A discussion of the similarities between ancient Viking and Chinese martial arts, and the fist shape used in weapons arts in general
Image source: The History channel show Vikings
XingYi Quan is considered to be one of the big three ‘internal’ Chinese martial arts, alongside Tai Chi Chuan and Bagua, but isn’t as widely practiced as the other two, possibly because it’s less aesthetically pleasing and less health-orientated. It is more directly martial. It’s known for 5 different punches, which map on to the 5 elements of classical Chinese thought, the most famous of which is Beng Quan, or “crushing fist”, which represents the Earth element. In application, XingYi is quick, sudden and effective, because its origins lie in weapons usage, and it still carries that sense even when used without weapons.
Of course, in modern times the stories of famous XingYi practitioners like Guo Yun Shen killing a man with a single Crushing Fist (he was a real historical person, and he really did this in a challenge match and was sent to prison for it) have given more weight to the popular narrative amongst martial artists that empty hand usage was always taught first, and weapons were merely an outgrowth of barehand material. That is to say, ‘the sword becomes an extension of the arm’. While that may be true for many martial arts, I find no basis for this view in XingYi’s history. If anything, it’s the other way around.
The characteristic XingYi hand shapes, footwork, striking angles, the back-weighted stance, are all unusual in comparison to other martial arts styles. This is because XingYi is a weapons art first and foremost that has evolved, over time, to the point where it is now done almost exclusively barehand. But you only have to scratch the surface of XingYi a little bit and its weapons-based roots become glaringly obvious.
To me this sets XingYi appart from something like Tae Kwan Do or Western boxing. Those arts were developed with barehand striking (or kicking) in mind. XingYi however, under its older name of XinYi, was originally developed for stabbing people with pointy things, and as the pointy things fell out of favour, or were banned from every day civilian use, the techniques were adapted to barehand strikes.
In the 1600s in China it made little sense to learn barehand martial arts as a distinct entity if you were going to be a soldier, caravan escort or security guard, since people carried weapons for self defence and (despite what the movies say) you can’t effectively fight somebody with a weapon if you don’t have one yourself. And more to the point, why would you want to? Similarly, a soldier fighting in the English Civil War (1642–1651) would find limited application for old English wrestling or boxing on the battlefield. You’d grab a weapon and lean how to use it, fast.
Recently I had the good fortune to watch a video by a YouTuber called Dimicator (Roland Warzecha), who has done a lot of great work recreating European sword and shield martial arts using original source material. (You can support his work by becoming a Patreon). In this particular video he was using a reconstructed Viking shield, and showing the two thrusting actions that he uses with it, a spiralling upper thrust and a spiralling lower thrust. Anybody with a passing knowledge of XingYi will immediately recognise his upward thrust as being virtually identical to XingYi’s Zuan Chuan, or ‘drilling fist’, which is associated with the element of water.
Have a look. He talks about constructing the shield first, then at about 2.47 he goes on to explain how to do a workout with it.
If you took a freeze frame of the end of a XingYi’s Zuan Quan and the end of the lower shield thrust they look very similar:
XingYi Drilling fist (Zuan Quan), shown without weapon.
Viking Shield thrust, shown with a shield.
Viking Shield thrust, shown without a shield.
In the video, Roland makes a point about the necessity for keeping the elbow pointing downwards (like it does in XingYi), since it causes the Latissimus Dorsi muscle to contract, which gives you the support necessary to hold a heavy shield with an outstretched arm.
Medieval weapons were heavy. We know this. It’s only in modern times that weapons became lightweight, as their usage moved from being primarily military to more civilian in nature, in a duelling or sportive capacity – the fencing foil is a perfect example of this. If you are going to strike somebody with a heavy weapon, like a Viking shield, for instance, in a way that would make sense combatively then there are only so many ways the human body can effectively do that, so it would make sense that XingYi would have a lot of similarities with viking shield use. And it does!
I should point out here that while the usage between the two arts is very similar, it is not identical. In the video Dimicator advocates getting power from the hips by turning them as a unit, with the waist, away from the shield arm, so that he is turning ‘side on’. In the XingYi that I was taught (note: there are a lot of conflicting ideas about the ‘correct’ way in XingYi) you isolate the hips movement from the waist movement, and turn them in opposite directions, creating a twist in the torso called the ‘Dragon Body’ (so the waist would turn away from the outstretched arm, but the hips would turn in towards it), meaning you don’t turn so ‘side on’, and can remain facing more forward. This is clearly a difference in application between what is presented in the video and the XingYi method, but not a crucial one.
