Monday, October 27, 2014

Learning a New Language and Working Abroad - Is it Worth It?

I learned and majored in Japanese (and Chinese) in college; after graduating, I moved to Japan to start my career. More than a decade later, I am still here, and I can say with reasonable confidence to current students - I would not recommend it, for the following reasons:

0. Japanese isn't easy.

According to the Foreign Service Institute's language ranking, Japanese is the hardest language to learn for English speakers; you would find an easier time learning Arabic or Cantonese. In my class, only two (including myself) really learned the language; everyone else just barely scraped by.

1. Your Japanese will always be sub-par compared to the natives.

Note that my Japanese skill is of a very high level - I was fluent after just 1 year of study, and I passed the JPLT level 1 on my first try. Nevertheless, Japanese is still not my native language, and although I am fluent - I don't sound as intelligent as I do in English. Due to this mis-perception, I am consistently evaluated worse by Japanese natives compared to English natives (note that the former are more numerous than the latter). The gist is that you will not find success easy in Japan. A better way to go is to be successful in America first, and then get seconded instead - you can learn Japanese later, but you don't even have to.

2. Knowing Japanese will not give you an advantage.

Whether you are bilingual or not will not help you get promoted. Knowing Japanese will only help you to understand icky politics in your workplace that you probably would rather not understand. Things you don't want to hear will float into your head, while things you should hear will require straining to comprehend. All that time you spend learning this language will essentially be for naught.

3. You will face opposition in the form of subtle discrimination.

Look out for the guys who can't speak English at all - they will have a bone to pick. It's not fun, this kind of situation.

Instead of majoring in Japanese (or Chinese), I would recommend one of the hard sciences (you won't get a chance to learn those ever again). You can just take language classes on the side.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) - the New Frontier of Education?

Besides online kung fu lessons, education is moving forward toward a new, Massive Online Open Courses (MOOC) format, where anyone with a computer and an Internet connection can join in, and possibly pass to receive a (free) statement of accomplishment.

These days, higher education costs too much, and prices are only going up each year... But education is the cornerstone of a civilized society with empowered people, so we still need it! MOOCs are one possible solution to at least some of the problems. Coursera is one of the best, with a large range of courses that can be taken from a wide variety of disciplines, and I cannot help but be excited by their course list! I've taken or are taking a few courses, and have some upcoming as well, so I'd like to share some of my experiences on the platform...

1. It's just like university classes, but online!

Really! It is. It reminds me of sitting in lecture halls, listening to the teacher talk, except that now I can pause or rewind the professor as I please, and only have to listen to him or her in blobs of 5-15 minutes each. It is quite a nostalgic feeling, 12 years after graduating university, and is a really nice feeling to be honest. So, this means that I can now take any course that I am interested in that I wasn't able to take back then - from Medicine (wasn't my major) to Finance (wasn't interested back then) to Security (might be good for my work).

2. Courses have set running times

So, although it's all online, the courses for the most part have set start and end times, so you cannot really choose when to take a course - you have to be ready, and watch what is available, and take the opportunity when you can. I have long wanted to take an Anatomy course, so I jumped when the first Coursera anatomy course appeared: "Going Out on a Limb: The Anatomy of the Upper Limb," in October of 2013. It has since not been offered (although it may be), so I am glad I took the chance! So you have to choose wisely, based on what is available, how likely it will be offered again, and what you want to do. So, it is a bit harder to set a "learning track" than it may be in real university, where you can predict what courses will be offered in what term of what year.

3. You need to have some drive and independence

Unlike actual University, you have to study on your own, and cannot go and talk with the teacher. You do have the option of discussion boards (which are helpful), but certainly, some part of the university experience may be difficult to obtain online. I do think that in certain aspects, the persons who can make the most of MOOCs are those who (like me) have graduated university already (some courses are even only intended for advanced students); but that doesn't mean that MOOCs don't offer great things. For parents, I think that the difference between online and on campus can be alleviated somewhat by having parents also go through a course with their children together, and try to provide guidance and discussion that way.

