Qi Gong, Guasha and a Fan

This Christmas holiday I have had the pleasure of attending a winter Taiji retreat on Chonming Island once more. It is my happy place as here I can both relax and feel energized at the same time. With covid sweeping the land our numbers were depleated (only 3 of us) but it made for a small intimate group with many opportunities for learning.

The main courtyard in the style of the Anhui Province

The weather was freezing cold but in the winter sunshine we had some bracing but enjoyable outdoor training sessions. We do all resemble the michelin man as we layered up!

Early morning Qi Gong in the yard

I loved the early morning practices. It was so invigorating to do my early wake up exercise as the sun rose across the lake.

On this retreat we completed the Qi Gong (working the energy) exercises that we began in October. We also did some early evening Zen meditation walks (in the dark so no photos). This started off being very hard as I discovered a weakness in my left ankle which made me wobble and lose balance whenever I stepped out on that side. This weakness on my left side is actually an industrial injury! From the library!!

From years and years of shelving books, with a heavy pile in my left hand I would take a book from the top of the pile and twist slightly on my left knee and ankle to put it in the right place on the shelves. I had no idea that this twisting was happening but it has resulted in my joints being out of alignment and the meniscus in my knee becoming worn. As a result I find that some of the movement I need to do are difficult because of this weakness. Amazingly, the Zen walking for half an hour each evening had a noticable strengthening effect. I am going to keep it up now that I am back home.

In the afternoons we used the little house by the lake for theory and philosophy talks. This time we learned about the 5 Elements theory of Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water and how they are inter-related with supporting benefits and limitations and how they are used in Traditional Chinese Medicine.

We also unpacked this interesting ancient chinese picture:

It is mounted here on royal yellow to show that it is a special and significant image. The drawing was made many thousands of years ago before modern science but it depicts how the energy (qi) moves around the body, to which organs and in which order. When people have emotional problems such as fear it is the result of an inbalance or blockage on one of the organs (or systems of organs) and conversely, if there is too much of a certain emotion it can cause damage to that organ. Anger, for instance is associated with the liver and spleen. Fear in the heart and Lungs.

We practiced some different stances for our daily meditation. This one is called Fu Yang where the hands rest below the navel over the ‘Qi Ocean’. This position helps the energy to circulate.

We also did some excruciatingly difficulty kneeling meditation. This is where I was painfully aware of my injured knee and could only manage 7 minutes tops (and even that was with a support like a cushion between my bottom and my heels). The kneeling position stretches out the damaged area of the knee and is a good way to help it to heal. I need to build that up and do ore of it regularly at home. That will be a good New Year’s resolution for me.

It was very very cold so some days we practiced inside the little house by the lake. Used mostly for local Party meetings we are allowed to use the space because we don’t disturb it too much. It does make for a meeting room with glorious views.

One of the benefits of advanced level Taiji is that you can understand your own body better and use your qi to help heal yourself or correct imbalances and as a result of this retreat, I know that I need to do more work on my lower body. If you can do it, using your own Qi is the most powerful and effective way of healing, much better than pumping the body full of drugs as we are used to in western medicine. They might be a quick fix but they cause other side effects or problems too. One of the Milun students based in Beijing has recently had COVID with extremely bad headaches. She used the Qi Gong breathing exercises to help manage the pain. She was able to make the headache disappear for a short while and when it came back it was reduced. Another Taiji student with COVID was able to direct the Qi to her throat to help ease the discomfort from coughing.

In my weekly lessons I have learned the full 57 movement Taiji routine to quite a high level and feel confident in moving the energy anywhere around my body. I can do the movements quickly and slickly or super slowly (which surprisingly is quite a work out) I have now moved on to learning The Fan.

This is a whole new ball game and I am back to beginner level. This routine is a lot more energetic with kicks, spins, balances and deep stretches. AT THE SAME TIME you have to manipulate the fan (& not drop it!) It is not easy! For many weeks I dropped or threw my fan around the room as I attempted to flick it open. I abused my first fan so much that it broke and I had to buy another one! I was a complete novice again. It was very humbling.

In the olden days the fan was in fact a weapon. Made of bamboo struts and silk, each spoke could have a sharpened point behind the fabric which when opened could be used to slice someone’s throat open. A skilled practitioner would look respectful at the court as no one could tell if his fan was weaponized, but be able to defend himself if needed or mount a surprise attack.

I am getting the hang of the new routine now so Shifu used his creative photography skills to make a little video of some of the beginning moves.

