A bit of Xing Yi Snake to welcome in the spring and St. Patrick’s Day

The blossom is out on my tree and spring is in the air! So, it’s time to record a new video.

Yesterday was St. Patrick’s Day, the saint who drove the “snakes” out of Ireland (a country which has never had snakes). I see a lot of people doing Xing Yi snake forms and generally I don’t like most of it. Sorry. It always seems a bit “dumbed down” to me. Linear and basic, and not very representative of the actual animal. Snakes coil, they twist, they wrap and they strike suddenly and swiftly. Those characteristics need to be present if you are going to embody the Snake (She Xing).

But rather than post videos of other people’s work and criticise it, (which seems to be a favourite pastime of people on the Internet), I thought I’d make my own and try to promote my mate Glen’s Xing Yi Snake book in the process:

Somebody commented on another of my videos that they liked the weapons work I’ve included previously, so I put some Snake sword in there too. As with all Xing Yi, you can see the barehand work is simply a translation from the weapons work. The application pictures are from Glen Board’s book Xing Yi Snake, (which I’ve reviewed here), that I worked on with him.

I actually recorded this video just before I did my regular Tai Chi practice, and I noticed that my Tai Chi form became infused with the flavour of the Snake Xing I’d been practicing previously and became very coily indeed! This is what the Xing Yi animals are like – they’re like strong flavours of tea, that you add to your hot water. Ultimately you should be able to blend all 12 freely. I don’t think there’s enough lifetimes left for me to do that though, which is why I tend to stick to the ones I prefer. Different Xing Yi practitioners tend to be heavily ‘flavoured’ by the animals they prefer.

But why snakes? What’s the advantage in studying them? There are many legends about snakes, but not many actual snakes to be found in the UK, so we don’t generally know too much about them, but it’s pretty clear from watching this YouTube video showing python attacks that they’re absolutely fearless predators:

What surprised me most about that video is how close the python manages to get to its prey before it strikes. I guess it must be to do with being absolutely silent as it moves? I don’t know. Either way, a python is a terrifying grappler and an ambush predator combined into one. You can see why horses, monkeys and man has a built-in snake phobia.

As Wikipedia notes: “Historically, serpents and snakes represent fertility or a creative life force. As snakes shed their skin through sloughing, they are symbols of rebirth, transformation, immortality, and healing. The ouroboros is a symbol of eternity and continual renewal of life. … In Hinduism, Kundalini is a coiled serpent.”

Carl Jung had a lot to say about snakes. The ouroboros is cool symbol, a Western Yin/Yang, but the most recognisable snake symbol in our daily lives is the caduceus, the traditional symbol of Hermes and a symbol used in many esoteric religions and associated with healing:

The (very similar) Rod of Asclepius is still used on ambulances today:

Close Up of Caduceus Medical Symbol on Rear Corner of Ambulance Vehicle

“Some accounts suggest that the oldest known imagery of the caduceus has its roots in a Mesopotamian origin with the Sumerian god Ningishzida; whose symbol, a staff with two snakes intertwined around it, dates back to 4000 BC to 3000 BC.[3]

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caduceus

In Roman mythology the caduceus was often held by Mercury, harald of the gods, which brings me back to where I started, with the blossom on my tree being the herald of Spring.

And, bit like the ouroboros itself, I took a circuitous route to get there!

What is an authentic understanding of Chinese martial arts?

Qing Dynasty martial artists performing in a procession (between 1901-1904)

I’m still fascinated by that film I posted a little while ago of China from 1901-1904. It’s as close as we’ll get to seeing the people who were around at the time that the popular martial arts of Northern China – Taijiquan, Baguazhang and Xingyiquan were being formalised into the structures and routines we still know and recognise today.

It gives a small insight into what the martial arts of the time were like, we have an idea of what they practiced, but we don’t always know where they practiced them, and to some extent really why they practiced them. There’s a particular sequence starting at 17.10 in the film where we see a procession of sorts going along a riverbank and then entering a village or town. There are martial arts performers doing twirls and spins of their weapons as they go. The setting is informal, music is being played (we see the musicians) and it has something of an air of the Saint’s Day religious processions you still see going on between villages in rural European nations, or the May Day “Hobby Hoss” procession that can still found in Cornwall in the United Kingdom.

