Practice for me was usually on Sunday afternoons since I had to work during the week. Since Shifu Sui is located in Xizhimen and I lived in the Haidian district, I would either have to take a long bike trip or take the bus. The advantage of riding a bike was that it was free and I did not have to wait for the bus and jostle with people to get on board. The disadvantage is that I was twice as tired after practice, having ridden a bike for over an hour in addition to the three hours or so of practice. If there were a larger group of people going to practice, we pitched in and took a taxi.
Upon arriving in Xizhimen, I had to meander around the labyrinthine streets and alleys of dusty Xizhimen to Shifu Sui's residence. This was an apartment block in the Stalinist architectural style, with a murky canal and old, traditional Chinese dwellings nearby. My Japanese counterpart Kouji Ishida (or Shitian as we called him) once remarked that the scene reminded him of Tokyo when he was a child. Like most Chinese homes, Shifu Sui's residence was much nicer on the inside than on the outside. It was fully carpeted with tasteful furniture and was kept very neat. Guests were always invited to have tea and often oranges or another fruit. Shifu Sui usually liked to chat for a while on everything from martial arts to politics. As students slowly streamed in, this small talk allowed them to catch their breath before the upcoming practice.
Like other martial arts in Beijing, Baguazhang is practiced outside regardless of weather, pollution, or number of onlookers. The only exception for us was driving rain, in which case it was understood that no practice would be held that day. However, as Beijing is a very arid city, few days were rained out. The trip to the practice area was also steeped in ritual as Shifu Sui greeted every person in a thick Beijing accent along the way from the gate keeper to the fuwuyuan (waitress) at a nearby hotel restaurant. Shifu Sui has lived in the same neighborhood for years and it seems that he knows everyone on a first name basis. "Old Li, going to work again?" "Master Sui, off to practice again?"
We practiced on or near a basketball court. This was perfect for Baguazhang because of the smooth, flat surface and the circles painted in the center and in the free-throw lines. This basketball court was within shouting distance of both a reservoir for fishing and the Beijing Exhibition Center. The Exhibition Center has a very distinct Soviet architectural style complete with one ubiquitous Hammer and Sickle symbol.
Practice always began with individual stretching and static practicing of Baguazhang stances. Next, since Shifu Sui had many Meihuazhuang* students, he started everyone with Titui (kicking) exercises to further warm up the body. Since I had already trained in Wushu, I had no problem executing these rigorous, acrobatic kicks. This warm-up routine was very similar to Wushu exercises except that Shifu Sui would add unique Meihuazhuang and Baguazhang kicking techniques to the mix such as combination front sweep and double heel kicks to the groin.
After a rousing round of flying kicks, both Meihuazhuang and Baguazhang students started the most difficult phase and that was practicing the basic poses. Meihuazhuang style students must stand in the very low stances for long periods of time facing other students moving only occasionally to move into a new position and new stance. We Baguazhang students had to start walking the circle. From the first day I trained with Shifu Sui, I started walking the circle with the first movement from Dingshibazhang. Dingshibazhang consists of eight basic poses and each pose should be practiced in both directions. Ideally, each pose in each direction should be held for 20 minutes while walking the circle. This worked out to about five hours! This was to be done on our own time as Shifu Sui could only spend about three hours with us. In the beginning, when we only knew the first pose, we would have to walk for over an hour holding that pose in each direction, with virtually no break.
Walking around a circle while holding your arms up in an awkward pose for hours on end seems difficult enough, but we also had to walk with the proper Tangnibu or Mud Sliding Step. This is the basic walking step in Baguazhang and consists of pushing off with the rear foot while pointing your feet slightly towards each other, knees together, weight on the back leg, keeping the soles of the feet parallel and close to the ground at all times, and finally gripping the ground with the toes of the lead foot. This is the trademark step of Li Ziming's Baguazhang. Although difficult to master, when done properly it appears as if one is gliding along ground covered with some kind of lubricant like water, ice, or mud.
While keeping proper footwork and form, one must also constantly remember to turn the torso towards the center as much as possible, keep the head erect, tuck in the lower spine, open the shoulder blades, relax the shoulders, and maintain eye contact with the center of the circle. Ideally one should be able to do all of this while walking at a level one head below your standing height, without bobbing up and down or splaying the feet.
Add the extremes of Beijing winter such as the subzero temperatures and biting winds to all the above. I would often wear a heavy coat that covered much of my body, many layers of clothing, boots, and gloves, yet I was still freezing! However, Shifu Sui wore only a light jacket because the Qi of Baguazhang kept him warm. While practicing we were also stared at by passersby, who from time to time gave unsolicited advice such as "bie fenxin" (Don't lose your concentration). Especially in the early days, it was hard to keep my concentration walking around and around in a circle. Early on I thought I was going to go mad or get too dizzy.
