Taijiquan – the multi-faceted art

I must be honest with you, the reason I started taijiquan was because I had read that it was the ultimate martial art. Indeed in Chris Nicol’s fine book Moving Zen, a Japanese karate master described it as a martial art for supermen. I liked the sound of that.

Now more than thirty years later. I know that there is no such thing as the ultimate martial art. I also know that taijiquan is indeed an effective martial art, but it is also so much more than that.

My first Chinese taijiquan teacher, Mr. Huang Jifu, always described taijiquan as postgraduate level martial arts. By that he meant that the lessons the art teaches are most suitable for those who have a firm grounding in some other martial art. To some extent I agree with him. But, even if you have no other martial arts experience there are important things you can learn from the art, even from your very first lesson.

One of the most important lessons the art has to offer, and one which continues to offer enormous benefits throughout your taijiquan career is the value of slowness.

How often in our lives do we just slow down and  pay attention to not only what is going on around us but also to what is going on in both our body and mind?

Yet from our very first lesson we are taught to stand still, to pay attention to our breathing, to learn how our bodies move. Very often it is difficult for beginners to do even such simple things as keep their shoulders sunk, their elbows lowered, to keep a space under their armpits and so on. This is because we seldom, since childhood have to pay attention to our bodies. We have forgotten that “body vocabulary” which tells us where our elbows are in relation to our shoulders, or where our knees are in relation to our hips and feet. Slowly and steadily we have to learn these things again.

At the same time we relearn the vital connection between mind and body and how conscious integration of all the elements that make up the human being (body, mind and spirit) can really enhance the quality of our life.

And all of this comes from moving slowly and consciously while breathing deeply and relaxing so that the body may move naturally as it was designed to. Oh how easy those words were to type and yet how challenging it is to actually do what they describe!

That, however, is the beauty of taijiquan, for it is a lifelong journey that presents us with constant challenges but also constant rewards as we master each little step.

Earlier this year we had a visitor in Malaysia, Mr. Neil Bothwell, who at sixty years young, decided to commit himself to three monthss of study at our Training Centre. Neil is a veteran martial artist with a black belt in karate, who has been studying taijiquan for a number of years. With his “never say die” attitude it was obvious to me that Neil would give his all...and he did. In addition to training six hours a day Neil found time to keep us constantly entertained with stories of his colourful life and also to make friends with all of the villagers that he met.

One day, in a break from training, Neil expressed to me his sadness that this would be his last trip to Malaysia because of his age. I was astonished because, as I told him, this training was only the beginning. Neil was well on his way to earning his full instructor qualification and I would expect that in five years time he would be ready to test for Senior Instructor. He was surprised but I told him that many people have taken up taijiquan at what would be considered an advanced age, and gone on to become recognised as masters.

Neil went on to attain the qualification and before he left, expressed his intention of returning.  During his time in Malaysia he worked as hard as people a third of his age and played even harder. It was not easy for him but his open-mindedness and desire to learn together with his willingness to work as hard as he could, guaranteed that he would make progress.
Neil is not the oldest Zhong Ding student by a long stroke and it is clearly evident that no matter what your age you can receive great benefits from the practice of taijiquan. These benefits, however, go far beyond the physical.  Here in Malaysia many senior citizens join their taijiquan group for an hour or more of practice every morning. When training is finished they retire to local restaurants to eat breakfast together. Not only do they exercise but they also enjoy companionship and a circle of friends from diverse backgrounds.

In the UK the weather often prevents morning training and eating out is often not cheap or convenient. Our members, of all ages, however, do benefit from meeting each other not only in class but socially. In any taijiquan class people come from a wide range of backgrounds and have a wealth of experience. This experience is there to be shared with all in the group and is something that is valued by all. The sense of companionship and the satisfaction of walking down a path with like-minded people both add to the physical benefits of taijiquan training.

Research on the physical benefits has shown that taijiquan is an efficient method for restoring and maintaining good physical balance,  aids the efficiency of the cardiovascular system, helps lower blood pressure and strengthen muscles and bones. Furthermore it does all this in a gradual and safe manner which allows those who have long been sedentary to exercise without fear of injury. ( & )
Equally as important are the mental and spiritual benefits which ultimately cannot be separated from the purely physical. Taijiquan is a form of moving meditation; this means that during practice the mind is fully occupied not only on the physical movements but also on the appropriate “states” connections and coordinations which serve to unite body and mind. One such example of a “state” is that of all movement originating from the centre; another is distinguishing between substantial and insubstantial. Connections include such things as keeping the head suspended from above and aligning the hands and feet, knees and elbows and hips and shoulders. One part moves, everything moves is an example of the coordination required, while the mind moves first, the body follows is another. The latter teaching focuses specifically on the integration of mind and body in the movements of the form.

The emphasis on the “state” of “song” or relaxation with intent, promotes a deep level of coordination between mind and body and a mental awareness of the physical totality. This is put to use in developing tactile sensitivity (ting jing) through the practise of pushing hands and other two-person exercises.

On a more mundane level just the act of remembering the forms with all their technical requirements provides exercise and stimulation for the mind.

A great example of the benefits of practising taijiquan may be found in the person of Master Lau Kim Hong who, at the age of seventy five, continues to make progress. It is no exaggeration to say that every time I meet him he is researching new areas and refining old ones; and, by doing so, increasing his own skill levels. In particular, in recent years I have noticed how his ability to cut down the delay between intent and action has improved. In practical terms this means that, when you try to push him, he is able to intercept you almost at the time of your intent and before the act of pushing is fully initiated. Master Lau still goes running regularly, teaches daily and travels several hundred miles a week to give classes and seminars. In addition he is very active in his local community and as a member of his local Buddhist Temple.

Master Lau’s own teacher, Master Lu Tong Bao did not start his own practice of taijiquan until the age of thirty seven. He was prompted to do so by his own ill-health, suffering as he was from heart problems, high blood pressure and diabetes. Within a decade he was renowned throughout Malaysia for his mastery of taijiquan as a martial art. So much so that on a visit to Singapore he was met by the man who was to become leader of that country for decades, Lee Kuan Yew, who came to pay his respects to this man who had thousands of students.

Of course most of us are not going to rise to the heights of Master Lau or Master Lu but even so there is nothing to stop us from enjoying the riches that the art has to offer.

From the form we can learn about our bodies and how to enjoy the benefits of more efficient and “natural” physical structure. We can also learn about the role the body and mind both play in relaxation and “stillness’.

From pushing hands we learn how to apply the form’s lessons in structure and relaxation under pressure. At the same time we learn about how we relate to others, and how to deal with force and stress. Furthermore pushing hands provides us with an environment in which we can carefully control and gradually increase the amount of stress we are under.

Through participation in  competition we learn more about our reaction to stress and are able to fine tune our practical use of relaxation in action.

Taijiquan’s conditioning methods provide us with ever increasing challenges in terms of the use of both body and mind in accordance with taiji principles.

I realise, of course that I am preaching to the converted but is good, once in a while, to be reminded of the treasures we have in our very hands. In conclusion I hope to see many of you at the annual camp so that we can share our experience of this wonderful, multi-faceted art.

Details can be found on the website and are obtainable from your instructor. Please note there are many interesting activities available at all levels.

Until the next time train hard and have fun!

Copyright Nigel Sutton 2009-10-09

These are exciting times for Zhong Ding. The Malaysian Training Centre is now in full swing and much of my time is spent there, training and teaching. Already this year a number of students from the UK have spent time there and I think it is fair to say that all who have returned to the UK have done so feeling that the experience was at the very least worthwhile and at the most  transformational .

At the very heart of what Zhong Ding is all about, is this process of allowing people to discover within themselves the tools that make such transformation possible. The centre situated in a small backwater, provides the perfect setting in which students can concentrate on their training. As always with the study of the martial arts the lessons are not only about physical technique but also about discovering who we really are and what is important to us.

Over the years Zhong Ding instructors have studied many different healing arts and technologies. My own forays into this field have included the study of a number of systems of qigong as well as bone-setting and both Chinese and Malay body and energy work. In order to ensure that Zhong Ding members are given the most extensive opportunities to study this aspect of the Asian arts, the Perfect Balance (Zhong Ding) Healing Arts and Therapies Initiative has now been established. Classes, courses, seminars and intensive training will be available with certification recognised and accredited by appropriate Asian bodies. This initiative is being headed by a panel of Zhong Ding Senior Instructors with interest and expertise in the healing arts, headed by Miles Craig, who has devoted the best part of three decades to the training in, study and research of healing therapies from a wide range of backgrounds.

A curriculum has been devised to encompass the wide range of expertise already present within the Zhong Ding organisation. This will enable students to learn material at basic intermediate and advanced level and to qualify as teachers equipped with all of the necessary tools to enable future students to gain the most from these healing therapies. The first instructor examination will be held on the weekend of July 11th and 12th as a part of the Second Master Liang He Qing Memorial Event in Nottingham.