But back to China. The martial artists involved seem embedded into the culture of the place and time as much as the musicians or flag holders.

“There was a well established pattern of village festival culture in Northern China. The ritual was called a sai and it was based on a three-part structure: inviting, welcoming and seeing off the gods. Ritual could last anywhere from three days to a month. Wherever you happened to be, these rituals were happening nearby every two weeks. A smaller sai might have only 50 people officiating and a thousand participants, while a large one might involve hundreds of ritual experts and 100,000 participants. A large ritual could invoke as many as 500 gods, their statues escorted out of temples in massive processions with armed escorts of martial performers that snaked between villages for miles.”

“According to David Johnson, ritual festivals were so common and so old and so large that they were overwhelmingly the most important influence shaping the symbolic universe of the common people. Regionally they happen about every two weeks and could involve over a hundred villages, with processions that strung out for miles attracting thousands of spectators. “It is quite impossible to understand what villagers… in North China thought and felt about the world of politics, about Chinese history and traditions, about the world of gods and demons, or about any of the grand matters of life and death, without a close familiarity with sai [and similar rituals]. Ref: David Johnson 1997, “Temple Festivals in Southeastern Shanxi”, Overmyer 2009,8.”

From Tai Chi, Baguazhang and the Golden Elixir: Internal martial arts before the Boxer Rebellion by Scott Phillips, p173.
Qing Dynasty martial artists performing in a procession (between 1901-1904)

I don’t think we can assume, from one film. that all Chinese martial art of the period was like this, but it’s fascinating to see a glimpse of how well it was integrated with everything else.

As Charles Holcombe wrote at the start of his seminal 1990 essay on the subject, Theater of combat: A critical look at the Chinese martial arts

Everywhere in China the martial arts either present themselves in the guise of simple exercises or are shrouded in arcane religious mysteries. Western enthusiasts often feel impelled to strip away these religious trappings and construct a version of the martial arts that is neither simple gymnastics nor religion, but emphasizes true hand-to-hand combat skills. The question remains, is this an authentic understanding of the martial arts?

Charles Holcombe, Theater of combat: A critical look at the Chinese martial arts

Xing Yi Quan by Tian Jinglong

Here’s a nice video of a Xing Yi Quan linking form showing some really nice Xing Yi Quan body methods.

Xing Yi Quan master Tian Jinglong (田景龙) shows Advanced and retreat linked form(Ji Tui Lianhuan(进退连环拳). Tian Jinglong is disciple of Li Jinbo(李金波), youngest student of legendary Hebei province warrior “Iron Luohan” Zhang Changfa (张长发aka Zhang Xiangzhai张祥斋) . Lineage: Li Luoneng(李洛能)—Liu Qilan(刘奇兰)—Liu Dianchen(刘殿琛)—Zhang Changfa(张长发)—Li Jinbo(李金波)—Tian Jinglong(田景龙)

Store and release in Xing Yi

So, I decided to make a short-ish video to clear up some confusing points of discussion in my previous posts, about transfer of weight between legs. This lead me on to talking about the store and release of power in the body that Xing Yi can produce and how you don’t need to “load up” because you should always be “loaded”.

N.B. This is not the same as the jin – ground power – produced by down power on the front foot (that’s going on as well, obviously) but it’s more analogous to the 5 bows concept in Tai Chi, except this is the Xing Yi version, which I think is more suited for continuous striking, not a big “one shot kill”. We call this way of producing power the Dragon body in Xing Yi.

As always, I’m not saying this is the only way to do it, or the best way, or that you suck, or I’m brainwashed, or you are brainwashed. I’m just presenting some information, feel free to reject it if you don’t like it. And all the best in your training.

Eating humble pie

Lord make my words as sweet as honey for tomorrow I may have to eat them.”– Unknown.