4. For programming courses, you may need slightly hefty computers

In another course that I took (and am almost finished with: Introduction to Data Science), a virtual machine was provided for students to use for programming assignments in Python, SQL, and R. I think that most students will have no problem with this (it was an easy setup), but since I work from a somewhat ancient iMac - it was (and still is) a bit difficult to download and install the thing (200 MB or so to download, but 2 GB or so expanded), and then run in (I only have 1 GB of RAM). But anyway, some people with lower-than-average computer setups may find similar situations as I did (so maybe I won't take any computer courses for a while). One good thing about programming courses, though, is that there are often automatic graders that can check out your code and see if it is working right.

Overall, I think Coursera is awesome, and it is totally free - offering knowledge to people who want to learn. I have seen some people complain - but the teachers are doing a great service to the community, teaching many students around the world for often nothing. Certainly the experience will not be the same as actually taking classes at a prestigious school, but hey - it's free and it's awesome. You may have to put in a bit more effort, but - it's totally worth it.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

From Secret Transmissions to Free YouTube Lessons?

Chinese martial arts have always been mysterious and secretive - and very hard to obtain the "true teachings." In China, there are many stories of rich businessmen paying large amounts of money for hidden knowledge (such as the "bedroom arts") and of people who totally dedicated their lives to their teacher in order to receive kung fu teachings. (For example, the first disciple of Dai Kui (of Dai family xingyiquan) Yue Guining was said to have sold his land, a two-story house, and 500 sheep for his teacher.) As of course, many students of famous martial artists were rich, or had rich parents to support their practice.

Today, although it is often still difficult to obtain the real teachings, some people have started to put free lessons on the Internet (such as on YouTube). Whether this is a new trend that will lead to the freeing of these old traditions on the Web, or else just a fad is hard to say, but in any case it is a great act of generosity and good will!

Of course, in almost all cases only some of the lessons are free, and additional lessons will cost money, but it is still quite useful to be able to "try" some styles that you know little about in this way. Three examples that I have found are:

Yin Style Baguazhang (Men Baozhen -> Xie Peiqi -> He Jinbao)
Xie Peiqi, Liu Shichang, He Jinbao

Almost all of the DVDs that were released (for sale) to document this very large system have been uploaded to this channel - very generous of the Association for Traditional Studies. Obviously it is a very large amount of material (and a lot of videos to watch!) but for those who are interested in this system, it will certainly be an invaluable resource.

Wu Style Taijiquan (Wu Jianquan -> Ma Yueliang -> Li Liqun -> Sam Li Shenguang)
Stephen Procter

This generous taiji teacher from down under has put videos of himself teaching the Wu style long (slow) form on YouTube - very generous of him, as he has obviously put a lot of work into them. The Wu style is a very interesting taiji style, but often hard to find!

Wing Chun, Jeet Kune Do, Taijiquan
"Master Wong"

This energetic teacher has a variety of free lessons for wing chun and some other arts (he also offers courses to learn entire systems on his website). Wing chun is certainly a famous system that will pique many people's curiosity!

Personally, I think that I will go through the Wu form first. If any people out there find some other free lessons of note, I'd love to here about them!

Friday, June 25, 2010

Ma Yueliang's Wu Style Taijiquan Curriculum

Taijiquan (太極拳) is the most popular Chinese martial art today, but very few practitioners of this elegant style have any of the legendary skills often attributed to old time masters like Yang Luchan (楊露禪) and others - once upon a time, taijiquan was known for its combat effectiveness, after all. Although reasons for this change no doubt include changes in society (laziness, lack of interest, mixing of styles, etc.), it is also likely that much important material has been kept "in the family" and not passed down to most practitioners - most glaring is the fact that Yang Luchan was famous for his spear prowess, but taiji spear is very rarely taught (or seen), if ever.