The first day of this event will consist of a series of seminars given by different senior Zhong Ding instructors, including Dave Spencer, John Fowler, Pete Lane, Don Harradine, Darren Roberts, Miles Craig and myself. Topics will include Qigong, Taijiquan applications, Master Liang’s broadsword form, pushing hands, and balance and movement. On the Sunday there will be a competition including all the regular events, as well as a repeat of the very popular silat story telling. For more details see the East Midlands website.

I will leave you know with a piece from Miles Craig introducing the Perfect Balance Healing Arts and Therapies Initiative and I hope to see many of you in July.

Until then train hard and have fun!


Perfect Balance Healing Arts and Therapies Initiative

As Nigel said in the last newsletter, I have taken up the challenge of Chairing the Zhong Ding Qigong Committee, so I’d like to take this opportunity to explain a little about what the committee is doing and why we are doing it now. I will also introduce the members of the committee: Don Harradine, Tony Ulatowski, Jan Simpson, Adam Lammiman, Paul Gitsham, and of course Nigel.

There is a very rich variety of qigong practiced within the Association, which may seem surprising, until you think that Zhong Ding will be 21 years old this year; qigong has been an important part of the practice of the members of the Technical Advisors, and they have shared their practices with us over that time. So the first task for the Qigong committee was to make an inventory of these different systems and exercises; and then to develop this into a qigong curriculum.
That prompts the question, “Why do we need to do something different now?’
There is an increasing interest in qigong, and related practices amongst the general public; and perhaps many of the newcomers to a taiji class are actually looking for qigong. This level of interest can be seen in the number of seminars being organised, (sometimes by ‘Masters’ of uncertain lineage), and in the huge growth of Reiki, which uses a lot of the same principles as Qigong.  In addition, although a lot of effort is required to develop what we have into a syllabus, this is something we can then use to develop the next generation of Instructors. This does not mean a change to any of the classes that are currently running, or that any of the Senior Instructors need to take a grading, or change what they are doing.

I’ve spoken to a few people from different parts of the country, and really appreciate their positive comments and the feedback they’ve given me. As much as this has been incorporated into the curriculum, I’m sure there are going to be some things that will still need to be ‘fine-tuned’, so please bear with us. The weekend of the Competition, (11th-12th/July), will give us an opportunity to share some of the practical details, but I’d like to explain a little bit here:

Perfect Balance (Zhong Ding) Healing Arts and Therapies Initiative, (ZD-HATI), will be established, with Nigel Sutton as President, and Honorary Presidents / Technical Advisors, Master Lau Kim Hong, Guru Azlan Ghanie, and Guru Zainal Abidin.

Local authorities take a greater interest in health and healing related courses than in martial arts ones, so it is important that we can demonstrate that we have a syllabus, and a process (a grading panel), to confirm that instructors not only know their subject thoroughly, but also that they can teach it effectively, and have an understanding of the law and how it applies to Healing Arts.

I think this is a real opportunity, in this ‘coming of age’ year for Zhong Ding, to spread authentic qigong & Silat Healing Arts, in the open, sincere way, that has characterised  our approach to taiji, silat and the other martial arts we practise.

If you have any questions or comments about anything in this article, then please post it to the Zhong Ding discussion forums – Qi Gong section at,  and I or one of the committee members will respond. That way everyone will be able to see all the questions and answers. If you’re not already a member of the discussion forums, don’t hesitate, sign-up today.

Miles Craig – Chairman, Perfect balance Healing Arts and Therapies Initiative

The last few months have been exciting times for Zhong Ding international. In February after an extremely successful trip to the UK which saw many of Zhong Ding UK’s senior exponents gather at Nottingham Trent University to practise a wide range of martial skills as the first part of the new programme of advanced training for senior students and instructors, I went to Manila where I  gave a seminar on Zhengzi Taijiquan’s fighting techniques to a number of experienced martial artists from different areas of the Philippines.

On returning to Malaysia the first Zhong Ding International Spring Camp took place at the Training Centre. Fong and I were helped by our four visitors from the UK, Neil Bothwell, Vincenzo  Leo, Roddie MacGlashan and Tony Ulatowski. In addition to our existing classes in Penang we are now in the process of opening several more, as well as looking forward to hosting more visitors from the West.

Congratulations are in order to Miles Craig and Brian Robson who both attained their Fourth Duan Master Instructor levels earlier this year. In addition Miles has been appointed Chair of the Zhong Ding Qigong Committee and together with other senior instructors is currently drawing up a comprehensive qigong curriculum covering all levels from beginner to instructor. Miles brings more than two decades of qigong experience to this task and this, coupled with his enthusiasm, I feel sure will ensure that those students who wish to deepen their knowledge of this aspect of the art, will have even greater opportunity.

As I write this, Neil Bothwell, a 30 year karate veteran is preparing for his Zhong Ding Full Instructor Grading. This will take place at the Penang North South Shaolin Temple , supervised by Master Wong Jing Hui. At the same event Tony Ulatowski will receive his Fourth Duan certification.

On  July 11th and 12th the Second Master Liang Memorial Championships will be held in the East Midlands. I hope that as many of you, as possible, will be able to attend whether as participants or spectators. The Saturday of this weekend event will consist of a number of seminars given by senior Zhong Ding instructors, while the Sunday will be a day of demonstrations and competition.

Preparations for Zhong Ding’s 21st Birthday Bash here in Penang (August 17th-30th) are now well underway. There are still a number of places so if you fancy 14 days of four star luxury, sun, fun and quality taijiquan training then sign up now... and did I mention the fun?

On a sadder note John Higginson, a long-term Zhong Ding stalwart, has decided that he wishes to concentrate on developing his own Zhong Dao Association. I would like to wish him every success in walking his own path and take this opportunity to thank him for all his help and support over the years. John is an excellent taiji exponent and  a fine instructor and I hope that Zhong Ding members will continue to take advantage of any opportunity they might have to train with him. I also hope that the ties of brotherhood he has forged with all of the Zhong Ding family over the years will continue to remain strong.

Congratulations are in order to Adam Lammiman and Emma Brown who are getting married on the 23rd of May. Adam’s Somerset Zhong Ding classes continue to go from strength to strength and if you are ever in the Minehead area you will be sure of a warm welcome.

Malaysia continues to attract Zhong Ding members  past and present and Colin Stevens, a former instructor from Devon recently visited master Lau Kim Hong in Johor Bahru, where he took the opportunity to enjoy some basic form correction. Master Lau commented that it was nice to see even older taijiquan students  still wishing to improve and be willing to have even long-term faults corrected. Colin, unfortunately received a hip injury while training in pushing hands but with the help of Master Lau’s qi healing he made a quick recovery.

Master Lau has asked me to point out to all Zhong Ding members and others who wish to visit him that the fee for training is RM3000.00 per month or any part thereof,  and that even if you only stay for two weeks the full amount is still payable. People who are unable to comply with this requirement will find that they are not welcome again. So please guys and gals don’t mess things up for the rest of us.

If you haven’t already joined the East Midlands Zhong Ding Forum, then do so now and get involved in the chat:

Also check out the new Zhong Ding South West website at 

Until the next time then, train hard and have fun.

Slowness – taijiquan’s ultimate secret

Copyright Nigel Sutton 2009

Does Taijiquan Work?

One phenomenon I have noticed related to taijiquan, is the amount of discussion that the subject seems to stimulate whether in the printed word,  in the form of book or magazine articles, or on the internet on discussion boards, in forums and in chat rooms. One reason for this, I suspect, is the kind of person drawn to the practice of the art. Since so much of what is taught as taijiquan is so far removed from what might be seen as the practicalities of violent encounter, it allows a kind of abstract warriorship to develop. It is easy through practice of  this kind of  taijiquan, and study of the “classics” to believe that one is really practising a fighting art and that one is truly able to fight. Sadly, in the cases where such “taiji warriors” encounter real violence their art often lets them down.
In the world of taijiquan there seems to be one issue that constantly resurfaces: is taijiquan a martial art? The questions that arise the most seem to be:  Can taijiquan exponents use their art?; How do taijiquan exponents use their art?; What special training is needed in order for taijiquan exponents to be able to use their art? In short:

Does it work?

In Malaysian Zhengzi taijiquan we are extremely fortunate. We do not have to worry about these questions. Why? Because our teachers and our teacher’s teachers proved again and again that the art worked. This process started when Master Yue Shu Ting first arrived in Malaysia and beat all comers. What made this even more amazing than the fact that his opponents were experienced Shaolin boxers, was the fact that Master Yue was a small man, slenderly-built and just over five feet tall.

The tradition was continued by his disciples, among them Masters Lu Tong Bao, Zhu Shen Jing and Li Bian Lei; all three of whom engaged, successfully,  in numerous challenge matches.