It’s been pointed out by a kind reader that I didn’t explain myself very well in the last post, and that I was putting “weight” onto the front leg despite saying that I wasn’t. After a long chat with the reader – (thanks Igor) – and some reflection, I think he’s right. So, thanks to Igor for pointing this out. I’ll have another go at explaining what I meant here:

What I was trying to explain was that in a general Xing Yi step I’m not going from a back stance to a front stance. Like this:

Back stance (weighted back leg):

Front stance (weighted front leg):

I desribed not doing this in my last post as “not putting my weight on the front leg“. However, I now realise that this is misleading because at the point in the video where I’m hitting the tennis ball my mass is landing on the front leg. Here’s the moment:

You can hear it as well, if you have the sound on. The rear leg then follow steps and catches up and “catches” under my body.

So, while my stance is not changing from a back stance to a front stance, my mass does go into the front leg, and the ground.

One of the reasons I write this blog is to write out my thoughts, because then I can be really clear with what I mean, and correct them if necessary. So, I think I just got a little bit clearer, thanks to one of my readers. The point of this blog is never blind adherence to a particular viewpoint, but to research and challenge what I’m doing, and keep an open mind.

The other point that I think is worth making is that the ‘mass going into the ground’ is only happening because I’m not hitting something of substantial mass. You can hear the sound of my foot hitting the ground as I hit the tennis ball. If I was hitting something heavy, like a person, I think that’s what should be making the sound. That’s the real “Thunder sound” of Xing Yi – the sound of your first hitting the person. Chinese martial art is done so much against the air that I think people have become too obsessed with putting power into the ground. It’s what happens with generations of people punching air. It seems clear to me that the power should be going into the opponent. When we have no opponent, or one of little mass (like a tennis ball) then the power ends up going down into the ground.

Here’s the video again, if you want to see what it does in motion:

Yi Quan people (usually) don’t understand Xing Yi

Edit: I wrote a second post that added a clarification about the difference between what I meant by “weight” and “weighted leg”, because I realise that this post isn’t very clear on the subject. I’ve left the rest of this post unedited.

Here’s the good news: our recent podcast about Yi Quan seems to have upset far fewer people than our one about Baguazhang. In general, reaction to the Yi Quan podcast has been positive. It’s a good point to remind people that our Heretics podcast isn’t a history podcast, it’s a podcast about the miasma – cultural assumptions and how they have played a role in the development of various arts, religions and institutions throughout history. The episode was as much about Xing Yi as it was about Yi Quan, and also the kind of tradition of criticism that the founder, Wang Xiangzhai, baked into it.

As we discussed in the podcast, Wang Xiangzhai’s criticism can be viewed as “the spirit of the times” speaking through him. At the time it was required to talk down to “rotten old traditions”, of which Xing Yi was an example (China has never really had a free press). You can read some of Wang’s criticisms in his article “Essence of Boxing Science”, which is an interview he did, turned into an essay.

He says about Xing Yi: “ It must be noted that Xing Yi Quan in its orthodox form had no such thing as the Twelve Forms (Twelve Animals), though their should be twelve forms of the body. Nor did it have the theory of mutual promotion and restraint of the five elements.”

Actually I’d agree with him – that is the way Xing Yi should be practiced. The animals are not “forms”. That was the general theme of the podcast – there’s very little difference between Yi Quan and Xing Yi done right.

However, Yi Quan people still like to criticise 🙂

I read a post recently by a (good) practitioner of Yi Quan criticising Xing Yi’s punching method – using Beng Quan as an example.

“It still baffles me when I see xingyiquan people Beng Chuan without turning the waist and shoulders, even worse almost hopping on the rear leg as all the weight is held back.”

I’d agree with him – you need movement in your body using your spine as an axis – it’s no use being like an inflexible lump of wood. And, yes, “hopping” is another mistake. Don’t hop.

But we do hold the weight on the back leg in a lot of movements. This is the hardest thing (I think) for people new to Xing Yi to understand. How can you generate force without putting your weight into the front leg?

That’s a good question to ask a Xing Yi practitioner, because they should be able to punch you and show you 🙂

“Every punch must have 2 important components:
Shift of weight. [to front leg]
Transference of kinetic chain from lower to upper extremity.”

