Byron Jacobs is a teacher of Xing Yi and Bagua based in Beijing, China. He’s a student of the famous Shifu Di Guoyong and is heavily involved in the martial arts scene in Beijing. As well as training traditional martial arts he’s also a BJJ practitioner and competitor.
In this wide ranging discussion we talk about training Xing Yi, Bagua and Tai Chi and whether Wu Shu will ever get into the Olympics. We also find out what it was like to train martial arts in Beijing during the Corona virus pandemic, and what the Chinese BJJ and MMA scene is like.
I seem to have entered a little phase of practicing Tai Chi in the morning then immediately doing some Xing Yi straight afterwards. I’ve never really been into doing Tai Chi especially slowly, as some people seem to love to do, but the contrast with Xing Yi straight after has really accented the speed differences, and it’s made me think about the strategy of each art.
Tai Chi forms are performed much more slowly than Xing Yi links. We all know that Tai Chi should be done slow-ish, but how fast should Xing Yi be? Because it’s an “internal art” (check out my podcast for some thoughts on what that means) people often think that Xing Yi should be done relatively slowly too. My teacher recalled to me a story of one of his teachers who would always shout at them “Faster! Faster!”, whenever they did Xing Yi. The rule was, the faster, the better. They could never be quite fast enough to satisfy him.
Xing Yi works as an intercepting art – ideally you want to be attacking inside the opponent’s attack. It’s a very different approach to standing your ground and trading blows with an opponent. Once you’re ‘inside’ their attack you want to keep on pressing forward, which is why Xing Yi ‘forms’ are generally done in a straight line. The hardest thing is getting that inside position, but once you’ve got it you don’t want to give it up until you’ve got in several decisive blows, all the while moving forward with full body connection. Nobody said it was an easy strategy to achieve, but that is the strategy.
Doing Xing Yi quickly helps you develop that fast footwork you need to rush forward when required, without falling into disaray. It says in the Xing Yi classics somewhere that when standing you want to stand like a mountain – solid, unmoving, but when it’s time to move you want to move like the sound of thunder or a landslide.
Tai Chi – at least the Yang style and its sub-styles – in contrast seems more interested in doing as little work as possible. Relaxing, using natural body motions and letting your body weight do the work are the order of the day.
When you do Tai Chi you shouldn’t really be getting out of breath*, when you do Xing Yi you should. As such the two arts compliment each other nicely.
An interesting video has surfaced that links the guard postures used in Shuai Jiao (Chinese Wrestling) with postures in various Chinese martial arts. The premise of the video is that Shuai Jiao is the root of all the Chinese martial styles. The text accompanying the video says:
“Guards in traditional Chinese wrestling are meant to favor certain fighting techniques and strategies. Since Shuai Jiao is very ancient and there are precise references in these guards to the styles that exist today, traditional wrestling is at the roots of Chinese styles. My Master Yuan Zumou has clearly stated this for over thirty years. In Shuai Jiao these attitudes are not aesthetic, but are used in real combat. I have put the captions of the styles I know or of those that maestro Li Baoru (Beijing, late 80s) mentions in the video.”
It’s an interesting theory, but unfortunately I can’t agree with such a blanket statement as “traditional wrestling is at the roots of Chinese styles“. Was it a strong influence on all Chinese styles? Yes, of course. But calling it the root of all styles is a bit strong for me. Some styles developed entirely from military practices, and a lot of styles have no wrestling component at all, or have their roots in weapons usage.
I can certainly see postures in the video that resemble Tai Chi – particularly the “White Stork Cools Wings” posture and another guard that looks a little like the “Wave Hands Like Clouds”. But we only have two arms and two legs – inevitably there are going to be similarities between postures found in different martial arts. That alone doesn’t confirm a genuine historial link. Influences betweewn marital arts can flow in both directions, too. So it’s quite possible that wrestling has been influenced by local village styles. And even things that are not necessarily combat arts, like xìqǔ, can have an influence on them.
I’d also have to take issue with the statement that “In Shuai Jiao these attitudes are not aesthetic, but are used in real combat.” Let’s not even get into the idea of what “real combat” is (Shuai Jiao matches have rules, after all) but it’s a simple fact that Shuai Jiao was enjoyed in the royal court in the Ching Dynasty (and probably all the dynasties before it) as a kind of entertainment for the nobles. The same thing happened in the Japanese royal court with Sumo, just as medieval kings in Europe enjoyed watching martial games like jousting and fencing. And obviously wrestling is still enjoyed as a kind of popular entertainment in America and Mexico today.
But let’s turn our attention to the contend of the video. A lot of the guards being demonstrated look quite showy to me – as if they were designed to impress an audience, particularly the Wave Hands Like Clouds style guard, where the practitioner seems to deliberately trip over his own legs.
