Monday, February 28, 2011

Yan Gaofei Tai-chi Spear Seminar: Journal Notes #28

Notes from the June 25-26, 2005 Yan, Gaofei seminar held at Plymouth, Michigan, USA. The seminar covered the spear (枪 ; qīang), training and philosophy. This seminar was organized by The School of Cultivation and Practice. (My current reflections are added in italics.)

Spear - A Little Background
* Yang Miaozhen ​杨 妙 真, a woman leader of the rebel army circa 1200 A.D, developed spear fighting techniques for horseback riders called the Pear Flower Spear (梨 花 枪 ; lí huā qīang). Later, circa 1500, General Qi, Ji Guang codified her techniques into a twenty-four movement form. Later yet, circa 1600, this was written as Yang's Twenty Four Pear Flower Spear ( ​杨 门 二 十 四 梨 花 枪 ; Yáng mén èr shí sì lí huā qīang).

(I wonder if there is confusion over Pear vs. Plum as both are pronounced as LI? (pear is lí ; 梨 and plum is lǐ ; 李) You can view various versions of Plum Flower Spear forms on YouTube but I as of this writing, I do not see a Pear Flower Spear form. See also Ancient Chinese Weapons: A Martial Artist's Guide by Dr. Yang, Jwing-ming. 1999, pg. 22-26 for a brief technical development of the spear.)

* The spear was developed as a cavalry weapon to attack the enemy soldier's only vulnerability; the gaps in the body armor. To hit these points, one's skill had to be very high to hit these points while riding a horse charging at a soldier on another horse charging at you.

* Originally, spears were made from ten year old trees and were about ten feet long so they were much thicker, sturdier and heavier than today's spears which are made from four to five year old trees about six to seven feet long. Today's spears are for show.

* The red hair tied at the base of the spear is a decorative leftover. Originally, horse tail was tied to absorb the enemies' blood so it would not run down the spear shaft which made it sticky and difficult to slide for thrusting techniques.

* The basic spear tactic is the parry-thrust. Correct practice for parry is to meet and "scrape" with a spiral movement; don't slap the thrusting spear. There should be no audible 'clack' sound as the two poles make contact. (We practiced a two-person exercise each taking turns at parry and thrust.)

* This simple tactic is applied in six "quadrants":
  • Top Left - Top Right
  • Middle Left - Middle Right
  • Low Left - Low Right
* The parry-thrust also has these individual components:
  1. Raise up technique to lift the opponent's spear.
  2. Slash down technique to smash the opponent's fingers.
  3. Horizontal shaking.
(We practiced these various individual components taking turns as attacker and defender.)

* These are the basic spear exercises. So when you watch "spear forms", you will see many variations of these basic moves. (Yan demonstrated a form and pointed out the components.)

* Today's spear forms, when done properly, will show elements from the spear's origin as a cavalry (horseback riding) weapon.

* (After practicing or drilling the basics, we then learned the Tai-chi Thirteen Spear form. You can view various Tai chi spear forms on Youtube.)

There are two Tai-chi symbols, the "Lai logo" and the "Zhou logo" though only the Zhou logo is well known.

* In China, the Five Elements are understood in relationship to each other. In the west, there's no sense of relationship nor interplay.

* Five Elements shows the elemental relationships in change, in a state of flux.

* Wuji is more fundamental than Yin-yang. Yin-Yang is more fundamental than Five Elements.

* Five Elements can be explained by Yin-Yang, but Yin-Yang cannot explain Five Elements. Also, Wuji can explain Yin-Yang, but Yin-Yang cannot explain Wuji.

* Language expresses Yin-Yang philosophy. If you say "X", then embedded in the concept/meaning is "not X". What would the language of Wuji sound like?

* See the Platform Sutra.

Spear Training
* After guns were invented, the spear became obsolete as a weapon. A non-horseback, "ground" form was developed because the spear was still a very good training tool to develop the dan-tian area.

* It is said that the broadsword takes one year to learn. The staff takes three years to learn and the spear takes a life time. Hence to discern one's skill, only a few moments demonstration with a spear is all that is needed.

* Always keep elbows down and tight to body. Contemporary wushu (which is not traditional martial arts) has elbows out. What is the best way to pick up, hold up and wield a ten foot, ten year old tree for extended periods of time? With elbows down of course because the body is structurally strongest this way.

* All movements come from the dan-tian area and like a whip, the spear amplifies these movements.

* If your shoulders get sore while practicing, then you're using too much muscle. It should feel very easy to do. Only the legs should get sore from stance.

* Don't get obsessed with arm and hand movements. The real action is what's going on in the feet.

* How could you hurt yourself? The vibrations from the spear will reflect back into the body. If there's any tension in your body, the reflections will hit that point and be felt as pain. You must relax.

* You want to work up to practicing a move 300 times a day on each side.

Taoist Training

* Taoist levels of training to lead you to the state Hui Neng described in the Platform Sutra:
  • Wuji
  • Emptiness
  • Shen - spirit (dull vs lively, charge up, enthusiastic). Read Yellow Court manuscript.
  • Chi - Read the Yellow Emperor classic.
  • Jing - diet, hormones, body chemistry, sexual energy.
  • Physical - exercise muscles, physical fitness. Start here and work your way up.
* As you train, the jing energy will sink into your legs and build a solid structure from the ground up.

