Criticising solo forms – again

In this post I want to ask a question. I’m going to give an answer too, so the question is slightly rhetorical, but I think it needs to be asked.

“Why do internal martial artists spend so much of their time criticising each other’s solo forms?”

Let’s break this down – firstly, is this statement true?

I’ll give you one recent example to act as a poof of the statement:

As somebody who has been involved in discussing internal martial arts on the Internet since around the year 2000 I can attest that this happens all the time. In fact, I would say that it’s the majority of the discussion is of this nature.

You don’t need to watch the whole video. It’s long, boring, petty and doesn’t display a particularly high level of etiquette or skill.

It’s essentially one Chinese martial artist ciricising another Chinese martial artists for the same thing over and over, which is sticking his elbow out a bit too much. I know! The horror!

Ok, he probably has a point, but you could easily turn this around and criticise all the mistakes that the tall skinny guy is making too.

The question I have is why did he make this? Why must internal arts people spend all their time criticising each other’s solo forms?

Look at other martial arts – especially the ones that have a sporting side. They don’t tend to do this. MMA people do not do this,

With internal arts it’s an endless debate on degree of uprightness, too much or not enough opening of the kua, level of relaxation, sinking enough or not enough, degree of the knee flextion, etc. The list goes on…

But ok, here’s my caveat. Internal arts are obsessed over these details because they matter. The amount of opening and closing of your kua dictates the amount of power you can produce, and the quality of your movements. The position of your elbow has a direct connection to whether you can produce whole body power or not.

But nobody has the same set of rules that these things are being judged by. In theory, there should be a standard set of rules, but in reality, different styles do things in different ways, and always will. I’m more inclined to think that obsessing over details of solo forms is a bit of a trait of internal arts and less valuable than seeing what a practitioner can do in application/sparring.

The language of internal arts is also based on the same ideas. People go to their Tai Chi teacher to get corrected. The language itself is kind of negative. Nobody talks like this is in sports. You spend time with a good boxing coach and get improved.

But, what do you think?

Why you can’t learn Tai Chi from a book

woman holding newspaper while burning

Photo by Bruno Moretti on

I’ve been talking a lot about how to move from the dantien recently, and you might be wondering how easy this is to teach or do.

As it happens, I was trying to get a friend to understand how to do it today. I’ve been trying to get him to do this for a while actually (more than 2 years), but despite practicing diligently, he’s never really got it before. He’s got better at parts of it, but never the most important bit – moving from the dantien. It’s a very difficult thing to teach. You can describe it in words, but they’re open to misinterpretation. You can show them what you mean by doing it yourself, but its very hard to see unless you know what you’re looking for. You can even try and move their body for them in the right sort of way, but again, it’s not really the same thing as them doing it for themselves.

For some reason, today the penny dropped and he got it! You could almost see a light bulb appear above his head. The key seemed to be a combination of using the phrase “the arms trail behind the dantien” and trying a double-handed silk reeling exercise for the first time and watching me do it. For some reason, this time, it worked. It was a real Eureka! moment.

Of course, he can’t do it perfectly yet, but at least now I know he’s on the right track. He’s letting the pull of his dantien guide his arms. It sounds so simple, but it’s very hard to actually do. You can lead somebody to the gate as best you can, but they need to go through it themselves.

What was interesting was that with this new way of moving, he instantly felt muscles in his abdomen and lower back moving in ways they hadn’t done before. They were being worked. Instead of this area being ‘dead’ it was now full of movement. So much so that doing a Tai Chi form in this way was suddenly physically demanding. What had once been empty, floating movement was now full, rich and damned hard work. It was also mentally demanding. If he stopped paying attention, he stopped doing it.

His immediate observation was, “You can’t learn this from a book”.

Yes, he’s right. You can’t.

To learn Tai Chi you need to practice, under the guidance of somebody who has gone through that ‘move from the dantien’ gate. Once you’ve got through the gate it’s much easier to practice on your own, as that is the basis of everything that follows.

What you can find in books, like the Tai Chi Classic, which I recently produced a commentary on, only really makes sense once you’ve gone through the gate.

