Liam Keeley's thoughts on practicing two classical traditions: Chen Style Taijiquan and Tatsumi Ryu heiho

CROSS-TRAINING - Classical Chinese and Japanese Systems

Liam Keeley is a board member of the International Hoplology Society. Originally from South Africa and currently residing in Australia, he lived in Japan for over twenty years. As well as an extensive background in both modern and classical Japanese martial and civil fighting systems, Liam has been training in Chen style taijiquan, and trained and did research in Zulu stickfighting. His comments below are extracted from an interview with Liam presented in Hop-Lite #14.

Question: You have trained long term in two koryu bugei, and Chen style taijiquan; what effect do see of one style upon the other?

I think there has been some effect, and I think it has been helpful. On the other hand I don't think my Tatsumi Ryu would be dramatically different from what it is now, if I had never done taiji. Note that when I talk about taiji, I am referring to Chen style, which in my opinion has an entirely different approach from, say, Yang style. I did Yang style for a few years, but it had minimal effect on me. I imagine my Tatsumi Ryu iai (solo sword practice that starts with drawing the sword from the scabbard) that is is where the effect of Chen taiji is most obvious. I see the role of iai practice as similar to the taiji forms in that free of the constraints imposed by facing a partner, one can concentrate on aspects of one's art other than the immediate necessities of a conflict situation. In other words, it is a chance to work on breathing, body movement and posture without distractions.


However, I have to say I enjoy watching any kind of body movement, human or animal, trying to make sense of what I see. I have always had an interest in this, not that I'm unique in this: Humans seem to have a highly developed appreciation for the assessment of body movement. Just think of the number of people who enjoy watching sporting events of every description, action movies, etc.

Probably my interest in such things increased under the influence of Donn Draeger. It was very stimulating being around him. Apart from my interest in physical anthropology, stuff like the influence of environment on typical body builds, and the relationship between body build and preferred weapons and weapons use, I have picked up quite a lot of ideas over the years from other arts and sports. In terms of theory of body movement, the sport which has influenced me most in recent years is Tennis. I started playing tennis about 5 or 6 years ago, and found a lot of similarities between tennis concepts of how to generate power and Chen taiji theory. Incidentally, I would characterize Tatsumi Ryu as a xingi (hsing-i) type system (key concept: a breaking wave). This is mainly because of the limitations incurred by centering on the two handed sword.

Body movement

At one stage I found that many of the corrections I was getting from my Tatsumi Ryu teachers coincided with what my taiji teacher, Yamaguchi Hakuei Sensei, was saying. For example, being too tense in the muscles around the kneecap, which was having a breaking effect on the transfer of weight leading to loss of potential power/impact, both in mytaiji and iai. I should mention that the traditional mode of practice for iai in Tatsumi Ryu is for the teacher/senior student to model the kata, which is then repeated by the other students to the best of their ability.

My corrections in Tatsumi Ryu were mostly from Kato Hiroshi Sensei, who would usually explain far more than his father, Takashi Sensei. Takashi Sensei taught in a very intuitive, or I suppose visual/non-verbal way, in that he would patiently demonstrate again and again, rather than explain verbally. Kato Takashi Sensei was very careful with corrections. For example, if you made a mistake in a sequence, for example, and he could see that you knew you had made a mistake, he would simply ignore it and carry on. He was very careful not too overcorrect, or to correct beyond the trainee's current level of ability to understand. Importantly, Takashi Sensei was always very positive rather than negative with his corrections. He was far more concerned with making sure one understood principles, not just intellectually, but in terms of being able to manifest them in one's movements. He also pointed out that there is a distinction between personal quirks, which are acceptable if they do not affect technique, and postural or biomechanical faults, which must be corrected.


Breathing techniques are not explicitly taught in Tatsumi Ryu, but seem to arise naturally through daily repetitive practice and observation of the teacher. I feel what I picked up about breath control through taiji essentially gave me a short cut, and perhaps a greater awareness of what I was doing. I definitely don't feel I am putting taiji breathing into Tatsumi Ryu. Awareness of different breathing patterns has given me a better feeling for where my center of gravity is at any one time, and a tool to control it.

Balance /Body movement

There are some obvious differences in posture/stance between taiji and koryu: when one is locked into using a two handed sword one will have a different posture from someone who is unarmed or using a single-hand sword. However there is also a lot of overlap. The basis of Tatsumi Ryu iai is walking, which is a pattern of body movement that pretty much defines us as human. Can't get much more natural than that. In the case of Chen "pushing-hands," while the first levels do not look particularly like walking, some of the advanced form do. Finally I would say although there seems to be a tendency to use the chien (Chinese straight sword) with one hand-possibly as the result of using lighter swords and/or martial arts competitions-I was very interested to note that when Chen Xiao Wong Sifu taught us the Chen sword form some years ago, that the left hand was often used to support the sword hand.


Tatsumi Ryu has quite a lot of theory in the makimono (scrolls) that relates to ying/yang and similar esoterica. Given the East Asian cultural background in Chinese and Japanese classical systems, I would say there certainly are a fair amount of shared assumptions - Confucian, Daoist, (Yin-yang, Five elements, etc). Most sophisticated systems have a good understanding of the effects of gravity and how that relates to generating power. Although, since one cannot escape one's culture, each system may express its understanding of such things as centrifugal force in what may seem to us as quaint or esoteric. I have found tremendous depth in Tatsumi Ryu, and without going into too much detail, would say that there is a very sophisticated understanding of human body movement and psychology, both in the teachers' instructions and in surviving documents, including the makimono.