Photographer in action

I wobbled a LOT on my leg lift in the beginning but my right knee has strengthened with the practice. The fan makes a wonderful noise when you flick it open which you can’t really tell on the video but it is like a whip crack in the air. We were blessed with glorious sunshine that day for the filming.

In other news I am taking an online Traditional Chinese Medicine course so that I can get certificated in some of the therapies. This means that I will be qualified to practice back in the UK when I return home. The first module I am taking is a threapy called GuaSha. You use a board to scrape or ‘comb’ along the meridians and this can help improve circulation and assist the lymphatic drainage system to move along to improve health. Sometimes if there is a problem deep red marks or Sha show up which usually disappear in a couple of days. By the end of the course I hope to be able to spot simple diagnosis and you can refer people to be seen by their doctor.

Neck and shoulder treatment

So far I have learned beauty treatments for the face and therapy for the head, neck and shoulders. Being an online course I need volunteers to practice on at home. Under Shifu’s guidance I was able to improve my skills in these areas on the other delegates.

Head Guasha

We always eat extremely well on retreat but it is all organically grown, whole foods so I didn’t mind treating myself.

All too soon it came to an end but I do benefit from these intensive retreat days and feel that I have grown and developed my skills by the end. The more I learn the better I will be able to teach when I return.

My journey continues…

Covid Policy U turn

Those who have been following my blogs (or even just the news) will know that China has had some pretty restrictive Zero covid regulations in place for the past 3 years. Living here has meant that we have felt very safe from COVID-19 at a time when other countries have struggled with rising numbers of cases and fatalities. We watched from behind our bamboo curtain as the rest of the world has valiantly done battle and largely accepted covid into everyday life. Vaccines such as Pfizer and Moderna have proved themselves to be 90% effective where vaccination programmes back in the UK, for instance, commenced with the elderly and most vulnerable. Even today most people have had a 4th ‘booster’ shot.

China, on the other hand took a different approach and used their own SinoPharm and SinoVac preparations (which have proved to be only 70% effective) and targetted the working population. Most of us have had 3 shots now. But children and the elderly remain largely unvaccinated. I am not sure exactly why but many old people have refused to get the vaccine. Perhaps they have had poor experiences of previous vaccinations. I know of at least three 70 year olds who claim that their underlying health conditions mean that if they have the vaccine they might have heart attacks. I have no idea how such mis-information is spread in this age-group but this is a very real fear (or an excuse?) I do find it strange because we are in the sort of country where if the government tells you to do something, then you just do it. China is known as the ‘country of good boys’. So clearly there has been no government directive or it WOULD have happened.

While the rest of the wold has accepted COVID and opened up, the strict Chinese Zero COVID policy has put us all under considerable pressure. Shanghai endured the 2+ month lockdown in the Spring and we taught most of the last semester online. Many cities around China have faced a same fate. International travel is still restricted, flights are easily canceled, quarantine facilities have sprung up like weeds, which can cater for 5000 people at a time, all equipped with heat sensors which can detect changes in your body temperature in case you start to develop a fever. Quarantine for travellers has ranged from 21 days to most commonly 10 days. Some quarantine camps are converted shipping containers with a bed, a sink and a toilet (no curtain). These are excessively hot in the summer humidity and freezing in winter. One of our teachers became a ‘close contact’ simply for being in the same restaurant as someone who later developed the virus. She spent a very uncomfortable week in one of these ‘cans’.

On the plus side we have been mask free at school for 3 years and I don’t think that until now, I knew anyone who actually had the virus. We were all trapped in a gilded cage. Safe but still stuck here. Life under zero tolerance became sort of ‘normal’ . Of course we heard about cases of sporadic compound lockdowns, horrific quarantine centres, chemical spraying of apartments of those infected etc but I personally wasn’t subjected to any of these things.

We were however very closely monitored. It was a true Big Brother move as we were all required to present a ‘green’ code to enter pretty much anywhere, the metro, shopping malls, school and even the local supermarket. To get a green code you needed to return a negative PCR test.

I have had so many of these and deleted them all. This is one preserved for posterity.

Mass testing has been happening since the summer and it has become almost a daily routine. Booths were set up around the city (often with very long lines)

Very patient, very orderly lines in all weathers

Our compound offered testing several times a week. School specially trained staff so that as we all entered the compound we washed our hands, had a throat swab and then went off to work. What this is costing the planet in terms of single use plastic I dread to think. Interestingly the testing company is owned by a relative of our esteemed leader here… so no vested interest there then!!!

