How to hit in Xing Yi and Tai Chi

“When the opponent expands, I contract. When he contracts, I expand. And, when there is an opportunity, I do not hit – it hits all by itself.”
Bruce Lee

Practicing both Xing Yi and Tai Chi together helps you gain insights into both arts. Here’s what occured to me this morning: If you were to strip down Tai Chi and Xing Yi forms to their essentials then Tai Chi is a series of deflecting moves interspersed with occasional punches or kicks, and Xing Yi is a series of punches or kicks interspersed with occasional deflecting moves.

That’s a gross simplification, but I think it’s true to some extent. It’s what makes the two arts good companions for each other.

I’ve written before about not putting power in the form, but in a related note I think the idea of not using your arm to punch is another way of looking at it from a more Xing Yi perspective. It’s the same nut, just another way to crack it.

The famous Tai Chi practitioner, Cheng Man Ching, is said to have had a dream in which he had no arms, and it was only after that that he grasped the secret of pushing hands. The secret was that pushing hands had nothing to do with hands at all, and he credited this dream with in his ability to push people.

But I find it a lot easier to understand the ‘not using your hands’ thing when you are constantly pushing and deflecting. It’s a lot harder to do it when you are striking.

Xing Yi is obsessed with striking. Most of the forms are a series of strikes linked together (called “links” – Lian Huan). I’ve come to appreciate however that the key to it is to not use your arm to strike. I mean, yes, your arm is doing the striking, of course, but it’s like it’s not involved in the process. I’m thinking about what Bruce Lee said when he said “it hits all by itself”. But while I believe Lee was talking about a more spiritual process (the top line of the hexagram), I’m thinking about a more mid-line process that’s rooted in the body. The hand moves into the position you want, but what moves it there has nothing to do with the arm at all, it’s all from the body. I find that when Xing Yi becomes “too much in the arm” it ceases to be the art it’s supposed to be. 

Paradoxically by trying to hit hard, you ruin it. You’ve got to ease back a little bit – take your foot slightly off he gas and let the body do the work, almost as if you are a craftsman using a tool skillfully (your body) rather than making a great effort to get things done and just making a mess in the process.

I do not hit, it hits all by itself.

Another one bites the dust (the latest Xu Xiaodong vs Tai Chi master)

The Tai Chi ‘master’ lasted 10 seconds this time.

In the video above amateur Chinese MMA fighter Xu Xiaodong is fighting Chen Yong, the self-proclaimed sixth-generation Tai Chi Master of the Wu lineage. It’s the latest in a long line of fights between Xu and people who claim to be martial arts ‘masters’.

If we analyse the 10 seconds of action we can see Chen takes a forward weighted stance with his hands up in a high guard. It leaves him completely imobile and open for a kick. Xu kicks him low, Chen drops his guard and that was all she wrote.

Presumably Chen thought that whatever he had been doing for the past few decades was good enough training to actually fight with. But whatever Chen has been practicing… it wasn’t fighting.

Some of my Chinese Martial Arts colleagues get really upset with these fights. They think the whole thing is set up to make Chinese marital arts look bad and promote the UFC, and I’m somehow complicit in a plot designed to bring the whole Chinese martial arts down. Or that Xu won’t fight anybody young and fit and only challenges old men. It’s classic conspiracy theory nonsense.

I find this attitude odd because, frankly the UFC doesn’t give a crap about any of this. And nobody is making these delusional ‘masters’ fight anybody – they’re doing it of their own free will and more often than not, they are the challengers in the fights, and put up all the money required to make them happen. They clearly think they are going to win with their martial skill despite a huge age gap or a gap in fighting experience.

There is a strong tradition of Chinese Kung Fu masters appearing in faked fights on Chinese TV and seeming to be all-powerful. It’s that delusion that Xu fighting against. Watch this:

serpentza and Byron Jacob explain what’s happening in China.