It’s important to talk about the hand position that Roland is showing in the video – he talks about it at 4.30 – he makes the point that you don’t want to “fist grip” the shield and smash it into your opponent, because, as a repeated action, that will shock your wrist joint too much and lead to longterm damage. Instead, he advocates “extending the hand” into the natural position the human hand conforms to whenever you are using a tool. It also gives you more distance on your strike.
Roland showing how to “extend the hand” with a natural tool-using grip. It’s the kind of grip you naturally take on everything from a screwdriver to a sword handle. In sword circles, this is known as the ‘handshake grip’, and is often contrasted to the ‘hammer grip’.
Interestingly, this ‘handshake grip’ was the exact hand position that I was shown to use in XingYi to punch barehand. We were taught to punch using this fist formation, and despite what you might think, it actually works really well. There is no risk of damage to the fingers, and the strike is powerful. In fact, it limits the risk of damage as the fingers act as shock absorbers. There’s a video by Paul Andrews of XingYi Academy (you can become a Patreon of XingYi Academy to support its work) that explains the XingYi hand position in detail here:
I’m aware that punching like this is something of a heresy in modern martial arts.
Due to the popularity of boxing and MMA, the basic assumption today is that we should all be punching with a boxer’s fist, or we’re doing it wrong – “let the punch bag tell you what fist shape is correct”, goes the accepted wisdom. I remember when my XingYi teacher first taught me to use the alternative XingYi tool-using/conch shell/handshake fist he simply punched me with it in the stomach – my legs gave way and he floored me, so I didn’t need to question whether lining the bones up in this unconventional way was effective. Like a sudden Satori, there was no need to debate or question – it so obviously worked that I just knew.
This traditional XingYi fist feels different to being punched with a flat-knuckle fist – it seems to penetrate deeper, and hurt in a different way. It’s like being stabbed rather than punched. You might be wondering if it only works on softer surfaces. Indeed, my teacher’s favourite target was the soft spot on your stomach, just below the solar plexus, but he had no qualms about using it against harder targets like your skull with free abandon when demonstrating technique. You just tended to prefer him to strike to your body though, because getting it in the face was even worse and left more obvious bruises!
I’m wary of confirmation bias that is inherent to all human beings – we see what we want to see – but to me it’s clear that XingYi’s fist shape is a hang over from its primary function of tool/weapons usage. It’s the way you hold a sword, a spear, or a bread knife when cutting, or a viking shield, as can be seen in the Dimicator video.
While I was taught it this way, it should be noted that a lot of XingYi lineages simply don’t use this fist anymore for Zuan Chuan. They prefer the flat-knuckled boxer’s fist. However, it should be noted that the big proponents of this sort of fist find their lineages trace back to famous masters like Sun Lu Tang who were involved in the 1920’s Koushou movement whose aim was to simplify martial arts and make them more appealing to the public to promote a strong sense of national pride.
At this point in history it’s impossible to know which was the original fist used in XingYi, but I think on balance, I would go with the theory that tool using fist was the original. This ‘XingYi fist’ is odd and counter-intuitive at first and I can see it being dropped in favour of an easier fist shape to make the martial art more appealing. But I think, personally, that it’s the original fist.
N.B. It should be added that even within lineages that use this fist in their Zuan Chuan, in their XingYi animals there are still a huge variety of different fist shapes used, some of which are flat-knuckled, others are palm strikes, etc. For example, Horse Xing, in particular, uses a flat knuckle fist.
Conclusions and disclaimer
Am I suggesting that the Vikings practiced XingYi, or that Chinese soldiers had Viking shields? No, of course I’m not. Instead, I’m suggesting that perhaps the action of Zuan Quan is so suited to weapons use that it has arisen independently in two distinct time periods and cultures. So many little details are the same – the elbow drop, the spiralling extension and the hand position because it is the optimum way of performing this action.
I’d also like to add something of a disclaimer in that there is often hot debate amongst XingYi practitioners on the correct way to practice the art, so the views presented here are only the way I was taught – other people do XingYi differently, and I don’t speak for them.
Also I’m in no way an expert in Medieval European weapons arts, and apologise for any mistakes I’ve made in their presentation here. That is purely down to my own ignorance. I’m not going to correct the article along the lines of comments like “my master in China says…”, but if I’ve got anything wrong then please let me know.