest or no income at all
-Quizzical looks from people who wonder why you don't do a "proper job"
-The responsibility of handing on a complex and demanding art, which may need to be called upon in dangerous situations.


You too will have to put up with:
-Spurious theories about "chi" and far-fetched health claims from people who don't really know what they're talking about.
-People who have been training for a week trying to make money from something you've been doing for a decade or more.

I do apologise, I'm not normally so bitter about things, but sometimes people really take the goddamned biscuit don't they?

Tuesday 21 June 2011

The Thirteen Tactics

The Thirteen tactics are the real nitty-gritty of martial tai chi chuan. Yet how often are they overlooked by tai chi writers and practitioners? The Thirteen Tactics are: Peng, Lu, Ji, An, Kao, Zhou, Tsai and Lie, plus the steps of centrally fixed, left, right,back and forwards. In short: you do stuff with your hands in conjunction with moving your legs. This may sound simple, but many of us tai chi people cannot move our arms and our legs together. We fix in one spot and flurry madly, or we dance about in a pseudo-boxing way. It is tempting to think of the Eight Forces (Peng, Lu etc.) as things done from a fixed-step position. They simply will not work in this way, unless against someone very small and weak. The interesting thing is that the "feet" part of the Thirteen Tactics can be done by anyone, straight away. We can all go forwards, left and right and so on. Maybe there is a snob thing going on here: "If everyone can do it right away why bother practicing it?". Or maybe it's so plain and simple, it evades us, like not seeing the wood for the trees. Evasion, arguably the most important part of the martial repertoire, is all about natural movement. There's not much dollar to be made from saying "you don't need to be taught it, you can do it already." Where the art of teaching appears is in designing scenarios and methods that will test and elicit this natural movement, rather than just having someone copy it in rote style. I think sometimes that the best we can do as teachers is show the students how to get out of their own way; the rest really is up to them. Thank the gods, maybe we can all take a well-earned rest...

oops sorry wrong blog...

I thought this might happen...apologies tai chi fans! Let me remove this Zen nonsense...

Sunday 12 June 2011

I'm sticking with you...

We have been doing a little work on following and adhering recently, and it throws up some interesting things. First and foremost, in practicing sticking and following, the boundaries between who's "in charge" and who is "following" become very blurred indeed. Once you can give up the idea that you are fighting, and you should be doing some particular attack, the whole experience is less stressful, and requires less energy. The better your following ability, the more likely and the more often it is that applications will appear spontaneously. Rather than thinking "I must get White Crane on him", you follow with both hands and feet, and lo and behold, a technique will appear. It may be White Crane, it may be something else. But it is all the more effective for having appeared like a lightning bolt from the cloud of foot/leg/body/arm/hand movements. This is the magic of tai chi, and a true example of wu wei, that much-vaunted concept attributed to the Taoists. It really becomes apparent only when you nominate one partner as the attacker, and one as the defender. This could also be called distinguishing between yin and yang. It also removes most of the Ego from the exercise. Ego, it seems to me, is the chief enemy of spontaneity, because the body stiffens up in trying to deal with commands from the conceptual mind, rather than reacting to circumstance.
So there you go. Easy, huh?

Thursday 2 June 2011

First Person Tai Chi

A bowl. Obviously.
I've said it before and I'll almost certainly say it again: there's no glory to tai chi. Not that I mind. I'm rather keen on that Taoist approach of keeping a low-key approach, like a turtle in the mud, or like water, finding the low places to maintain one's flow. Tai chi chuan is a first -person exercise, not a third person one. The Monkey Army were discussing this point at training this morning, and we've come to the conclusion that the handform simply isn't a spectator sport. It's not meant to be too pretty, nor too exciting. It needs to have an element of functionality about it, which is hard to pin down. In such discussions, inevitably we  look towards the rough Zen aesthetic of the Japanese arts, at least before they became over-refined and pastiche-like. A rough ceramic bowl, with glaze dripping unevenly around its topmost edge is something like what we are aiming for with the form: useful, plain, yet beautiful through imperfection (or rather spontaneity) and roughness. Many of the forms that one sees in the tai chi world are over-refined and showy, rather as if one made a huge, impractical bowl from gold with platinum handles and diamond embellishments. Tai chi at this point just becomes another form of athletics or gymnastics, something in which to compete and earn medals and rosettes.
The point is how does it feel? Are we actually doing tai chi? There is a form, and a structure to adhere to. Once we have a handle on that, it's about awareness of breathing,  balance and co-ordination. That which we can't feel, we can't use. If we can't feel it in the relatively calm environs of a form class, how will we feel it in more stressful or dangerous situations?
You may say that my form looks bad, and you might be right. But the proof of the pudding is in the feeling, whether feeling the qualities of your own form or feeling another through pushing hands.
This also means that third-person criticism of someone's tai chi after watching their handform makes no sense: so armchair generals beware.