Ma Yueliang (馬岳樑), son-in-law of Wu Jianquan (吳鑒泉) and perhaps the most famous martial artist in Shanghai of his time, for various reasons revealed many sets and methods that are not well-known in other branches; notable are the original "fast form" (快拳) that he said he also saw the Yang family practice, a free-sparring method using a "S" moving pattern known as lancaihua (爛采花), and several spear routines (24 spear (二十四槍), 13 long spear (十三大槍), life-saving 3 spears (救命三槍)).

There also appears to be a cannon fist (十三炮捶) routine, several qigong methods (5 phases neigong (五行内功), 8 methods neigong (八式内功)), several sword routines (heaven and earth sword (乾坤劍), 7 star sword (七星劍), linking sword (連環劍), double swords (雙劍), partner sword (對劍)), as well as routines/methods similar to those in other styles of taijiquan (saber, sticky staff, various push hands methods, etc.).

As Wu style is an offshoot of Yang style, one would normally expect most material in the Wu style to have a similar counterpart in the Yang style (its direct parent style); today, perhaps someone does still retain such material, or else it may have been lost already.

Some Yang style lineages today do contain interesting, rarer material, such as the long form (太極長拳), which is performed faster than the slow form, as well as rare weapons, such as the halberd (戟). The various lineages, however, seem to have different rare material, making it difficult to discern the validity of each, which is often an underlying problem. Ma Yueliang himself noted that when he was young, he saw Yang Chengfu (楊澄甫) practice Yang style's fast form with his own eyes.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Baguazhang Survey (on YouTube)

As they say, a picture is often worth a thousand words, but how many words is a video worth? Although YouTube does not have everything and videos do tend to get deleted eventually, it does have a lot of videos, and I have selected a few videos to help show some of the differences between the many lineages of baguazhang. Unfortunately, it does seem that certain styles have a great many videos available, while others have hardly any at all.

Yin Style

Yin style baguazhang is in general the most archaic, with a strong Shaolin or luohanquan flavor (such as copious use of horse stance, bow stance, etc.). The first example of Yin style is that of Wang Shangzhi and his brother Wang Shangxin. Wang Shangzhi's baguazhang comes from his father Wang Fu, who learned from Yin Yuzhang (Yin Fu's 4th son) and He Zhongqi (Yin Fu's daughter's grandson).

A rather different flavor of Yin style is shown by the disciples of Gong Baozhai, who learned from his uncle Gong Baotian, a famous disciple of Yin Fu. Gong Baozhai's disciple Michael Guen performs the Yin Yang Palms below.

Liang Style

Liang style also absorbed the methods of other baguazhang masters, such as Liu Dekuan. Liang Zhenpu's disciple Guo Gumin learned much from Liu, including his 64 hands linear method, which is showed in its entirety below by Gao Jiwu, son of Gao Ziying, disciple of Guo.

Cheng Style

Cheng style is the most flowing and "taiji-like" of the bagua styles, and is the most well-known and recognizable of them. The late Si Zhen, disciple of Ma Deshan, who was a disciple of Cheng Tinghua's eldest son Cheng Youlong, demonstrates below.

Gao style is a substyle of Cheng that is quite different, yet looks quite similar on the outside to other Cheng lineages. Luo Dexiu, disciple of Hong Yixiang, who was Zhang Junfeng's disciple, demonstrates below.

Unfortunately, there is much that I was unable to find on YouTube; however, more will be added to this page if I find good examples.

Monday, April 26, 2010

A Vague Introduction to the Various Styles of Baguazhang

There are numerous styles of baguazhang existing today, but there are significant differences between them - in fact, often, it seems that there is more different than same. Nevertheless, there are a few similarities that all do share:
  • Philosophical basis on the eight trigrams (八卦)
  • Fundamental practice of walking in a circle
  • Fundamental palm techniques
In addition, a great majority of baguazhang styles also include most of the following:
  • Some kind of luohanquan (羅漢拳) or "arhat style" routines
  • Unique bagua weapons like the seven star rod (七星竿)
  • Lineage originating from Dong Haichuan (董海川), who taught baguazhang in the Forbidden City at the end of the Qing Dynasty
The philosophical basis on the eight trigrams can take on many forms, including but not exclusive to strategy, techniques, and routines. One very prominent feature of some styles is to align routines with animals that correlate with the trigrams. For example, Cheng Tinghua's (程挺華) student Sun Lutang (孫祿堂) wrote about eight animals that related martially to the trigrams, i.e. lion, snake, bear, dragon, phoenix, chicken, qilin, and monkey. While this is the most popular set of animals among the baguazhang lineages, others exist as well, while the majority of baguazhang styles do not specify animals at all.