A lot of the requirements of Taijiquan that you find in writings are really external rules to encourage you to go through that gate. For instance, the rules about feet matching the hands, and knees the elbows, etc. These are all external requirements for dantien-driven movement. If you truly are moving from the dantien then your feet and hands will already be co-ordinated. Your knees and elbows will already be in harmony. All these rules will make sense. Before then there are still too many possibilities of going down blind alleys or faulty understanding.

In that sense, books and rules are useful in that they can help you stay on course, but they’re also a trap that you can get stuck in.

Tai Chi is also not an intellectual process. It’s a feeling. As human beings we tend to want to define everything and label it so we can think we understand it that way. Tai Chi isn’t like that. You need to do it, not think it.

I heard about a teacher once that used to confiscate any Tai Chi book that he saw on sight for the benefit of the student attempting to read it. He was probably right.

The non-shakers and movers of the XingYi world

Byron Jacobs just posted the latest in his excellent XingYi primers, this time on the last of the XingYi elements Heng Quan:


Byron got into a discussion on the XingYi Facebook group when asked when he was going to show “an advanced version with the “fajin” motions.”

His reply was so good I’m reposting the whole thing here, with his permission, as I feel the same way and he explained it very nicely:

A: these are Primer videos to get people to understand the basics in order to begin practice, so that’s their purpose, fundamentals. Maybe in future I’ll release some other ones with function and application etc. I would like you to clarify what your are asking for with “an advanced version with fajin motions”?

Q: the shaking motions in your strikes where penetrates internally?

A: A couple of things. Its a misunderstanding to think that Fajin means something like a specific method or something. It simply means to issue force. That is all it meant in the past, and that is all it means today. Its real meaning has been twisted and misunderstood, even more so in the west. In more recent times some strange focus on shaking has come into CMA which is not how things were and definitely this too has been twisted into something that it never was. The Xingyi classics never discuss “shaking” and in fact older generation teachers will admonish you for this telling you overtly shaking makes “power leak” from your target. An example is even quoted from Feng Zhiqiang talking about how Chen Fake taught them “While issuing power the body should be relaxed, but one should be very conscious about so-called “Shaking Power” (Dou Jin). This power has to be focused and not scattered all over the body. The more advanced one is, the smaller the shaking. When we were learning Taijiquan from Chen Fake shaking the body in Fa Li was the greatest taboo to be avoided.”

Good issuing of force is firstly dependent on the correct structure, then the correct method and finally using body mechanics to assist with generating optimal force. This is all covered in those basics, and its the long term practice of these key points I put in those videos that will enable you to develop strong issuing of force. Strong issuing of force penetrates

Staying rounded in Taijiquan

My Xing Yi teacher invented the word “chalicity” as an English equivalent of the Mongol phrase “Bak Tam Stay Saub”, which means (very roughly) “a bit like a capacious container”. So, chalicity means, “a bit like a chalice.”

A chalice, or a cup, is a rounded structure designed to contain a fluid with no leaks, and has parallels for both the mental aspect and physical aspect of a posture in the internal arts.


Photo by Jametlene Reskp on Unsplash

In the context of his shamanism practice, chalicity is more about the mental parallel – the space inside the cup reflecting the space inside a mind that is empty of thought.

However, in the context of Taijiquan and martial arts, you can think of ‘chalice-like’ as the physical structure of the body creating the space necessary to contain “Peng” energy, that is, the ground force used in internal arts expressed through a rounded structure.

Think of Peng energy as being the fluid inside the cup and your body as being the structure of the cup. Or you can think of it as the air inside a rubber ball. If you keep your body rounded, it holds the Peng energy nicely. If you don’t, it leaks out.

The posture requirements of Taijiquan

All the posture requirements of Taijiquan create a rounded structure for the body. Here are some:

1. Head suspended from above

2. Elbows drooped.

3. Chest sheltered / back lifted

4. Shoulders rounded.

5. Chi sunk to the dantien.

6. Kua rounded

7. Knees bent.

These requirements create the structure for your ‘chalice’ within which you can hold the Peng force.

These days all internal martial arts make use of Zhan Zhuang, “standing like a tree” standing postures, which the practitioner is required to hold for extended periods, work the same way. They all maintain this same Peng shape, with gently rounded limbs and upright spines.

adult and cub tiger on snowfield near bare trees

Photo by Pixabay on

Xing Yi Quan uses the San Ti Shi standing posture which has 6 requirements, two of which are bear shoulders and tiger embrace. Together these two requirements mean your torso and arms take up the same chalice-like posture. You maintain the Peng shape. It’s all the same idea.

