Martial Arts – Where soft = strong, and so much more

Judo 柔道 (the soft way), Jujitsu 柔術 (the soft fighting method), IMG_1226 TaiQi Chuan 太极拳the soft slow Chinese martial art.  It seems difficult to believe judo and jujitsu are “soft” methods, especially when I’ve been pounded to the ground and my joints locked in painful holds.  When watching TaiQi Quan in slow motion, it seems hard to believe many Chinese masters consider TaiQi Quan to be the ultimate best of Chinese fighting styles.   What gives?  How are these contradictions possible?  It’s because we need to understand that “soft” equals strong and “soft” equals so much more than that.Actually, the “soft” and “gentle” mean much more than we can say in simple English.

IMG_6869 In the words of the author Dave Lowry, soft is “flexibility, suppleness, pliancy… It is the ability to bend against pressure in an advantageous way, to bow rather than break, so one may then snap back again.”

Think of “soft” as the strength of a bamboo tree that can bend at incredible angles to shed a heavy load of snow, and then snap back quickly when the snow is dropped.


Think of “soft” as the strength and

flexibility of a willow tree that bends and withstands the heaviest wind storms, then snaps back to shape after the harder trees like oak broke and fell down.  The willow tree may appear soft and flexible, but it still has very deep roots.

Think of “soft” as the archer’s bow that bends back before being released to shoot the arrow fast, straight and true.P1050228

Ju, soft, is strength.  It is a supple, flexible strength that rebounds back after the worst test of will or perseverence.

I have learned through experience about the strength of these “soft” martial artists.  Yes, they showed me many times that “soft” = flexibility, strength, indomitable spirit to withstand the strongest storms and still rebound.  I hope some day, after much more hard work, I can start to approach the same type of soft strength.

And of course, like everything in Asian philosophy, the small lessons we learn from martial arts should carry forward to enrich the other aspects of our lives.  Soft, gentle, pliable, and yet very strong: a good recipe for success in today’s crazy world.


China 2010 - Nelson DVD 386

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Melaka Malaysia, the ancient city rebuilt with color

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“Whoever controls Melaka has a hand on Venice’s throat.” Melaka Malaysia, an ancient trading city that was so crucial to Venice and Italian traders in the 1600’s and 1700’s.   During those days, Melaka was the center of trading between Europe, India, China, Japan, and Siam.  It must have been an amazing port with a brilliant mixture of people and races from all over the world.

Pirates of the Caribbean??  Those guys might have been amateurs compared to the bloodthirsty audacious pirates who reportedly sailed around the Malaysian and Indonesian Straits in those days.

Melaka, and Malaysia as a whole, is a huge melting pot of a combination of cultures.  This makes for a magical mixture of fantastic food, interesting architecture, a polyglot of languages, and interesting people.

Melaka was controlled by Europeans for a long time.  First by the Portuguese, then by Holland for 150 years, followed by England for 150 years, then by Japanese during WW2, and then transferred back to British control.  Finally in 1956 Malaysia became fully independent.  Naturally they celebrate their independence.

Now Melaka is trying to recover some of its lost glory. It is turning into a thriving tourist city on the Malaysian coast.  The people have a tremendous love for color, as shown in these pictures.  I really enjoyed visiting Melaka.

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Thailand Fishermen – Living at the Edge of Light

Thai Fishermen, work by night, sleep by day.

The other morning I was out to the beach at 5 AM, watching the fishermen work during the early twilight just before, during and after sunrise.   The light transitioned from twilight darkness, to brilliant orange sunrise, and then to cloudy shadows on the sea.  The  fishermen start working at 2 AM and finish to sell the catch around 7 AM each morning.  It’s a nice life that revolves around different levels of light.

Sunrise on KhaoThao Beach, Thailand

Sunrise on KhaoThao Beach, Thailand

Fishing KhaoDhao Beach area, Thailand

Fishing KhaoDhao Beach area, Thailand

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Hogan and Master Pu Kungfu – China Global Times Newspaper visits the Roaming Ronin

Recently my Kungfu Teacher Master Pu and I were featured in the China Global Times Newspaper.  I was flattered and happy to be included with Master Pu.  He’s 78 years old, graceful as a dancer, and still spry and energetic.  He has taught more than 6000 foreign students in the last 10 years.


Here’s the article:

Martial laws

Global Times | 2012-12-9 18:35:04
By Du Qiongfang

Zou (go), mabu (deep knee bend), zou, mabu!” Pu Rujie shouts out instructions to a loyal group of students who turn up unfailingly to his wushu (martial arts) class in Zhongshan Park in Changning district every morning.

The 76-year-old former athlete and coach has been practicing kung fu since 1954 and in that time has taught thousands of students at schools, sports centers and in public parks.