Master Lau Kim Hong, of the next generation, continued this fighting tradition, and used his art on numerous occasions. (As an interesting aside at last year’s 20th Anniversary Celebrations, when asked about his experience applying the art, Master Lau said that he had never had occasion to use it. The reason that he made this statement was because in a public forum, with teachers of other arts present, he did not wish to appear either uncivilised [ a brawler] or boastful. A lesson we all could learn.)

All of these teachers passed down not only tales of their experience but also clear and detailed training methods to enable their students to acquire the same skills. Through correct form practice, posture, structure, power development and sensitivity are all developed and trained. Pushing hands further develops this sensitivity and enables the student to become comfortable at close quarters. Specific training exercises develop power, footwork, and the ability to sense and exploit weaknesses, or create them when none are apparent.

With the experience and example of these teachers we have no need to rely on our own opinions or speculations about the nature of taijiquan as a fighting art; although our own experience can give additional insights as well as reinforcement to what we have already learnt.

You will notice that I have not referred to Grandmaster Cheng Man Ching’s fighting experience. This is deliberate; I have no idea as to the exact nature of his experience. He did, however, provide a guide in his teaching and writing. First of all, he stated that his art was based on the tripod of Boxing (form and pushing hands), Sword and Qigong. Secondly, and most explicitly, he wrote a passage on san shou (fighting, not the two-person form) in which he noted that in fighting there is “no shape or form” and that jie jing (intercepting power) was the most difficult skill to acquire and that once acquired there was nothing else.

This guide points me to the conclusion that taijiquan fighting training in the Zhengzi tradition should be moving in the direction of “no shape, no form”, and should ultimately lead to the development of jie jing.  The training methods devised and taught by Master Yue and the students in his lineage, do not deviate from the Grandmaster’s guide.

If you are serious about developing the fighting skills that the art offers, you should be following this guide. Furthermore you should be moving away from controlled order towards chaos, because this is the nature of violence. Form will develop your core skills and structure, pushing hands will develop you ting jing and dong jing. “Half hit, half push” training will allow more chaos into the pushing hands format but ultimately you must practise your skills in an antagonistic manner, working against an opponent who is not cooperating with you or “feeding” you easily deflected attacks.

All martial arts are an attempt to impose order on the chaos of violence and in the case of Zhengzi taijiquan, the order we seek to impose, first of all, is on our own body and mind. We strive to engrain the physical principles deeply in our bodies and we train hard to attain as complete a state of mental and physical “song” as possible.

The next stage is to pressure test ourselves, mentally and physically. This is usually done by increments, starting in the arena of pushing hands, then moving on to pre-arranged sparring drills and finally into freestyle work. Competition also plays a role in this pressure testing as it provides us with an arena in which we can test our abilities against those who are trying to “beat” us, albeit still in a controlled environment.

In this way we prove to ourselves that our art works, discover those bits that don’t or that  need work, and so improve our fighting skills. To see that this process of learning, proving and using taijiquan fighting skills is still going on is , you need to look no further than some of our Zhong Ding members who have used their art successfully, not only in competition, but also in less regulated fights against stylists from other martial arts, as well as on the street. I won’t mention their names lest i embarrass them but if you ask around you will find out who they are, and, who knows, you might learn something from their experience. I have.

Gong Xi Fa Cai, Happy New Year of the OX.

Train hard and enjoy.

Copyright Nigel Sutton 2009-02-04


Zhong Ding 21

The celebrations for Zhong Ding’s coming of age will take place in Penang in August. If you are interested please let me know as soon as possible. Depending on numbers we will be holding this at either the luxury 4 star Sandy Bay Beach Resort  (8 or more participants)or the Training Centre (less than 8 participants). Please contact me or your instructor if you are interested.


On Attitude

I recently received an e-mail from a gentleman announcing that he had moved to a specific area of the UK where he wished to train with a particular teacher. In this  communication he asked me to provide him with a contact for said teacher.

I receive a number of such requests on a fairly regular basis and depending on the “tone” of the letter and my ability to answer the request,  I answer them or not. In this case there was something decidedly “off” about the request.  Firstly I was greeted with the phrase “Hi there”, hardly appropriate for a number of reasons which I will go into later. Secondly the sender provided no information as to who he was or as to why he felt that I was an appropriate person to ask. Thirdly as his name suggested Asian origin, it seemed strange that there was no attempt to conform to even the vaguest  hint of Asian or indeed Martial Arts politeness.
So I  replied to this gentleman suggesting that his approach left something to be desired. The response on his part was swift and exceedingly rude. Apparently I am poor at reading comprehension, do not really understand silat and my attitude would serve only to put people off the art. Because of this my correspondent declined to share with me any details of his background and so on and so forth.

Now the teacher that he was desirous of contacting and training with is notoriously selective in whom he teaches; he has high standards and will not compromise. Indeed it is fair to say that to become and stay one of his students bespeaks of very high levels of determination, courage and character. As  a result the few students he does have are truly exceptional.

Since he is my senior and my friend, indeed my brother in the martial arts, I contacted him and told him of this gentleman’s desire to contact him and it turned out ,that he had, in fact, found a way to get in touch with him and had been pointed in the direction of what my friend felt was an appropriate avenue for learning; in this case with one of his own students who is teaching publically.

Whether my correspondent ever ends up training in this school remains to be seen but there are some things that he might like to think about.

The first is that in most traditional Asian martial arts some of the most important lessons are about respect, humility and politeness. The fact that this person sought a favour from a person he knew to be a senior in a less than polite way ,reflects badly not only on him, but more importantly on his previous teachers. In his reply to me, this gentleman hinted at the fact that he had studied the art before. How shameful for his teachers to have a student who might be labelled “kurang ajar”. The fact that this gentleman appears to be Asian makes his behaviour all the more reprehensible. I live in Asia and practise  and teach martial arts here. In this society people are taught from a very young age to treat each other with respect and even more so elders and seniors. In addition, even were I not senior to him, I am the one from whom he is seeking help, surely it is in his own interests to be polite?

In Malaysia people who know of my martial arts background refer to me as Cikgu or Sifu, or Brother depending on seniority; I do not ask  to be addressed thus, but this is the polite thing to do. In fact I ask those I know to call me Nigel, which is what my students call me.

In Asia one thing that people are very aware of is that all actions have ramifications; ripples spread out. The parents of a child who behaves badly are shamed in the eyes of a society; teachers of martial artists who misuse their skills become objects of scorn. Indeed becoming aware of this and acting accordingly makes for a more peaceful and harmonious society. Now what ripples spread out from my correspondent’s behaviour? Well, he may be unaware that the teacher he was trying to contact and I are in the same Association and that we help to oversee each other’s instructor gradings and ceremonies. There is, in fact, a  possibility that one day this gentleman, who was so forthright about my “attitude”, might find himself grading in front of me. Now don’t get me wrong I am a professional and our abortive correspondence would in no way affect the way in which I judged his skills but it might prove somewhat embarrassing for him. Actually, I’m sure, if he trained in this school to advanced level , that radical character change would have occurred, but somehow I doubt that he will get that far.

So what should my erstwhile correspondent seek to do if he wishes to progress in his martial arts career?  Well chalk this up as a lesson; make things right by admitting his error, if only to himself, and most importantly make sure that, in the future, he approaches all that he meets with the same respect and courtesy that he would like to have extended to himself. At all times he must try to remember that he represents not only himself but also his teacher, his race and his religion.

Why is an attitude of politeness and humility important to the martial artist? Well first and foremost it is a part of the moral code of most arts (in Silat Tua it is in the akad) to protect the weak and to uphold what is right. This implies respect for people. In addition it is the nature of martial arts that nothing is what it seems; the little old man in the corner may be the Master, the old lady you have just bumped into, his wife. As martial artists if we go around swaggering and flexing our muscles we are giving potential opponents the idea that we have, or think we have, skills and power. If we appear not to be a threat, the advantage becomes ours. This is basic to silat, taiji and many other  martial arts.

A further facet of the importance of politeness and humility lies in the fact that with the right attitude anyone can be a teacher and anything a teaching. In the martial arts training group the student who keeps quiet and listens, is able to learn valuable lessons from every training partner and every training experience that he or she has.

Indeed this whole correspondence has provided me with the valuable opportunity to share this lesson with all of you and so for that, and for this gentleman’s e-mails, I am truly grateful.

Copyright Nigel Sutton 2009

It has been quite a long time since the last newsletter and for that I apologise. 2008 has been an eventful year for both myself and the Association. As well as celebrating Zhong Ding’s  twentieth anniversary we also officially opened the training centre. During the year we had a number of visitors culminating in the 20th Anniversary bash which was thoroughly enjoyed by all.