Maintaining structure while moving.

Structure isn’t something that’s meant to be achieved only in a static posture. Part of what you’re training when you perform a Tai Chi form, for example, is the ability to keep this Peng shape as you move.

If you keep the requirements you can maintain Peng. If you break the requirements then your Peng force will leak out of your body, just as water would leak from a cup with a hole in.

So, if you start to drop your head or stiffen the neck, for example, or straighten your legs or raise your elbows, you lose the natural power of the body working together all powered from the ground, and you have to start muscling it to compensate in your techniques.

So, to work in internal arts, all the techniques need to be expressed within the framework of this structure, and some techniques in martial arts just aren’t suited to maintaining this Peng structure.

Take for example, a side kick.


Photo by Jason Briscoe on Unsplash

There’s nothing wrong with a side kick, but you physically can’t keep the body ‘rounded’ while performing a side kick to the opponent’s chest because of the angle you need to open your hip to. Just look at the photo.

I think that’s one reason why you don’t often see the a side kick in most Tai Chi forms or in fact in Xing Yi or Bagua. The kicks you do see in the internal arts tend to not take the hip out of alignment with the rest of the body.

Does that mean you can never do a side kick again? Of course not, but generally, you need to keep your rounded structure at all times when practicing internal arts, that way you keep your Peng energy rounded and the true power of the internal martial arts can be expressed.

Stop fighting in push hands


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I don’t really enjoy push hands.  I used to, I used to enjoy it much more when I saw it as a medium for exploring arm locks, takedowns, wrist locks, throws. In short, when I saw it as a way to practice techniques. I used to love it.

In more recent years I’ve reframed my view of what push hands is. Partly this is because I took up BJJ, and found I got more than enough scrapping in my diet to satisfy my craving to try out locks, throws and sweeps. That’s essentially what we do in BJJ, we practice locks, throws and sweeps over and over until we get very good at them and can do them under full resistance.

Inevitably the BJJ player ends up going one of two ways over the years. Either he (or she) gets softer and more flowing. So, when the other person is pushing you should be pulling, and when they’re pulling you should be pushing. By learning to flow with the dynamic movement between two people you learn to blend, yield and overcome. Or they end up getting very good at smashing people. Whatever is in front of them they can just smash through it using precise, accurate bursts of speed and power.

Inevitably all BJJ players tend towards the first approach as they age, if they want to keep training, that is. Or they give up either through injury or changing life circumstances.

But back to push hands. Once I had found a way to get my regular fix of fighty, I found I could step back and view push hands as something else. Perhaps what it was originally intended for.

Now when somebody pushes on my arm I don’t immediately think “how can I lock this arm?”, I am thinking, “where is his force going?”. Is it going to my feet? If not, I try and send it there, turn and yield. When it’s my turn to push back I ask myself where I’m pushing from. Is it the ground? If not, why not? What am I doing that’s stopping that? Where am I tense?

Pushing hands like this might not be as much fun, but I think overall, it’s more satisfying.

Proper push hands lacks the thrills of the fighty approach, but it instils qualities in you that make your fighty better.

That’s a difficult concept to really understand, and even harder to do when the other person just wants to fight. If the other person wants to fight then I sometimes just fight back. Inevitably I slip into BJJ mode and we end up in some armlock on the ground, and it’s fun…

…but it’s probably not what we should be doing.


Tai Chi’s crotch Dantien: store and release in the legs

800px-Cheng_Man-ching (1)

Cheng Man-Ching doing his Single Whip posture.

In Tai Chi we all know we are told we should “round the crotch area” – sometimes called “Kua”, but more accurately called “Dang” in Chinese – but why? What does that mean anyway? I’m going to try and point you in the right direction with this post.

The three dantiens

There are three main dantiens in the body that Tai Chi is concerned with. Firstly there’s the main one in the lower belly, which acts as a nexus, or control point for the whole body, but slaved to it are two other dantiens – the chest dantien and the crotch dantien.