But it was only in 2002 that he received his first batch of non-Chinese wushu students, a group from Japan. Since then, he reckons he has helped train more than 6,000 overseas devotees ranging in age from 7 to 60, and from countries as far afield as the US, France, and Mexico.

Pu teaches wushu to Shaun Hogan. Photo: Cai Xianmin/GT
Pu teaches wushu to Shaun Hogan. Photo: Cai Xianmin/GT 

Early to rise

And despite the prematurely cold temperatures in Shanghai this December, Pu is still out every morning in just a T-shirt preparing and giving classes. He rises at 4 am and starts teaching at 5 am.

“Just look at Pu laoshi (teacher Pu) and everyone else here; age is just a number for these people,” said Shaun Hogan. “Some of them are nearly 80 years old, and yet they are still very strong and can even do the splits; they are an inspiration to me.” Hogan, 52, is an engineer and has been studying wushu alongside Pu since he came to Shanghai six years ago. Before that, he had been practicing karate in his native US for more than 20 years.

Pu takes advantage of an open space behind a small stream in Zhongshan Park to hold his classes, and this has been his students’ regular training ground for many years.

“I gave a private class to a Mexican student at 5 o’clock this morning and I was in the park by 7 am,” Pu told the Global Times. “Hogan was already here getting ready for the class.”

Pu appreciates the efforts many of his foreign students put into the lessons. “I like the fact they go to bed early and don’t spend all night surfing the Internet or chatting online. And they also don’t presume that they know everything already, and that there is very little I can teach them.”

Untypical Westerner

Hogan, however, points out that he doesn’t consider himself a typical Westerner in Shanghai.

Wo bu hui qu pao jiuba! (I don’t go to bars!),” he said. “On Saturday morning at 7:30 Pu laoshi rings me up and says ‘Hogan, ni zai nali?’ (where are you?). Lai ba, qi dian ban le’ (come on, it’s 7:30).”

Pu explained his philosophy of this martial art to the Global Times.

“Fu Biao, the headmaster of the Shaolin Wushu School in Beijing said that kung fu is the ‘crystallization of sweat and time.’ And in summer my students often have to change their clothes three times because they are sweating so much! And if it’s raining, they are equally determined. ‘Xiayu, mei xiayu, chabuduo‘ (rain or no rain, let’s carry on) they will say to me.”

Pu hopes that his experience can give foreign students a greater insight into Chinese culture, and that his local students can also learn more about the West at the same time. “I don’t want them just to learn wushu, but also to understand the context in which it exists. I think it’s important for us to learn from each other,” he told the Global Times.

Hogan concurs with Pu’s aims. “I have a better understanding of Chinese people through practicing wushu,” he said. “A lot of Chinese traditions and a lot of Chinese business methods are based on the fighting styles of wushu. I can read Sun Zi Bing Fa (the Art of War), San Shi Liu Ji (36 Stratagems) and these texts help me, not only in wushu, but also in business and in my personal life. This type of traditional philosophy has shaped Chinese thinking for thousands of years. And it really shapes how people work now.”

Body language

Pu and his non-Chinese speaking students communicate using body language. He demonstrates a pose and shouts the same command word repeatedly to reinforce the message.

“He’s very patient,” added Hogan. “I think when he was younger he was much more strict. Because Chinese wushu is strict about running long distances and working extremely hard. He still says ‘one more time, one more time’, but he only wants you to work hard as hard as you want to work.”

Pu’s students practice wushu with a variety of weaponry including swords, shovels, and spears. And a number have won prizes in competitions.

“At the 10th International Wushu Exposition in Shanghai last year, I took three of my overseas students to compete and we won eight medals. At the 11th expo this year, I brought five such students and we took 12 medals in all: four gold, five silver and three bronze. We were very happy.”

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The best investment: Travel, Adventure, and Memories

The end of the another year is coming and I am going through my digital pictures and memories of the last few years.  I realize once again that I’m blessed with many great friends, relatives and casual acquaintances who have made my life much richer.  I realize once again that the best investment is in travel, adventure, and memories.

The Chinese have a saying, 一字千金, One word is worth a thousand pieces of gold.  In English we say that a picture is worth a thousand words.  Therefore I’ll let my pictures do the talking of some of the great memories from past years:


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The Pursuit of Excellence, Glimpses of Perfection – Why I do Martial Arts

I received the usual questions recently by a reporter from the “Global Times” newspaper in Shanghai:  Why do I like practicing Kungfu, Wushu (martial arts), and Karate every day?  And why do it for so many years?

I couldn’t think of a good answer.  The answer is much deeper than words can say.  How to describe a healthy addiction – maybe it’s beyond logic.  Finally I came to an answer:

The Pursuit of Excellence with occasional glimpses of Perfection.