Well, yes, but with caveats. That’s certainly how you generally punch in boxing, or in other martial arts. However, let’s remember that people in these arts can still generate power while retreating – enough to knock somebody out. Anderson Silva famously knocked out Forrest Griffin, while stepping backwards to avoid his rushing attack. So the situation is clearly not as cut and dried as some would like.

I’m not really into hitting things much these days – I prefer the joys of pyjama wrestling on soft mats (with minimal brain injury), but I thought I’d make a short video to show you can generate force without putting your weight into the front leg, as Xing Yi teaches us, and that maybe we should all keep an open mind on the matter.

If you look at my front leg in the video you’ll see I never put my weight onto it. It steps out in front of the body, then the back leg catches up. Obviously, it holds some weight, but the weight is ‘held’ mainly on the back leg. This is how you’re supposed to do it in my line of Xing Yi. You can, of course, also do it with a weighted front leg, but the principle of “Chicken Leg” is that one leg holds the weight – it doesn’t matter which one – and we don’t need to transfer the weight between legs to generate force, instead, the force comes from correct stepping and body movement (Dragon body).

Yes, I know need to get a bag to hit, but instead I’ve got a tennis ball on a string to play with (we go with what we’ve got available, right?) I’ll get a bag at some point and do another video.

Why do it like this? Good question.

i) You arrive quicker to where it is you’re getting to – it’s much more “all at once” than having to transfer weight between the legs. It’s sharper and better if you’re looking to intercept the opponent (Jeet) which matters most in weapons fighting, where timing is much finer than with fists (Xing Yi comes from weapons, spear being the main one).

ii) You keep your body “back”, which is better for defence. Leaning too much into things is a great way to get knocked out, as we all know. Or with weapons, you want to keep the vital organs as far back as you can. If you look at the Xing Yi Classics it says things like “do not wither and do not be greedy” – you need to keep a reserved attitude to fighting, especially with weapons.

In other news – the blossom is coming out on the cherry tree – you might be able to see it in the video. Spring is here!

More lockdown listening on martial arts

As lockdown lingers around the world martial arts classes are facing a tough time, however, there are plenty of stimulating online discussions on martial arts to listen to. Here are three discussions I’ve listened to recently that have tickled my cerebral tentacles. Maybe they’ll do the same thing for yours?

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

First up – Viking martial arts!

This discussion between Paul Bowman and Qaus Stetkevych on so-called “Viking martial arts” is really interesting. It’s a world I know nothing about (although I did write an essay once on the connection between Xing Yi and old shield work )

Podcast link:

Youtube link:

It’s very interesting to listen to the criticisms that Qays makes in the above discussion then watch this clip I found of “Viking martial arts/Glima” – (which was litterally the first clip that came up when I searched for Glima). This martial art looks exactly like No Gi Brazilian Jiujitsu to me…

Xing Yi and Yi Quan

Next is Byron Jacobs excellent Drunken Boxing Podcast in which he interviews Yi Quan practitioner James Carss. What I like about this discussion is that it’s very down to earth and real about what it’s like training martial arts in China and Hong Kong. It’s not all smiles and rainbows and it was interesting hearing about the animosity between different groups of the same martial art that naturally spring up. Plus you get to find out more about the connections between Yi Quan and Xing Yi Quan, and how they are a lot closer than a lot of people think.

Podcast link:

Youtube link:

Byron recently added a new video to his series on baguazhang basics, that’s well worth a watch:

James Carss has an interesting video that introduces Zhan Zhuaung:

The Golden Elixer

Finally, here’s a bit of an older discussion, but fascinating if you are interested in the connection between Chinese theatre and martial arts. Scott Park Philips is in conversation with Daniel Mroz about all the subjects you find in his latest book. Scott never gives the same answer twice, but it’s an interesting slice into his mind. In particular he answers the question “What is the Golden Elixir?” at 41.44.

YouTube link:

The real secret to martial arts – Bruce Lee and the concept of Jeet

Today I want to talk about a very useful martial arts teaching called the 3 timings. In many ways, these teachings are the secret to all martial arts, so you’re getting some pretty good value out of this free blog post! 🙂

The three timings have been handed down in many different martial arts lineages under different guises, but it’s all the same teaching. I suspect the 3 timings are as old as time itself.