There are clear parallels here to the idea of chakras in Yogic folklore, and indeed there are more “dantiens” in the Chinese system that relate to the other chakra locations in the body too, but for the purposes of internal martial arts, it’s the crotch and chest dantiens that are most important.

The crotch dantien is located at the Hui Yin point, and shown in the drawings from Chen Xin’s book:

Screen Shot 2019-03-18 at 10.37.25 AM

These dantiens are points where you can use to store force that can be used in the release of power in the way that the internal martial arts express it – i.e. from the ground to the point of application.

It’s often said that Tai Chi is “boxing with the legs”, and this relates to the use of the crotch dantien. The knees are also in the domain of the crotch dantian, so, you need to think of the legs, hips and crotch all working together.

So what is that supposed to feel like? Well, It’s a bit like sitting on a space hopper – that feeling of grasping something with the inside of your legs, but not too forcefully.


When you take up your stance in Tai Chi you should feel this ‘energy’ inside that leg arch, as if you are sitting on a space hopper. That’s not exactly a scientific way to describe it, but hopefully, you get the idea.

So your knees are involved too: when you rotate one leg forward, the other leg must rotate backwards to keep the grip on the ball. This forms the action of opening and closing, and is part of the overall action of opening and closing that is going on all over the body.

Squeezing the ball

As you move through the Tai Chi form you ‘squeeze’ this ball between your legs (just as you do a space hopper). So the crotch (the part of the body where the legs join the torso) can close on one side of the body and open on the other, but the feeling of there being something there is maintained throughout.

In Zhan Zhuang practice you get a lot of people describing holding a balloon between the legs, or a ballon supporting your limbs – that’s the same idea, and with enough practice it can actually start to feel like this.

While the space hopper or balloon may be imaginary, the feeling isn’t. It reminds me a lot of the verse in the Tao Te Ching about the value of what’s not there:

“Thirty spokes share the hub of a wheel;
 yet it is its center that makes it useful.
 You can mould clay into a vessel;
 yet, it is its emptiness that makes it useful.
 Cut doors and windows from the walls of a house;
 but the ultimate use of the house
 will depend on that part where nothing exists.

 Therefore, something is shaped into what is;
but its usefulness comes from what is not.”

This feeling of buoyancy in the crotch dantien forms part of the way the power is transferred from the legs to the torso, and ultimately out to the fingers.

Store and release

In terms of training this power, traditionally it’s common to stand in a low horse riding stance for a long period of time. I think this is more about building leg strength than the sort of power I’m talking about though, so while there’s nothing wrong with it, I think you need a moving exercise to practice what I’m talking about.

So, I’d recommend focussing on it while doing a simple single arm wave silk reeling exercise. (Like the one I use in my silk reeling course).

Trying to focus on just developing this power while doing the whole Tai Chi form isn’t optimal, as there are too many other things going on at once.

It’s important to stress again that there is no actual ball of energy between your legs – it’s just a useful metaphor for helping you get the right feeling for the particular winding in the legs and hips that helps produce power through the store and release mechanism in the horizontal plane.

As you turn one way then the other, the windings of the legs results in opening and closing actions which store power, that can be released into movement.

This is another reason why you really need to turn the waist a lot in side-to-side motions in Tai Chi Chuan (usually a lot more than you think). Without sufficient turning of the waist, you’re just not getting the hips and legs involved enough and activating their store and release potential for power.

The Tai Chi move ‘Wave hands like clouds’ is a good example of this. Notice that I’m turning all the way through to the sides to get the most store and release out of the legs:



My teacher always admonishes me to ‘relax the waist’ when he’s critiquing my form.  Over the years I’ve learned that what he’s really asking me to do is increase the range of movement that my waist goes through. Obviously, stiffness inhibits the range of motion of the waist, but just realising that you need to turn more than you are currently doing is a valuable insight in itself. And now hopefully you can understand the reasons why.

I hope that helps.



How to get better at push hands

Today’s Tai Chi tip is all about how to get better at push hands simply by adjusting your posture.


Push hands should really be an exercise in which we get to test our ability to absorb Jin from an opponent and project it into an opponent as required, to uproot them.

It shouldn’t devolve into a pushing and shoving match to see who can ‘win’. Once it turns into that then I don’t think anybody is learning anything anymore. There are far superior methods of grappling and I think you’d be better off spending your time learning those if your goal is simply to win a grappling exchange.