The fundamental practice of walking in a circle is most important for baguazhang practitioners of all lineages, although many lines have supplemented this practice with standing methods as well (such as the Cheng (程) style of Liu Bin (劉斌) and many Yin (尹) styles). The rare Fan (樊) style of baguazhang places somewhat less importance on the practice of walking than other lineages.

Fundamental palm techniques that are shared by most baguazhang lineages include the famous piercing palm (穿掌), but the methods and applications of this skill differ across the lineages. Another well-known skill is the 72 hidden kicks (七十二暗腿), but the exact contents of these techniques may differ from lineage to lineage.

Baguazhang has also always had a strong association with luohanquan; for example, Sun Lutang mentioned 18 lines of luohanquan in his Study of Bagua Boxing (八卦拳學) book. Also Sun learned Cheng style baguazhang, Yin style is more well-known for its luohanquan sets, although the other styles sometimes have a set or two of luohanquan as well.

Baguazhang is well-known for certain unique weapons in its repertoire, the most famous of which is the seven star rod, and thus many baguazhang lineages have 2-3 sets of this weapon, although the sets often differ significantly. Other weapons typical to baguazhang include the deer antler knives (鹿角刀), the judge pens (判官筆), and others.

The actual material taught in each of the baguazhang lineages can differ greatly; for example:

Yin style: 64 palms, 18 luohanquan, tuituozhang, wuji staff, 18 intercepting saber, etc.
Cheng style: 8 mother palms, 8 x 8 animal palms, 5 phase kicks, deer horn knives, pointing way saber, etc.
Liang style: 8 old palms, 8 linking palms, 64 hands, chicken claw razors, copper maces, iron fan, etc.

The large difference in material may be the result of one or more of the following:
  • Dong Haichuan was said to have taught by word and not example
  • Dong Haichuan may have changed his own material as he aged, thus teaching different material at different times of his life
  • 2nd and 3rd generation practitioners added to and reorganized baguazhang's material, including influence from other styles like xingyiquan, taijiquan, and yingzhaoquan (eagle claw)
Sun Lutang's daughter, Sun Jianyun (孫劍雲) recalled how her father said, "When I learned, my teacher only showed us a technique once, and we had to remember - I teach you students leading you hand and foot, and yet you still cannot remember!"

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Zhang Style Chaquan: Chaquan #4

In the summer of 1998, I spent two months in Beijing, China, at the Normal University Foreign Languages Institute (首都師範大學外國語學院). Naturally being very interested in Chinese martial arts (even back then), I managed to learn with a few teachers, including the coach at the Normal University proper, who taught me Chaquan #4 (查拳四路).

Chaquan is a famous style of the "longfist" category - basically, it was one of the main styles that was the basis for the modern wushu changquan style (which is what Jet Li and other movie stars use onscreen). Chaquan is an elegant style with actual combat application, but it can be quite difficult to understand simply by watching. The system is quite large, including 10 forms of chaquan, 3 forms of huaquan (滑拳), 2 forms of tuiquan (腿拳) basic training, and many weapons forms.

Chaquan was once a very widespread style, with many practitioners in Shandong, Henan, and Shanghai. Although I have forgotten most of what I learned, doing some research, it seems that what I learned was from the Zhang style (張式), from Shandong.

The 72 movements of this long set, in 4 sections, are given in their entirety below.

