Poagao's Journal

The Adventures of the Worst Student in the Pushhands Class

Jan 31 2010

2010

The first couple of practices in the park this year were following rainy days, turning the usually dusty area into a big mud puddle. Most of the practitioners relocate to the amphitheater nearby in such cases, but some stay and just avoid the puddles.

The weather this morning was wonderful, however, and the dust wasn’t too bad either. I went through the forms, trying to keep my knees in the right position even though some felt awkward. Stretching will help with that; knee territory is always a bit iffy for me due to the old injury. As I went through the empty-handed form, Teacher X gave me tips and advice. While I welcome this, of course, it’s a little depressing to find that I’m only scraping the surface of all the movements within movements in even the smallest part of the form. Like learning a language, it’s a bottomless pit. A foreigner came up to me at one point wanting to know what style we were practicing, but I referred him to Teacher X, who can explain it better and was looking for places to practice his English as we always speak in Chinese.

The old guy who I filmed swordfighting with Little Qin came up to me and asked if I was done studying in the south, obviously mixing me up with some other non-ethnically Chinese person. Teacher X suggested that I practice tuishou with him, and I took pains to not be too combative, as I guessed from his remarks that he might be one of those people who wants to make sure everyone knows he’s Really Good. Sure enough, after about 10 minutes of pushing, slowly testing each others’ strategies, etc., he gave a quick shove, proving that he was Really Good. “See how heavy my hands seem?” he said as we practiced. I said yes. “Not like your hands, which seem very light, with hardly any substance at all!” I smiled at that, inwardly wondering if he knew that his hands were telegraphing his intentions as clearly as if he were saying it out loud. Before a quick shove, he would tense up and change his stance. He put a lot of stock into the quickness as well, part of his Japanese martial arts training. Later, when he was swordfighting with Little Qin, there was not a little Japanese swordwork in his style.

I really have to get some more suitable pants for practice; the traditional kind have too few pockets, and jeans are too restrictive. I should go to the supply store and have a look around, I suppose.

posted by Poagao at 10:24 am  
Dec 29 2009

A couple of sessions

It being Christmas and all, I forgot to post about last week, so I’ll write up the last couple here now. Last Sunday, the 13th, held wonderful weather, perfect for practice with sunny skies. As I walked up and put down my things on one of the many stone stools situated next to trees, a guy I hadn’t seen before wanted to practice tuishou. He was middle-aged, looked to be around 50. Although we started slowly, he was soon sweating profusely, and I could feel his heart racing in an alarming fashion. Our practice went from standing to moving as he practiced the same moves over and over, in almost a rote fashion. His energy faded and then came back when he got a second wind before calling it quits. Probably a wise thing to do, I thought. Mr. V and NL Guy had been grappling since I arrived.

Teacher X called and said he couldn’t make practice as he was attending a wedding. By noon, nobody else had arrived. I went through the empty-handed form, feeling more cooperation, connection, hints of an assembly line of movement sculptured into a direction of force. It felt good.

Mr. V and NL Guy continued to grapple, not resting in over two hours. They weren’t going at it with the usual fervor, making me think it was some kind of endurance contest between them. Nearby a kid played with his father’s sword in the dirt, earning him a scolding.

I went through the sword form, which also felt very nice, with the sword feeling more of an extension of my arm than before. Little Qin hadn’t come either, which was too bad, as he always has an interesting thing or two to say about swordwork (couched in military terms, no doubt). Perhaps he was at the same wedding, if it involved a member of the martial arts circles he and Teacher X move in.

By the time I left, Mr. V and NL Guy were still locked in their stamina contest. It made me think of how our paths have diverged, even though we’re still training under the same teacher in supposedly the same style.