But before we can focus on using Jin we have to get our body in a position where it conforms to the Tai Chi principles of posture, where we’re not fighting it all the time, and it’s working to our advantage instead.

It is said, “Jin does not flow through tense muscles

So, we need to get our body into a structural position where we can be as relaxed as possible, without collapsing, yet still maintain our connection to the ground. In Chinese terms you would call this a posture where your “qi is strong”, but you are not tensing muscles more than they need to be.

Of course, this optimum qi structure is one of the first things to go out of the window once we start push hands. In push hands we get to test our Tai Chi under a limited amount of pressure. Faults that lie dormant in the form rise to the surface like bubbles.

Here we’re going to go over a few.

1. Head position and leaning

Head position in the form goes hand in hand with the issue of leaning. Some styles of Tai Chi, like Wu style and Yang Cheng-Fu’s Yang style, opt for a slight angling forward of the torso in forward-weighted bow stances. Other styles like Sun style, Chen style and Cheng Man-Ching style all keep an upright posture as often as they can, even in front-weighted stances. (See pictures below)

But the thing is, all styles are upright in their back stances (or should be). And even styles that maintain an upright stance, have to lean forward to do throwing techniques that take the person to the ground like Needle at Sea Bottom or Punch to the ground, for example.

Here are some examples of different Tai Chi practitioners:


Chen Xiaowang, upright and stable.




Cheng Man-Ching, very upright.


Sun Lu Tang 2014-12-11 15-54-12

Sun Lu Tang, no leaning.


A variety of postures from Wu Jian Quan, showing sometimes leaning, sometimes not.

Yang Cheng-Fu showing sometimes a slight leaning, sometimes not.


I think it’s time to get to the point of all this:

It’s not the lean itself that matters.
It’s maintaining an unbroken spinal alignment that is the key issue!

All these practitioners have one thing in common, they are not letting their heads droop, and they are not looking at the floor when they don’t need to.

For example, when even a practitioner who is famous for his upright posture does Needle at Sea Bottom, he or she bends forward, she just doesn’t break the alignment of the spine.

Needle at Bottom of the Sea

Needle at Sea Bottom


The Tai Chi classics talk a lot of carrying the head as if “suspended from above”. If you let your head droop you break the spinal alignment. You are easy to off-balance in push hands because your posture is broken. But if you hinge properly from the hips then you can still keep this spinal alignment even when you bend forward.

Think of the spine as including the neck (which anatomically, it does of course). If the neck goes offline in relation to the spine then the weight of the head has to be compensated by muscles elsewhere in the body. And this extra tensing of muscles results in a less efficient transfer of Jin from (or too) the ground.

Because we are quite used to this happening while standing or sitting, we don’t really feel our head being off centre so much. Switch to working on the ground, in a yoga posture for example, and you can instantly feel the difference your head position makes.

On a technical level, if you are using Jin you should be able to let the solidity of the ground be apparent at the point of contact with the opponent. If you have to use too much muscle then your pure Jin starts to turn into “Muscle Jin”. Muscle jin, isn’t as adaptable to change as pure jin. You can’t easily change direction, for instance. It also just doesn’t feel as it should. It might help you win a push hands competition, but you’ll find it lacking when it comes to martial technique.

And when it comes to the thorny issue of leaning, I’d recommend trying to stay upright in push hands. As I said before, the leans you tend to see in Tai Chi forms are to do with the application of a technique. Sure, you can lean to apply power according to a technique (just make sure you keep your spine aligned) but for the usual back and forth of push hands I’d recommend trying to keep as upright as possible. You’ll find it gives you more freedom of movement in the horizontal axis.

If you watch this clip of Wang Hai Jun doing some push hands with applications in it, you’ll notice that he’s staying upright during the push hands, but he’ll lean to apply a technique:


2. Shoulder usage

I posted before about learning how to sink in Tai Chi Chuan. One of the benefits of sinking is that you can be powerful yet relaxed at the same time. Again, this is a body requirement for the use of Jin. I don’t really care about relaxing the legs so much (although see point 3 later on) they key thing is making sure that all the tension of the upper body is dissolved down into the lower body.

You want to feel like your upper body is empty, while your lower body is full. “Hands like clouds, legs like mountains”, is a phrase that springs to mind.

