Whole Body Power, or “threading into one” in Xing Yi

The Xing Yi classics don’t tend to get as much play as the Tai Chi Classics, perhaps because they’re not as easy to read and ramble a bit, but they’re older, and as every good Confucian scholar knows, older is better!

The origins of the writing known as the Xing Yi classics is uncertain, but they’re often attributed to the Song military hero Marshall Yue Fei who is also the apocryphal founder of Xing Yi. Many people dismiss him as the originator of Xing Yi, thinking of it as merely a folk tale, but as our History of Xing Yi podcast series is trying to show, while there is no literal teacher/student line that traces back from modern day Xing Yi practitioners to Marshall Yue Fei, there is a history of ideas that can be traced back.

Qing Dynasty portrait of Yue Fei.

But however the Xing Yi Classics came down to us, they have been hugely influential, so can’t be discounted. Pretty much all the manuals written about Xing Yi from the high point of the martial arts manuals creation period (the Republican era) quote from them extensively. So, if you want to find the source of the ideas that have seeped down into modern Xing Yi – things like elbows protecting the chest, all parts moving together, or all parts remaining still together, the six harmonies connecting and coordinating the different parts of the body together – they’re all here. And I think that the XingYi classics have been hugely influential on other internal martial arts, like Tai Chi. The Tai Chi Classics use similar phrases and ideas all the time. The Xing Yi classics are where we get our ideas of what makes internal martial arts different to external martial arts from because they contain the important idea of “Internal and external are combined, the front and the rear mutually required. ” And this was written long before people had heard of Tai Chi (Taijiquan).

I don’t read Chinese so I’ll point you to one English translation that’s available online. I don’t have any strong opinion on this being better than other translations, it’s just available. There’s one done by Yang Jwing Ming that’s also good.

Over and over the classic, which contains 10 ‘songs’, talks about how to coordinate the body so that a kind of whole body power is being delivered. Because of the amount of writing about it in the classics (including Tai Chi Classics), we have to assume that this ‘whole body power’ is not just a trivial, or easy to do. And if it was then I’d see a lot more people doing it, and I don’t. It’s hard to get a foot in the door of whole body power, and it’s even harder to do it very well. 

Being relaxed and not overly tense is important for whole body power, and I think Tai Chi is very good at teaching that, but the footwork tends to be lacking. Xing Yi is good for teaching you how to move with this whole body power. A lot of the Xing Yi classics are devote to talking about stepping.

But over and over, the overarching theme is of unifying the body, of “threading into one”. This is the whole body power that internal martial artists seek.

“About what one means; from top to the bottom of the feet, internally there are viscera, bowels, tendons, and bones. Externally, there are muscles, skin, the five sensing organs, and hundreds of bones of the skeleton, mutually combined and become one. When struck will not open, when hit will not decompose. The top wishes to move, the bottom automatically follows. The bottom wishes to move the top will automatically lead. The center section moves, the top and the bottom will coordinate. Internal and external are combined, the front and the rear mutually required. This is what is called threading into one.” – Thesis of Integrity from Mike Patterson’s website.

If you’d rather have somebody demonstrate the concepts contained in the Xing Yi Classics than read through them, then I’d recommend this new video by Byron Jacobs – he talks and demonstrates the content very well here:

Feet-together postures in Taiji (Tai Chi) and Xing Yi

I’ve always been curious about the postures in martial arts forms where both feet are together, because these postures don’t look very martial at all. In fact, it’s hard to imagine why you would want to use a stance like that in a fight, and yet we find them in a lot of Tai Chi forms:

From: Sun Lu Tang, A Study of Taiji boxing, 1921

From: Long ZiXiang, A study of Taiji boxing 1952

Here’s an example of the posture in application in Taiji performed by my teacher Sifu Raymond Rand:

Sifu Rang, Brush Knee, Twist Step.

It seems to be mainly Taiji lineages that have some influence from Sun Lu Tang that do this the most. A lot of people attribute the distinctive ‘feet together’ postures he used to his prior training in Xing Yi, and there could be some truth to this. Xing Yi does have ‘feet together’ postures quite a lot.

