Byron Jacobs is a teacher of Xing Yi and Bagua based in Beijing, China. He’s a student of the famous Shifu Di Guoyong and is heavily involved in the martial arts scene in Beijing. As well as training traditional martial arts he’s also a BJJ practitioner and competitor.
In this wide ranging discussion we talk about training Xing Yi, Bagua and Tai Chi and whether Wu Shu will ever get into the Olympics. We also find out what it was like to train martial arts in Beijing during the Corona virus pandemic, and what the Chinese BJJ and MMA scene is like.
I thought I’d start a series of posts commenting on what I like about photos of famous masters of the past. I thought I’d start with this photo of Yang Cheng-Fu doing rollback from the Yang long form.
Yang Cheng-Fu comes in for a lot of criticism, mainly I think because of his weight. He was a big man, but I’ve always been impressed with how precise and delicate his postures seem to be. What I like most about this picture is that you can almost feel the heaviness and sinking in what he’s doing, yet at the same time there is the precise placing of his hands and feet.
Tai Chi is a paradox in that you are supposed to feel light yet also heavy. According to the Tai Chi Classics your head needs to feel like it is being pulled up “as if suspended from above”, and yet your body needs to also have the feeling of sinking, “Make the chi sink calmly” and “The abdomen relaxes, then the chi sinks into the bones.”
You can see both these qualities in Yang Cheng-Fu performing Rollback, head upright, light and nimble, yet also firm and heavy. With the placement of his hands you also get a sense of the yin and yang being distributed throughout his body. The back hand has the intent of pulling and the front hand has the intent of pushing. He is not “double weighted” – each hand is expressing a different energy. The weight on his feet is on the back leg – again, not in no man’s land in the middle, but clearly distinguished.
You also get a sense of calm. This is not a frantic and hurried performance. It’s slow and deliberate, like a great river rolling.
I had an interesting conversation with a reader recently about Tai Chi and butts, which I thought I’d share as it’s a good topic. A lot of Tai Chi people, me included, tend to stick out their bottom slightly during form and push hands. Maybe more so in push hands… either way, it’s a fault that inhibits relaxation.
I think in push hands it happens because people try to “brace” against the incoming force to stop themselves being pushed backwards, but by going for a short term solution they are inhibiting their progress in the long term.
Q: Do you have any experience of Chen style TCC? I’ve been to a few lessons. Seems like, in order to soften the kua sufficiently, you need to stick your backside out more than in Yang….?! Having spent a whole lifetime trying not to do this, it feels weird…..!
A: I’ve never really done Chen style, but I’ve looked into their silk reeling exercises quite a bit – just the simple one hand “wave” – I really like that and do it quite often.
I’ve seen some Chen stylists that stick their butt out a lot, but to be fair I’ve also seen a lot of Yang styists do the same. I think as part of an opening and closing movement it’s ok (like in Yoga, for example), but leaving it “stuck out” all the time can’t be right. Tai Chi requires you to move from the waist (or the dantien, if you like) and that encompasses both the front (belly), sides and back of the body around the waist line – the lower back is part of that. If you put your hands on your lower back then stick your butt out you can feel your muscles contract and tighten – having a tight lower back as your default means you can’t effectively “move from the dantien” so everything else you do, no matter how clever or artful looking, has to be wrong because the foundation is wrong.
When doing silk reeling exercises I try to keep my lower back relaxed and “hanging down” – that’s the right feel – so the movement can originate there. The form should be no different. I feel like the people who stick out their butt have simply missed an obvious problem with their Tai Chi.
In part 4, the latest episode of our look at the creation of Tai Chi Chuan, we can see how the actions of the British and French acting aggressively in China forced the hand of the powerful new dowager empress, Cixi to make some changes in the Royal Court.
People like the Wu brothers and Yang LuChan were suddenly out on their ear and had to make a living in a strange new world that suddenly valued entrepreneurship over nepotism. When your family business is teaching martial arts and you’ve got a family to feed, then it’s time to open your own public martial arts school.
Here, in the 1860s, we start to see the birth of martial art styles in Beijing that can compete against each other for paying students. At this time Yang LuChan’s two sons were finally old enough to teach martial arts full time.
Game of Thrones’ fictional Grey Worm is probably the most famous Eunuch in modern literature, but while Grey Worm lead an army of disciplined, ferocious fighters called The Unsullied, the role of castrated men throughout history has been somewhat less fighting-orientated, especially in royal courts, where they have traditionally held positions of servitude mixed with privilege and power, especially in China.
The Empress Dowager Cixi was often photographed being carried in state on a palanquin by palace eunuchs, in the late 19th and early 20th century.
As we discovered in part 1 of the Myth of Tai Chi podcast, Yongnian, the home province of Yang Luchan, was famous for providing the highest quality eunuchs to the Ching royal court, and connections made with eunuchs from ‘back home’ could have provided Yang Luchan with a route into Beijing and his role of martial arts instructor in the Royal Court. Nepotism was, after all, what greased the wheels of government in a Confucian court.