The big stumbling block here is always the shoulder. Either we use our shoulder too much, and the movement becomes local and isolated from the rest of the body, or we don’t relax it sufficiently, and it becomes a blockage to the smooth flow of power from the ground that you’re looking for.

One really effective way of bypassing the shoulder in push hands, and relying more on sinking and the power of the ground, is to imagine a tube that runs from your hand, all the way up your arm, and down your back to the foot and the ground. Imagine another tube for the other side of the body. Now, when you want to move your arm, you have to move the whole tube. Start your power at the foot.

Over time, once you get the hang of it, it will become intuitive to start to direct your ‘tube movement’ from the waist area, and ‘moving from the dantien’ starts to become your preferred method of movement.


3. Using the back leg as a brace

Another trap people fall into is using the back leg like a brace, held stiff against the ground. Again, this leads to muscle Jin, not the relaxed release of power we are looking for. If you engage in the push and shove type of push hands you typically see at push hands tournaments then this is a great way to win. Unfortunately, ‘winning’ makes no difference if your goal is to get better at Tai Chi Chuan.

Don’t get me wrong, a little physical scrap like this is good for you now and again, and it’s good fun to push yourself physically! But these days I tend to let BJJ rolling get that all out of my system, so I can focus more on developing push hands skill in the right way when I’m engaged in push hands practice. .

So that’s a bunch of stuff you shouldn’t be doing. But what should you be doing?

I’d put forward the following 3 suggestions. This is just my personal opinion, of course.

1. Posture, posture, posture.

As you push hands keep your focus on your posture. Mentally note when you lean forward, note when you feel unbalanced sideways. Stop looking at the floor. Look at the horizon, through your opponent. Note when your feet aren’t flat on the ground. Where is your breathing? Low down or up in the chest? I count breathing as a posture consideration since it will affect your posture.

2. Sink.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Sinking is the key to changing from using Li to learning to use Jin. Learn to relax the upper body completely and drop your weight into your lower body, then use that to power your movements.

3. Listen.

Once you are relaxed and able to sink your weight (Sung in Chinese) you should start to ‘listen’ – Ting Jin in Chinese. This enables you to detect where your partner is weak in their structure. How just a little push here or there will send them off balance. That’s where you need to start experimenting in your attacks.



One stroke of the brush


Photo by Niketh Vellanki on Unsplash

It says in the Tai Chi classics that the movements of Tai Chi should be continuous, like a rolling river:

Chang Ch’uan [Long Boxing] is like a great river rolling on unceasingly.”

There are a few interesting things to unpack about this quote, taken from the Tai Chi Classic attributed to Chang San Feng. Firstly, it doesn’t call the martial art “Tai Chi Chuan”, instead it calls it “Long Boxing”, which is yet another indicator that what is known as the “Tai Chi Classics” are in fact, just a collection of common sayings about martial arts of the time that have been bundled together.¹ I tend to regard what we know as “Tai Chi Chuan” today, in all its various forms, as the modern expression and amalgamation of older Chinese martial arts; it is an evolution of ideas and techniques, rather than a ‘new’ martial art which was invented in a moment of divine inspiration by somebody having a dream about a Crane fighting a Snake, which is one of its apocryphal origins myths.

Secondly, the image of water harks back to ideas of Taoism, which uses water imagery frequently in its depictions of worldly affairs. The imagery of a river is a good one. And the implication is clear: no stopping. Continual movement.

Quite often people who think they are doing a Tai Chi form continuously are not. They’re putting in little stops at the end of movements. My teacher called this “posturing”. A good performance of a Tai Chi form will smooth out all these end points so that the form becomes like a single stroke of a calligrapher’s brush on a canvas.

When approached this way, the Tai Chi form stops being composed of numbered moves which are separate elements. As human beings we’re so ingrained in this type of thinking that we even classify Tai Chi forms with numbers on the end. E.g. the “The Tai Chi 24-step form, the Chen style 48 form, the Yang style 108-posture form, etc..” with the number indicating how many different postures there are in the form. When you do the form as ‘one stroke of the brush’ then the whole form becomes one move from beginning to end. Sure, you move from close to open to close to open, and so on, continuously within the movement, but there is still only one movement.