But I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Ever since modern Wu Shu put the emphasis on gymnastic ability over practicality, people have been searching for this false dichotomy between performance and practicality in historical martial arts, too. It’s almost like a real martial art isn’t allowed to have any ‘fun’ aspects to it. In reality, and with several historical examples, a martial art can be both a serious, practical tool for combat, and something that can be performed for social, entertainment and cultural reasons all at the same time.
Choy Li Fut schools often perform lion dance, and that doesn’t mean their kung fu won’t work in a fight. Similarly, I would contend that Shuai Jiao can be used as a form of entertainment and a practical method of self defence. Just like almost all Chinese martial arts can.
Friend of the Notebook, Byron Jacobs, who lives in Beijing, recently posted a video giving a glimpse into the martial arts culture found in Beijing parks. You can see people doing all sorts of martial practices, like calisthenics, chi kung, Tai Chi, sword and push hands.
“Beijing’s public spaces and parks have been gathering places for people from all walks of life for generations. This includes martial artists, who would meet regularly at such places to practice as part of their general lifestyle. Throughout the many parks of the capital, you can find practitioners of various styles and standards getting together to train regularly. This is a glimpse of some of these special places. The first episode features the Temple of Heaven.”
Michael does something similar while brushing his teeth, but he stands on one leg instead.
It turns out that your ability to stand on one leg for an extended period of time is a good indicator of how long you’re going to live, and it decreases significantly after age 35. It’s something to do with the brain slowing down as we age and the fact that balance requires the integration of so many body systems, but the good news is that we can improve our balance with practice.
You can give your self a little test of your balance right now if you like. Try and stand on one leg for 30 seconds each side, and for 10 seconds with your eyes shut. Be careful though, standing on one leg with your eyes shut is very tricky!
So, what’s the best way to improve you balance? Professor Dawn Skelton from Glasgow Caledonian University was interviewed in the programme about all things relating to balance, and at 10 minutes 59 seconds she recommends Tai Chi as one of the best activities to improve your balance and prevent your first serious fall – especially for old people. It is 3 dimensional movement, so your head moves at different times to the rest of your body, and because it’s slow and controlled you get great feedback from joints.
So there you go – yet more evidence that Tai Chi is good for you and will help you live longer!
Bob Klein first studied Tai Chi Chuan fifty years ago with Grandmaster William C. C. Chen, and also owned an animal importing business, which gave him a ready supply of exotic animals to test his martial skills against. In a method that sounds similar to the legendary founding tales of many Chinese martial arts, Bob observed the wild animals, and learned their fighting ticks. Bob describes the process as learning the “pattern of attention” of each species, which he then tried to adopt in himself in sparring and Chi Kung, creating his own system, Zookinesis, along the way.
“The imported animals were often not in a good mood as they emerged from their shipping containers and I was attacked frequently.”, explains Bob. “Many of the animals were stronger and faster than I so I had to use my skill in controlling their attention. There were many close calls and I had many scars”, he observes.
Klein also traveled to the jungles of Central America several times to study animals in the wild. “I would buy a dugout canoe and spend a few months paddling along rivers, meeting the wildlife and people.”
The result of this study is the system of chi kung he calls “Zookinesis” (“animal exercises”) and the fighting system called “Phantom Kung-fu”, which is the result of his Tai Chi Chuan influenced by Zookinesis. Zookinesis seems to evolve into the wider world of healing and being in harmony with nature.
The book, Heal yourself and the world with Tai Chi is as much about Zookinesis as it is about Tai Chi. It’s not a “teach yourself Tai Chi” type of guide, or a deep dive into history. Instead, I’d describe it as a kind of stream of consciousness on the subject of animism, Tai Chi, energy flow and spirituality. There are headings and there are chapters, but I don’t really feel like they matter much. You could dip in at any point and just start reading. Stop, flick on 20 pages and read a bit more. Go back 40 pages. And so on. That’s not to say it’s not a well written book, but a reader looking for a more organised, practical or logical system to unpick will be disappointed.
Here are some examples of paragraph I’ve picked at random to give you an example of the sort of text it contains:
“Small children in our society usually draw people as big heads with tiny arms and legs sticking out of the heads. I wonder if they are just seeing the distribution of attention in a person, and drawing their pictures accurately from that perspective.”
In fact, Klein’s work makes a nice contrast to the often fractious world of online Tai Chi discussion. His musings are marvelously inofensive and do a good job of framing his points of reference. He has no interest in denigrating other styles of Tai Chi or teachers, exposing fake histories or arguing with anybody else about what ‘real’ Tai Chi is.
No egos were harmed in the making of this book. If you’re looking for a philosophical meander through many of spirituality’s greatest hits then you’ve come to the right place. Step inside, pour yourself a cup of green tea and let the zookinesis flow.