This last Sunday was not ideal, weather-wise, cold and windy, with an occasional sprinkle of rain making it through the sparse canopy of leaves above us. I helped Little Qin film his swordfighting with an older teacher, using a little DV camera that was so light it was hard to keep steady. They went at it over about ten minutes; the guy was good, but I got cold due to lack of movement, as I’d taken off my jacket to practice the forms and grapple with a new guy Teacher X had been instructing. The new guy was all force and no subtlety, but his incessant efforts, while ineffective, were tiring. Teacher X admonished me to take the initiative more, but he also recognized that I was pushing to a certain point, a point where the engagement had concluded in all aspects except for the actual pushing over, and then releasing my opponent. When the opponent doesn’t realize this, however, he thinks that I’m not pushing at all. Little Qin and Little Mountain Pig do this a lot, pushing up to the point of complete control and then releasing.

The sword master wanted me to film his bout with another guy, and this one was a lot more active, so I circled around the two, trying to keep them in frame. Little Qin said he’d like to put them on his website.

posted by Poagao at 11:56 pm  
Dec 12 2009

12/9 at the park

It was a beautiful day last Sunday at the park. It’s been a nice winter so far, weather-wise. Teacher X was full of stories about his recent trip to the US to study calligraphy. It had been a while since I’d been to practice, so I went over some basics of the empty-handed form with him. Although I usually feel like a beginner when doing this, as there’s so many details within details involved, I felt particularly useless that day. Like many things, I suppose, tai-chi is a bottomless pit; nobody is ever finished learning it. In comparison with all there is to know, everyone is a beginner.

But I still felt useless. Nearby, NLGuy and Little Qin were locking swords again. He and Mr. V seem to be the only students who regularly show up on Sundays these days. I should go on Saturdays and weekdays as well, just to see who’s still around after all these years.

I went through the sword form, still feeling useless, before practicing sword-on-swordwork with Little Qin. This felt quite a bit better. In fact, it felt like a high-speed chess game, trying to think ahead, how he would parry and where he would strike next. Obviously, he’s a lot smoother than I am, being able to effortlessly catch the tip of my sword in the air and slide it around wherever he likes. My parries are far more crude and no doubt less effective. At one point I accidentally stabbed his hand, and it felt like I really got him, so I stopped, but he said it was ok. I noticed that his arms are covered in scratches and bruises. “I got that from NL Guy,” he said, pointing at an injury on his arm. I usually only get bruises and the occasional scratch, but I can see how one would come out like that after a bout with NL Guy, who is quite into that kind of thing. Little Qin said that he is thinking of getting together some kind of sword-practice getup together, but I don’t see how he can do it and still be maneuverable.

posted by Poagao at 11:50 am  
Oct 19 2009

10/18 at the park

Teacher X is still in the US, and I was late, but the weather was perfect for practice on Sunday: bright, sunny and cool with a breeze. Dance music was pumping out of the nearby amphitheater, while Mr. V was grappling with a newer student and apparently doing some “teaching”. A group of foreigners with cameras wandered around the park trying to look stealthy while filming everyone with video cameras.

Little Qin was practicing swordfighting with No Lose Guy, so I practiced forms for a while, pausing to chat with my friend Steven Crook, who happened to be passing by while researching guidebook stuff. After Steve left I did some sword form practice, which was tiring at first, but it didn’t take too long to smooth things out.

At this point Little Qin and NLGuy were doing free-form tuishou, and I have to say Little Qin was, without any apparent effort, just stomping on NLGuy, whose name didn’t really hold up under the circumstances. NLGuy was bouncing back pretty well, though, I have to say. “You have to turn like a tank,” Little Qin was telling him, as usual putting things in military terms. “I’m not doing very well today,” he said later. “Only about 50-60%.”

After NLGuy had left, Little Qin and I did some swordfighting, which seemed to go better than before. I may be getting more used to it. He said that NLGuy would probably be sore for a few days afterwards, as he had used a few new techniques on him. “Usually we have to learn to lose before we learn how to win; NLGuy needs to realize that and he’ll learn much quicker.” He told me of a time when one tuishou practitioner challenged another in the park, both competition-level, but when he charged the guy, the other man simply knocked him out cold with one blow. He defended his actions, saying, “If you take that approach in attacking me, I will deal with it in an appropriate fashion.” At the time, Little Qin felt this to be a bit harsh, but upon reflection, he told me, he figures it was the right thing to do, i.e., “basically let the guy run into your fist.” Apparently, Master Yu could induce some pretty serious discomfort with a mere touch. “Teacher X knows this, but he doesn’t teach it,” Little Qin told me.

