So, as a kind of counterpoint to my previous post questioning whether all Chinese martial arts come from military methods, I’d like to focus on one that definitely does – Xing Yi. Although, this really just emphasises my previous point because Xing Yi looks very different to most other Chinese martial arts and the reason it looks different is because it comes from weapons-based military methods and is therefore more concerened with military engagements than civilian. As our podcast series is showing, there is a verifiable historical connection between Xing Yi and soldiers – for example, the oldest historically verifiable practitioner linked to Xing Yi – Ji Long Feng, was a real life soldier in the Ming Dynasty army.
But the real reason you can tell Xing Yi descends from military methods is that you can simply look at it. The arms and legs are generally close together and close to the body, the posture is narrow and the direction of techniques is straight in front of you. Everything is done within the profile of the body. There are two main reasons for this 1) you were wearing armor and had to accommodate for the weight of it, and 2) you were using weapons, which were probably quite heavy, since they had to penetrate armor.
The Xing Yi we have today is what military arts would look like if you did them without wearing armor and using hand techniques instead of weapons. Of course, many people still do Xing Yi with a spear, but it’s rare to see anybody wearing armor doing it these days, which I think leads people to get the wrong idea about it.
Take a look at this video of my friend Byron Jacobs from Beijing doing Xing Yi Zuan Quan (Drilling fist). Look how tight everything is to the body and how the hands are kept within the profile of the body:
Here’s an example:
All this leads me to this excellent new video by Karate Nerd, Jessie Enkamp called “I trained like a Samurai for a day”. Here he gets Dr. Kacem Zoughari, a Japanese martial arts expert to take him around the Samurai Museum Berlin. It’s pretty interesting then half way through, it gets super interesting because he gets to wear old Samurai armor and have a go with a few authentic weapons. Now this is really valuable because he tries to do Karate movements in the armor and very quickly realises that it’s completely inefficient and exposes all the vital parts of the body to strikes from the opponent. The expert, Dr. Kacem Zoughari, gets him to change his movements so that everything happens within the profile of the body and makes him use the footwork, momentum and body to power the arm movements. The strikes become hidden, and tight to the body rather than telegraphed and open… and bingo! It starts to look just like Xing Yi! He suggests a cross step at one point and it looks a lot like Xing Yi Dragon step. The strikes he has to do start to look like parts of the 5 Elements – Pi, Beng, Tzuan.
Take a look:
Now you may be thinking Japanese armor isn’t the same as Chinese armor and therefore none of this is relevant, but you would be wrong. That armor at the top of this post is not Samurai armor, (although I bet if you took the average person off the street and asked them what it was they would think it was Samurai armor). It’s based on Chinese armor from the Song Dynasty. This would have been officer armor, not what your average soldier was wearing, but the same principles would apply – you want your movements to protect your vulnerable areas – the neck and joints in particular.
Xing Yi is based on these principles – minimal movement, a tight profile, using the body, momentum and the step to power the arms, strikes based on timing rather than speed, etc. And that’s why it looks so different to something like Karate or Norther Shaolin or Long Fist, etc.
Listen to parts 7 and 8 of our podcast on Xing Yi which focuses on Chinese armor and its influence on Xing Yi.
2 thoughts on “The military roots of Xing Yi”
Very illuminating! You really have to fight differently in armour, and most people only practise with weapons, not armour.
From military methods? What happened to your belief that it came from Chinese opera? 😉
There’s a reason why the Chinese martial arts use the ubiquitous symbol of ☯ … it refers to the movement of the body as it cycles from Open to Close to Open, etc. I.e., the Chinese theory of movement, using qi and jin, etc., is widespread, so it’s easier to make an argument about the similar basic mechanics of movement throughout Chinese martial arts than it is to argue “military” or “opera” or etc.
I asked Chen Xiaowang about Xingyi one time (in my kitchen) and he demonstrated P’i Chuan, albeit a P’i in which he didn’t step forward (not much room). On the strike my whole house shook (you can deduce a lot from that one observation). I asked him if the mechanics of Xingyi were the same as the mechanics of Chen’s Taiji and he said not exactly “same”, but very “similar”.
Taiji, Xingyi, and Bagua all seem to have their roots in Shanxi Province, so it’s possible (or even probable) that they had some historically related precursor art. They all use the same basic discussion about body mechanics. Then again, a lot of the old “Six Harmonies” arts all use the same admonitions and rules about body mechanics, so it’s more probable that the origin of Xingy, Taiji, and other arts with the exact same body admonitions came from some common source than that one of them came specifically from the military, etc.