White Birch Martial Arts

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Tai Chi History




In the Chinese martial arts there are two basic schools, and these schools are sometimes called the “hard” and the “soft.” Hard training is Kung Fu. Kung Fu developed (for the most part) in the Shaolin Temple of Hunan Province in central China. The Shaolin temple was a Buddhist monastery.

The soft school includes Hsing I, Pa Qua and, most famously, Tai Chi. These arts (sometimes called “Wu Dan”) developed variously during the course of Chinese history. They no doubt owe a lot to the Shaolin system, yet they are more heavily influenced by Taoism than by Buddhism.

The hard systems of Kung Fu tend to be more direct in their method of attack. They include, but do not favor, linear movement.

The soft systems are more circular, employing deep muscle groups and often making more use of the entire body in expressing movements. This often gives the impression that force is being “brought up,” which it is, from deep within the body or from low in the stance.

Another way to characterize the difference between the internal and external schools is that the external applies force to an opponent whereas the internal absorbs or ‘internalizes’ force delivered by one’s opponent.

In actuality, the internal and external arts share more similarities than differences.

All martial arts, for example, use Fa Jing. Fa Jing can be translated as coiling energy. This is, twisting the body so that movement develops in the lower parts and is expressed outwardly throughout the arms and hands.

Both Kung Fu and Tai Chi stylists should be able to do this. Another term that refers to this specialized use of muscle groups is Nie Kung – internal work. That is, using deep muscles to develop explosive force. All martial arts do this.

Both systems also make use of breathing. The internal artists are believed to use breathing control more effectively, but this is not so. Breathing control is sometimes referred to as “Chi Kung” – “Breath Work.” All martial arts are breath work with respect to the fact that all martial artists employ an inhale/exhale (coinciding with “cock/execute”) breathing patterns.

Philosophically, there is also a huge amount of overlap. The differences between Kung Fu and Tai Chi are not black and white. Keep in mind that China is a very old place. It is also a very big place and it has a lot of people in it. People talk with each other, they share ideas and argue, they form their own groups, then divide into smaller groups, and then divide again and rejoin. They form their own ideas and take other people’s ideas.

If you want a good model for the development of Chinese martial arts’ physical and spiritual traditions, examine languages. Why do we have words like rendezvous in English? Or consider philosophy: Why is Japanese Buddhism different from Indian Buddhism? Maybe, on its way to Japan, it traveled through China and was influenced by Taoism? Ideas were exchanged, picked up and discarded in the development of Buddhism. The same thing has happened in the development of Chinese martial arts.

Boundaries are not as clear as we sometimes think.



Keeping in mind what we have discussed above, Tai Chi can be considered one of the three “internal” martial arts of China, also called the “Three Sisters.”


For one of the better academic texts on Tai Chi, see Lost Tai-chi Classics from the Late Ch’ing Dynasty, in the recommended reading list.

As with much of Chinese culture, myth and history combine to give us an entertaining if apocryphal account of the origin mastered the origins of Tai Chi. According to one legend, the 13th century Taoist boxer Chang San-Feng based his theories on the interplay of Yin and Yang and was able to give them concrete form after witnessing an epic battle between a Crow and a Serpent.

The Crow attacked with energy and persistence, but each of his lunges was avoided by the snake, who calmly moved aside whichever part of his body was in danger. This continued until the bird, his energy spent, launched a final attack and the snake countered, biting the bird’s exposed neck.

Whether or not this story was an inspiration for the Taoist system of martial art called Tai Chi it at least illustrates how softness and yielding can overcome strength and aggression.

What is known of Chang San-Feng is that he was born on April 9th in the year 1247 A.D. he received an education in the Chinese Classics and at one time he held a position with the Yuan government. He is also said to have mastered the Shaolin system of martial arts.

All in all, we can guess that Chang San-Feng combined Shaolin boxing, Taoist philosophy and indigenous breathing and fighting drills into a system of his own. Chang San-Feng may also have developed the 8 energies and 5 steps of Tai Chi.

The known history of Tai Chi is incomplete. The 108 movement form of the Yang family dates from the 1920’s. Yang Cheng-fu was its main architect.

Modern Tai Chi is divided into Five major styles or families. They are: Yang, Chen, Wu, Sun, and Chang.