Sun Lu Tang showing a selection of postures from , A Study of Xing Yi Boxing, 1915

Of course, the root of Xing Yi is spear fighting, but the modern interpretation of the art is heavily biased towards bare hand training, and this creates a misleading impression. Think about it – if you were at at least one spear length away from your opponent the risk of being tackled to the ground because your feet are together would be greatly reduced. You’re now free to use the power generation advantages that can be gained by letting both feet come together, which is handy when you are holding a heavy object, like a spear.

If you watch this excellent video of Xing Yi spear technique by Byron Jacobs you’ll see that he doesn’t hang out with his feet together all the time, but occasionally he uses the feet together moments for power generation (and of course, also standing on one leg for range advantage and manoeuvrability in a way that makes sense with weapons).

Video:

Example feet together transitional posture:

Byron Jacobs of Mushin Martial Culture

In Xing Yi the most famous example of the ‘feet together’ posture is the Half-Step Beng Quan. Here the back foot stepping up to meet the front foot in place creates a powerful closing action of the body, kind of like a door slamming.

From: Selected subtleties of the Xing Yi Boxing art, by Liu Dianchen [1921]

So, is this the origin of ‘feet together’ postures in Taiji forms? Quite possibly. However, there is one more thing to consider. After first learning Xing Yi, Sun Lu Tang learned his Taiji from Hao Weizhen 1849–1920, who learned from Li Yiyu 1832–1892, who learned from one of the Wu brothers, Wu Yuxiang 1812–1880 who had learned directly from Yang Luchan 1799–1872 and also sought out Chen Qingping 1795–1868 who he learned from in Zhaoboa village.

It’s often thought that the distinctive stepping seen in Sun style Taiji, where the back foot is often lifted and brought up close to the front foot, is a consequence of Sun’s prior Xing Yi training. This makes sense as part of the narrative created as part of the Sun Style Taiji brand, which is that he incorporated his earlier Xing Yi and Bagua training into his Taiji style. However, if you look at the Wu (Hou) style he learned, it already had this distinctive stepping in it.

For example:

From: Wu Yuxiang style Taiji Boxing by Hao Shaoru

While the feet don’t go completely together as much, if at all, in Wu(Hao) style, they are very close together for a lot of the time. Watch this video for an example of the form in action:

One theory about why this is is that Wu Yuxiang was a member of the Imperial Court at the end of the Ching Dynasty, and was therefore expected to wear traditional court dress, which restricted the stepping.

I think you can see that influence extending into Sun Lu Tang’s Taiji, which makes sense since he learned from this lineage.

Finally, I should note that thought this post I don’t want to create the impression that all the steps in either Xing Yi or Taiji performed by Sun Lu Tang are small or restricted. He also had plenty of wider postures in his arts too, for example.

Xing Yi:

Taiji:

However, compare it to postures found in other styles of Taiji whose practitioners didn’t have to wear court dress:

Chen Ziming for example:

From: The inherited Chen family boxing art, Chen Ziming

Chinese armour breakdown

I try not to do too many posts that are basically just a video, but I thought this one from Kung Fu world showing how the various parts of Chinese armour were worn was pretty good. There’s not much information provided with the video, but from looking at it I think it’s based on Song Dynasty (960 – 1279AD) armour – I could be wrong about that, but what’s interesting about it is that your average person saw this they would probably think this is Samurai armour from Japan, especially because she’s holding a sword that looks a bit like a katana.

Chinese armour really reached a peak in terms of technology in the Song Dynasty because the Chinese were fighting their most difficult opponents at the time, the Mongol army. This was the time of the folk hero General Yue Fei, who is traditionally associated with the martial art of Xing Yi and Xin Yi. Eventually the Song Dynasty collapsed and the Mongols took over, creating the Yuan Dynasty which only lasted from 1271 to 1368.