I remember when I started Tai Chi in the 90s, one of the things that was talked about a lot was that you should never let your knees go beyond the line of your toes in a forward stance.
Letting this happen was always seen as unequivocally bad. Not only was knees beyond toes seen as structurally unsound (your weight is too far forward making you easy to pull off balance), but this was seen as the primary cause of the epidemic of so many Tai Chi people having bad knees.
The Snake Creeps Down posture in particular was quite often used as an example of a badly done posture by Western dilettantes.
But it always struck me as a bit odd that it was seen as being such a dangerous thing to do. If you were training the martial side of Tai Chi then you were being punched, thrown and armlocked on the regular. Worrying about your knees going over the line of your toes seemed a minor danger in comparrison.
Fast forward to 2021 and today I found out that a lot of BJJ people (an art that specialises in slowly destroying your body over time) were raving about the benefits of the method espoused by the Knees Over Toes Guy on YouTube, who had achieved great results reparing people’s knees using a traning methods that empahsises, yes, you guessed it, putting your knees beyond the line of your toes as much as possible.
Interesting. Here’s what he says:
A year went by with no results. In fact, I was certain I needed another surgery when a spark of truth finally presented itself…
“The athlete whose knees can go farthest and strongest over his or her toes is the most protected.”
Everything I had been taught up to this point by dozens of trainers and physical therapists was very clear: NO KNEES OVER TOES — but when I read this statement, I immediately knew it was true.
Knees Over Toes Guy
The write up of his method is here. And here’s a video of his basic method is here:
The logic seems sound to me, so if you’ve got knee trouble, you might want to give it a try.
It makes me think – is the epidemic of Tai Chi people with bad knees (if it really exists) caused by the knees going over the toes? Or is it more likely because that group self-selects for other unhealthy behviours?
I really liked this video by The Wandering Warrior on Instagram:
True or not, he makes a good case for the move not being the backfist or punch it is usually shown as, and being a throw instead. In a way, there’s no right answer – the move is whatever you use it for.
But it made me think a lot about how Kung Fu postures are repurposed and reused through the years.
You can see that the first posture shown, “Lazily pulling back the robe” shares some similarties with the posture discussed above.
A Confucian cuture of respect for tradition and elders would naturally lead to respect for older kung fu postures, and you can see how they would get reused and repurposed to fit new needs over the generations.
I bet the current Yang style Single Whip posture is not chosen because it’s the optimal way of pushing forward with a single palm. Instead, it’s more likely a posture that has been passed down from older generations. Maybe it’s original meaning (if it had one) has been lost, over the years. Maybe it was once a Suai Jiao throw? Maybe it was once a posture from Chinese theatre or religious ritual? Who knows.
The important thing is, as always, what can you do with it now?
One admonition from Yang Cheng Fu’s 10 important points, that has become something of a law in Tai Chi Chuan, is to ‘keep the head suspended, as if from above’. In the Tai Chi Classics it also states “Stand like a perfectly balanced scale and move like a turning wheel”, whilst also saying, “Don’t lean in any direction; suddenly appear, suddenly disappear.”
These quotes have produced all sorts of controversies in the Yang style side of the Tai Chi universe. If you look at ChengFu’s student Cheng ManChing, who did so much to popularise Tai Chi in the West, you can see that he changed his form to truly embody this principle of suspending the head and standing like a perfectly balanced scale. In a forward posture, Cheng ManChing kept his head, neck and back vertical in relation to the ground at all times. He allowed no forward incline at all. To stay vertical he softened his back knee a bit, which removed the straight line from the heel to the head, producing a much softer posture than his teacher, Yang Cheng-Fu, exhibited.
Whereas, if you look at pictures of Yang Cheng-Fu in a similar forward posture you can clearly see that he holds his head in the same vertical alignment, but holds his back with a slight forward incline. He keeps his back leg straighter, forming a straight line from his back heel to his head, meaning that his posture is slightly harder than Cheng ManChings, and he exerts more of a forward pressure.
Both of these approaches can be seen as interpreting the advice to not “lean in any direction” differently. The situation becomes even more confusing when you look at the Wu style of Tai Chi Chuan, derived from the version of the form practiced by ChengFu’s peer Wu Jianquan. Wu holds an even more inclined position, which keeps the head vertical, but often seems to break the line at the hip, so that the back heel is no longer in a straight line all the way to the head. Being of Manchu heritage, Wu Jianquan had a shuai-jiao background. He was taught martial arts by his father who was a student of Yang LuChan and also a cavalry officer and imperial palace guard, as he was, so a change in his preference for grappling techniques could very well account for the changes in his version of the form.