The Yang system is the most widespread, especially in the United States. Yang Tai Chi is noted for its flowing movements, large, generous postures, clear weight distribution between the feet and “lightness.” Its large stances and full movements are typical of Northern Shaolin boxing, and it is almost a certainty that the two systems share a common heritage.

For information on a complete home study program of Tai Chi Click here.

The 12 Fundamentals of Tai Chi

I attended a seminar for teachers of tai chi several years ago and one of the things discussed was how to judge Tai Chi at tournaments when the majority of the competitors are performing different versions of the forms.

The seminar leader argued, persuasively, that we should not judge choreography, that is, the order in which postures are perform. Rather, we should pay attention to the fundamentals of the form and base our assessment on that.

Here are the fundamentals.

1. Back Straight - crown of head lifted, tail bone tucked. This lengthens and stretches the spine, allowing unconstricted flow energy.
2. Six Gates Open - the ankles, knees, hips, wrists, elbows and shoulders should be flexed, not locked. The body should be soft, not rigid.
3. Separate Your Weight - shift your weight back and forth so your are dynamic, not static. Be both proactive and receptive. If we can't move into an opening, we miss an opportunity. If we can't withdraw at the proper time, we will get knocked off our base.
4. Intention - our eye focus links mind and body so our actions follow our thoughts. When you practice Pushing Hands, look where you're pushing. When you do form, put your gaze in the direction of your action.
5. Circularity - your practice should be smooth and flowing, not abrupt and linear. Circles connect our movements.
6. Level Height - you are either advancing, or retreating, or redirecting so our energy is controlled and directed on a level plain. Bobbing up and down is irrelevant to our purpose.
7. Continuity - learn in pieces (because that's the only way to do it) but practice as a whole. Don't stop and start in either form or pushing hands. Always be in motion so no single part is divorced from the rest.
8. Hands and Feet Coordinate - the body moves as a whole. Weight shift, rotation, and hand position should all conclude at the same time.
9. Move from the Ground Up - motion begins in the feet, is controlled at the waist and expressed in the hands. Be rooted, and move from there.
10. Shoulder Width Stance - your base should be as broad as your shoulders to allow the six gates to open, circularity, and continuity. all, only the body. Aim for this in your practice.
11. Move from the center of your body. Minimize the movement of the limbs; maximize the movement (especially rotation) of the torso.
12. Have a Good Outlook - Be cheerful in your practice. There is no rush to learn, and mistakes (yours and other people's) are okay. Strive to not only discipline your physical form, but your outlook.

Forms of Yang Style

Some common divisions within the Yang system are the “Classical” 108 movement style of Yang Chen Fu (died 1935), Chen Manch’ing style and Chen Pan l’ing style.

Chen family Tai Chi is recognizable for its sudden “Fa Jing.” Chen movements are crisp and powerful. As with Yang, movement flows upward from the feet into the hands. Extremely low stances and some jumping are included. There is also a simplified form of 24 movements.

Click here to learn the Yang Short Form.

Wu Tai Chi is performed slowly, as with Yang, but it is more upright. Movements appear more linear than Yang and the upper body may be inclined forward. The Sun and Chang systems are similar to Yang, with a greater emphasis on coiling and compactness.

All of the families of Tai Chi, as with all of the Chinese martial arts, should show a clear uniformity of movement connecting the hips and shoulders. That is, the hips and shoulders should be identically aligned so that power is generated from the whole torso.

Why is this? Because Tai Chi developed as, and still is, a martial art. Martial arts are concerned with fighting. In fighting theory, when a punch is thrown, the blow will land with m ore force if it is backed up by the body. How do you do this? By turning your shoulder and hip at the same tie you strike, so that the movement of the arm is not divorced from the movement of the torso.


Formally, Tai Chi is a complete system of health, meditation and self defense. Most of the postures comprising the Tai Chi form have martial arts applications and many of them (Bend the Bow and Shoot the Tiger, White Crane Spreads It’s Wings, Wave hands Like Clouds) are identical to movements found in Kung Fu forms.

Tai Chi is based on Taoist philosophy. This philosophy asserts that before the universe was formed, there existed a state called Wu Chi or “nothingness.” In nothingness there was no movement, and no separation between light and dark, solid and void, positive and negative.