A common thing I’ve hear is that nobody has heard of these ‘masters’ before. Again, that’s true, but there are a lot of delusional people in martial arts, so I don’t think that’s surprising. China is a big place. Perhaps it’s the use of the term “master” that gets bandied about so freely? In light of all these fights there has been a government move in China to ban the use of the word. Xu Xiaodong has been heavily persecuted – being forced to hide his face in clown makeup and have an insulting nickname in one fight. It didn’t stop him beating these ‘masters’.

But it’s not just Xu doing it. Here’s another video from a couple of years ago. In white pyjamas we have “The 47-year-old expert Zhu Chunping, who has been practising tai chi for decades” vs Yao Hantian “The 22-year-old Yao has been training kick-boxing for just six months”. Read the report in the South China Morning Post. From the 5 seconds of action in the video we can see Zhu takes up what looks like a version of the San Ti Shi stance from Xing Yi while Yao immediately starts moving, establishing range and holding his hands in a modern guard position. One right hand from Yao, which goes right down the middle of Zhu’s guard and he doesn’t react at all to, and it’s all over.

As for the attitude of trying to pretend these fights aren’t happening… I believe it’s some misguided implementation of Wu De – martial virtue. Why shouldn’t people watch these fights? If you engage in a bout with a ring, a judge, and cameras involved, that’s designed to be streamed or televised then clearly you are now in the entertainment industry. That’s what prize fighting is. If this was some sort of battle for honour or revenge it would all be played out in a dark alley somewhere and nobody would ever know about it.

I think the lessons these videos teach is so valuable that they’re worth posting. You need to keep it real (to some extent at least) if you want to teach “martial arts”. Even if that “real” is realising your limitations, and that you shouldn’t be fighting a 22 year old in a ring when you’re 47 and don’t have any fight experience.

Chinese martial arts are full of fantastic skills and valuable content, but if you spend all your time doing your “body method” training and no time doing fighting training, then don’t expect to be able to fight with it.

And let’s not keep hiding this stuff away – you don’t fix your problems by pretending they don’t exist.

“Here is where you’ll be falling down”.

Learn Xing Yi and Bagua online

Friend of the Notebook, Byron Jacobs, has finally launched his online Xing Yi and Bagua learning platform.

Byron is an English-speaking Beijing native who has been integrated into the martial culture of the city for about 2 decades. He speaks Chinese and has a deep understanding of these martial arts and the culture from which they emerged. I’d recommend him if you’re looking for instruction on Xing Yi and Bagua online.

Find out more about him and his teachers here:

How to grip the sword

When the haft is gripped, this grip is done with the whole body” – Xing Yi classics

I am still trying to make sure I do some sword practice every day. Specifically I’m using Bear Eagle from Xing Yi as my main practice.

One of the big issues that becomes apparent when you do a lot of sword practice is the grip. My experience is that a solid grip means less wear and tear on your wrist.

I was therefore quite pleased to read this blog on how to grip a sword by Scott Rodell, since it confirms what I was taught and have found to be the best way to practice in terms of logevity. He recommends the same grip that I use.

The way I was taught was to grip the handle with all my fingers, not any kind of thumb/finger arrangement as you often see, and make sure all the fingers are below the guard, for obvious reasons. I think one of the keys to making your grip strong is to grip really hard with the little finger, that way you make sure it never sips off, because once it does the rest of the fingers tend to follow. As the Xing Yi classics say, “When the haft is gripped, this grip is done with the whole body“. With a strong, stable, grip you can start to connect the sword to your centre, so that movements from the torso can be reveald in the extremities – in this case, the sword.

Just say “no!” to self cultivation

Before the Internet, back in the early 90s, there were only a few books on the subject of Tai Chi in the West, so the authors of these books achieved a kind of fame and notoriety that wasn’t really proportional to their actual importance, or impact on the Tai Chi world. Or maybe their fame became proportional because of the books themselves, in a kind of self fulfilling prophecy. It’s hard to say.

Either way, one book title that always stuck in my mind was “Master Cheng’s New Method of Taichi Ch’uan Self-cultivation”.