I loved the translation on the sign above our testing station at school

Wherever we went, we scanned an access code on our phones so that if a case did appear everyone who had also been at that location was deemed a ‘close contact’. Going out anywhere was like playing Russian Roulette. You never knew what was going to happen. But, we got used to it and we scanned and scanned and scanned. It became the new normal and we did it automatically. Our local supermarket did close down at one point as a customer tested positive but fortunately I hadn’t shopped there that day, so I escaped.

Everywhere had QR codes like this.

Schools are actually under stronger restrictions than other places and we had to show a negative test withn 24 hours just to access the campus. Anyone else also had to prove from another tracker that they hadn’t left Shanghai in the previous 48 hours. Woe betide if your code turned red!!! The government swooped down and carted you off. They knew before you did. As covid has mutated the virus is less deadly and the majority of infected people were asymptomatic. I felt that the fear wasn’t so much of getting the virus but of what happens to you if you did. School advised us to have an emergency bag packed ready and they gave us a list of supplies to take with you.

The message from the government was that COVID was still deadly and they were imposing all these restrictions to protect the population and largely, people believed it.

Then came the fire in the locked down apartment building in Urumqi killing 10, when the rescue services could not get through the physical barriers surrounding the compound and were delayed for 3 hours. This event became a tipping point and it has been fascinating to watch events unfold. It was history in the making. Many, many people had been suffering the lockdown restrictions with insufficient food or medical supplies. Many more lost their jobs as the economic impacts of the restrictions hit home. Itinerant workers in lockdown were impacted particularly hard and there were instances of people scaling fences to escape from being locked in their factories. It was becoming more and more difficult to impose strict lockdown in some places.

What was interesting to me was the attitude of young people. When the protests started in Shanghai last month, it was among university students. These youngsters had never really experienced the harsh cruelties of an authoritian regieme, indeed they had lived peacefully during the economic boom time for China. But suddenly here was covid and the zero toldrance problems and their patience was wearing thin. I did hear from some of the older generation, that they believed the protests were organised by westerners because they didn’t think Chinese would know what to do. But the truth is simplier. Media here is censored and propaganda is tightly controlled. But with the modern growth in online social media reaching a global audience many young people nowadays do have access to news sources outside China. To access facebook, Google or anything else you need a VPN or Virtual Private Network. These are illegal here but all the foreigners have them and the government turns a blind eye to us as they recognise that we need to keep in touch with folks back home while we work here. What surprised me was how many young chinese nationals also have access. They were seeing the news about what was happening elsewhere in China from western media and it quickly became apparent that it was difficult to control.

I thought that the China had a few choices 1) clamp down hard as they had done in the past. Most of the senior government are older men who are accumstomed to managing political problems in this way. Maybe they could stamp the protests out with harsh measures and fear.

2) There could have been an upswell of feeling against the government. Rebellions often start when enough people feel desperate and we were maybe reaching that point.

Things began along the lines of option 1) In Shanghai youth were targetted by the police and they were asked to hand over their phones. If a VPN or a reference to Urmqi was found anywhere, the young person was carted off (who knows where to …) Police searched youngsters in the main city centre and even on the metro trains. I have a friend who’s son was sitting on a train when this happened. His view was ‘why should they ask for my phone?’ He hadn’t experienced the atrocities witnessed the older generations so his attitude (like others) was more brazen. He did have Facebook on his phone but he quickly deleted it. In the end the police didnt approach him as he was wearing his grandfather’s coat and he hunched himself down and they passed him by. He dodged a bullet there and his mother was greatly relieved.

A few days after this incident the complete U turn on covid policy was announced by the government. No more track and trace. No more scanning QR codes. No more mass testing. It was very swift and very surprising. They have gone for a 3rd option in this unexpected move. We seemed to have swung from one extreme to another almost overnight.

Now COVID is sweeping through the population like wildfire. Most people I know have got it and it is now more a question of when rather than if you will get it. Schools closed and local children are doing distance learning until January 17th which is when their Chinese New Year holidays begin. Our school managed to limp on to the end of term but teachers and students were dropping like proverbial flies. The rules are now that if you test positive then you need to stay home for a week and test on days 6 and 7 but even that is subject to doubt as I also read that symptomatic and mild cases can continue to work.!

Many people are very scared, especially after having COVID built up in their minds as such a big, bad monster. The streets and shops are eerily quiet. Partly because so many are indoors nursing their headaches and coughs but many others are just too scared to come out.

People are protecting themselves!!!!