“History has been cruel to China’s eunuchs. Chinese literature is filled with stories of avaricious and ambitious eunuchs exploiting their position for personal gain and power to the detriment of the social and political order. Society treated eunuchs with a mix of fascination and revulsion. They were a source of anxiety for the court and its officials. They were third-sex creatures marked by their relative lack of facial hair and perceived physical deformities (early castration often resulted in eunuchs being taller, with longer hands and limbs). In the foreign gaze, eunuchs became an analog for a decrepit China, feminine symbols of a decaying imperial system – a view perpetuated by 20th-century Chinese reformers and revolutionaries. Today, when thought of at all, it is as stock villains or comic foils in palace costume dramas.”
After the initial gruesome operation, and assuming he survived, a eunuch’s life was hardly his own any more once he was serving in the palace.
“Once inside the palace, a new eunuch was isolated from his old life and introduced to a whole new reality. Both books describe the parallel world of palace eunuchs, a highly regimented and hierarchal society that still had spaces for deviant behavior, petty jealousies, and even violence. Eunuchs were expected to show complete devotion to their duties, and to their masters and mistresses. At the same time, they also formed friendships as well as master/disciple bonds with older and more experienced palace hands. While the rules governing eunuchs were numerous and punishments harsh, eunuchs still created actual spaces in the palace for their own activities. There were barbershops, noodle stands, gambling parlors, opium dens, and various other places where court eunuchs could blow off steam with multiple cups of wine and the sympathetic ear of their fellow attendants.”
But the lives of eunuchs did not just impact Taijiquan, Dong Haichuan, (whose birth dates are give as either 1797 or 1813 – 25 October 1882), the founder of Baguazhang was a palace eunuch. According to tradition, around 1864 Dong arrived in Beijing and was hired as a eunuch at the residence of the Prince Su. (Whose name was Shanqi, a prince of the Aisin-Gioro clan, the ruling clan of the Qing Dynasty), as well as a minister in the late Qing. He was from the Bordered White Banner and the 10th generation Prince Su, the first Qing hereditary prince position.
Later Prince Su gave Dong the job of tax collector.
It’s possible that Yang Luchan and Dong Haichuan’s tenures in the royal court overlapped. Did they meet and have an exchange of martial techniques as legend and martial arts movies often suggest? It’s possible (Yang Luchan died in 1872), but we just don’t know.
It’s interesting to note that Taijiquan and Baguazhang both share that connection to the Ching royal court around the same time, and are both considered part of the ‘internal’ family of martial arts.
Brush Knee Twist Step (called “Walk obliquely with twist step”, which was probably its original name) is a fundamental movement in all Tai Chi styles.
Chen Zheng Lei performing “Walk obliquely with twist step”:
The Yang style Brush Knee looks like a slightly simplified version of this. Here performed by Yang Jun, grandson of Yang Cheng-Fu :
And Sun Style looks like the Yang style, but with added steps. Here performed by Sun Peng who is Sun Lu Tang’s grandson :
The version I personally do is somewhere between the traditional Sun and Yang styles. It’s got a step, but it’s most like Yang. Here’s a little GIF showing me doing an application of Brush Knee Twist Step in push hands from the Tai Chi style I practice.
Here’s how it looks in my form (a Yang style variant from the Gu Ru Zhang lineage that had input from Sun Lu Tang).
Of course, there are many possible applications of this movement, and I’m just showing one, but hopefully, that gives some indication of the usage.
Below is a video, shot in 1977, of the Tai Chi form of Xiong Yangho who was a student of Yang Shau-Hou, the (much) older brother of Yang Cheng Fu. Born in 1862 he was effectively of a different generation than his brother Yang Cheng-Fu who was born in 1883, which is 21 years later.
You can see that the form follows the same pattern as the Yang Cheng-Fu version but has a few unique characteristics. Again, this hints that there were different ways of doing the form before Yang Cheng-Fu standardised it into “Yang style”.
These different interpretations are a bit like the Gnostic Christian gospels – they’ve been rejected from the main orthodox canon, but they have just as much validity as any ‘official’ version of the form.
The description reads:
“Taiji Grand Master Xiong Yang He (1889-1981) The Interpretation of Taiji Quan The Teaching Frame of Hundred & Eleven Styles in Taiji Quan Video & voice edited by Li Ri Xing 28th September 1977”
What’s particularly interesting is the second video, at 7.51 onwards, after the form has finished, he does what looks like a couple of silk reeling exercises in which he traces a Yin Yang symbol in a manner described in Shen Jiazhen’s book.
In the video Xiong Yangho then does some fast moves that look a lot like Southern Kung Fu – Pake Mei or Wing Chun, that sort of thing:
Edit: A comment on this post from Bai Yiming reveals that these are from another martial art called “Xiyangzhang”
“What Xiong Yanghe shows in the later vids has nothing to do with TJQ; those “5 little hands”, as they are called, originate form Xiyangzhang, another style. Xiong has cross-trained a lot and taught a huge curriculum. There is no Taiji symbol traced, it is purely an application. I know as I’m training in the Xiongmen, the Xiong system, do the Xiyangzhang and also those hand moves!”
Here’s a video of Xinog Yanghe doing some more Xiyangzhang:
Here’s another video of Xiong Yangho doing Tai Chi:
Originally from the mainland, Xiong Yangho was a military man who escaped to Taiwan with the nationalists once the Communists took over in China. There’s a short biography of him here.