This idea of “self cultivation” is kind of the main reason that people practice Tai Chi in the modern world. It’s kind of like exercise, but a little deeper, involving something a little more like meditation. This idea of using eastern spirituality to go on a personal odyssey, or journey into your self is sold to us all the time in the world of Tai Chi, Yoga and health or spiritual practices.

The fact is, it’s nonsense. I hate to break to to you, but individually, we are really not that deep. Scratch our surface and there’s really not that much to us. The idea of cultivating yourself is really a huge waste of time. Our depth lies in our relationships to other people, places and non-human animals. And to find our connection to the world, to the land, the first thing you need to do is get rid of this little self that you’ve been busy cultivating with your various yoga, tai chi and martial arts practices.

Just look at what the Zen or Tao masters of old wrote. They were telling us this constantly in their writings.

When you do something, you should burn yourself up completely, like a good bonfire, leaving no trace of yourself.

– Shunryu Suzuki

One must be deeply aware of the impermanence of the world.

– Dogen

The practice of Zen is forgetting the self in the act of uniting with something.

– Koun Yamada

Those were literally the first three quite in an article I just searched up called “25 Zen Quotes“.

I feel like I could quote any chapter of the Tao Te Ching too, but let’s go with chapter 3:

The Master leads
by emptying people’s minds
and filling their cores,
by weakening their ambition
and toughening their resolve.
He helps people lose everything
they know, everything they desire,
and creates confusion
in those who think that they know.

Practice not-doing,
and everything will fall into place.

Why are Bear and Eagle always together?

A nice email from Paula asks: 

“I am curious to find why Bear and Eagle are always together. Have you come across or know of any reasoning behind this?

Thank you in advance for your time!”

This is a good question – if you practice Xing Yi you’ll notice that all the animal forms are practiced as individual animals, yet Bear (Xiong) and Eagle (Ying) are often mixed together as something called a “harmonious fist” (He Quan). (Although you also find them as separate links too). There are a few reasons why this is so.  

Photo by Rasmus Svinding on Pexels.com

Firstly, although Xing Yi has no particular connection to Taoism, it does make use of the concept of Yin and Yang. All the animals have Yin aspects and Yang aspects – this can be most clearly seen in something like snake, where the yin aspects are represented by the pythons – crushing, choking and coiling, and the yang aspects are represented by the vipers – quick, darting and venomous.

In Bear and Eagle, each animal represents an extreme of the postures found in Xing Yi – Bear should be the most extreme Yin (softer, heavier, shorter posture) and Eagle the most extreme Yang (hard, powerful and big). Bear is only ever Yin and Eagle is only ever Yang. So, to have a balance of Yin and Yang, both are practiced together to produce the optimum fighting strategy.

Bear is used at close range, rolling on and around attacks through your structure and position the attacker should naturally lands on the end of your blows. Think of slipping a jab in boxing and landing an uppercut. In contrast, the Eagle actively goes out to strike the opponent using long piercing strikes at a longer range. So, as a strategy they work well together. 

That’s the most basic reason.

Secondly, 英雄(hero) and 鷹(eagle)熊(bear) have the same pronunciation in Mandarin and Cantonese. This may just be a coincidence.

Now we can slip into the more esoteric reasons. This is something I’ve only ever heard from my teacher, but it makes no difference to the first theory, so let me present it.

There is an animal native to China and Japan called the Bear Eagle (Xiong Ying). In the west we call it the Mountain hawk eagle. (Spizaetus nipalensis in Latin.)

From Wikiepdia: “ it is usually perceptibly bulkier and more massive than most other members of its genus. It is seemingly the largest member of the 10 currently recognized species in the genus Nisaetus, notwithstanding the recently recognized Flores hawk-eagle (Nisaetus floris) (which was separated from the changeable hawk-eagle).”

You can see its powerful legs in this picture. I always like the little tuft it has on its head.