Episode 16: Tim Cartmell on keeping it real in martial arts

My guest in this episode will need no introduction to anybody who trains in the Chinese styles of Xing Yi and Baguazhang, especially in the United States. Tim Cartmell is a lifelong martial artist who spent many years living in Asia learning the internal arts, before heading back to the US where he took up BJJ, becoming a black belt. Tim is now the head jiujitsu coach at Ace Jiujitsu Academy in Fountain Valley, California where he teaches classes and trains professional MMA fighters. https://www.acejiujitsu.com/


In this podcast I ask Tim about his training tips, especially for older martial artists, where he thinks martial arts is going in the future and his approach to combining all the arts he knows into a single principle-based, reality-driven approach.

You can find out more about Tim at his website www.shenwu.com and don’t forget to check out the Shen Wu Martial Arts group on Facebook.

I hadn’t talked to Tim before this interview, but many of the people I’ve had as guests on my podcast have rated him highly, and now I know why – for somebody with so much experience of martial arts Tim is a very humble and genuine guy, as I hope you’ll discover over the next hour or so.

You can support The Tai Chi Notebook Podcast by becoming a patron. Head over to www.patreon.com/taichinotebook and become a patron today! You’ll get a version of the podcast you can download, exclusive video clips and articles.

The Heretical Baguazhang and Xing Yi Monkey connection

Bagua and Xing Yi are two styles that have historically been trained together. The story you usually read is that martial artists living in Beijing in the 1900s rooming together found the two styles to be complimentary and therefore a long history of cross training naturally arose between them. I think this description of history is true, however, I often wonder if the real story is that earlier in time the two styles sprang from the same source, so this period was more of a reuniting of styles than two separate styles meeting?

Xing Yi Beng Quan

We speculated about the origins of Baguazhang before in the Heretics episode I did with my teacher. That one seemed to upset a lot of people, especially those were emotionally invested in Baguazhang, but hey it’s not called the Heretics Podcast for no reason! You’re going to get an heretical view of things there, and that will always upset people. Perhaps we should have put a big disclaimer on the front! If you’re going to listen to it, we’d suggest emptying your cup first. But anyway…

If we forget historical lineage questions for a moment and just look at the arts as presented today, it’s not hard to see a connection between the two. The stepping is very similar. Xing Yi normally steps in a straight line, but once you look at the turns at the end of each line you start to see what is clearly the same sort of stepping that is used in Baguazhang’s circle walking.

I think this is a very good video by a martial artist called Paul Rogers explaining how Bagua circle walking is basically two steps – an inward turning out step bai bu (inward placing step) and kou bu (hooking step).

Notice that his student is asking him questions about why they circle walk in Baguazhang and he keeps returning to the same answer, which is “you could do it in a straight line”. The problem with doing things on a straight line is that you need a lot of space, doing it in a circle helps you make more efficient use of whatever space you have. So, it’s the steps that are important, not the circle.

Here’s a short article about the two steps and their usage in Baguazhang. Plenty of styles of Baguazhang do have straight line drills too. And when you take the circle walking away, I think the connection between Xing Yi and Baguazhang starts to become clearer, at least to me.

In the Xing Yi lineage I’ve been taught the animal that most looks like Baguazhang is the monkey. These days Xing Yi is know for short little forms (or Lian Huan: “linking sequences” -as we prefer to call them) however I believe this is a result of years and years of politically-directed reformations being applied to the rich and varied martial systems that existed before the Boxer Rebellion. After the Boxer Rebellion and the religious secret societies that fueled it, there was an effort to strip martial arts away from any religious connections. Then came the Kuo Shu movement (we’re simplifying history here, but several authors have written about this – have a look on Amazon, and this video from Will at Monkey Steals Peach will help) and then the Communists arrived with the WuShu movement. The result was that the rich and varied lineages of Xing Yi became standardised, often into short sequences that could be easily taught to large groups. In any case, the idea of set sequences doesn’t have to be the be all and end all of martial arts. Some teacher encourage students to create their own, once they have a good enough understanding off the principles.

We have an extended linking sequence for Monkey, taught to me by my teacher. Here’s a video of me doing a fragment of it, being a Xing Yi Monkey in a forest grove. My natural home :). I’ll put the full video in my Patron’s area if you want to see more of it.

But look at the steps I’m doing – can you see the bai bu and the kou bu? I think that if I added circle walking into that it would be almost indistinguishable from Baguazhang.