As far as training goes, 2008 was for me, a time to consolidate and explore the legacy of Master Liang and I hope in 2009 to share the fruits of this process with you all. In particular I shall be focussing on Master Liang’s Yang style long form as I feel that this has many insights to offer. Initially I will be teaching this to Association seniors but I hope that this practice will eventually filter through to all levels.

Here in Penang the Association continues to grow, albeit in a modest manner. Fong is now teaching a number of classes and some of her students have already participated in their first martial arts competition at which they acquitted themselves well and gained valuable experience.

In 2009 we hope for this expansion to continue and I will be teaching public classes on the neijiaquan for fighting as well as opening Eskrima and Lian Padukan training groups.

In addition we are expecting a number of students for extended periods of stay at the training centre, including one determined and dedicated soul who is committing himself to a year’s stay. We hope that more of you will take advantage of the opportunity for growth that this facility offers. If you are interested, and it can be for any length of time from a couple of weeks to years, then ask your instructor or contact me directly through the website.

Also in 2009 we will be holding the second Master Liang He Qing Memorial Championships. This event will take place in the East Midlands in July and I hope that we will have an even better turnout than last time.


Use the Martial to Cultivate the Way

I recently came across this Chinese adage and it struck a chord because this is most definitely the standpoint from which I view my practice of the martial arts. A succinct explanation of this saying is that through our training in the martial arts we strive to cultivate ourselves; that is to become better people.

At this stage it is important to note, as many of you may have already done that I am far from being a cultivated human being; indeed the pursuit of this goal of self-cultivation is a very personal one and not one that is, or should be the subject of outside scrutiny or judgement. This is a deeply personal quest by which the individual strives, day by day, to live up to a code which hopefully enables them step by step to overcome some of their weaknesses and foibles. This is the way of life in which the opponent is no longer external but rather is ones own flaws and defects.

In his book The Martial Spirit (Overlook Press 1988), Herman Kauz discusses the martial arts as a path to self-realisation:
Those who have had contact with someone who has studied one of the martial arts may disagree with the idea that such training can make one a “better” person. The person they know may not, in their estimation, exhibit exemplary traits...Depending upon the observer’s moral convictions, the person being judged may seem to have a somewhat low standard of conduct in his relationships...If we are to make a valid assessment of the effect of martial arts training on a particular person’s character or mental state, we must first know what kind of person he is. More to the point, we must have knowledge of the kind of person he was before he began his training. Only with this information can we attempt to determine how his training has affected him.” (ibid p105)
As well as being a student and teacher of Judo and Karate, Mr. Kauz was also a student of Cheng Man Ching’s with a particular interest in how taijiquan could be used as a martial art.

He goes on to explain that many misunderstand what the “end results of such a search for self-realisation will be:

“A related point concerns the average person’s misconceptions about the outcome of training for self-realisation. Such training does not appear to confer god-like qualities upon anyone. The term “enlightenment”, sometimes used to describe the result of certain kinds of training is fairly nebulous. Not all cultures define the term in the same way. In my experience it has come to mean the growth of insight, of the ability to see oneself and others and the world more clearly. This process appears to be endless. Moreover, we should not expect to know everything in some final and ultimate way. Achieving such complete knowledge is probably not possible for us, given our imperfect and fallible understanding. We must also remember that human beings are human beings, with a wide range of characteristics, from those that we would associate with animals to those thought to be possessed by saints. We must learn to accept this range of qualities within ourselves.” (ibid p.106)

As Mr. Kauz observes this process is endless and it has to be daily renewed with each training session.

One of my favourite passages in Miyamoto Musashi’s Book of Five Rings (William Scott Wilson translation p.90 published by Kodansha) describes the process thus:

“The journey of a thousand ri proceeds step by step, so think without rushing. Understanding that this is the duty of a warrior, put these practices into action, surpass today what you were yesterday, go beyond those of poor skill tomorrow and exceed those who are skilful later.”

For those of you with different editions this is in the last section of the Book of Water.

For many of you this approach to the martial arts in general and taijiquan in particular, may be very far from your own personal motivation. More than a decade ago, however, at a special training weekend for Zhong Ding instructors I was surprised to find, during the course of a discussion, that every one of the participants regarded their practice of taijiquan as being a “spiritual path”. Perhaps the longer you practise the art the more your interest turns in this direction.

Exactly how you use the Martial to cultivate the Way is a deeply personal thing, but for me it consists of confronting daily my own laziness, flightiness and fear. The latter can range from fear of doing too much or too little, fear of an actual physical opponent to fear of pain or injury. Furthermore in my relations with my classmates, my students and my teachers I am forced to confront my own pride, ego and selfishness.

One lesson that is currently a very important one for me, and one which I find I am constantly revisiting and relearning, is that of the essential nature of the teacher student relationship; at the heart of this, lies that moment of the “initiation ceremony” when we bow down before the ancestors, touching our forehead to the floor and expose our vulnerable neck in the “kowtow”. This moment symbolises our debt to our teacher as, at that point in time, we do not have the skills or knowledge to defend ourselves against him and this serves as a physical reminder that, when we have reached a level of skill higher than that of the teacher, we must remember his mercy in sparing us. This point in time also serves to remind us that without the teacher’s generosity we would not have the chance to attain any of these skills.

Over the years I have become an “indoor student” of several teachers both inside and outside our lineage and although sometimes my relationship with one or other of these teachers has been less than smooth, I still try to remember, at the end of the day, that without them I would not be at the same place on the martial path that I am today.

As a teacher I also have to remind myself to respect and honour the students without whom I would have nobody to teach; it’s always a two-way process. I remember how Master Koh Ah Tee once said to me that his students were his greatest teachers for every time that he sees one of them make a mistake he has to ask himself whether they learnt that from him. A good thing to remember indeed.


New Website
Check out the new Zhong Ding East Midlands website at
It is well worth a look and there is a promise of more goodies to come such as a discussion forum. Congrats to Sam Casey for her hard work and to all the East Midlands Team. Well done!


Until the next time train hard, train smart but most of all, enjoy your training!


Copyright Nigel Sutton 2008

Core Principles of the Form

Philosophy embodied
Taijiquan as an art is the physical embodiment of the taiji, the constant interaction of yin and yang. As a universal philosophy the taiji describes everything that exists in terms of being either predominantly yin or yang but also as containing the opposite. This philosophy also describes how when Yang reaches its peak it gives birth to Yin and vice-versa. The famous taiji diagram shows that this is a constant process and it is this constant process that the taijiquan form translates into physical movement.

Research: Find out all you can about Daoist philosophy. Read the Daodejing (Tao Te Ching) as well as related works like the Sunzibingfa (Sun Tzu’s Art of War). Read the taijiquan classics.

Finding the master within
If we understand that the taiji describes the way things are then we must also see that mastery of taijiquan is becoming what we already are. It is not a process of chasing after something that is out there, of perfecting movements or training skills, rather it is the process of discovering what we already truly are. According to the teachings of Daoist philosophy, at birth we are all in the totally natural state but our responses to the environment around us and the training we receive takes us away from this state. Taijiquan may then be seen as the process of returning to this state.

Task: Try to imagine how you think you will feel, think act and behave when you have achieved mastery of taijiquan. Now try to feel this attitude when you are practicing and even at other times.

Taijiquan is a verb not a noun
By now you will have noted that I keep referring to the process, and it is vitally important that you understand what this means in terms of the art. As a process taijiquan, like so many aspects of Asian thought is centred on the verb not the noun. That means that rather than being about relaxation, taiji is about “relaxationing”; rather than being about stability, the art is about “stabilitying”; rather than being about graceful, taijiquan is about “gracefuling” and so on. I have chosen to invent new words to emphasise the way that taijiquan is all about taking any noun that can describe the art and making it into a verb.

Task: Each time you practice the form take one state/quality/skill that you associate with the art and practice “…ing” it.

Physical requirements:
Hold the head as if suspended from above
Sink the chest and raise the back
Relax the waist
Sink the shoulders and elbows

Mental and Physical Requirements:
Distinguishing solid and empty
Coordinate your upper and lower body
Unify your internal and external
Continuity (no stopping)

Mental Requirements:
Use the intent and not brute force
Seek serenity in activity

The above are Yang Cheng Fu’s Ten Important points and they are explored in more detail below:


1. Hold The Head Straight With Ease

The head should be erect in order for the spirit to rise. If force is used, the back of the neck will be stiff, and the circulation of blood and chi will be impeded. There should be a natural, light and sensitive feeling. If not, the spirit will be unable to rise up.

2. Sink the Chest and Raise the Back

There should be a slight drawing in of the chest which allows the chi to sink to the "Dan Tian". Avoid protruding the chest as this will cause the chi to rise which will lead to top heaviness, and the soles of the feet to float.

Raising the back means that the chi adheres to the back. If you can sink your chest, your back will naturally rise. If you can raise your back, your power will come from your spine enabling you to overcome any opponent.