Once there was movement, there was separation of opposites. The state which followed Wu Chi, and which was brought about by movement, was called Tai Chi. In this regard, Tai Chi can be translated, approximately, as “eternal energy,” or more simply, “reality.”

The symbol of Taoism, and also the symbol of Tai Chi, is the Ying/Yang. The Yin/Yang represents the two principles of reality, positive and negative. As you can see from the symbol below, the design of the Yin/Yang implies movement, (unified) separation and balance. Note that the black area contains a white dot and vice versa. This indicates that everything must contain an element of its opposite in order to be balanced – in other words, you can’t be all one way.

The world around us is considered Tai Chi – “Ultimate Reality.” It is a world governed by movement and balance. In order to put ourselves in harmony with this world, we can practice an exercise that teaches us the rules that govern reality, i.e., movement and balance. This exercise is called Tai Chi Chuan. Chuan means fist. In the context of traditional Chinese martial arts, the term fist means application.

Tai Chi is a system of training. At the very core of this training is a belief in balance. This, perhaps, is the principal that Tai Chi emphasizes most, and which sets it apart, even though other martial arts include this same principal. Because of this, we should train with Tai Chi as a system so we receive balanced training. This is why, traditionally, Tai Chi has been practiced for health, relaxation, and self defense. To emphasize only one aspect of this system is to become unbalanced.

Note: when we study something as a system, we gain insights that we would not have gained from a one-dimensional study. The postures of Tai Chi can be understood and explained in terms of physical health, self defense, mental discipline, and aesthetics.

Let me give you an example of this. Each of the postures of Tai Chi Chuan can be broken into two parts, preparation and execution, in which the weight is shifted from one leg to the other along with an inhalation and an exhalation. As I have said, we can explain this from three perspectives.

For health, we must work both sides of the body equally, and our breathing must be free.

For self defense, we must cock before we can punch. We must block before we can counter. It is best to yield to an attack, rather than stepping directly into it, but when we counter, we must assert (go forward) in order to be effective.

Philosophically, we learn that effective living involves both yielding and asserting. We must be able to give ground, as well as be able to move ahead, all depending on the circumstances. What are the circumstances? Well, in the case of a punch or verbal aggression, we don’t’ want to rush into an attack. We should, rather, yield and wait until the energy is spent, then we can move ahead.

The Tao Teh Ching, (an ancient Taoist text) tells us as much in saying “The height of Yin (negative) is Yang (positive).” Or put another way, when our opponent’s energy is spent and his movement has peaked and gone from strong to weak, it is our time to move ahead and go from weak (yielding or Yin) to strong (asserting or Yang).

To apply the philosophy of the martial arts in your daily life click here.

In this way, we can see how learning about self defense applications can give us insight into the philosophical applications of this system of discipline. In fact, all the dimensions of Tai Chi offer lessons touching on one another. This is why it is important to 1) study it as a system, and 2) study with an instructor who can teach you Tai Chi in all its dimensions.

The main point to keep in mind is that in order to be effective, you must seek balance.


As with other martial arts (see section on Kung Fu), the training is generally divided into four parts: basics, technique, form and sparring.

Tai Chi basics include Chi Kung or “breath work,” stance training and Taoist meditation. At the very least, every student should become skilled in some of the standard breathing sequences of Chi Kung. These drills are invaluable in accustoming beginners to the specialized way of moving and breathing that is practiced in Tai Chi. Practicing these drills will also help the student gain grater physical strength and mental clarity.

Once mastered, these drills can be practiced again and again as warm ups, and also as abbreviated routines for someone recovering from or fighting an illness. Even the greatest masters return again to the basics, as these were their original classrooms.

Techniques in Tai Chi include all of the postures that join together to create the forms. In the Yang system, these are the 36 original postures such as “Parting the Wild Horse’s Man (also called “Stanting Flying,” “Brush Knee and Push,” “Pat High On Horse,” “Golden Pheasant Stands on One Leg” and “Fair Lady Works at Shuttle”).

Form in the Tai Chi includes the major and minor training sets. In the Yang system, these are the 24, 46, and 108 movement sets, as well as the Straight Sword, Broad Sword, Long Staff, Fan, Spear and Two-man sets.