But why? Well, in terms of aesthetic value, it’s definitely more pleasing to the eye to see somebody who moves like this, but that’s not the only reason. In terms of martial technique, the ability to flow smoothly between techniques is key to being able to respond adaptively to whatever the opponent is doing. If you’ve never put the time into practicing movements smoothly you can’t expect to just pull that skill out of the bag when required.

Another reason is that it’s much easier to learn to coordinate your arms and legs if you can move at a constant rate. It gives you the mental space you need to slow down (which is a whole principle in itself) and become more aware of the movements you’re doing, rather than rushing through them, which creates mental blank spots you may miss.

You need to approach continuity as a task that is going to take you a while to complete. As you do the form become aware of where you’re losing awareness and continuity. Has a hand stopped moving here? An arm become immobile there? Did you pause for a fraction after completing Brush Knee Twist Step? (Here’s a hint, you probably did).

If you make continuity the focus of a complete run through of the form then over weeks and months you can get to the stage where your movement becomes very smooth and even. Now you’re ready to look for a deeper meaning. Consider the aforementioned river – it moves continuously, in that it never stops, but different parts of it move at different rates. Where the river narrows rapids form, where it flattens out the pace is more genteel. The form is like this too. There are faster bits and slower bits – quite obviously in Chen style, but also in the even-paced Yang styles. Let the movements guide you – they’ll tell you where you should naturally ‘go with the flow’. Now your techniques will start to become more realistic and you’ll be able to appreciate the type of movement required to make them work.

As Bruce Lee said. “Be like water, my friend”.

¹. See Douglass Wile’s Lost Tai Chi Classics from the late Ching Dynasty


What makes Xingyi’s Bengquan different to a normal straight punch?


human fist

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I got into a discussion about Bengquan, one of the 5 fists of Xingyiquan, a Chinese martial art I’ve written about before, recently, which prompted me to consider what really made a Bengquan different to a regular straight punch that you’d find in any number of other martial arts. I thought I’d just jot down a few of my ideas about it, because that forces me to organise my thoughts, but it has turned into quite a long post. So, apologies for that, but I’m going to post it anyway 😉

Xingyi is the oldest of the 3 big internal martial arts of China. Because it is so old and has gone through the hands of so many different practitioners and been secreted into several different secretive families, who often don’t teach outsiders, there are various different ways of doing Xingyi/Xinyi these days. They all employ different exercises and can look pretty different to each other, so it’s hard to talk generally about XingYi without somebody disagreeing with you. Still, all the different branches of the art remain one family, and you can talk about the art in general to some extent while still making sense. Which is what I’m going to attempt to do.

One thing to note is that historically Xingyi was developed as a barehand adaptation of military spear fighting methods. Ji Jike, (died 1662) also known as Ji Long Feng “God of spear”, was the oldest historically record practitioner. He was a soldier for the Ming Dynasty who found himself on the losing side and had to hand over his weapons and adapt to civilian life. He kept practicing his spear skill but adapted it for barehand work.

These days Xingyiquan is famous for having 5 fists. Each of these is a different kind of strike. Bengquan, “Crushing fist”, is one of the most famous of these fists. It’s representative of the Wood element, and consists of a very direct, forward strike, usually kept low, to the solar plexus or abdomen.

Xingyiquan has been featured in a few movies recently, and it’s its Bengquan that always gets the glory so you can consider it a kind of representative technique for the whole art.

In this scene from The Grandmaster a Xingyi master runs through the 5 fists, ending with Bengquan, then proceeds to fight Wing Chun master Yip Man, who is quite impressed with the Bengquan fist.


In the clip he then goes on to fight a second master who is doing a Shaolin art (my guess would be that it’s meant to represent Hung Gar) – it’s interesting to contrast the two styles (something I will be doing below).

What I would consider a good example of Bengquan outside of movies is this XingYi performer Yang Hai, originally from China, but now living and teaching in Canada:

I think most people I know who do XingYi, regardless of their particular style, would regard this performance “good”.

So, the question I want to answer here is what makes what he’s doing a Bengquan as opposed to a regular straight punch? In short, if you were just to punch forward in a straight line, with your body weight behind it, would it be a Bengquan?

Unsurprisingly, my answer is “no”, so let me explain.