We talked about the saying “Where there is a method, there is a way of defeating that method; where there is no method, there is no way to defeat it” (my rough translation), and it occurred to me that this is useful not just in tai-chi but in many other areas, such as photography. It explains a lot, such as why some of the best photographs don’t follow any of the apparent “rules” of photography. To the lazy Taoist in my, it’s a great excuse for not having a real method, though, and I shouldn’t take it as such. Still, it was another one of those “Oh!” moments that I enjoy in studying this art.

posted by Poagao at 12:47 am  
Sep 21 2009

9/20 at the park

Sunday was a beautiful late summer day, a little cooler than usual. The number of cicadas is decreasing these days; the end of Ghost Month was being celebrated at a paper temple set up by the restrooms nearby as I exited the subway station at the park. I’ve always felt like the station should be named the 2/28 Park Station rather than NTUH Station, as the most significant exits are in the park, but people seem to think that hospitals are a trump card as far as station naming goes.

NL Guy was wrestling with one of the students who seldom comes to practice, while Teacher X instructed Little Mountain Pig on some of the finer points of sword form. Being rather rusty in the sword department myself, I joined in. I can still do the form, but, after going through the whole thing with Teacher X, the point was driven home for me that there are many areas in which I need work. Teacher X is going to the US for his calligraphy course soon, possibly next week, and we’ll have a month or so without him before he returns in November.

After Teacher X left I did some tuishou with Little Qin, who told me that the body can be divided into Yin and Yang portions, which change depending on how you use them. For some reason this struck a chord with me, one of those “Oh!” moments that has an immediate and apparent effect on one’s performance. It got me thinking of pandas for some reason, possibly the visualization of one’s body being covered in shifting patterns of black and white.

The more you use this, he said, the less you need your hands. Little Qin discourages the use of palms in tuishou, as “Anyone can use their palms to grab and push and pull; what we need to learn to do is use everywhere else.” As Master Zheng said, “Your whole body is a hand.” We transferred the idea to swordwork as well, with the edge of the sword being generally a yang part and the flat part the yin, but not always: Little Qin demonstrated how each can be used as the other, and told me the story of Master Zheng disarming a Japanese samurai by simply controlling him instead of fighting him directly. It was all quite neat.

posted by Poagao at 10:54 pm  
Sep 07 2009

9/6 park

I was the first one of our group at the park last Sunday when I arrived at 10 a.m. The others didn’t begin to arrive until half an hour later, so I spent the time warming up and running through empty-handed and sword forms. It was promising to be a hot day, but at least the leaves are still on the trees, providing some shade. Mr. V and NLguy are quite chummy these days; they spent the entire time wrestling each other; I guess it makes sense as their approaches have always been similar.

Teacher X was telling me how he would have to leave for his calligraphy class a week early due to the October holiday rush when Little Mountain Pig called on me to practice with a guy from outside our group. He was surnamed Liu, in his late 50’s and small. I started slow, taking Little Qin’s advice to see if I could push my opponent up to the point of defeat and then stopping. At first I though that Mr. Liu was taking the same tactic, but it appeared that he was getting bored with all the pussyfooting around, and his moves became a lot less smooth, exerting a constant, rigid force.

This became quite tiring, but I was still curious, so we kept at it. Then the quick, hard shoves began, and it was NLGuy all over again. Mr. Liu seemed frustrated as well, and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t like practicing with me very much. Oh, well. It’s like LM Pig says, with tuishou it seems that you’re either interesting in learning or winning.

I practiced tuishou with Little Qin, who always has some interesting move or observation to impart. Usually it turns out to be something I never would have thought of or guessed, some move that completely doesn’t make sense and yet works flawlessly. “Yi jin dang chang,” he said, which roughly means putting everything into the action. Afterwards we did some swordplay, with me switching hands when I got tired. The practical work is good for me, the equivalent of tuishou with swords.