Tai Chi also has a sparring component. It is called “Pushing Hands.” Pushing Hands is performed with two people and may be done in a stationary position without moving the feet, following a “fixed step” pattern, or free form in a moving “Pushing” contest. Rules of engagement vary widely. In the United States, competition is fairly civil. Points are given when an opponent steps back or stumbles forward. Punching, kicking, grabbing, and throwing are prohibited, though I have heard of all this being considered fair play in Taiwan.

With a partner of like interests and temperament, Pushing Hands can be a fun exercise as well as a valid practice of principals of Yin and Yang.


Like Tai Chi, the origins of Hsing I (pronounced “sing ee”) are obscured by the mists and effluvia of Chinese folklore. By one account, the warrior Yueh Fei concocted the system during the Sung Dynasty (the 10th through 13th centuries A.D.). This history is as likely as any.

Hsing means “shape” and I means “mind,” or “mind giving shape to movement.” This system places great emphasis on linear movements and strikes delivered with closed fists. Movements are sudden and forceful, unlike Tai Chi, though Hsing I shares Tai Chi’s use of twisting and rotating to develop power.

Stances tend to be high and narrow, although a deep horse stance and a very low twist stance are occasionally employed. Most of the Hsing I stances resemble a “Cat” stance (Shi Bu in Chinese), with 40% of the weight on the front foot and 60% on the rear. In the Hsing I, this is called a “Sitting Back Stance.”

Also like Tai Chi, Hsing I mixes philosophy with martial technique. Where Tai Chi focuses mainly on the interplay of Yin and Yang, Hsing I includes both the Yin/Yang dichotomy as well as the relationship of the five Primary Elements of ancient Chinese Cosmology.

According to this outlook, the Five Elements interact to bring about all life and death, their genesis and decline. The Five Elements and their attributes are:

P’I Metal Splitting
TS’UAN Water Drilling
P’ENG Wood Crushing
P’AO Fire Pounding
HENG Earth Crossing

As one can guess from the characteristics given to each element, Hsing I does not attach equal importance to both yielding and advancing. In the Hsing I system, force predominates. This force is balanced, however, by the overall interaction of the Five Elements. While all the elements represent an aspect of force (or creation), each must yield, in time, to the element that will replace it (decline). In this manner, the Five Elements or “forces” balance each other as the old is continually making way for the new. Even in a system of stressing force, there is yielding.

Can you see the influence of Taoism here?

    Earth creates Metal (minerals)
    Metal creates Water (condensation)
    Water creates Wood (growth)
    Wood creates Fire (fuel)
    Fire creates Earth (as)

    In turn…

      Earth destroys Water (dams up)
      Water destroys Fire (extinguishes)
      Fire destroys Metal (melts)
      Metal destroys Wood (chops)
      Wood destroys Earth (breaks apart and consumes)

In addition to the Five Elements, Hsing I incorporates the movements of 12 animals. The animals are: dragon, tiger, monkey, horse, tortoise, chicken, sparrow-hawk, swallow, snake, pigeon, eagle and bear. By other accounts, the camel, falcon, T’ai (a mythical bird), and water skimmer (an insect living on the surface of ponds) may be included, but others omitted. The name Hsing I or “shape mind” becomes more sensible when we realize that the concept underlying Hsing I study is not literally to become metal or a bear, but to understand (with one’s mind) what quality those things possess and to give some sort of physical representation to that quality through martial arts form.

Like other martial arts, Hsing I training can be divided into four categories, those being basics, technique, form and sparring.

The basics of Hsing I are the Five Elements, the techniques are the specific applications of those elements, as well as self defense combinations initiative of the 12 animals. Hsing I form is arranged into “linking sets” that include either Five Elements or the 12 animals. Hsing I also includes two-man sets that are executed with a partner. Sparring is Hsing I is or is not stressed, depending on the school and the instructor. When it is practiced, it is much like sparring in the Shaolin system; it tends to be free form, with use of Hsing I movement employed where practical.


The last of the “Three Sisters” is Pa Qua. This art derives its name and major emphasis from the “Eight Trigrams” of the Chinese fortune telling book I Ching, or “Book of Changes.” According to popular belief, the System was formalized by Tung Hai-Chuan, who learned it from a Taoist priest during a visit to Yu-Hua mountain. This is supposed to have occurred sometime around 1870 A.D. As one can see, it is a comparatively recent (some would say “higher”) development in Chinese martial arts.