Personally, I’ve found the three timings most applicable to weapons work, but they are obviously important for barehand too.

Photo by Yaopey Yong on Unsplash

The version of the 3 timings handed down in my Chinese lineage was called “Yi timing, Chi timing and Xing timing”, but in English you’ll find them explained perfectly well by Paul Vunak here as simply, before, during and after:

Paul Vunak is a Jeet Kune Do teacher. Bruce thought the concept of “Jeet” was so important he named his martial art after it. The “Jeet” in Jeet June Do means to intercept, and intercepting is what the 3 timings are all about.

The 3 timings is a pretty simple concept. You can hit somebody:

  1. After” they have completed their technique (xing timing), for which you obviously have to move out of the way before you respond. This is the slowest timing and easiest to perform.
  2. During” their attack (chi timing). This is a much shorter timing and it could end up in a simultaneous death strike where you both hit each other, but ideally you would just sneak in first and beat them to the punch.
  3. And finally, “before” they strike you. This is the hardest timing to achieve, because it’s very easy to mess up. You need to hit them before they launch their attack, but equally, it does need to be in sync with a genuine attack. If you fire on Yi timing (”intention” timing), and they are faking, or not attacking, you’ll end up out of position and vulnerable. Yi timing therefore requires immense practice and sensitivity so that you can accurately read the whole situation in the blink of an eye, and be sure they were really going to attack.

Timing, I think, is the ultimate skill in martial arts. If you are a master of timing, then you almost don’t need any technique. If we are both holding swords and I can always time my attack to hit you anytime you come towards me then I can forget about “Green Dragon Scoops the water” or whatever fancy technique I know. It all becomes irrelevant.

So how do you practice the 3 timings? Well, I’d suggest that the first stage would involve getting a partner, like Mr Vunak has done in that video, and practicing responding to set attacks, so you can develop a feel for each timing. Obviously this would need to be done predictably at the start then slowly more variation can be introduced and the sparring can become freer. Instead of the other person just feeding attacks, they can try to start to make their own attacks and counters.

If you practice barehand and with weapons then you’ll notice how much quicker the timing needs to be with weapons. You have so much less time to react. In fact, going back to barehand after using weapons you will almost feel like you are moving in slow motion, which is a handy skill to have for obvious reasons.

With the timings at the heart of your practice you might also change the way you think about moving in martial arts. Ways of moving that require a unity of body and mind become much more important. You need to move everything together, and as one, to hit your timings.

The words of the Xing Yi Classic of Unification become more important:

“When the upper and lower move, the centre will attack.
When the centre moves, the upper and lower support,
Internal and external, front and rear are combined,
This is called “Threading into one”,
This cannot be achieved through force or mimicry.”

Hundreds of years after these words were written, Bruce Lee came to the same conclusions, and based his new martial art around the concept of timing.

Baji Principles – Tiger head

I’ve been in conversation with Miika Wikberg of Baji Wasa, Finland. Baji is a martial art that shares a lot of similarities with Xing Yi. One of those is the idea of Tiger as a body attribute/strategy.

Here’s Miika talking about Tiger Head in Baji:

I really like this video because it’s very similar to how Tiger Xing works in Xing Yi – notice that Miika is going from a position that’s outisde the range of his opponent’s attacks, straight into an almost body to body position. That’s the flavour of Tiger Xing in Xing Yi.

The only real difference is that in my Xing Yi we call it “Tiger Embrace” and it’s more about the embracing quality of the arms than anything you’re doing with your head. As an observation of how a tiger moves it’s spot on though – the body follows the head. I’ve heard other Xing Yi lines talk about Tiger head as well, but in ours we emphasis the embracing quality of a tiger’s attack more – you can see what I mean in this video I shot over the summer:

In Xing Yi you use the Tiger embrace to do as much damage as you can as you close the distance, once the distance is closed you have the final bite to the neck, which is expressed in Xing Yi usually as a choking method. Knowing a bit of BJJ can be helpful here!

Photo by Alexander Isreb on Pexels.com

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.