Starting at the top of the body and working down, the first thing to look at is the arm movements. One arm is retracting in Bengquan as the other punches – that action utilises the whole body in a very relaxed way because it makes the spine rotate. Nothing is stiff. The arms are working together in harmony, the spine is rotating and the hips are also moving around it.

One hand coming back to the hip as the other strikes is also a feature of the Reverse Punch in Karate. So how is this different? Notice that in Bengquan the two fists cross over the top of each other, rather than being unconnected, and on different sides of the body. (Does the similarity point to a common ancestor? Possibly, back in the mists of time… it’s hard to say).

On a deeper level, the whole action of Bengquan is formed by the opening and closing of the body to move the arms. The section where the hands end up just in front of the body (meeting in the middle) is the ‘close’ part, the section where one hand punches out and the other retracts to the hip is the ‘open’ part. (A half-step Bengquan is where you punch on the close section as well).

The concept of opening and closing goes a bit outside the scope of this article, and involves the dantien usage and back bow, amongst other things, but I’ve talked about it before. You find this opening and closing action in Taijiquan, Baugazhang and other Chinese martial arts.

The question of why the arm retreats all the way to the hip in bengquan is also a good one. It doesn’t initially seem like something that particularly practical to do in a barehand combat situation. (Note different styles of Xingyi retract the arm to different degrees, too). However, I believe it’s there for a couple of reasons. Firstly, considering the spear origins of the art, the hip it’s a natural place to hold the butt of the spear, and where it naturally ends up when you retract after a spear thrust. Secondly, bringing the hand all the way back (an exaggerated movement) helps with the feeling of opening and closing. If you can do it big, then you can (over time) learn to do it small.

Note that if you are doing a Bengquan with a spear in your hands then your other hand cannot retract to the hip while thrusting with the spear (since you are holding the spear with two hands), but apart from this the action is identical to the barehand method. But after the thrust, you’d retract the spear back, so the hand was back at the hip again. So, doing Bengquan with a spear (correctly called Beng Qiang) is repeating the action on one side of the body over and over (until you swap sides), while doing it barehand, you are alternating sides of the body with each punch. Like this:


The next thing I’d look at is the footwork. in Bengquan you step as you punch. You don’t land your feet, then punch, or punch without stepping. The step is an integral part of the movement. It’s part of the opening and closing of the body and part of the technique. In Xingyi your feet should always be moving.


Notice that his back foot stays connected to the floor for a comparatively long time for a stepping-in punch. He’s keeping that ground connection for a long, long time. His body and head are generally kept quite upright – he’s not lunging forward. All this is down to the type of footwork that XingYi uses, where the feet are kept under the body on a comparatively small base, as opposed to a wider stand where you have a longer base.

I believe that part of the purpose of this footwork is to aid a key feature that makes a Bengquan different to a regular straight punch – that is its ability to penetrate deeply into the target.

If you track the path of the fist in this example, it is on a slightly upward but mainly forward trajectory, like an arrow being shot from a bow. It goes right through the target in a straight line. It should be doing damage to anything it contacts on its trajectory, just like an arrow would, not aimed to land at a particular spot.

This feature marks Bengquan out as being different to a lot of punching methods that aim to land in one particular place in time and space. If you look at the path of a typical punch that is ‘swung’ at a target it is mainly swinging in an arc. So you’re timing it to land on the target as you drop your weight forward onto your front leg. That produces power, sure, but I wouldn’t call that a Bengquan as it’s not going through the target like you see in the Bengquan example above. Even if the force then goes through the pad or target, the punch itself doesn’t. To me a typical punch is about “landing on the target with your weight”, like a sledgehammer hitting something. Yes, that hurts and it’s effective, but it’s not what you should be doing in Bengquan. Done correctly it should displace a pad holder significantly. This is much easier to train on a person than a pad holder to be fair, as the contact of the fist on a pad is not the same as the contact of a fist on a body – the body is softer and crumples more as you impact, making it easier to get the right feel.

A key to look for in Xingyiquan, when its applied under pressure, is that the footwork doesn’t devolve into other methods, like say, falling into a long riding horse stance to help make up ground.

Xingyi is a collection of particular body methods (Shenfa)- once you start to lose one of them, the whole thing unravels, and you have… something else.