* See the Taoist internal alchemy classic, Yellow Court Classic. However, it won't make sense until your spirit breaks through your bai-hui. (Here is introductory information about Yellow Court Scripture.)

* If you do qigong training without first doing jing training, this is dangerous. It's like building a house without a foundation; the first floor will be O.K. but the problem will be recognized on the third floor.

* Jing building exercises:
  • Exercises that include the ming-men point.
  • Meditation, calming the mind. Stance or sitting.
  • Bear walking.
  • Circle knee, pickup foot, point toe to nose
* It's more difficult to build jing when you're over 30 (years old). Young men have excess jing and like money in the bank, they spend it and deplete it.

Other Training Tips

* Stance tips:
  • Smile a little. This releases tension in the neck.
  • Relax shoulders. Stretch down and out.
  • Breathe out. Compress the rib cage to release holding tensions there.
(Throughout this seminar, we practiced stances with the spear and Yan gave everyone stance corrections which generally resulted in more burning in the legs.)

* The top half of the body is like a screwdriver and when you get the top to relax, it will "turn the screw" of the hips, meaning, the hips will relax naturally.

(Everything is all connected. When one part relaxes, it contributes to relaxing the other parts, the whole. Similarly, resistance and holding in any part contributes to holding in other parts, the whole.)

* Using Tai-chi to develop chi is like using a Mazarrati to go grocery shopping. You can do chi training through the relaxation of stance training.

* The Hsing-yi Five Element form was developed from spear movements.

* When Mohammad Ali trains, he practices specific moves and combinations of moves as well as other exercises and diet. When he is in the ring boxing, he responds spontaneously to the opponent. Now if someone were to watch him fight and extract a series of his fighting moves, one could create a "Mohammad Ali Form" which after being dispersed to the masses, people would have no idea of the intent and origination of the moves. They would just be "doing the form", devoid or any meaning. This is the state of Tai chi and Wushu and most martial arts today; they focus on pretty forms bereft of the intention of their original purpose and use.

* How did ancient soldiers train? This is how we in martial arts should also train. The real martial artists today are the Army Special Forces and the Navy Seals. Most of the the other so-called "martial artists" are maintaining an artifact from history and have never used their training in actual life-or-death combat as today's military does. Point being:
  1. Be honest with yourself. What and why are you doing this?

  2. To get to the kernel of the form, go to the source. Today's soldiers learn and practice hand-to-hand combat moves in pairs to help each other develop skill. Practice Tai chi this way. Learn the feeling of the moves with another person first. Then, you can practice the individual moves in a "form" based on real-life experience of using those moves.
* * * * * * * * * *

Reflections on this seminar

Looking back on this spear seminar five and a half years later, what is the enduring lesson?

First, let me say that I have not continued the spear practice. I've been devoting my time to learning and practicing Wujifa Zhan Zhuang. So if I haven't pursued spear practice, then what was the value of this seminar? Did anything "stick" with me?

The biggest influence on my understanding and practice are those points that I grouped under "Other Training Tips". Getting honest about my Tai chi practice. Getting honest about what I reasonably can achieve. Coming back to the primacy of stance. I am much more grounded now.

After this, I really like the way Yan taught spear, demonstrating one element at a time and having us practice basic, elemental drills with a partner and building one component upon the other and showing how a simple "form" can emerge from these components. Many years before this seminar, I had learned a spear form and I remember clearly that there was no partner work. I had learned a form with no context. It's interesting that I've forgotten the forms but I remember the basics; parry-thrust. The basics. Train the basics...

You can see more about Yan Gaofei at Chen Style Tai Chi Chuan.

Here's an article by Gaofei Yan and James Cravens at the Wujimind site: Chen Style Tai Chi Weapons – The Qiang or Spear

More of Yan's seminars from 2005 can be found at Todd Plager's site: Xing-yi Five Element Form and the Yellow Court.

Further reading:
Introductory article explaining this "Journal Notes" series: Zhan Zhuang Training Journal
Previous article in this series: Still Confused About Feeling: Journal Notes #27
Next article in this series: Xing-Yi Quan Five Element Seminar: Journal Notes #29

Make sure to visit and the Wujifa blog.
And stop by The School of Cultivation and Practice.


  1. ღ love ღ the KingKong Sutra too Mr Mike. Do you enjoy to read these kinds of things?

  2. Very thorough article, Mike. You really have a gift for writing and bringing different things together.

    The thing about getting honest with the intent of our practice... good stuff. I hope I never get mugged or assaulted. One day, a little while ago, my Dad got curious about my Wujifa practice, and asked me what I would do if I ever was being robbed or something.

    I said "Ok Dad, let me show you this move" and I reached into my pocket, grabbed my wallet, and threw it by his feet and ran. We both had a good laugh. Hopefully my practice will give me the clarity of mind to make the right decision in a stressful situation, whatever that may be.

    Good article, Mike, as always. Thanks for all your contributions to the online Wujifa collection!

  3. One small correction. The spear was developed to prevent large animals from eating you while you were trying to eat them. Included among the large animals were other men. Finally, there is only one spear move. It is called "stick em in they eye" (pronounced with a north west detroit accent)A variation of the move, but still the only one in the set, is called "stick em in they ass" (pronounced, as you can guess, with a southern accent).

    Thanks again for all the great information.