This begs the question, which came first? Xing Yi is historically older than Baguazhang, but I think because of the mixing of the arts, they both influenced each other at this point, and possibly are the same art to begin with!

I like to think of the best answer to the terrible question that plagues martial arts lineages of “which is oldest?” is “right now, we are all historically equidistant to the founder”.

Internal power and the 3 internal harmonies: Going beyond words like Xin, Yi and Qi to direct experience

Almost by accident I watched Onama vs Landwher from UFC: Marlon Vera vs Dominick Cruz this morning and heavens above, that was one hell of a fight! Possibly the fight of the year. I’ve no idea how you’d score it. Landwher won by decision, but it was possibly the MMA fight of the year. Wild exchanges throughout with both fighters being so tired they could hardly stand up, but somehow kept going. It looked like they both had almost beyond the levels of human endurance, going from looking so tired they could barley move to pulling off flashy 3 move combinations.

You could almost see their spirit rising within to propel them on. It reminded me of all the phrases about the internal harmonies (san nei he) that we use in the Internet arts. The Xin (heart) leads the Yi (intention/mind), the Yi leads the Qi (energy to work) and the Qi leads the Li (physical movement). Initially this seems rather simplistic, say if you want to do something like make a cup of tea then you first have a desire to do it (heart) that travels to the brain (yi) that decides and then it ends up in a physical movement (li) and you find your feet moving you towards the kettle.

But that process happens automatically in humans and all animals, so why do we need to make a big deal of it and describe all the parts that build up to making an automatic process happen?

It’s often explained as putting the intention and will (the brains and heart) behind the movement. You can do things with a sense of purpose, or you can do them absent mindedly. In the internal arts, like Xing Yi, Bagua and Tai Chi, your actions need to have a sense of purpose. Your mind needs to be on the job, not half engaged. That’s one reason, but I think there’s more to these internal harmonies than just this.

I remember in BJJ training sometimes being so exhausted it was like my mind left my body and I became somewhat detached from my surroundings. It’s at moments like that that you start to be able to feel your “spirit” or mind as an identifiable thing. Through a sheer act of will you can force your mind to not give up and get back to the job and it can give you the energy you need to carry on fighting. That’s what I saw happening in Obama vs Landwher. A sheer force of will was being used to make them continue – their internal was leading the external.

Frankly, most people training only internal arts without hard sparring pay a lot of lip service to the internal co-ordinations, but do they ever reach an intensity of training where they can actually feel these things as tangible elements?

I’m not saying that you need to get an an MMA cage to experience your internal state under extreme physical stress before you have any idea what it is, but you can experience it in a safer way through things like Jiujitsu. Maybe Systema, too. Just some food for thought, and another reason why I think all Tai Chi instructors who re physically able should try and get a blue belt in BJJ if they are teaching the art beyond the health aspects.

There’s a risk, when reading this that people might think that using your Yi, or Xin in Tai Chi technique simply means to furrow you brow, put on a mean face, stare hard at something, get really tense and act like you really mean it, man. Because that’s not it either. That’s not what using “martial intent” or Yi means in internal arts at all. If I see people practicing internal arts like that I think it’s just bad karate. Not that there’s anything wrong with karate, of course.

Your internal state can be serious, but come from a place of calm. It’s a strange contrast between being expansive, yet laser focused, like the eyes of an eagle who is high up in the sky looking for prey. He’s taking in all his surroundings, but can pinpoint down on a single point when required. That’s using the 3 internal harmonies properly.

I think this is a Kite, not an Eagle, but you get the idea. Photo by Flo Maderebner on Pexels.com

The Tai Chi classics say:

To fajin,
sink,
relax completely,
and aim in one direction!

There it is – the (sung) relaxed body is the first requirements, once you have it you can ‘point your mind’ in the direction you want your power to go, so that the internal movement matches the external movement. When the inner and outer harmonise together, then you have internal power.

