Rewilding is an environmental process that brings nature back to life and restores living systems. Apex predators and keystone species are reintroduced and we let nature reclaim parts of the landscape, without human intervention.
The coronavirus pandemic has lead to a kind of enforced rewinding of the urban world. As the human race retreats indoors for the next few months it’s a chance for nature to reclaim parts of cities. As tourists left corona-stricken Venice, swans, fish and even dolphins returned to the canals. In England, the constant background hum of traffic is dimmed as people stay at home. As I stand in my back garden and look up at the last of the blossom on my cherry tree I can see more birds flitting about in its branches than normal. I can hear more bird song than usual.
One of my favourite martial arts, Xing Yi, was once a wild and untamed martial art, but over time it has become a rather domesticated and pale version of its former self. Human ideas have come to dominate in Xing Yi, where once nature was its real inspiration. But now Xing Yi can no longer be practiced freely with other people maybe we should take this time to do the same thing with it and other martial arts — rewild them and return them to the source.
Our hook into the natural world
After trees and fields, our next point of entry into the natural world is usually from seeing wild animals. Even in cities, animals are all around us, but we rarely pay much attention to them. Foxes roam our streets at night, magpies land on our rooftops and birds of prey can even hunt in our gardens. In the past animals provided inspiration for many martial arts. Xing Yi, with its various animal ‘shapes’, in particular, was one of them. Unlike humans, wild animals aren’t separated from nature by civilisation. Even our pets can unexpectdly reveal their wild side on occasion.
Unusually, I was first introduced to Xing Yi Animals as part of my Tai Chi training. My teacher’s teacher had learned Xing Yi, along with various other martial arts in Hong Kong, before moving to the UK in the 1970s, but rather than teach the whole art to his UK students he used the 12 Animals as coat hangers for techniques which suited their individual body types and attributes. The main arts he taught my teacher were Tai Chi Chuan, Northern Shaolin and Buk Sing Choy Lee Fut, but to help his students become more effective in sparring he saw a lot of value in using the Xing Yi animal strategies. So, for example, one student who was good at straight punches would be given Horse to work with in sparring, and another, who was more stocky and good at rounded punches and kicks would be given Bear. Learning in this way was very individual. You were given some sample movements, and it was then up to you to build from there by adding in other techniques that you found worked well in combination.
My own teacher also used the Xing Yi animals in the same way and from this little dip into the art my curiosity for Xing Yi was piqued and I became hungry to learn more. My search for Xing Yi-proper lead me to eventually meet an actual teacher of the full art, who was kind enough to take me on as a student. And while his techniques had more variety and specialisation, and the body methods looked more distinctively “Xing Yi”, (they required a good grounding in the 5 Element fists first, and were quite different to Tai Chi Chuan) I was pleased to see that his overall approach to the animals was roughly the same. After first learning a set sequence, he would then introducing variations to help you get the flavour of the animal through free experimentation. He encouraged you to actually observe the animal in question. Rather than being prescribed an animal to work with, his students tended to naturally gravitate towards one animal or two; the ones that suited their personalities and abilities.
A proficient Xing Yi practitioner however, he taught me, should always be able to switch between animals freely, as required by the situation. Tiger, for instance, is good at entering from a distance while striking heavily on the opponent. Bear, for example, is good at close infighting and Snake is good at close quarter grappling. Moving between all three in an encounter may take only a few seconds.
Ultimately, the goal for a Xing Yi student is to get good at all 12, rather than just one or two, then leave them behind entirely and just practice “Xing Yi” itself. Of course, this training progression assumes you have hours of free time to practice, since this was the traditional way. The reality of adapting Xing Yi to our busy, modern lives is somewhat at odds with this expectation, so I found that focussing on an animal or two that suited me personally was perhaps a better use of my limited time. Bear-Eagle, Chicken and Monkey were my favourites.
Rewilding Xing Yi
In modern times, Xing Yi animals have taken something of a back seat to the 5 element fists, or set linking forms. Rather than expansive fighting strategies derived from nature they have become somewhat domesticated, reduced and institutionalised. Really, each animal should be practiced like a mini martial art in itself, yet it is often shrunk down to a single move repeated over and over.
Rewinding Xing Yi would involve putting the focus back on the 12 animals and expanding them. And that’s starts with research.
We live in a time when it’s possible to view Xing Yi from all over the world on your laptop at home. Between all the different lineages of Xing Yi there is enough animal content preserved to fully flesh out the characters of each animal. If we start to look at as many variations of them as we can possibly find between both Xin Yi and Xing Yi, we can build up a bigger picture of what a Xing Yi animal represents.
Even better, find another Xing Yi practitioner and share your animal methods.
And let’s not forget that we can still do with a lot of the Xing Yi animals what the founders of the Li tradition of the Song Dynasty tried to do, which is to get back to nature through direct observation. Amongst the 12 animals, there are several which it’s possible to observe directly yourself in the countryside and woodlands of the United Kingdom. For instance, chickens can be found in farmyards. Horses can be found in fields, and swallows still perform their aerial acrobatics in our skys. While there are a goshawks living in Wales and Scotland, Sparrow hawks are common throughout Brtain, and you can at least find birds of prey on display at many centres throughout the UK.
The other way we can rewild our practice is to change where we practice. My teacher always taught outside, in nature, because that was the way he learned in China. It didn’t matter what the weather was like, if he said he was going to be there, he was there. In fact, if you turned up to practice in a snow or rainstorm he’d be happier and teach you something especially good! Experiencing the weather directly is one way to get closer to nature. You can only learn to take the environment into account in your practice if you have to deal with it on a regular basis. Practicing at night under the night sky where you can see the stars is another great way of turning your head back to nature. Stop practicing indoors. Training in village halls is fine, but that perfectly flat wooden floor is making life too easy for you. Get outside and feel the wind on your face, it will do you good.
I’m not suggesting that we abandon the fundamental principles of Xing Yi and adopt a delusional approach to practice, where our only judge of what’s correct is our own opinion. Animals living wild in nature don’t have the luxury of opinions. Their methods of hunting for prey or defending against predators either work, or they starve or get eaten.
The principles of Xing Yi are not derived from old sayings or old books. They’re derived directly from nature.
We’ve been ignoring nature for a long time now. As the coronavirus sweeps the world an old, uninvited guest has returned to the table. To quote the excellent poem, Sometimes a Wild God, by Tom Hirons,
Sometimes a wild god comes to the table.
He is awkward and does not know the ways
Of porcelain, of fork and mustard and silver.
His voice makes vinegar from wine.
When the wild god arrives at the door,
You will probably fear him.
He reminds you of something dark
That you might have dreamt,
Or the secret you do not wish to be shared.
We can fear this guest, or we can embrace him.
Let’s let nature be our teacher once more.
Let’s make Xing Yi wild again.