I used to ponder these discrepancies a lot, but these days I have become more interested in the relation of the back (including the neck) to the hands and arms, regardless of its orientation in the vertical plane. When we lift and use our arms our tendency is to bend the top of our spine and drop the head forwards, a fact that can be proved each and every time you type on a laptop. The next time you’re sitting at a laptop observe what happens when you start to type. Notice that your head wants to move towards your focus of attention, the object you are interacting with.
Recently I was watching an excellent performance by a child doing Bak Sing Choy Li Fut, filmed in the 1960s. Young children doing martial arts can be great teachers because they effortlessly keep their posture as they move. It is only as we become adults that we seem to lose this ability.
Search for the video “Old Kung Fu Footage in Hong Kong in the 1960’s” on YouTube and you’ll see what I mean. Watch the good posture he keeps throughout – his back remains still in relation to the movement of his arms allowing his neck to stay extended and space and awareness to be present.
This is what I think is being asked for in Yang Cheng-Fu’s writings and the Tai Chi Classics, not mere fussing about how vertical a posture is. What is required is the freedom to move our arms, but to keep our back still, and maintain our head and neck relationship without falling into the trap of bending towards the object of our attention.
But how do we train this? Here’s something simple you can try. Get a 4-pint carton of milk out of the fridge and swing it in a figure of 8 in front of you. Now do it again and notice how you head wants to be pulled forward. Resist the pull and feel the work done by the neck and back muscles to prevent it from happening. It shouldn’t feel like they’re straining, but they should feel active.
You can do the same thing with a heavy sword, of course, if you want to look more like a traditional martial artist, and less like a deranged milk man. And once you get a feeling for it you can try it without a heavy object, in which case it becomes more like a silk reeling exercise, or you can try and keep the same feeling when you do the Tai Chi form. In which case it doesn’t look like anything.
Obviously, when you are standing still, or sitting, in meditation you can achieve the same relationship of the torso, neck, head and arms but with even less use of muscle to maintain the position. Initially at least. If you try standing in a Zhan Zhuang posture with your arms extended for a few minutes you’ll start to feel your neck and shoulder muscles tighten. This is where you need to work on relaxing them, yet maintaining your posture. You need to let the weight of the upper body rest on the lower body, and flow down into the ground through the centre of the foot, or through the sitting bones if you are seated.
A human head is quite heavy, at around 5KG, which is a lot more than a typical bowling ball weighs. If the head moves forward of the hips too far then we have to start using a lot of muscle to hold it up. In a way, the neck being tense, or feeling tired, after we’ve been doing an activity is a warning sign that we’re not using our body to the best of our ability. If we can maintain the relaxed, neutral, position of the neck through movement, then the weight of the head is transfered down to the ground through our frame instead. Our breathing will be better, and we won’t lose that sense of lightness and ease that the kid in the Choy Li Fut video from the 1960s so effortlessly demonstrates.
Finally, his idea of keeping an open relationship between the head, neck, back and arms raises a few good questions when applied to martial arts. What springs first to my mind is, should you have your head in that position to fight? I’d say probably not – you want to tuck your chin in a bit more when you fight, for obvious reasons, but the real question is how you tuck your chin. The idea of the extended neck that you’re training by working on your posture can be transferred into the way you tuck your chin. Dropping the head towards the opponent has all the same disadvantages we’ve outlined above when applied to martial arts, and will inhibit the free movement of your arms, so critical to fluid punching, not to mention making you more hittable.
So, keep your head up, as people say to you when you’re looking down. Walk lightly, smile brightly!
I thought I’d start a series of posts commenting on what I like about photos of famous masters of the past. I thought I’d start with this photo of Yang Cheng-Fu doing rollback from the Yang long form.
Yang Cheng-Fu comes in for a lot of criticism, mainly I think because of his weight. He was a big man, but I’ve always been impressed with how precise and delicate his postures seem to be. What I like most about this picture is that you can almost feel the heaviness and sinking in what he’s doing, yet at the same time there is the precise placing of his hands and feet.
Tai Chi is a paradox in that you are supposed to feel light yet also heavy. According to the Tai Chi Classics your head needs to feel like it is being pulled up “as if suspended from above”, and yet your body needs to also have the feeling of sinking, “Make the chi sink calmly” and “The abdomen relaxes, then the chi sinks into the bones.”
You can see both these qualities in Yang Cheng-Fu performing Rollback, head upright, light and nimble, yet also firm and heavy. With the placement of his hands you also get a sense of the yin and yang being distributed throughout his body. The back hand has the intent of pulling and the front hand has the intent of pushing. He is not “double weighted” – each hand is expressing a different energy. The weight on his feet is on the back leg – again, not in no man’s land in the middle, but clearly distinguished.
You also get a sense of calm. This is not a frantic and hurried performance. It’s slow and deliberate, like a great river rolling.