This interview was written by my good friend Peter Farrell, it was written for a magazine originally but was never printed.
PF: You have studied Chu Gar Hung Kuen for many years with Grandmaster Chu Siu Woon and became one of his senior students, why did you become interested in Sun Style Taiji?
BM: During the 90s, I was diagnosed as being diabetic and was prescribed insulin quite quickly, my health deteriorated and I looked around for an art that was different but would enable me to get back to full health gently. Fortunately, I found Dave Martin in Leicester and as Dave was a disciple of Madame Sun Jian Yun I could not have wished for a better introduction to Sun Style. The training consisted of elements of Taiji, Xing Yi and Bagua which I found beneficial and fascinating on many levels.
PF: How does Sun style training compare to your training in Hung Kuen?
BM: The training is very similar as they are both traditional arts. A lot of time is spent working on the basics especially in Xing Yi, but in Sun style the body should be used more naturally, not holding or forcing the breath but allowing the body to find its way naturally. The aim is on self development through using the mind to move the body, while keeping alignments correct and natural so that less stress is put on joints.
PF: You mentioned that training incorporates Taiji, Xing Yi and Bagua. Do people need to learn all these systems to gain health benefits or is it sufficient just to do the Taiji?
BM: I believe that to progress to the highest level in Sun style then all three arts need to be studied, as this will give martial as well as health benefits, but as there are elements of Xing Yi and Bagua in the Taiji form it can be used to train effectively for health. My teacher says that we learn Xing Yi for root and power, Taiji for concentration and relaxation and Bagua for speed and agility. Coupled with the push hands training it gives us an understanding of how to use Sun style.
PF: Is it important to learn the martial side of Taiji in order to gain health benefits?
BM: I think if you learn and practise the form in the appropriate manner then both the martial skill and health benefits will develop because they both rely on the same principles, for example, alignments and power development. So to answer the question, no, it is not necessary to learn the martial arts to gain health benefits as they are available in the form for all to develop. However, just as the concept of health is relative, the extent to which individuals wish to practice Sun style Taiji for health is also relative and I would encourage its practice at any level.
PF: Do people need to train in all 3 systems for martial purposes or is it acceptable to concentrate on one style, for example, Bagua?
BM: No, I think to understand Sun style completely, all three arts need to be studied. Many people like to learn a specific martial art and as Sun style is quite rare then obviously with the reputation of Sun Lu Tang people think that they can just study the Bagua or Xing Yi but the three arts are linked and are meant to compliment each other. Clearly, some practitioners do train in an individual art for a variety of reasons and find it suitable as a martial system in its own right; I am specifically talking about Sun style in a holistic sense. However, commonly, the three “internal” arts are taught in progression, so just as my teacher does I would tend to teach all three arts as “Sun style martial arts” but it is important to remember that although we teach them separately they each give a specific attribute and come together in the Taiji form.
PF: Could you explain the importance of the three systems from a martial view point?
BM: As explained by my teacher, we practise Xing Yi for root and power development (Fa Jin), the Bagua is for speed, agility and nimbleness and lastly the Taiji gives us relaxed concentration. Together with Tui Shou (push hands) they give us attributes to use the art.
PF: We often refer to Hung kuen as an external or hard system of Gung Fu and Taiji as an internal or soft system. Apart from the obvious physical and stylistic differences are there any differences in the effectiveness of the two systems from a martial viewpoint?
BM: I think a lot of things come down to the individual not the system, as a system is only as effective as the person using it. If the basics are learned and practised, then skills built on a solid foundation can be effective. From a internal point of view, using the body more naturally over a long period of time the body suffers less damage to the joints and ligaments and so can function for longer in good health. I think an ideal balance would be to study an external art first then to move onto an internal art when in your 30s or 40s. This is only my personal opinion and of course there are many examples of hard external martial artists living a long and healthy life.
PF: Pushing hands is considered to be an essential aspect of Taiji. I understand that it might be difficult to elucidate in a couple of sentences but could you say something about how this training relates to martial technique?
BM: When I first went to my teacher master Lei Shi Tai he said he could teach me how to use Sun Style through push hands, and over the past 3 years we have practiced many hours of push hands and he has shown me how to use the techniques including Fa Jin. These techniques have also included Xing Yi and Bagua. We first learn Da Lun to train the four corners and get used to ward off, rollback, press and push. We then progress to stepping and lastly to freestyle push hands where the techniques can be trained effectively and safely.
PF: You have trained to a high level in other systems such as Hung Kuen and Escrima. Does your knowledge of these systems enhance your Taiji and perhaps vice versa or are they completely different systems that have little bearing on each other?
BM: I think I have been lucky in that all my teachers have been at the top of their art and as such have complimented me as a martial artist. Each one has contributed to my development and added to my skills, knowledge and experience. Whilst the art is important and will undoubtedly have particular relevance for particular individuals, I feel to use the art effectively is down to me as an individual, so everything I have learned becomes part of me and internalised. I teach Sun style martial arts in the way I am taught by my teacher but use them in a way that is best for me using the skills and knowledge he has imparted to me. I think that is something that comes from many years of training.
PF: Many systems have particular basic training methods to develop strength, root etc, for example Mabu in Hung Kuen, does the Sun style emphasise any particular basic training or are such things inherent in the forms?
BM: In Xing Yi it is San Ti and the five element fist; in Bagua it is single and double palm change; in Taiji it is open and close hands. These things are all in the Taiji form in various guises but are essential and, importantly, complimentary elements within all three.