3. Relax the Waist

The waist is the commander of the body. If the waist is relaxed and loosened, the foundation, that is, your legs will be stable, enabling you to issue power. Changes in solid and empty derive from the moving of the waist. It is said that "the waist is the well spring of your vital energy". If you lack power in your movements, look for the weakness in your waist and legs.

4. Distinguishing Solid and Empty

Distinguishing solid and empty is a fundamental principle of Tai Chi. If your body centre rests in your right leg, then your right is solid, and your left leg is empty. If your body centre rests in your left leg, then your left leg is solid, and your right leg is empty. When you can clearly make this distinction, your movements will be light, agile, and effortless. If not, your steps will be heavy and clumsy, and you are easily unbalanced due to the instability of your stance.

5. Sink the Shoulders and Elbows

The shoulders should relax and hang downwards. If the shoulders are raised, then the chi rises, and the whole body cannot summon up its power.

The elbows must relax and point downwards. If the elbows are raised, the shoulders will become tense, inhibiting your ability to discharge your opponent to any great distance. Raising the elbows or shoulders is similar to breaking the jin which occurs in the external martial art systems.

6. Use the Mind and not Brute Force

According to the Tai Chi Classics, you use the mind and not brute force. In practice, your whole body is relaxed; not even using an ounce of brute force. If you employ brute force, you restrict the flow of energy through your sinews, bones, and blood vessels. This will inhibit your freedom of movement, preventing you from achieveing agility, sensitivity, aliveness, circularity, and naturalness.

"How can you have power without using brute force?" By making us of the meridians in the body. (Meridians are a network of pathways which transport chi throughout the body. They connect the superficial, interior, upper and lower portions of the human body, making the body an organic whole). The meridians are similar to the rivers and streams of the earth. If the rivers are open, then the water flows freely. If the meridians are open, then the chi flows. If the meridians are blocked as a result of using stiff force, then the circulation of chi and blood become sluggish. Hence, your movements will not be nimble, and even if a hair is pulled, your whole body will be in a state of disorder.
When you are able to use your mind and not brute force, then wherever your mind goes, your chi follows. After a long period of practice and chi circulating freely everyday, you develop jin (an internal power which is different from hard force). This is what the Tai Chi Classics means by "from true softness comes true hardness". The arms of one who has Tai Chi kung fu will feel extremely heavy; like steel wrapped in cotton. People who practise external martial art systems look strong when they exert hard force. However, when they are not bringing their hard force into use, they are light and floating. You can see that this merely a superficial kind of strength. Instead of using the mind, they use brute force, which makes them easy to manipulate. Hence not worthy of praise.

7. Coordinate your Upper and Lower Body

According to the Tai Chi Classics, "the root is in the feet; issued through the legs; controlled by the waist; and expressed through the fingers. From the feet through the legs to the waist forms one harmonious chi." When the hands, waist, and feet move, your gaze needs to follow in unison. This is what is meant by harmony of the upper and lower body. If one part of the body is not in concordance with the rest, it will result in chaos.

8. Unify your Internal and External

Tai Chi trains the spirit. It is said that "the spirit is the leader and the body follows its command". If you can lift your spirit, then your movements will naturally be agile and alive. Postures are nothing more than solid and empty, opening and closing. Opening does not just involve the hands and feet, but they must work in concordance with the opening of the heart/mind. Closing does not just concern the hands and feet, but they should coordinate with the closing of the heart/mind as well. When the internal and external are unified as one harmonious chi, then there are no gaps anywhere.

9. Continuity - No Stopping

The external martial art systems employ brute force which is stiff and unnatural. This force stops and starts; moves in a jerky fashion. When the old force is finished before the new one has begun, this is the time when one is most vulnerable to attacks. In Tai Chi, you use the mind and not brute force. From the beginning to the end, the movements are continuous without stopping; like an endless circle. This is what the Classics means by "a great river flowing continuously never ending", or "moving the jin like reeling silk from a cocoon". The above conveys the idea of stringing the movements together into one harmonious chi.

10. Seek Serenity in Activity

The external martial art systems consider leaping and crouching to be of value. They exhaust their energy and after practice, they are out of breath. Tai Chi uses serenity to counter activity. Even when you are moving, you remain tranquil. When practising the postures, the slower you move, the better the result. Slowness enables your breath to become deep and long with the chi sinking to the Dan Tian. This will naturally prevent the pulse rate from elevating. Students of Tai Chi should think deeply on the above in order to grasp its meaning.


The Purpose of the Form

In order to attempt to identify the core principles of the form we must first make an attempt to identify what the purpose of the form is. If as described above, we see taijiquan as the embodiment of the philosophy of taiji, the ideal natural state where yin and yang are in balance and fully complement each other, then we must conclude that the form is a tool for training body, mind and spirit ( all that constitutes the individual) to express this taiji.. This then leads us to a chicken/egg type examination of whether the body influences the mind or vice versa. The only conclusion that is of any use to us is that, like Yin and Yang in the taiji diagram itself, they body and the mind are inextricably linked. Therefore the form must train both. What then of spirit.? By spirit here I refer to the emotions, what the Chinese cal the xin or heart mind. Once again in the context of taijiquan the xin is both body and mind and therefore subject to influence and training in relation to both, as well as influencing and training both. Furthermore as we have also explored above, taijiquan is about returning to an ideal state that is, naturally, the essence of what we are. It is also a process not a fixed object or state. In the light of all of the above we can state that:

The taijiquan form is a process to train body, mind and spirit to return to the ideal state of taiji

When we start learning taijiquan we may have all sorts of ideas about what our purpose is in learning the art, which we then allow to shape our understanding of what the purpose of the  form is. We might be learning the art as a form of meditation, for relaxation, to enhance our  health or as a fighting art. Whatever the reason there is no doubt that the art will go some way to meeting these goals. But if we get to the understanding of the taijiquan form described above whether it meets these goals or not will no longer be relevant to us.
Using the above statement as a guide we can see that our form must conform to:

a)physical requirements
b)mental requirements
c)spiritual/emotional requirements

Your task now is to discover as many of the taiji teachings as you can relating to the form and categorise them according to the above three requirements. Then find ways to practice them AND test whether you are conforming to them.

Have fun!

Copyright Nigel Sutton 2008

20 Years… and the story continues.

The Zhong Ding Association, like so many other martial arts groups was born out of the negative and has grown into something that I am happy to say has played a positive role in the lives and experiences of many.

Back in 1987 Fong and I went through a traumatic “separation” from our then teacher. Since at that time I had already met and become a disciple of Master Tan Ching Ngee we naturally sought his advice. He gave us a list of names from which he suggested  we choose one to name our fledgling taijiquan class and we picked the name Zhong Ding. At first Zhong Ding consisted of twelve students who practiced twice a week in the hall of a school in West London. Then as time passed in addition to such eminent early members of the London group as John Gardiner and Dave Spencer, I met John Fowler and  John Higginson and the seed began to grow into a sprig and then a sapling – you get the idea and I don’t want to push the seed to tree metaphor too far lest I expose the vast gaps in my biological education.

My initial desire in teaching this art was to pass on the knowledge that I was receiving from my teachers in Malaysia and Singapore, which, at that time, was not widely known amongst taijiquan exponents in the West. Then, as the years passed, and Zhong Ding grew, so did I become more aware that my role as teacher was to act as custodian and guardian of knowledge that, in some cases, was being lost in its place of origin.

At some point during my journey on the martial path I became aware that no one could own the art, no one could say it was theirs. The most that can be said is that those of us who have been chosen to pass on these arts, are guardians who preserve what we have been taught and pass it on to the next generation. As such we are conduits down which the knowledge flows. It then is our duty to ensure that we carefully learn and preserve the essence of these arts. Sometimes the outer shape or form changes but the essence should always remain the same. Now I am not advocating that we should change forms or add or delete techniques just for the sake of change or “innovation”; what I am saying is that a slavish devotion to the outer structure, at the expense of the inner principles upon which any given art is based, leads to an inevitable watering down of the art.

All of the above should point to the importance of two things. First, that as diligent students of the art we should do our best to try to really get to the essence of our chosen system, and, secondly that we should ensure that we keep our “conduit” clean and not muddy the waters of our knowledge with ideas which might not have served the same test of time and practical application. It is no good adding your own ideas of what works in a fight if you have never had a fight!

The “essence” of taijiquan is there in plain sight, for all to see, contained in the theory and principles which are all described and expounded upon in the “classic” writings. Reading them, however, is very far from enough. They have to be grasped in practical terms, put into practice, applied in the chaos of conflict; for all martial arts are an attempt to impose some kind of order on the chaos of violence.