Xing Yi Stepping Basics

One of the hardest things I think that there is to convey in Xing Yi, to the perspective new student, is how the 5 fists work with the stepping. All the time I see people doing the arm positions of the five fists in a highly stylistic and precise way, but the body isn’t right. If the body isn’t right then the fault can usually be found in the legs and waist, and most likely it’s the stepping. In Xing Yi your stepping is the delivery system for the power of the body.

The words of the Xing Yi Classic of Unification apply here:

“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.”

i.e. everything moves together, as one.

In this video I look at some of the common faults I see in Xing Yi stepping, which could be described as problems of partiality. First, the foot arriving before the hand, then the hand arriving before the foot, and finally the foot and hand landing (i.e. finishing their journey) at the same moment with no penetration.

The real Xing Yi stepping is deeper and more penetrating. You’re hitting the person (or bag) while your front foot is still in the air, as you move through them, displacing their mass. That’s the trick.

(N.B. this style of striking in Xing Yi is more popular in the Hebei style – other styles of Xing Yi have different specialties).

Are weapons forms more traditional than hand forms?

(Chen Wei Ming – Tai Chi Sword 1928)

I listened to a rather interesting comment in a podcast recently from a Tai Chi practitioner who preferred to do weapons forms rather than hand forms because “Tai Chi is really a battlefield art” and the postures in the hand form are clearly derived from holding weapons, and it was therefore more authentic to practice the weapons forms. The implication is also that the hand forms were retrofitted onto the art, while the weapons forms are the true origin.

There’s some truth in this idea depending on which art you art talking about, of course. Xing Yi for example – there’s no doubt that the weapons forms came first. Doing a Beng Chuan (a straight punch to the belly or chest area) barehand, as presented in the classical 5 Elements form, leaves a lot of questions unanswered – why is your head not protected as you punch forward, for example? Why is your other hand pulled back at your hip where it’s not doing much of anything? What stops them punching you in the face?

(Liu Dianchen, Beng Chuan, 1921)

As a barehand method, it’s clearly sub-optimal. Put a spear in your hand, and even better, wear armour, and  it starts to make a lot more sense though. The hand withdrawing to your hip is pulling the spear back after a thrust, for example.

But if we’re talking about the long, elaborate weapons forms found in Tai Chi, done usually in silk pyjamas, then you’ve got to ask yourself – what good is all that dancing about if your goal is martial effectiveness on the battlefield? Do you think Chinese soldiers, village militia or bodyguards with spears or Guan Dao did this kind of practice? I don’t think they did. Or maybe they did for demonstrations at the many and frequent festivals in old imperial China in the Qing Dynasty, but what use is all that on a battlefield?

While using a spear, for example, might be connecting your art back to an earlier time and usage, I’m not sure that your 180-move spear form, with jumps, twirls and spins is any more “authentic” than a modern day hand form. 

It’s very easy to fool yourself in Chinese martial arts. Stay sharp!

Can traditional masters beat MMA?

Friend of the Notebook, Byron Jacobs, who runs the Mu Shin Martial Culture Youtube channel and the Hua Jin Online Learning Program for Xing Yi and Baguazhang, just posted this monologue about Xu Xiaodong and the challenge matches that happened between him and various (self proclaimed) Chinese martial arts masters.

Now we’re a few months/years away from the high point of the Xu Xiaodong controversy it’s good to get a reasonable perspective on the matter from somebody who actually knows him and moves in the same martial arts circles in China.

It’s quite a long talk, but you can think of it like a podcast and listen to it while you’re doing your conditioning exercises. Wait, you are still doing those, right? 🙂

Good Hebei style Xing Yi Quan (Xingyiquan)

This Xingyiquan video caught my eye recently. It’s a good performance and demonstrates a nice range of material drawn from Xing Yi’s animals and elements. The performer is doing it well, and using some untypical examples of the animals in some cases, which adds a nice bit of variety.

Check it out:

Xing Yi is typically split mainly into two big demographic styles known as Shanxi and Hebei. The video shown here is a good example of Hebei style. It’s practiced by Sun Liyong, a famous Xingyiquan master from Beijing Simin Wushu Club.

If you’d like to know more about the different styles of Xing Yi and how they evolved then check out my history of Xing Yi podcast series.