Over time, I learned to focus on the countless aspects of the mud-sliding step and Dingshibazhang postures. I found that the longer I walked the circle, the more fluid my movements became and the more I felt the power of the Qi circulating through my body. I felt a great deal of strength building up in my extremities. For instance, I found that the Tuimozhang (pushing the millstone palm) greatly increased my grip when I shook hands with people. I could also palm a basketball with much more ease.
The reason for the intensity of our training was because Shitian, Pei Jungui, and I were Shifu Sui's close tudi or apprentices and therefore he had higher expectations of us. The training technique of walking the circle goes back to Dong Haichuan himself who trained by walking in circles around trees. The footwork and the odd postures are utilized to make the seemingly unnatural natural to unlearn years of training in other styles and sports. Baguazhang is a science of fighting techniques that are designed to attack specific weak points of the opponent while maximizing your own strengths. Unlike boxing, a brutal exchange of punches to the brain and vital organs, Baguazhang focuses on evasive maneuvers for defense and knowledge of universal human anatomy for attack. For instance, the hip joint when pushed from the right angle will force any human to collapse regardless of stature or weight. Also, according the Taoist theory, the walking in a circle and the opposing forces of the upper and lower body are the best means to fully realize the benefits of the surrounding Qi forces.
Shifu Sui is a direct disciple of Li Ziming and he uses the same teaching techniques, such as the constant circle walking. Another Li Ziming legacy is the emphasis on demonstrating the power of the techniques to help students fully understand the correct use. This was disconcerting at first as you may see Shifu Sui hurl a student to the ground, jerk their arm almost out of socket, put them in a painful joint lock, or smack their limbs akimbo. Yet, Shifu Sui has a very good sense of control and actually never harms his students in any way. Through decades of practice he has honed his skill to the point that he can control the degree of pain and injury that he wishes to inflict on a person. To my knowledge, he has never harmed a student. The tone is purely instructional and there is no sense of malice involved. He simply wants to demonstrate proper form and to remind student of the seriousness of Baguazhang as a true fighting science. The conclusion that I have reached having experienced many of these techniques firsthand is that one Baguazhang technique alone is enough to incapacitate most attackers.
At the end of practice, we would head back to Shifu Sui's apartment for more tea and fruit. If Shifu had time, he would occasionally invite us to his student's restaurant for a free feast of Shua Yangrou Huoguo and Jiaozi (Sliced Lamb Hot Pot and Dumplings). Otherwise Shitian, Pei Jungui, other foreign students, and I would eat in a restaurant in the Xizhimen area and talk of the day's adventures. One more notable incident was the day Shitian had bravely disarmed a security guard who was threatening Shifu Sui.
For the return trip to Tsing Hua, if I did not ride my bike, I would have to wait for the public bus or the small privately-owned buses. For a higher fee, the small buses guarantee a seat and more direct service to your destination. However, smoking is often permitted and the buses usually sit in place for what seems like eternity revving their engines and trying to pack the bus with as many people as possible before leaving. As for the public bus, it is cheaper and no smoking is allowed. The problem is that a mad melee ensues every time a new empty bus arrives. All the people cram on at once to try to get one of the few seats. This was always a chance for me and my American friend Eric to try our newly acquired Baguazhang skills. Although our martial arts skills, superior height, and strength were usually effective in securing a seat, sometimes our clothing or bags would suffer damage in the chaos.
During the rest of the week, Shitian (Kouji) would religiously practice as Shifu Sui had prescribed five to six hours every day! I would find him walking in a circle in a secluded corner of the Tsing Hua campus. Over time, he wore a deep rut in the ground from walking in the circle so many times. Shifu Sui was always impressed by the diligence of this Japanese student. I did not have such a large period of free time during the day, but I practiced whenever I had a free chance: in my room, on the roof, in the parking lot, in the gym, in the courtyard, during a lunch break, in the afternoon, or late at night.
After many months of Baguazhang practice, I found that I was much stronger and agile than before and could apply this to other martial arts such as Chen Taiji and push hands, as well as basketball. The constant palm changes of Baguazhang helped make my spin moves in basketball faster. The internal energy acquired through Baguazhang training aided in push hands practice and the complex maneuvers made other styles such as Chen Taiji seem easy.
*Meihuazhuang - Literally Plum Blossom Stance, an old style of Gongfu that predates Baguazhang by many centuries. It is characterized by extremely low stances that must be held for long periods of time in forms that can take as long as an hour to complete. These forms can include multiple participants and build in intensity ending with a crescendo of explosive, flying kicks. It is similar to Baguazhang in the practice of changing directions rapidly and fighting multiple opponents.
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