To return to my original theme, however, that of the role of Zhong Ding and its instructors as conduits of this knowledge, with the passing of Master Liang I became very aware of how fragile this legacy of knowledge can be. Aside from myself, Fong and the other Zhong Ding students who were privileged enough to have the opportunity to learn from him, there are few if any who can claim that they have studied in depth with him.

Master Liang, himself, knew and practiced more than twenty different forms, some of which Fong and I did not learn and of his Malaysian students I can safely say there are none who are teaching the essence of his art, insofar as they concentrate on one or two forms rather than looking at the larger picture. Indeed it is precisely this larger picture which represents the “essence” of Master Liang’s art. He did not believe in artificial distinctions between styles; he did not believe in a distinction between internal and external styles. What Master Liang did believe in was hard yet intelligent work, whereby each student  takes the responsibility to explore each form that they learn, striving to discover what the creator of that form was trying to emphasise. At the same time they should dissect the form, practicing the skills it develops in application with partners who are non-compliant and using real force. But he was always at great pains to stress that training gong fu is not an intellectual exercise; true understanding comes from going out everyday and ‘feeling” the form, that is working on it, sweating at it putting in all the necessary time and hard work.

One thing that Zhong Ding instructors share is their willingness to work at their art; to sweat and strain until some measure of understanding comes. And it does come, even if it sometimes comes in the form of the realization that what is needed is less effort rather than more! As such they are worthy inheritors of Master Liang’s legacy.

Another shining example is Master Lau Kim Hong, who, throughout his more than five decades of martial arts study has never stopped, analyzing, researching and learning. He draws his knowledge not only from other taijiquan teachers and other martial artists, but also from experts in Chinese philosophy, medical doctors, and experts from a wide range of professions. Furthermore he is always willing to put his research to the test; whether it be on students, his martial arts peers or interested parties from other styles. Even though he is in his seventies Master Lau still travels as far as China to further his training and extend his knowledge.

Each of the teachers that I train with has not only mastered the essence of their art but through their own research and experience has made the art truly their own. This means that when they pass it on, they are also passing on not only the skills and expertise of their antecedents but also their own. In time, as we make these arts our own we will also be doing the same thus the art remains alive and relevant. At the risk of repeating, myself, however, I must stress that this process of making the art your own does not mean leaving out the bits you don’t like, don’t understand or simply believe to be irrelevant. Rather it is a long process of wrestling with the concepts, theories and practical techniques of the art; it is the daily struggle to not just understand the art intellectually but to actually “embody” it, make it a living, breathing part of you. In doing so the art becomes infused with your own character and physicality. If the art is one with a living tradition then it will have some parts that “speak” to you, that are directly relevant to the way that you understand and practice the art. There will be other parts that do not seem to resonate in the same way but this does not mean that they should be discarded and ignored for who knows how they will “speak” to the students to whom you pass the art.

If we take our own Zhengzi taijiquan as an example, it is worth noting that Zheng Manqing was the only one of Yang Cheng Fu’s students who went on record as stating that Master Yang constantly emphasized the concept of “song”. Indeed if you look at Yang Cheng Fu’s Ten essential of Taijiquan, there is only one reference to “song” and that is in regard to the waist. What this suggests to me is that “song” was what Master Zheng required the most! Now in his teachings Zheng Manqing emphasized “song” and that has left us with a legacy of  knowledge and practice which develops a very useful taijiquan skill.

If we continue our research into Master Zheng’s teachings we find that in the US he did not emphasise rooting, instead his teachings focused on yielding without neutralizing. We can speculate as to why this might have been so. I feel that the argument that this was what he felt his Western students most needed, is a valid one. Robert Chukrow, who not only trained with Master Zheng but also with his student William Chen and then with a mainstreamYang style teacher, discusses this in his The Tai Chi Book (ISBN: 1-886969-64-7) published by YMAA. This was not what he taught to his students in Taiwan nor was it the way he taught. This is not to suggest that Master Zheng was holding back from his students in the US but rather that he was adjusting his teachings to what was appropriate in their specific social and cultural context.

The practical ramifications of this for those of us who are trying to get to the essence of Master Zheng’s art is that we have to look at where it came from and where it went to “across the board” not just in one specific, localized area. It is fair to say that almost all of the study and training I have done during the past twenty years has been directed by this aim. On the way I have explored a number of different style or approaches to taijiquan, several different Shaolin arts,  wrestling arts,  weapons-based arts and arts unique to the Nanyang region where our Malaysian Zhengzi taijiquan reached its maturity.

Our Twentieth Anniversary Celebrations here in Malaysia this year are a good reflection of this search, with seminars and daily training in Malaysian Zhengzi Taijiquan, Wudang Sanfeng Arts, Southern Shaolin, Okinawan Goju Ryu, Eskrima, Thai Krabi Krabong and Silat Tua and related arts. In addition for this occasion we have tried to reflect our involvement in the local martial arts community by including opportunities to meet and interact with local exponents of Malay, Chinese and other Asian arts.

Now after 20 years Zhong Ding has also passed another milestone – we have our very own full-time training centre. It is not huge but there is there enough room for four full-time students and more over short periods. As I have said to recent visitors, this centre belongs to all of us; it is a placed to work hard, to learn, and also a place of refuge. As those who have already been there will tell you it is worth a visit and on the 6th of September, as a part of the 20th Anniversary celebrations it will be officially opened. On the 13th of September Scot Baston who has trained extensively at Birmingham and Manchester Zhong Ding, as well as training in Malaysia, and who now resides in London, will be representing Zhong Ding UK in a match against a Malay representative of Silat Tua International. This event has attracted a lot of interest over here and we are expecting quite a crowd. The bout will take place at the Zhong Ding 20th Anniversary celebrations at the Shaolin Temple of Master Wong Jing Hui.

Back in Europe we will celebrate the 20th Anniversary on the weekend of September 27th/28th. Details will be announced later.

Zhong Ding Espana will be celebrating the first weekend of October and I hope that there will be contingents from the UK and other groups in Europe to join in the fun. I shall be there and further details may be obtained from John Higginson.

I hope that as many as possible of you will be there to share in these celebrations.

Until next time train hard and have fun!


Instructor Courses

In the near future your area will be starting a new series of Instructor courses following the example of Master Instructor John Higginson in the Northwest.

These courses will be modular in nature so you can choose from a range of courses, earning credit for them which can be added up to amount to an instructor grade. Course modules will include such core components as Form Corrections, Theory and Principles of Taijiquan and Pushing Hands and Two-Person Practices. Other modules will cover, Taijiquan as a Fighting Art, Weapons Training, Qigong Instructor Certification and  Introductions to Other Martial Arts.

If you are interested  in these courses ask your instructor for details!

Phil Longhurst

It is difficult to write about Phil, to express what I feel in my heart, he was a martial arts brother, friend and true example of a Gentleman. He has passed on and I believe now will be able to once again practice his beloved art.

Phil was not only incredibly hard-working both as a student and a teacher but also always ready to lend a helping hand. A loving husband and father, he embodied the virtues to which we as martial artists are supposed to aspire.

I will always remember Phil’s midnight calmness as our eight storey apartment building
shook in the throes of an earthquake. Even in these extreme circumstances he was clear-headed and poised even joking as we clattered down eight flights of stairs and out into the street.

In the martial arts tradition that I follow it is believed that every act that we perform that is inspired by the example of a teacher who has passed on, grants them merits as they go on with their journey of being. Phil was a teacher to us all so I hope that everyone will take the time to perform some forms with Phil’s favourite weapon, the jian (straightsword) as a tribute and a gift to him.

At this difficult time our thoughts and love are with Phil’s family as he continues on his path.

Walk on Phil, walk on.

A big hello from sunny Penang where over the last few months we have been blessed with several special visitors. There is a Silat saying that when the gelanggang is ready the students will arrive and this has certainly proven to be the case.

First there were Roddy McGlashan and Rick Morrow, both students of Shifu Andy Norman. Both of them have visited Penang before and bravely come back for more and both of them share a positive and hard-working attitude towards their martial arts. Their sweat now stains the wooden planks of the training hall and I’m sure if one were to look hard enough their blood would also be there.

When not busy training their time was spent sitting in the local coffee shop watching life go by or walking along beside one of the many streams and canals that criss-cross the area.

The village sits on the river estuary in the shadow of the mountain range that runs down the middle of Penang Island. The majority of the villagers are either fishermen or associated with the fishing industry and their lives rotate around the rhythms of the tides. When the weather is bad the local coffee shop is full and the sound of shuffling mahjong tiles blends with the shouts and cries of the villagers as they watch a Chinese soap opera or just chat with their friends.

