Written by Rachel

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The Japanese approach

Japanese martial arts are usually taught in a very methodical, thorough way. There is a clear syllabus, steps of progress, grades and some degree of ongoing continuity.
In a Japanese class the student is encouraged to replicate the teachings of the art perfectly. Like a carbon copy.
No initiative is necessary.

The Chinese approach

Chinese martial arts are not taught like Japanese arts. By comparison there can often seem to be no discernable syllabus, no continuity and a generally haphazard approach to teaching the syllabus.
If indeed a syllabus actually exists. In Howard Reid's book The Way of the Warrior, Chinese instructors in Hong Kong admit that a lot of Chinese masters are lazy, biased, corrupt and indifferent.
Of course, many are not.

Quite soon after meeting Sifu Waller, I saw him do things that I'd thought impossible. Having seen many martial arts movies in Borneo during my youth, I thought it was all special effects and wire work. I didn't really think you could knock someone clean across the room or inflict incredible pain with such total ease. But you can. And he does. And this is part of what we are learning every lesson.


Seeking a teacher

In traditional China it was not easy to find a martial arts instructor willing to offer tuition. The onus was upon the student to prove themselves.
An instructor was leery to waste time and effort with a lazy student. Finding an advanced martial arts instructor was even harder still...

The internal approach

Tai chi is ultimately a journey of discovery; simultaneously uncovering the art and ourselves. The subjects and insights revealed in our training have ramifications beyond class.
We can take new skills, methods and attitudes into all aspects of life. For this reason, most of the understanding and progress must come from the student.
Insights cannot merely be passed on/taught. They must be discovered.

Making things up?

As with Japanese martial arts, a kung fu instructor provides much of the syllabus for the student to learn; albeit at a crude level.
A tai chi student has no need to make up new forms or qigong exercises. These are provided by their instructor.
But applications are usually not supplied. It is up to the student to develop these themselves. That way, the applications become their own expression of tai chi.

Why is it like this?

Confucius believed that a student must show a high level of initiative:

  1. Waiting to be told what to do shows no initiative at all

  2. Finding things out for yourself shows initiative

  3. Figuring things out for yourself shows a high level of initiative

The internal martial arts encourage students to find their own way, recognising that some lessons simply cannot be taught.

Beyond teaching

There are many lessons that cannot be taught. Many teachings are akin to Zen koan. Attempting to explain the material coherently is not so easy, but a direct physical application proves the point nicely.
If somebody gives you the answer to a koan, do you really understand at all? Many things in life are only fully understood when you figure them out for yourself.


One reason why Chinese martial arts were taught this way is secrecy. Every school wanted their own unique method/approach
These were closely guarded. Sharing with other schools or martial artists was not an option. Surprise, innovation, spontaneity and creativity were highly prized.


Chinese martial arts schools not only wanted different skills from one another, they also wanted every student within their own school
to cultivate bespoke skills. This final point is important.
Everyone has different bodies, minds, knowledge, experience, background. By encouraging the student to discover their own way, the skills would be more relevant, valued and viable.
The role of the teacher was principally to stop the student from going astray.


Peter Southwood adhered to the traditional Chinese teaching approach of offering only the smallest amount of information.
He taught the classical Yang style at the 'Long Yang' advanced level (containing chin na, shuai jiao, neigoing and jing) and Jiang style baguazhang:

  1. Qigong
    - ba duan jin
    - moving qigong
    - reeling silk exercises
    - standing post
    - full circle qigong
    - qigong development
    - form posture qigong
    - 3 circle qigong
    - stretches & joint work
    qigong on one leg
    - high circle qigong

  2. Form
    - 'Long Yang' form
    - 2 person form
    - 2 person cane
    - sabre
    - walking stick
    - jian
    - long staff

  3. Pushing hands
    - single pushing hands
    - monkey paws
    - pushing legs
    - double pushing hands
    - da lu

  4. Weapons drills
    - knife drills
    stick drills
    - sword drills

  5. Martial sets
    - san sau
    - 2 person cane
    - small stick drills

  6. Application
    - traditional/common form applications

    - shuai jiao
    - dividing the muscle
    - sealing the breath
    - cavity press
    - misplacing the bones
    - finger chin na

  7. 13 methods

  8. Freeform triangle

  9. Neigong (50)

  10. Jing

  11. Crude fa jing

  12. 5 animals

  13. Groundpath

  14. Baguazhang
    - 6 direction changes
    - 8 mother palms
    - 9 palaces
    - 16 elbows
    - circle walking
    - figure of 8
    - single palm change
    - double palm change
    - striking palm change
    - piercing palm change
    - flicking palm change
    - body overturning palm change
    - shaking body palm change
    - turning body palm change
    - swimming dragon

Although it sounds like a lot, keep in mind that Peter only provided the absolute least possible amount of information.
Sifu Waller said that it felt as though you'd been given a sack of junk and told to build a viable art from pieces that didn't fit or even necessarily make sense. Off-putting and intimidating?

Hard to learn

Peter taught by hints and suggestions; not explanations. Only by watching every movement made by the teacher could Sifu Waller conceivably hope to learn the skill.
Nothing was volunteered, broken down or made easy. A direct question would simply be ignored. 

Not the service industry

Peter had always adopted a Confucian teaching attitude in his classes; a curt demonstration, no talking whatsoever and then he left you to it. This intensified with private lessons.
In addition to this, Sifu Waller was taken through every form in the syllabus as quickly as he could absorb the movements. Corrections were scant and no explanations were ever given.

I like Sifu Waller's humour, enthusiasm and endless creativity. He shares constantly. But not in some self-promoting manner.

I don't think he cares at all about opinions, perspectives etc. If somebody argues or offers a different viewpoint, he doesn't fight them. He simply explores the new information and if there is value to be found, Sifu Waller incorporates new insights.

He can see everything dually (yin/yang); good/bad, pros/cons. He does not take sides.


Show & tell

Private lessons followed a familiar format; double pushing hands or monkey paws, then form corrections/new movements, then show & tell.
During pushing hands, Peter wanted to hear about martial scenarios and insights gleaned from combat, tai chi skills and Taoism.
Without losing focus on the drill, Sifu Waller was expected to provide spontaneous, detailed narrative.

Explain it

Once a form pattern had been acquired the next stage was to explain to Peter how the body mechanics operated and why.
A wrong answer resulted in no response whereas a correct answer might lead to further questions.
Form applications were the responsibility of Sifu Waller and Peter again provided limited response; relative to the quality of the material. A poor application was met with "No".
After bai shi the training became harder still.

Real understanding

Why make life so difficult? Peter could have simply taught as Sifu Waller teaches; by straightforward, logical, incremental steps.
He could have illustrated the science behind the art. Or tied it into application, body mechanics or even The Tai Chi Classics. Yet he did none of these teaching approaches.
Instead, Peter made Sifu Waller fight, struggle, work and climb for every scrap of knowledge he obtained. This is the Chinese way.
It leads to a deeper understanding and encourages the student to work harder and commit more to the art.

10,000 hours

After 7 years of brutally hard training, Peter softened up and starting sharing ideas with Sifu Waller. The start of every private lesson became a time for sharing insights and discussing practice.
Alternatives to applications were presented and neigong was explicitly explored. Sifu Waller had passed the 10,000 hour mark and was worthy of deeper attention but hardly an expert.
At public workshops, Sifu Waller was frequently asked by Peter to represent his teachings.


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Adapted from Sifu Waller's writings by Rachel
Page created 3 June 2011
Last updated 2 May 2015