Little Qin tried to dispel me of my notion of studying taichi staff before scimitar. “Sword takes 10 years of practice,” he told me, “and scimitar three after that. Staff should only be a year.” In any case, it’s still a bit early to be thinking that far ahead, but I still have my doubts about the scimitar. A military man, Little Qin compared sword to a light tank while “the scimitar is a heavily armed helicopter.” To be honest I’m not sure what to make of that. Little Qin often says things that go way over my head; I just file them away in the hope that I might realize what he was talking about some day.

posted by Poagao at 5:58 am  
Aug 30 2009

8/30 in the park

Hard to believe it’s almost September again. Due to the fact that I didn’t have to take the red-eye bus from the south this weekend, I had no trouble getting up in time for practice at the park this morning. I got there just before Yang Qing-feng, and we practiced a bit. He seemed tired, and I seemed to be doing relatively well against him, as I usually have the most trouble with him for some reason. We were talking about it, and I’m thinking that he just picks up on signals more easily than some of the other students, and he is also very quick to yield and turn around an attack. He seemed to be resorting more and more to the quick push strategy, which he said was necessary as I see the slow moves coming. Teacher X said I should try more three-dimensional strategies, basically turning him like a wheel, and that seemed to work ok. I do need to be more subtle, though. A lot of it is in my attitude.

NL Guy and Little Qin were practicing contact swordwork nearby, and I took some video with my camera of some of it:

There was also a new student, already in the purple uniform of our group. He shares two characters in his name with me and is a rescue worker. As we practiced together I just let him try to push me and didn’t try to counter attack, but Teacher X said I should, so I started pulling him around a bit on each attempt until he got tired.

I went through the sword form a couple of times, and then practiced contact sword with Little Qin. This was very instructional. Hitherto, I hadn’t really given much thought to exactly where my concentration should lie when using swords; I’d always simply focused on the tip when going through the form; As we practiced, Little Qin told me what should be obvious: I should be focusing on the point of contact with the other sword. I’d only really been using a tiny fraction of the sword’s potential all this time. I also figure I should concentrate more on using my left hand as well as my right for combat, as I use my right hand for forms, and I’m left-handed.

Little Mountain Pig is presently reviewing his sword with Teacher X, and I pay attention when I can to that as well. Teacher X will be gone in October and part of November, so I should spend that time reviewing I guess.

posted by Poagao at 12:22 pm  
Aug 24 2009

Been a while, again

I’ve been playing with a local band all over the island on weekends for the past couple of months, invariably getting back to Taipei around 7 a.m. and sleeping through practice. But last Sunday I managed to drag my tired ass to the park; I just felt like I needed the practice, and the weather was so nice I couldn’t pass it up.

Mr. V, Little Mountain Pig, NL Guy, Yang Qing-feng and Teacher X were all there already. Qing-feng was talking with an older man, while LM Pig reviewed the sword form and Mr. V grappled with NL Guy. Teacher X told me that he was going to be in the U.S., Ohio to be exact, from October to December studying ancient English calligraphy. He showed me the invitation letter, written in perfect swirly script.

I went through the forms and then practiced a bit with Qing-feng, who had an easy time of it as I hadn’t practiced in a long time. He said the older man was a judge who had only recently begun to study tai-chi and had some questionable notions on the subject. “As a judge, too,” he added. Qing-feng is a court police officer, so I guess he sees a lot of trials.

Later, after Teacher X and most of the others had gone, I practiced tuishou with Pig, who expressed his dismay that Teacher X would be gone for so long. “It makes me think: what if he decided to stay there, or go somewhere else? What would happen to us?” We talked about such a hypothetical situation, agreeing that the students would most likely split into two groups, i.e. those who are willing to lose and those who are not. That’s my description, though. Pig thought it would be more like “Those who use their forward leg and those who use their rear leg.” As to who would lead us in such an eventuality, it would be up to each student. I would probably go with Little Qin, who is technically not really a fellow student but our “Master Uncle” as he also studied together with Teacher X under Master Yu. A few other students would probably end up teaching. “You’ll end up teaching as well,” Pig told me, and though I disagree, I will admit that teaching is probably a good way to pressure oneself to excel, due to the responsibility. But even if I felt I was qualified, which I don’t, I’ve never been particularly interested in it.