The rhythm of training here is also dictated by nature. We train in the morning when it is cool and then again in the late afternoon and the evening. Sometimes we even train into the early hours of the morning. Around us the life of the village ebbs and swirls. Early in the morning before it is light a qigong group practises in the playground of the local primary school which is just across the road from the centre. Then, as the sky lightens, the first children arrive eager to meet their friends and study. In the heat of the afternoon all goes quiet and the clouds scud across the mountain tops spreading those patterns of light and dark which the Ancient Chinese dubbed yin and yang. Sometimes it rains and the temperature drops, the sound of the downpour hammering on the roof of the training hall. As dusk approaches the village comes to life again and children play in the street, curious villagers pass the centre on their motor scooters and stare into the training hall; the bravest stand at the gate.

Amidst this all our training continues; forms are repeated over and over again, the wooden dummy rattles as it receives thousands of blows. The swish of weapons and the crack as they hit rattan targets fills the air. The thud of bodies hitting the mats and the occasional cry of pain or animal effort can also be heard and the smell of sweat fills the nostrils.

In the short time that we have been there we have started to establish our own community within the community and this is very important in the traditional martial arts. Here in Penang our Zhong Ding activities grow apace, in addition to the private lessons I give, Fong now has three classes, two in schools and one at the apartment complex where we live. Zhong Ding International is a registered association and Zhong Ding Penang is a member of the Penang Chinese Martial Arts Association.

In the past few weeks we have had other visitors, Paul Gitsham from Zhong Ding Yorkshire and Didier Binetruy a Frenchman who lives in India and is a student of Glen Pelham-Mather. Together with Lian and myself we went to perform at the wedding of one of our Silat brothers. Many members of the silat community were there to pay their respects to the bride and groom. Students and teachers were present  from Silat Gayong Pusaka, Gayong Fattani, Siku Duabelas and Silat Tua . The wedding gift we took was our performance of the art and this we did in a large hall in the compound of a school. At one end the bride and groom and their parents sat in state, robed in elaborate traditional costume.

For all of us the highpoint of the wedding was when the groom’s brother invited him onto the performance area to dance his silat. The groom smiled shyly yet proudly and came out to give a breathtaking display. Then his brother passed him a keris, the traditional wavy bladed knife of the Malay warrior and together they fought or did they dance; it was a dance, it was a fight, above all it was a display of love and respect that was enough to bring tears to the eyes.

During the course of the afternoon one by one and in groups the groom’s silat brothers performed and saluted the couple with love and respect. This is how the martial arts live, as something that is an integral part of the lives of the people in the community, there to offer support and protection whenever and wherever needed.

Paul, Didier and Lian all performed well and we had an inspiring day. Then it was back to the hard work. Didier, who is a superb artist, learnt the taiji form as well as an array of weapon skills. Paul worked not only on his bagua, taiji and xingyi but also his silat. Together they helped to add their sweat and blood to the training hall.

So now our Zhong Ding community stretches from Malaysia to the Philippines, to India, Spain, France, Germany, Ireland the US and UK. In all of these places there are students and teachers who are doing their best to apply the principles of their art and top continue the teaching of  our teachers.

Not a day passes that I don’t think about Master Liang and his life and teaching. In the traditions that I practice it is considered that any effect that the teaching of a good teacher has on those he teaches accumulates merit for this life and the next. By carrying on his work we pass on merit to those who have gone before. This is an idea that resonates with me,  and that I try to live.

In the traditions that Zhong Ding preserves and hands down are many amazing “secrets”  collected and collated from the observations and experience of our ancestors, which serve to make our lives both more meaningful and richer.  Like all good secrets they are common knowledge, hidden in plain sight, the gold in lumps of mud which the unwary step over.

One such wonderful teaching is that of the taiji, the endless changes and permutations of yin and yang that we find embodied in the taijiquan. This is a truly remarkable “secret” and one which I shall explore further in the next newsletter.

Until then train, dance, enjoy!



If you wish to attend either the May visit to Beijing or the September Penang Extravaganza please contact me or let your instructor know asap so that we can ensure you have a place.
Thank you.


Greetings from sunny Penang. This month the newsletter takes the form of my reply to an e-mail I received. Due to my exalted position as “Pan-Galactic Grandmaster” of the “World’s Largest Martial Arts Organization” over the years I have received a certain amount of what might best be termed hate mail. Suspiciously enough, however, this piece of great “literary criticism” came after the March newsletter in which I highlighted some of the less than honest  practices of certain former Zhong Ding members, so let me just say that I have my suspicions as to where this e-mail originated! But for the purposes of this article let us assume that this letter really did come from a karate instructor who uses  an e-mail account owned by Andy Kendrick but signs himself Eddie! Could he be Andy’s teenage son who became a blackbelt at six and holds a Guinness world record for breaking the largest number of lollipop sticks in the space of twenty four hours? But sorry, I digress, first of all you need to know the contents of the e-mail so here it is in its eloquent glory:

Dear Sufu
I had a look at your site and found the information on Tai Chi interesting and informative. I was however disturbed and perplexed by your article on grading. You mentioned that you trained in Karate at some stage of your journey.
As a Karate instructor I have been taught that the most important reason for a grading syllabus is to make sure that each student under ones tutor ledge is assessed in their proficiency at the level they are training at.
Whilst it is vitally important that students show fighting spirit, Simply being able to fight could not be used as a measure of a martial artists skill.
I have in my time of studying Karate met many violent people who did not have a problem with facing or dishing out violence. Those that stayed the course gained the confidence to deal calmly with provocation that would have caused them to become violent in their past.
The fact that you do not make any mention of grading from the point of view of teaching and assessing leads me to the opinion that this article is nothing more than an excuse to relate stories of your own heroism.
I can only think that you suffer from either incredible arrogance or naivety undermined with a very real lack of confidence. The only instances of your "bravery" you can muster are ones in which you shove a fat man across the room and even more  sickeningly where you use your years of training to call out a young man and smash his face in.
The fact that this took place in the toilets paints a nice picture of the school bully dishing out a beating to some poor boy. The fact that your motivation for this violent assault was because he did not recognise you as someone who could be a martial artist  shows your lack of confidence, martial skill and highlights only your cowardice. You are apparently an author. I suggest in future that you try to actually to stick to the subject matter rather than just eulogising about yourself. The only compliment I can pay you is that you are  honest, not many people who purport to be a leader would document instances of their own ineptitude on their  site.


Ok so there you have it. Now let us look at some of the issues that Andy/Eddie raises. First of all the article was not about gradings, it was about tests and specifically the kind of tests that a martial artist who trains in Asia under an Asian teacher might have to face.

Andy/Eddie, I suspect, from the tone of his e-mail trains in a sports centre, putting on his white pyjamas maybe a couple of times a week, teaching a leisure time activity to hobbyists.

 I live in Asia where, if I get challenged and refuse the challenge not only do I lose face ( a big deal over here) but I also lose my students and probably my teacher since no self- respecting martial arts teacher in Asia wants a student who  turns down challenges.

Now as to the issue of violence and people being trained to walk away from provocation; these are indeed noble ideals and ones that, in an ideal world I would wholeheartedly endorse, indeed some of my students might have found that they have benefited from their training in this way… BUT in the two incidents that I described I was the one challenged and in such a way that, as I have pointed out above, I had no choice but to respond to the challenge. In both incidents the problem was dealt with as efficiently as possible and we were all friends afterwards.

I fear that Andy/Eddie has never trained under an Asian teacher in their own cultural context otherwise he would not be as confused as he seems about issues of violence. Even in his own purported art Karate there is no shortage of incidents of extreme violence meted out by instructors to students and others. How many of you remember the late Gary Spiers story of having his nose crushed by Higaonna Sensei, because he had the temerity to attempt a groin kick on him!

Andy/Eddie, I am afraid that many of my teachers are or have been violent men. Some have even taken the lives of others – that is the nature of the Asian martial arts in the countries that they come from. Just as we should not use the academic standards of a university professor to judge the mathematics  performance of a primary school student, nor should we use the standards of Sports Centre karate to judge the behaviour of martial artists in Asia.

Andy/Eddie seems very concerned about the purpose of gradings. He has been taught “that the most important reason for a grading syllabus is to make sure that each student under ones tutor ledge is assessed in their proficiency at the level they are training at. Whilst it is vitally important that students show fighting spirit, Simply being able to fight could not be used as a measure of a martial artists skill” (Please note the eccentric spelling is Andy/Eddie’s not mine!)

In Asia I’m afraid, in traditional systems the kind of tests that pass for gradings are designed exactly to test whether the student can fight because if they are given permission to teach and they lose a fight, their teacher also loses face, students and possibly his living. This is serious business. I’m afraid that the idea of a skilled martial artist who could not fight would be regarded here as something like a jam doughnut without the jam ; do you see? The vital ingredient is missing.

Of course in our grading system in the UK we do not require our students to be great fighters; we do however examine their ability to use their art in a fighting context. This might well be what Andy/Eddie regards as “fighting spirit”. Our gradings, however, do not assess teaching ability – we have instructor courses for that.