The bear eagle gets it’s name from the way it will grapple with prey on the ground – a bit like a bear. So this single animal represents both qualities. If you believe that the Xing Yi animals were derived directly from observing nature (which was the thrust of the Li movement in the Song Dynasty) then it’s possible that the hunting and fighting tactics of the Mountain Hawk eagle were studied to produce what we have handed down to us in Xing Yi. It’s an unprovable theory, but there you have it.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter to me if you think of the Xing Yi animal as representing a separate bear and an eagle, or a mountain hawk eagle. It’s all the same thing, and you can gain a lot of insight into the Xing Yi link by observing all 3 animals. Sadly, YouTube is probably your best bet for that these days.

Humans are the only animals with chins

An interesting article from the Atlantic about how only humans have chins. Nobody knows exactly why really, but there are competing theories. At least if you get attacked and eaten by a lion you can shout “you chinless wonder!” at it before you die.

It made me think about the use of the chin in martial arts. In many ways a chin could be considered a disadvantage, as the jaw is where you want to hit somebody “square on the jaw” if you want to knock them out, and the chin makes the jaw more accessible.

I also though about martial arts that make use the chin and the only one that comes to mind is BJJ. I find I use my chin a lot to hold people in place – a bit like a third arm – in top positions. It hooks over the shoulder nicely to stop people getting up when you’re behind them slightly. It’s not one of those techniques that is taught, it just happens naturally.

Chin chin!

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Happy birthday Bruce Lee

Bruce Lee would have been 80 years old today. Here’s a Bruce Lee Birthday blog from ‘friend of the notebook’ Paul Bowman:

“It was Bruce Lee who effectively introduced the term “martial arts” into the Western lexicon. This may not seem hugely significant. But what it also means is that he sowed the seeds of a new identity: people could henceforth identify as “martial artists.” Ultimately then, although it is true that before Bruce Lee people were practicing what we now call “martial arts,” it was only after Bruce Lee—and perhaps only because of him—that the very entity “martial arts” and the identity “martial artist” came into social and cultural existence.”

Photo by Pop & Zebra on Unsplash

Lost in translation: The Xing Yi Classics

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Thanks to Richard Johnson for commenting on my last post, which had a section of the Xing Yi classics (The 10 Thesis of Yue Fei) translated by my teacher. My teacher’s translation definitely differs from others you find online – it includes many more references to weapons that are omitted in other translations I’ve seen, specifically a haft-grip and a bow, in these sections.

It matters, because reading other translations I’ve seen you’d get the impression it was about gripping your opponent, not your spear.

I thought it interesting that Richard called it “quite interpretive rather than a strict translation“:

The first quote is quite interpretive rather than a strict translation. I found it in the manual attributed to Yue Fei. It could also be instructions to curl one’s fist tight with the same energy as gripping a handle.

Richard Johnson

I’d agree with him, but, with a rather large caveat: I think all translation is an interpretation.

There is no such thing as a “strict” translation of these Chinese classics into English, because a literal translation of characters often comes off looking like the work of Yoda. Confusing, it is!

To get at the meaning of the text you have to rejig it into English, and here you need to know the context of the work, the time period it was written in and also have some working knowledge of the subject to do it in a meaningful way.

Thanks to Paul Andrews of Xing Yi Academy (they’ve just relaunched with a new subscription service, so check them out) who has done the following literal translation of these sections of the Jianshou Lun (Classic of Fighting), so you can see what I mean:

“I’m looking at my translation of the Jiaoshou Lun now.  So the first quote is: 

用拳要卷緊 Yòng quán yào juǎn jǐn, 

用把把有氣 Yòng bǎ bà yǒu qì. 

Literally –  Use fist must roll tight. Use grip must have Qi.  

So fist could be the fist or it could be “boxing”.  There is no mention of a haft here, there is nothing immediately before or after, but a little bit further on we get this:

手以心把 Shǒu yǐ xīn bà, 

心以手把 Xin yǐ shǒu bà.  