Pa Qua movement is extremely subtle. Much of the emphasis is on twisting the waist, the upper body is held upright, breathing is through the nose with tongue held to the roof of the mouth – as with all the “internal” martial artist.

Pa Qua training compliments Hsing I in that it is comprised entirely of circular movement, whereas Hsing I is, at least on the surface, a linear system. Just as the majority of Hsing I movements are rooted in the Five Elements, Pa Qua is based on the Eight Changes.

These “changes” are found in the I Ching. They are represented below in their standard configuration:

As I have said, all of this springs from Chinese fortune telling folk art. The “Trigrams” look like sticks because that’s what they were originally. The fortune teller would throw a handful of sticks on the ground and derive meaning from the pattern they created. Gradually, those patterns were formalized:

Their meanings are as follows:

















Note: In keeping with the “crossover” of characteristics between supposedly separate arts (as I have mentioned in this guide), it is interesting to note that Tai Chi makes use of the Eight Trigrams by assigning each a posture.

They are: Ward off/Chien; Roll-back/Kun; Press/Kan; Push/Li; Pull-down/Sun; Split/Chen; Elbow/Tui; and Shoulder-strike/Ken.

The breakdown of training in Pa Qua is again in four parts. The basics are the Eight Changes; techniques are applications of those changes; and form includes some weapons, varying from school to school. The most common empty hand form is the Dragon form, which would correspond to a “linking set” in Hsing I. Sparring, as with Hsing I, is not always a part of training and is more a matter of the instructor’s inclination.

Perhaps the most popular training exercise in Pa Qua is “Walking the Circle.” This can be performed individually or with a group. The students assume a formal fighting stance with one hand up, the other low with the index finger turned inward toward the navel. Steps are light and quick, skimming the floor, with the heel kicking up at the last instant. Anyone who has ever seen group of Pa Qua enthusiasts “Walking the Circle” has been impressed by the group’s cohesion combined with seeming spontaneity.

Much subtlety is required for proper execution of Pa Qua techniques. Many of the movements are hidden to the observer. Indeed, the entire essence of Pa Qua seems to be found in circling and confusing one’s opponent with last second ducks and sudden reversals.


The major advantage of training in any of the “internal” arts is that these are, for good reason, considered “soft.” The movements tend to be circular and smooth. They do not tax the joints and are usually performed at a speed that does note quire above average physical conditioning. As a result, this type of training can continue to be enjoyed throughout one’s life. In fact, in China, Japan, and Taiwan, Tai Chi is most popular among the older members of the population.

Another advantage, depending on what one is looking for, is that schools teaching these arts often emphasize, or at least include, a spiritual component with the training.



One concept which all the Asian martial arts share is that of “chi.” Chi means energy or breath and it is within the internal martial arts that we find the greatest focus on developing this energy.

In spite of all the distortion this concept has suffered due to ignorance and advertising, Chi is real, and it can be developed. The clearest (in an empirical sense) demonstration of the uses of Chi is what has been done in China medically. Surgeons have performed open heart surgery on patience using no anesthetic. Pain control was achieved entirely through the use of dozens of small needles controlled by teams of acupuncturists.

Acupuncture, and its control of Chi, has been credited with achieving remarkable results in the field of health.

But what role does Chi play in the martial arts? According to tradition, all the “internal” arts are supposed to encourage the development of Chi by including movements that stimulate the chi meridians or channels. The Chi directed to the Dan Tien (a spot about three inches below the navel) and stored. Or it may be directed to any spot on the body and used to resist a blow. The belief is that by storing and concentrating chi, the martial artist not only gains greater fighting ability, but will live a longer and healthier life and may even gain immortality!

This may or may not be the case. I know of Chinese martial artists who died in their early seventies. This seems to be about the same as the American national average – and most Americans do not spend their lives performing esoteric exercises that store “life force.”

However skeptical we remain about the existence and use of Chi, we should at least concede that the meridians and stimulation points of acupuncture coincide with recognized nerve centers of western medicine. We should also acknowledge that, in cases where the patient is a true believer, acupuncture and other forms of chi stimulation can lead a person back to good health, or be used to maintain that health.

Note: However you define chi, remember that there exists some kind of energy that keeps you alive. Whatever you envision, seek to strengthen it through your training and you will be rewarded with greater health and longer life.

