I quite often see this written in Xing Yi discussions:
“The animals are just variations of the five elements”.
I should probably just let it go, but I can’t. This idea that Xing Yi’s 12 animals are just variations of the 5 element fists has become so ubiquitous now that it’s almost impossible to counteract. And, of course, it’s true in a very basic sense, but it’s far from the whole story of Xing Yi, and it creates a misleading impression of what the art really is. It’s also buying into the whole reductionist movement in Chinese martial arts that happened in the 20th century, performed by both the Republic of 1912 and the Communist state of 1949, when these rich, smokey, traditions turned into somewhat culturally bland, ideologically driven, if athletically more challenging, versions of themselves.
If you look at a sample movement from the Xing Yi animals, like say Tiger, (firstly there’s the problem that this animal has been reduced to but a single movement in most lineages of Xing Yi, but let’s ignore that for now), you’ll see that it consists of a kind of aggressive double-palm push, or strike, to the chest, repeated over and over. The way the push is done is clearly related to Pi Quan (Splitting) from the 5 element fists, which also uses a palm to strike, so I can see why this generative view of the relation between elements and animals is so popular.
Take the wood element – Beng (often called crushing fist). It’s a straight strike, like a spear thrust, usually to the body using a strong opening and closing action. Again, it pops up all over the animals: For example, you could look at the double fist strike seen in Tai Xing – another of the 12 animals, and say that it’s a variation of Beng using both fists with a particular fist shape. (You can extend the knuckle of the middle finger in Tai).
Viewed like this it does start to look like the elements came first, but what I believe really happened in the historical development of Xing Yi was that somebody (one of the Dai family or Li Luoneng, who learned from them, are the most obvious candidates) created the 5 elements out of the pre-existing animal movements as a way to teach beginners.
(Historically we can say animals came first with some certainty, since an older lineage known as Xin Yi Liu He has the animals, but not the 5 elements).
Most of the animals in Xing Yi and Xin Yi have a kind of downward cutting Pi action, just expressed in different ways. By identifying it and using it as one of the 5 elements, and practicing it in isolation away from the complexity of the animals you have a way ‘in’ to Xing Yi, so it’s quite useful. You have something simple that you can practice over and over again.
So, it’s not like the elements aren’t a useful addition – they are. And you might be left wondering if it really matters which way you view the relationship between Xing Yi’s animals and elements?
Our podcast on the history of Xing Yi has been gently making the case that Xing Yi grew out of the ideas contained in the Li movement in the Song Dynasty, which was a turning back to nature and the natural way of things. Xing Yi as I generally see it being practiced today isn’t a nature-focused martial art anymore. That time has gone, and the focus on nature was stripped out a long time ago, from the start of the 20th century onward. It’s an understatement to say that in nationalist and communist ideologies, taking inspiration from nature and the natural world is not a popular idea. The concept of an animal-based martial art didn’t really fit in a China where people could live or die based on their belief in abstract political ideas. These things were understandably more ‘real’ to the average person than the natural world around them. So, the martial arts were changed accordingly.
That leads on to the obvious question – if you aren’t practicing a nature-based martial art anymore then what’s the point of fussing about the place of animals within it?
I think that’s for the individual practitioner to answer for themselves, but I’ll just leave you with this thought – nature-based martial arts are, or should be, reality-based martial arts. They should be grounded in the way the real world actually functions, and not in the world of concepts about the way we think the real world should be. The modern trend in China for (self proclaimed) Chinese martial arts masters to take on challengers trained in fight sports and get a good pasting can be seen as an example of what happens when ideology hits the nature of reality.
Quite often it hits back.