This morning, we came back from the Taiji retreat and it felt like being in an episode from a dystopian movie. For starters all the staff in our hotel were sick (we were the only ones staying there) and the manageress had to serve breakfast. Then the roads were empty for way longer than we expected. It was eerily deserted.

Can the country manage? Well, it remains to be seen if the virus is weaker now and the population bounce back and begins to get herd immunity. Or the health system really will buckle and collapse as the unvaccinated elderly succumb to the virus. Another big change is that the daily statistics of cases are no longer published. So we may never really know what happens next.

What we do know is that you cannot buy paracetamol or cold remedies for love nor money at the moment. In the west the panic buying was toilet paper, here it’s strepsils!!!

We watch and wait.

The perils of renting

Back in 2017 when we departed the UK for our extended working adventure we packed up our house and put it on the rental market.

It was a mammoth job decluttering and the local charity shops did very well out of us. Even so we still seemed to have a massive amount to put into the lock up.

It was weird emptying the room and making the property ready for someone else; yet not having sold. But we knew that it was the best thing to do. We didn’t want to leave it empty for several years when it could deteriorate with no one living in it.

It took a few months and a rent reduction but we managed to get tenants in and all was well. The agent did annual inspections and the rent was paid on time. We were not worried at all about the house (which was a relief)

Time marched on and in 2019 the tenant moved on and in a short space of time a new one was found. Again all was well in the landed of rented property.

Then again in 2020 this family moved on and another family moved in. This time a single father of 5 children. It is a 5 bedroom property so ideal for them. Near their school and relatives. All was good.

But as with most things in this life, all good things must come to an end. In the summer of 2022 both Oliver and Hanifa got married and Kevin returned to the UK. Inigo got a job in Ecuador and I had signed on for another school year. Travel in and out of China was precarious so we decided that Kevin would return and open up the house. Do any jobs and make it ready for my return.

So we gave the tenant the 3 months notice that we were required to. Kevin flew home and stayed with my mother to attend the weddings. Then on the 30th June when he was preparing to get the keys the following day he was informed that the tenant would not be moving out because he had nowhere to go!

Now I do feel sorry for the guy, being a single father of 5 cannot be easy but even so, it is not his house. We worked many years to pay for it. It’s ours. And we wanted it back. We were always going to return at some point and need the house back. We were not career landlords who buy up property to rent out. It’s our home.

Kevin had to go to court. This took time and money and a hearing date was set for 1st September. All this time he had to stay living out of his suitcase at my mother’s place. Fortunately she was able to accommodate him otherwise we would have had extremely large hotel bills!

At the hearing the judge awarded in our favor and said that there was no legal reason why we couldn’t have the house back. Phew! That was one hurdle overcome. But the tenant was given the maximum amount of time to vacate (because of the children); 42 days. Kevin still stayed with my mother which was not at all part of the original plan.

Six weeks later and the tenant STILL had not vacated the premises. He wanted social housing and needed to be at the top of the waiting list. For that to happen the council needed bailiffs paperwork. So back to the court Kevin went. More time to process more paperwork but at least the council paid the legal fees. All this time we have also been paying storage fees when we shouldn’t have.

Eventually on 8th November, over 4 months after he should have moved back in, Kevin finally got the keys. It was such a relief. But what did he find inside…?

Given how difficult the guy had been we weren’t sure what to expect. You hear tales of tenants trashing places or stripping all the fittings. Our house has some original Victorian features which are irreplaceable and wouldn’t be covered by any deposit.

In actual fact the place had not been deliberately damaged, thankfully. But we have found a lot of water damage. The walls are extremely wet and there is damp in the ceilings and internal walls. It looks as though the heating system has been leaking. This is a big and expensive problem. Who knows, if we got the house back in July could we have saved some of the damage? We may still need to replace the heating system.

In addition to that the basement floor needs to be replaced, as do some of the utility room units. The decking outside is rotten and the Ivy at the front had had a growth spurt and is damaging the brickwork.

Having an ‘old’ house was always going to be expensive but this is more than we had anticipated. So, I have signed on for another year to help defray the costs!

Kevin is working hard to restore and revitalize the oak floors which while scuffed and worn were not damaged.
Finished result

I understand that there have been abusive landlords in the past who have taken advantage of their tenants and since we left the UK the law has changed to be more in favor of the tenant. As a result fewer people are putting properties on the rental market and some renters have used the Stamp Duty holiday to sell their properties. In addition many expats are returning home after covid and like us, wanting their property back. So this has resulted in few homes available to rent.

We were unfortunate with our experience but we will definitely not be renting our property again.