This section will conclude by introducing you to methods of developing and controlling chi.


    There are three basic forms of breathing. They are regular, abdominal, and reverse abdominal.

    Regular breathing is just what it sounds like. The student breathes normally, without any special technique or muscular contractions. In abdominal breathing, the student uses his or her abdominal muscles to “pull” breath deep into the abdomen.

    As the breath is drawn deep into the abdomen, the abdomen expands. In reverse abdominal breathing, the student again draws breath deep into the abdomen. The difference here is that the abdominal muscles are tightened so that the abdomen contracts, then, when breath is released, the abdomen expands. This is the reverse of regular breathing.

    Regular breathing is suitable during meditation and even Tai Chi or Chi Kung practice. It works well for beginners because there is only so much that a person can concentrate on at one time. With beginning students, concentrating on posture often takes all the concentration they have and it is best to leave the breathing as it is.

    Abdominal breathing is a specific method of forcing breath into the lower abdomen, and thus greatly concentrating chi into the Dan Tien. This method is best practiced only under an instructor’s supervision.

    Reverse abdominal breathing involves inhaling and contracting the muscles of the abdomen simultaneously. This method of breathing control is most closely associated with self defense practices. The goal is to tighten the abdomen and stomach areas so they are more resistant to force if struck. This type of breathing should be practiced only in combination with martial arts training under an instructor’s supervision.

For a complete program of Chi development click here.


    Once you have developed a practice that suits you, you may want to augment the health benefits you’re gaining from regular meditation by practicing a form of visualization called “Chi Manipulation.”

    There are countless varieties of Taoist Chi Manipulation. Each teacher seems to have his own method.

    A good starting point, once you have become capable of good breathing control, is to begin imagining energy flowing through your body as you meditate. This visualization should perform three tasks:

1. Energy movement should synchronize with your breaths – good energy in, bad energy out.
2. Energy should, during the course of your practice, find its way to all parts of your body.
3. The energy that you are imagining to move through your body should be conceived of as something elemental, universal, and thoroughly positive. The very presence of this energy in your body should be considered good, healthful and constructive.

Chi manipulation can be a part of Tai Chi form practice, meditation, or whatever else you wish.


A final aspect of developing internal energy is using massage to circulate this energy after it has been concentrated. You may find that your hands have become warm during your meditation or Tai Chi. This is because you relaxed your body (opened your “Six Gates” – the ankles, knees, hips, wrists, elbows, and shoulders were kept relaxed rather than locked, so as to allow the free flow of blood and energy) which led to greater circulation of blood.

Secondly, it is believed by many that the exercises you were performing caused chi to flow through your body and become concentrated in your hands. Explanations of how this happens can become quite technical. Basically, the belief is that energy is brought up from the feet, channeled at the hips and expressed through the hands and fingers. If you perform your Tai Chi regularly and correctly you should notice your hands warming up. The idea is to apply that collected energy where it will do the most good – by massaging the area that needs it!

Regardless of how a person envisions chi to exist or operate within the human body, he or she will find chi massage to be extremely relaxing and enjoyable.

Rather than present a complex series of exercises which must be done “all or nothing,” and we have listed six different massage techniques the student can experiment with after practicing Tai Chi Chuan and Meditation.

1. Massage the scalp with your fingertips vigorously for one minute.
2. Lightly massage the face, beginning with the forehead, then moving to the nose and working outward to include the entire face. Do this for two to three minutes.
3. Begin by gently rotating the fingers in their sockets, beginning with the small finger and finishing with the thumb, left hand first, then right. Now systematically work your palm with the thumb of the opposite hand. Begin at the heel of the palm and work up toward the knuckles. Once you are at the fingers, gently pull the fingers away from the hands, enclosing the finger with the thumb, index and middle fingers of the opposite hand thus, “squeezing” the chi into the fingertips.
4. Sit on the floor with your legs outstretched before you and “pound” (lightly) your thighs with loosely closed fists. Do this in a light, rapid pattern with both fists.
5. As with #4 above, lightly “chop” the back of your neck with your fingertips forming the “beak of a crane.” Do this for as long as you like.
6. As with #3 above, give the same treatment to your feet.
Make at least one of these exercises a regular part of your work out. Try to conclude your routines each time with at least five minutes of self massage.

©Copyright 2006, Tien Shan Martial Arts