預備勢 - Ready Posture
第一段 - Section 1
對拳 - Fists Together
上步對拳 - Step Forward, Fists Together
跨步引掌 - Rushing Step, Pull Palm
馬步撩推掌 - Horse Step, Uplifting Pushing Palm
彈腿擊掌 - Flicking Leg, Attacking Palm
虛步亮掌 - Empty Step, Flashing Palm
橫襠步亮掌 - Side Step Stance, Flashing Palm
歇步挑掌 - Resting Step, Raising Palm
並步衝拳 - Parallel Step, Rushing Fist
彈腿擊掌 - Flicking Leg, Attacking Palm
弓步插掌 - Bow Step, Inserting Palm
馬步掛掌 - Horse Step, Hooking Palm
虛步按掌 - Empty Step, Pressing Palm
獨立勢 - One-legged Posture
並步雙擺掌 - Parallel Step, Double Swinging Palms
跨步擊掌 - Rushing Step, Attacking Palm
弟二段 - Section 2
仆步 - Crouching Step
歇步擺掌 - Resting Step, Swinging Palms
並步托掌 - Parallel Step, Upholding Palm
仆步穿掌 - Falling Step, Piercing Palm
弓步撩掌 - Bow Step, Uplifting Palm
跳步彈腿 - Leaping Step, Flicking Leg
弓步架打 - Bow Step, Propping Hit
虛步屈肘 - Empty Step, Bending Elbow
轉身馬步架打 - Rotating Body Horse Step, Propping Hit
提膝雙擺掌 - Lift Knee, Double Swinging Palms
趨步劈打 - Hurrying Step, Chop Hit
弓步靠掌 - Bow Step, Leaning Palm
第三段 - Section 3
白鸖亮翅 - White Crane Flashes Wings
虛步亮掌 - Empty Step, Flashing Palm
獨立勢 - One-legged Posture
上步穿掌 - Step Forward, Piercing Palm
轉身騰空飛腳 - Rotate Body, Aerial Flying Kick
虛步亮掌 - Empty Step, Flashing Palm
弓步撩掌 - Bow Step, Uplifting Palm
墊步蹬腳 - Skipping Step, Kicking Leg
弓步劈打 - Bow Step, Chopping Hit
馬步托打 - Horse Step, Upholding Hit
歇步抓肩 - Resting Step, Seize Shoulder
馬步壓肘 - Horse Step, Press Elbow
弓步擊掌 - Bow Step, Attacking Palm
馬步架打 - Horse Step, Propping Hit
提膝挎肘 - Raise Knee, Carry Elbow
弓步抱拳 - Bow Step, Embrace Fists
並步對拳 - Parallel Step, Fists Together
跳弓步頂肘 - Leaping Bow Step, Push Elbow
上步蓋掌 - Step Forward, Covering Palm
馬步架打 - Horse Step, Propping Hit
轉身掛掌 - Rotate Body, Grabbing Palm
弟四段 - Section 4
弓步雙推掌 - Bow Step, Double Pushing Palms
歇步捋手 - Resting Step, Pull Hand
退步擊掌 - Step Backwards, Attacking Palm
虛步按掌 - Empty Step, Press Palm
弓步衝拳 - Bow Step, Rushing Fist
上步拍腳 - Step Forward, Clap Foot
弓步橫掌 - Bot Step, Sideways Palm
歇步十字手 - Resting Step, Cross Hands
側踹腿 - Sideways Kicking Leg
弓步衝拳 - Bow Step, Rushing Fist
彈腿擊掌 - Flicking Leg, Attacking Palm
馬步推掌 - Horse Step, Pushing Palm
虛步按掌 - Empty Step, Pressing Palm
獨立勢 - One-legged Posture
上步穿掌 - Step Forward, Piercing Palm
轉身橫掌 - Rotate Body, Sideways Palm
並步舉掌 - Parallel Step, Raise Palms
踏步上衝拳 - Stamping Step, Upper Rushing Fist
單鞭勢 - Single Whip Posture
弓步按掌 - Bow Step, Pressing Palm
擊三拳 - Attacking Three Fists
並步擺拳 - Parallel Step, Swinging Fists
退步按掌 - Step Backwards, Press Palm
收勢 - Closing Posture

I only remember this set in pieces, but I will try to revive it if I can!