I’ve been practicing martial arts almost daily for more than 25 years.  Karate, Kungfu, Jiujitsu and other forms of martial arts.  I admit it, I’m addicted.  When I wake up in the morning, my main goal is to prepare to go to the park and practice some more.  Internally, I sense my addiction is to follow the Oriental philosophy of Dao 道 a better way of life, a pursuit of perfection that we can approach but not reach.  But when I say “Dao” to most other people, it makes no sense.  Puzzling over this, I rearranged my thoughts to a little better explanation:

Pursuit of Excellence, Glimpses of Perfection

Like other high performance people, the pursuit of excellence becomes addictive.  Musicians, dancers, artists, craftsmen, athletes, golfers, and martial artists: we all get addicted to mastering the fine details of our art.  Finger must be pointed exactly right even at high speed.  Toes pointed. Wrist rotation and weight transfer.  Balance and hip rotation to get proper power. We must control a myriad of movements simultaneously, without thought. Mastering all these fine details takes a lifetime.

I know many TaiQi players who have done the same few routines (called Taolu or Kata) thousands of times, every day for decades.  I do the same, but at faster speed.  Most long term martial artists would not quit their art no matter how much money was offered.  They know that the pursuit of excellence improves their lives much better than any amount of money.

Golfers are the same type of perfection addicts.  They will play the same course day in, day out and never get bored.   Why?  Because their pursuit of excellence, of superb effortless shots is never simple but extremely addictive.  Other excellent athletes: runners, snow skiers, tennis players pursue excellence with the same addiction.

One famous Aikido sensei said that the key to aikido was to flow down a mountain over rocks and logs like water in a stream.  A Zen Koan, a puzzle that defies logic.  How does this make sense?  It makes sense only after we have done thousands of repetitions of a punch, a sword thrust, a kata, a golf swing, or a brush stroke.  When we learn how to act without conscious thought, then we can begin to understand the wisdom of the Aikido sensei.

Occasionally we do a move, a golf swing, play a few music notes that approach perfection. It feels fantastic.  We have a craving to replicate that brilliant moment.  These brief glimpses of perfection – that wonderful feeling –  this is why I continue to do martial arts for so many years.

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2012 Wyoming Arapaho Fire near Laramie Peak, rebuilding

Yea, though I walk through the valleys and mountains of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil. 

June/July 2012, Laramie Peak Wyoming.  The Arapaho fire destroyed more than 100,000 acres of beautiful forests.  It destroyed many buildings and summer camps.   However, the fires spared many buildings and outhouses by simply a matter of a few meters or yards.  The fire incinerated formerly verdant habitat for many wild creatures such as deer, bears, elk, cougars, eagles, prairie dogs, ground squirrels, wild turkeys, skunks, and so forth.

The fire cauterized the ground and rocks. Everything was vaporized.

Amazing devastation.  The fire destroyed Camp Grace, leveled it to the ground. It took out many cabins.  Fortunately it missed our family’s summer “homes” consisting of a camper trailer and an antique sheep wagon.  It missed our structures by less than a few meters.

Hiking and exploring through the soot.

Family reunion to celebrate escape. 

In August our family had a reunion in the hills, flying and driving from all over the world to gather: Mom and Step-dad Brock from New Mexico, Sister Angela and her clan of 5 energetic children from the north country of Alaska, Sister Colleen from Michigan, and me from Bangkok and Shanghai.  It was a happy gathering despite the desolation and wonders surrounding us.

No electricity? No hot water? Black soot-coated feet? No problem.

Black socks, black feet – this is my overwhelming memory of the happy days here.  The ground was covered with layers of black soot, charcoal, and cauterized dirt.  It filtered through our shoes, socks, and caked itself into solid black coating of our feet.  My socks are still black, no matter how often I wash them with bleach.

But it was all worth it and we had a great time.

A lack of sufficient entropy – buildings spared by the fire. 

Colleen’s sheepwagon survived.

Our “summer homes” are really a collection of 2 trailers with a lot of extras added to them. This area has served as our summer hideaway for more than 30 years. Mountain Solitaire is the best way to describe it. On a busy week, we might see 15 other people. We love the solitude and peace that is shared by few other hermits like us.

Mom and Brock’s big trailer and Colleen’s sheep wagon survived by some miracle, a twist of the wind, or…to my engineer’s mind…a localized lack of sufficient entropy.

Our camper trailer survived.

Either way, we are happy the main structures survived. Many of the other buildings and structures in the area were devoured by the intense heat.

New plants, bushes, and trees are already sprouting up.

In Nature, change is the only constant. New life is reborn quickly from the ashes.

We spent the days focusing on the positives we found and experienced. New grass, trees, and bushes were already growing. Deer, elk, and bears found small havens of greenery which the fire had leapfrogged. And of course, we enjoyed seeing much of our far-flung family together in one place…first time for many years. From here, pictures can tell the rest of the story.




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