I should mention that I also practiced Okinawa Goju Ryu karate pretty intensively over 17 years. About five or six years of that was directly under Higaonna Morio Sensei in Tokyo. I still like Goju Ryu, and think if I was unexpectedly assaulted, it would be the first thing that came out, and would do the job. Having said that, my background in karate caused considerable interference with learning both Tatsumi Ryu and Chen taiji, since I had been doing Goju for about 17 years before I started them (1984 and 1986 respectively). In the case of Tatsumi Ryu, I found it hard to get away from the Goju Ryu Sanchin stance and arcing-step patterns that I had internalised. I kept doing them when I should have been walking naturally. Eventually I was able to change to a stance that was more appropriate to using a weapon in a relatively linear fashion.

I imagine that there was a fair amount of change that occurred in the evolution of Miyagi Chojun's Goju from Higaonna Kanryo's Fukien Province martial arts. A key point, I believe, was Miyagi's conscious decision to stay away from the incorporation of weapons into his style. Although I understand from Higaonna Morio Sensei, who is my main source on this, that Higaonna Kanryo was expert in the use of the dao/seiryutou (curved, single-cutting edge sword). The decision to ignore weapons affects the principles of body movement in two ways: one is not oneself using a weapon; and one does not expect a weapon to be used against oneself. That is, the premise becomes a strictly "empty-hand" affair. The result of neglecting to consider the possibility of being attacked with a weapon, at least in the case of Goju Ryu, seems to have been an over emphasis on body conditioning, and a loss of mobility in terms of footwork, and an over reliance on absorbing punishment and the use of force-on-force blocks. It should be obvious that no amount of body conditioning will help you withstand a cut from a bladed weapon, let alone the impact of a missile such as an arrow or spear. Many karate force-on-force blocks will not work either against a bladed weapon or particularly against something like the traditional Okinawan weapons such as sai or tonfa.

The other karate-based problem that I encountered in learning taiji, (though not in Tatsumi Ryu), was that the intensity of training in Goju Ryu karate under Higaonna Morio Sensei had accustomed me to pushing my body to its limits. I think that if one continually does this-over-riding signals of protest from one body-you lose a certain sensitivity, which is then hard to get back. Or at least I found it be so. To generalize, I would say that the Chinese martial systems, at least the Internal ones I am familiar with, place much more emphasis than Japanese ones on what they call listening to one's body I always think back to the remarks of Cheong Cheng Leong, the Phoenix-Eye Fist master in Penang, Malaysia) at a lunch he put on for Donn Draeger and the IHS Field research team in Penang in 1979. He commented that all decent systems need to develop i (intent, will, volition), qi (chi - internal power), and li (muscular or physical force) in a balanced manner. I would say my Goju Ryu training definitely helped me develop a certain amount of li and i (strength and neural drive), though possibly at the expense of other factors. I guess the moral is that one needs to vary one's training as much as possible. Sheer guts type training, mind numbing repetition, and technique training all have their place.

Tatsumi Ryu seems to handle this issue rather well. Many exponents cross train in kendo, so that they get in a fair amount of aerobic type training and repetition. And the curriculum has built into it training opportunities to test the students in the form of such training as kazunuki, in which students who have attained a certain level are required to perform 3,000 continuous repetitions of the two central kata of the ryu.

I still occasionally teach Goju Ryu for my brother-in-law, who has a dojo here in Melbourne. I find that my Chen style taiji has changed the flavor of my karate. I think it has given me a better appreciation of the ju (soft) side of Goju Ryu, for what that's worth.

Knowing and Doing

I think that experienced Chen people have a fantastic understanding of what they are doing, however, you don't necessarily have to have that understanding to do it. It certainly helps you as a teacher/coach, though. My point is that some people will naturally be good at certain things without necessarily having an intellectual understanding of the principles involved. There must be plenty of champion boxers who can't explain how they get power in their punches, for example. As well, any good system should emphasize whole body movement. And, finally, any system should end up as a hard/soft system, given time enough. A key factor is that intense repetitive practice, preferably under stress, should be done at least some of the time. A further factor for consideration is that today, free from historical constraints, we are able to pick and choose which arts, or which portions of our chosen art, interest us the most. For example, some may choose to spend a good deal of time on practicing say shuriken-jutsu (throwing-darts). I once asked Kato Takashi Sensei what he thought about selecting a fighting system to train in. He explained that it was a question of priorities. It would be foolish in the historical context to spend say fifty percent of one's available time in training something that would rarely be used. The majority of one's training time should be spent working with the weapons and techniques that one expected to use.

I don't see much problem in reconciling sophisticated systems which are well rounded and have a long, unbroken history. Thus systems like taiji and Tatsumi Ryu heiho have had the time (the past 400 or 500 years, with some kind of combative input from each generation until recently) to sort out any problems. Contradictions arise with half-baked systems based upon false premises, such when a lineage is broken, or perhaps only partly passed down, and improperly recreated by people who lack the required knowledge. Or cases in which people with little or no personal experience of combat create their own systems.

I think taking on and practicing two very sophisticated systems from two distinct cultures is an extraordinarily difficult thing to do, and rarely worth it. For my part, my motives for getting involved with Chen taiji was not necessarily to use it as a means of training for combat, since I felt that between the weapons training I had in the South African Army with modern weapons, Goju Ryu Karate, and Tatsumi Ryu, I had quite enough to go on. I started in Chen to get some insight into Chinese martial culture and thought, which would help broaden my hoplological perspective, through doing an extremely sophisticated Chinese art.

Given that one usually has limited time, I would say the best thing is to find a style you like that has a nice variety of techniques, which appeal to you, and stick to that. On the other hand, I have to admit that I didn't do that (Zulu stickfighting, anyone ?). The danger of doing too many arts is that one becomes mediocre at several things instead of good at one of them. Another point which I will not belabor, is the civil/martial dichotomy - the problems of practicing both civilian and martial based fighting arts.

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