It is at this point  that I have to question Andy/Eddie’s own level of competence in  reading comprehension. At no point in the article did I describe my Chinese opponent as fat, I merely stated that he was larger than the average Chinese. Furthermore I did not “call out” the student, nor did our encounter take place in a toilet. I fear that Eddie/Andy might have had an unfortunate incident in a toilet as this seems to be on his mind.

Andy/Eddie accuses me of cowardice; he is right I am a coward. I’m particularly scared of flying bugs – my wife deals with those. I’m also scared of my wife and my mother. I am also particularly scared of  letting down my teachers and of betraying the trust that they have placed in me. I have had the privilege during my martial arts career of training with a number of superb martial artists. They have all attempted to instill in me a sense of what their art is about and of the moral obligations that must accompany the development of skill. I hope that I have not and will not let them down.

I am glad that you think I am honest and were you to come on one of my seminars you would see that I regularly demonstrate my own ineptitude, in fact I’m well known for it!

So now let us continue to explore the idea of cowardice. I consider it cowardice to send an e-mail from an address that seems at best dodgy and which is in essence anonymous. Therefore Andy/Eddie I am going to give you the opportunity to enjoy face to face communication with me while at the same time learning something of martial arts in Asia by inviting you to be my guest, free of charge at our twentieth Anniversary celebrations. Of course you will have to find your own air fare but there will be at least one karate instructor there, Sensei Tim Nicklin 5th Dan of Okinawan Goju Ryu. I’m sure you will be able to learn a lot from him. Details are on the website Andy/Eddie. I look forward to hearing from you.

Oh and as a final note all of the traditional martial artists that I know in Asia are extremely polite, this is because without politeness you are constantly putting yourself in a position of danger and fighting could result in serious injury or death. Thus they also stress the importance of politeness to their own students. You have obviously not been taught politeness and you are in the words of the Malays “kurang ajar”. It’s all explained in one of my articles. Happy reading!




If you wish to attend either the May visit to Beijing or the September Penang Extravaganza please contact me or let your instructor know asap so that we can ensure you have a place.
Thank you.

Honesty and the Dao

Many exponents of taijiquan see their art as a Dao or Way, which means that they perceive their practice of the art to be more than merely a physical pursuit. Indeed those who follow such a Dao find that their art provides them with countless opportunities to  work on and improve themselves as human beings. Zhong Ding technical adviser Master Koh Ah Tee is a firm believer that his Zheng Manqing taijiquan is a Dao and he seeks on a daily basis to use the art to refine himself.

Because we see our art as a Dao does not mean that we somehow become instantly more enlightened, more refined and “holier” than everyone else. Indeed to those around us we may seem to be extremely flawed, rough and far from any kind of perfected state. This does not mean, howver, that no progress on the Dao is being made, rather it illustrates the fact that progress is most often in infinitely small increments, and that no one other than ourselves can really judge the progress that we are making.

In the Daoist classic Dao De Jing, the author states that “the Dao that can be named is not the true Dao”, and far be it from me to try to name, describe or explore in any great depth what must always be your individual Dao, but in this article I am going to focus on one aspect of the Dao and that is honesty.

Now do not get me wrong, I have no intention of setting myself up as a paragon of virtue when it comes to being honest; I am as guilty as the next person of telling white lies and of sometimes not being as truthful as I might but there is one area of my life where honesty is paramount and that is my practice of taijiquan.

If you are a practitioner of the martial arts and you tell all and sundry that you train every day for three hours, while the reality is that a quick ten minutes on alternate days is all you actually manage, one day when you are facing a hostile opponent intent on doing you physical harm, the actual amount of skill you have attained will be revealed. To put it more directly you can kid yourself but you can’t kid an angry opponent.

Similarly when describing your training experience and the teachers you have trained with, saying that you have trained “extensively” with this or that Chinese teacher, when the reality is that that you have been in seminars they taught for several hours rather than the years of study that the statement implies, is dishonest and does nothing to increase the actual skill that you have.

A few ex Zhong Ding students have, unfortunately been guilty of such claims and statements and that they have done so is indicative of the lack of actual progress and improvement they have made in their art.

One such gentleman bases much of his teaching on what he learnt from Koh Ah Tee despite the fact that the maximum amount of time he spent with him amounted to no more that four hours. I have known Master Koh for fifteen years and have trained regularly with him, even sharing his bed on occasions :^), and yet I have not received the same level of insight that this illustrious gentleman gained from his “brief exposure”.

Another such “expert” who has risen to giddy heights in the governing bodies for taijiquan and Chinese martial arts and who has been training for so long that in an interview he stated that “ it’s been such a long time that I forget when (I started taijiquan)”. Strange as I can remember exactly when I started taijiquan and it was a lot longer ago that this gentleman. He also  gives the impression that his main training was with me, but this is far from the case. Apparently I taught him during my once a month visits to Manchester. While I did visit Manchester regularly, it was not once a month. By claiming me as his teacher, he not only disrespects the teacher who put in all the hardwork to train him, but also disrespects our lineage and its teachings. One of the most important of these teachings is that we should always acknowledge from where we gained our skill as this conveys a kind of immortality upon those teachers who have taught us and the ones that have gone before them. This is why lineage is so heavily emphasized in the Chinese martial arts, so that we never forget where we came from.

This gentleman’s silliness, however, does not stop there. In his internet biography he states that in 1991 he was invited to go to Malaysia and Singapore. He then recounts how in 1991 and his “subsequent visits” he trained with a number of my teachers. Strange but I did not move to Malaysia permanently until 1992 and did not meet at least two of the teachers he claimed to train with in 1991, until 1992!  His subsequent visit, for there was only one after the first trip which lasted only a few days, included visits to the teachers he mentioned and he probably spent a few hours with each of them, training in a group and receiving their teaching through a translator. He did indeed meet several of these teachers during their visits to the UK but again the degree of contact was minimal.

You might notice that what I have described above is different from the implied long and personal teacher student relationship implied by the statement:

“ In 1991, and my subsequent yearly visits, I trained intensively with Tan Ching Ngee in Singapore, Ko Ah Tee in KL, Malaysia, Wu Chiang Hsing in BP, Malaysia, Liang He Ching in Muar, Malaysia and Tan Seow Theng in JB. Malaysia.”

As well as being a dishonest statement the above is also inaccurate. Master Tan Swoh Theng, like his wife’s cousin, Master Wu Ching Hsing lives in Batu Pahat.

The question that all this leads me to is that if you are less than honest about your training history, how honest are you about your own training? As I write this I am sitting in my training hall in a little fishing village called Kuala Sungai Pinang; a student is practicing his form and the sweat is leaving little drips across the tiled floor.

I know exactly how much I practice every day, I know that I have spent hours, days, weeks, months and years training with Masters Tan Ching Ngee, Lau Kim Hong, Lee Bian Lei, Tan Swoh Theng, Ho Ah San, Koh Ah Tee, Wu Chiang Hsing, Gao Ji Wu. I know that I am an initiated disciple of  Masters Tan Ching Ngee, Lau Kim Hong, Lee Bian Lei, Ho Ah San and Gao Ji Wu. I am shidi (younger brother) to Wu Chiang Hsing and Koh Ah Tee. I am an initiated student of Gurus Azlan Ghanie, Mohd Hasyim, and Zainal Abidin. I am an initiated member of Master Eric Olavides” Eskrima De Campo JDC-IO. All of these teachers and seniors have entrusted me with the perpetuation and transmission of their knowledge and lineages. I am very proud to do so and I will do so as honestly as I can. That is my Dao.

Copyright N Sutton 2008

Nik Jago R.I.P

Many of you will remember Nik Jago, a stalwart of Zhong Ding  Devon, who went on to practice the Old Wu Style. I recently heard that Nik had passed away and the thoughts and condolences of all of us Zhong Dingers who knew him are with his family at this time.

Nik was a real character with a passion for taijiquan. Having spent much of his life as a soldier in the Royal Engineers, Nik approached taijiquan from an engineering perspective. I well remember how he would dissect each and every move so that he could find out exactly how it was “engineered”.

Despite his serious approach to the art Nik’s sense of humour shone through in everything he did. He was never short of a story and the ones from his army service took his listeners from the jungles of Belize to the backstreets of Northern Ireland.  I remember how Nik would describe the best way to booby trap a toilet seat so that it exploded when you sat on it, and how he would smile as he described the operation in such a way that you would smile with him but also check your toilet seat when you got home!

Nik explored many different avenues in his journey to understand the complexities of taijiquan and he served as an example to younger club members who found inspiration is his dedication and enthusiasm. He was, in short, a true martial artist and a good man. I shall miss him.



If you wish to attend either the May visit to Beijing or the September Penang Extravaganza please contact me or let your instructor know asap so that we can ensure you have a place.
Thank you.

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