review by students of Wu’s Tai Chi Chuan Academy, London
On 21 November the 2009 STN Festival took place in Amsterdam, hosted by the Stichting Taijiquan Nederland (Netherlands Taijiquan Foundation). Several clubs from the UK made the journey, further cementing the growing ties between STN and TCUGB that have been developing between the two country’s Tai Chi organisations in recent years. Many participants came with teams from across Europe. The Netherlands were well represented by numerous styles of Tai Chi players including, among others, strong Hong Ying and Martini Art Dojo teams.
Wu‚Äôs Tai Chi Chuan Academy in Bethnal Green, London, sent a team of six competitors in push hands and forms events and two officials, led by Sifu Gary Wragg. We were warmly welcomed by our Dutch colleagues, who looked after us exceedingly well throughout the event. There were many familiar faces especially among the UK competitors. STN used an excellent venue for the event, an enormous and well-lit, tiered and galleried sports hall surrounded by smaller side gyms. This enabled the competition organisers to accommodate no fewer than 18 simultaneous Tai Chi workshops. This no doubt contributed to the excellence and diversity of the day, with people discovering they could try out in a workshop what they had just seen in a demonstration.
At lunchtime the competition events took a break and we were entertained with a brilliantly performed lion dance, demonstrations of the Sun Style and fan forms by Faye Li Yip, representative of the Deyin Institute, and an international array of hand, weapon and application performances demonstrated by individuals and groups from Germany, Russia, and China among others. After lunch the workshops resumed and Faye Yip noted that some people had decided to come to her fan form workshop who had seen the fan for the first time in her demonstration
There were a large number of forms and push hands categories and a greater diversity of competitors than is normally seen in UK competitions. For example, several teams of mature competitors entered group forms categories. They presented a pleasing if not particularly martial performance, and it was encouraging to see that they felt welcome and were interested to compete, despite not having an interest in the martial side of the art. However the very same ethos that enabled their participation did complicate the forms judging somewhat, because competitors who expect martial intent to be judged as an important element of any form performance found that it was not so evident in this competition. In the UK it is very normal, as in most other countries, that the martial intent is a necessary criteria among others in the judging of forms, as the tai chi chuan martial and health aspects are an integral complement to each other in the practice of the art. The TCUGB and STN leadership discussed this difference in respective competition cultures at a meeting after the event, and it was mentioned that in future events there could be separate categories in the STN competition.
The sports hall was spacious enough to accommodate four simultaneous competition areas ‚Äì two for forms and two for pushing hands. As well as the familiar Fixed Feet and Moving Step categories, the competition included an event called ‚ÄòEssential step‚Äô, where one could take one complete step forward when applying a technique, and one step back when neutralizing such a technique. There seemed to be a bit of confusion about how the techniques could be used, and points scored. We were aware that scoring was to be based on ‚Äòclean‚Äô Tai Chi techniques ‚Äì applied without the use of force ‚Äì but this proved difficult to score with some techniques, for example with pulldowns. It turned out that the Dutch rules were many pages longer than the ones translated to English, and that some of our confusion may have been due to translation difficulties also. Here again, there was an opportunity for Dutch and UK colleagues to collaborate on producing a clear set of rules for next time, and we agreed to work together on this.
Despite the usual assumption that tai chi chuan technique will overcome force (‚Äúfour ounces will move a thousand pounds‚Äù), few who have competed would argue for the removal of weight categories. Instead we equalise weight advantage where possible and then allow the tai chi skills to come (literally) into play. The infinite range of softness and hardness properly expressed and demonstrated in tai chi chuan push hand techniques is the core of the matter. How these are shown, as well as what is not appreciated, needs clarification in this competition. It would be better demonstrated by highly skilled referees and officials prior to the pushing hands events.
Other differences from the UK competitions were that the weigh-in procedure was less rigorous, mats were not used in the push hands fields, competitors were expected to wear shoes, and encouraging teams from the sidelines was prohibited. The ‚Äúno cheering‚Äù rule left the atmosphere a little muted. Whilst the other competitions can be notably rowdier, it also has great spirit as the performances are usually applauded, regardless of affiliation.
After the tournament the officials, who had come from all over the Netherlands and Europe, had a chance to unwind and catch up at a banquet laid on at the local Chinese restaurant. The competition organizers extended an invitation to foreign competitors to join in with the banquet, giving us an opportunity to relax and enjoy some excellent Chinese food (with an extensive vegetarian selection) as well as some well-earned ice-cold Tsing Tao beer.
The support of both countries by participating in each other‚Äôs competitions in their respective countries means a lot not only for the success of each event, but our continuing dialogue will help to improve the organisation of tai chi competitions in both our countries and to make an impact on improving judging and refereeing standards, as yet again there were a number of problems evident in the forms judging system at this event. The TCUGB Judges’ Seminars are one such initiative, and are open to participants from all countries. Continued attendance and participation in international events — whether competing or judging — and learning from each other through constructive criticism, are vital. We hope that the UK events next year will be equally well-attended by international teams, and we look forward to welcoming back the hosts and competitors of the STN Festival to the 2010 British Open on April 11th and the London Competition for Traditional Tai Chi Chuan on June 13th