Literally – Hand uses xin to grip.  xin uses hand handle (shou ba together means handle/haft).  

In my own interpretation Shou (hand) can also mean “a technique”. So my take on this is: The methods use the xin to grasp and the xin transmits through the haft. Given this later reference to a haft/handle it is legitimate to understand that the entire section is talking about weapons so D earlier use of haft is in context.

Second quote:

一握渾身皆握, Yī wò hún shēn jiē wò,

一伸渾身皆伸, Yī shēn hún shēn jiē shēn

伸要伸得進, Shēn yào shēn dé jìn

握要握得根 Wò yào wò dé gēn

如卷炮, Rú juǎn pào

卷得緊, Juǎn dé jǐn

崩得有力, Bēng dé yǒu lì

Literally:  

One grasp mix body (hunshen together means “everything” or whole body) all grasps.

One extends everything all extends

Extending important to extend while entering

Grasping important grasp must root

As reeled (rolled up/coiled) cannon (explosion)

Reel must be tight

Collapse/compress must have power/strength

So:   

When grasping [the haft], the whole body grasps [the haft]. 

When one part extends, the whole body extends. 

The key is to extend while entering.

When grasping the grasp comes from the root, as if coiled ready to explode. 

The coiling becomes tight, Compressing to store power.

The first two phrases could also be interpreted as:  Grasp with the whole body and everything holds.  Extend with the whole body and everything extends.The last phrase is tricky.  Damon like the alternative 绷 – beng meaning to draw tight. But the character used in the text I have is 崩 – beng same as “Beng quan” meaning to collapse/crush/compress.This phrase could mean that the reel must be tight, like something compressing to store power (or if the alternative beng is used – like a bow at full draw).Or collapsing could refer to releasing the reel, letting go. Meaning that when released the power has to transmit. That phrase isn’t easy it could mean both.”

The boxing is tightly reeled

The Classic of Fighting is part of Yue Fei’s 10 Thesis, a collection of works also known as the Xing Yi Classics. (I once got into a bit of a tiff about these documents being attributed to Chen Changxin in error, but that’s another story.)

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The Classic of Fighting is one of the more practical works in the classics, and contains some fascinating insights on martial matters. Amongst the verse is this part:

“The outstanding person boxes through freely releasing technique. It is also useful if the boxing is tightly reeled using Qi in the haft grip”. 

The translation I’m using here is by my teacher Damon Smith and Shan Gao, and is reproduced in full in Xing Yi Quan, A study of Tai and Tuo Xing by Glen Board.

“Haft” here refers to the bit of the spear that you hold, but the same thing applies to holding a sword by the handle.

Later on in the classic it expands on what using Qi in the haft grip means:

“When the haft is gripped, this grip is done with the whole body; when one thing extends the whole body extends. The key to extending is to gain extension in the entrance; the key to the grip is to gain the grip from the root, as if coiling explosively. The coiling should become tight, like the power that exists in the bow at full draw.”

I really like this description as it gets across the feeling that needs to develop with the sword or spear as you use it day in, day out. So when it says “the coiling should become tight” I think it means over time. When you grip, it becomes like your whole body gripping the weapon, and if you want to move the weapon you have to move your whole body in a coiling manner. In fact, the best way to manipulate a weapon with your whole body is using reeling – spiral actions that move inwards and outwards. Our bodies are built for spiral movements. 

It’s also worth noting that the coiling is not done slowly, but explosively, although I’d suggest starting to find these coiling movements slowly and without using force first. If you want a simple exercise for developing coiling movements, then I’ve got one of those as well.

The other thing I wanted to mention before I go was the use of the word “boxing” here. Boxing would imply empty hand martial arts, but it instantly goes on to talk about a “haft grip”, which implies weapons. Of course, “fist” “boxing” and “martial art” are all implied by “Quan”, so it’s all open to interpretation.

Either way, it’s long been said that Xing Yi is a spear fighting art that is done mainly bare hand. The frequent references to weapons in its classics would seem to confirm this theory.