After Pig left, I went through the sword form a couple of times, feeling very tired and looking forward to lunch. I had been planning to fully master the empty-handed form and then go back to the sword form, but now I’m realizing that I will never really master the empty-handed form, and should concentrate on doing both at the same time. The only other weapon I’m interested in is the staff, as it’s just handy. Scimitar I’m not particularly fond of, though a lot of the other students are keen on it. I’d be happy with just sword and staff.

posted by Poagao at 9:58 pm  
Jun 29 2009

6/28 at park

Sunday was a fine day, at first, beautiful weather, cicadas and squirrels and birds under the canopy of green leaves at the park. NL Guy was throwing a skinny foreign guy around on the ground, while The Dentist arrived apologizing for his purple polka-dotted shorts.

Teacher X reiterated the fact that being able to “collapse” in compartments of one’s body is useful in tuishou. I also found while practicing with him that I often expose a weakness by turning my back more or less towards my opponent. So far, only Teacher X has really taken advantage of this; none of the other students have, and thus it’s become somewhat of a bad habit.

I practiced with NL Guy for a bit. He was surprisingly mild this time, though any attempt to push him resulted as always with a flurry of activity that he didn’t seem to want to cease until I was on the ground (not that I gave him that satisfaction). He managed to pull me in such a way to give him a head-butting as well as a couple of blows dangerously close to his genitals; not the safest practice, but we don’t call him No Lose Guy for nothing (well, I don’t, anyway).

It was HOT, and I sweating buckets. But Teacher X wanted me to practice with the skinny foreigner, who turned out to be French. He’d arrived in Taiwan a mere two days before, didn’t really speak much Chinese or even English. He said he’d studied tai-chi and tuishou for three years back in Paris. He wore a white T-shirt with a small red Yinyang symbol on it that he’d bought at a martial arts supply store nearby.

We started out slowly; often I’d have to make a move to provoke a response. He seemed quite wary and tense, understandable after being thrown around by NL Guy, who left scratches on the Frenchman’s arms. It wasn’t too bad, though; he eventually regained a little confidence and put some effort into it. I then practiced with Little X, who is getting a bit chunky to be honest. He remains very easy to push for some reason. I can’t quite figure out how relative tuishou prowess works; there must be a logic to it somehow, but I don’t know what it is.

Mr. You, whom we haven’t seen at practice in years, showed up, surprising everyone. He was visiting his mother at NTU hospital and came over to say hi. By now the sky was dark, and the wind was picking up. It had been a long, hot practice, and people began to leave, so I did as well.

posted by Poagao at 5:49 am  
May 18 2009

May 10-17

There have been activities around the park for the last couple of weeks. Last week is was Buddha’s birthday party or something, which involved lots of chanting. I practiced with Yang Qingfeng, who hasn’t been to class in a while and says he’s out of shape. He’s still far better than I am, however, out of shape or no. The guy in the yellow shirt from the picture told me his secret was practicing by tossing water high in the air.

This week a DPP protest was organized nearby, so again, a lot of people walking by. My leg’s been sore lately for some reason, so I was taking it easy when I practiced with Little Qin, who was echoing Obi-wan Kenobi’s line of “Your eyes can deceive you; don’t trust them.” He also told me that there was always room for a little more retreat, and I had a vision of myself as a storage room that could always be rearranged with a little more space at the back if needed. It was surprisingly effective. He also practiced “sticking swords” with me; it’s been a while since I did that, and it was refreshing. The wooden swords are lighter than I’m used to, but it was educational.

Small, occasional drops of rain fell on us as we practiced. Little Mountain Pig taught me a fulcrum-like arm turn that is useful, if tiring. I’m realizing that alot of the time, angles of attack are really important.

posted by Poagao at 5:32 am  
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