The Animals of Xing Yi’s San Ti Shi

san ti shi

The San Ti Shi posture is the fundamental standing posture of Xing Yi Quan. You could describe it in terms of angles, vectors and structures, but my interest lies more in reviving the animals of Xing Yi, and trying to move conversations in Xing Yi circles back towards nature and animals.

So, with that in mind, I thought I’d take a look at the 5 animals that make up San Ti Shi in more detail through a few videos that present simple animal routines (linking sequences) that can be easily learned and followed.

The animals of San Ti Shi are (in no particular order):

  • Dragon (Long)
  • Eagle (Ying)
  • Bear (Xiong)
  • Tiger (Hu)
  • Chicken (Ji)

…and the final element is Thunder Sound.

Let’s look at each one in more detail and what it contributes to the San Ti Shi. Because we’re currently on lockdown I can’t show applications on somebody but I talk about how they would work and show how the moves would work with a sword.

1. Dragon

From the Dragon comes the concept of Dragon Body – the counter-rotation in the spine that means you are always ready to produce power. The dragon emphasises loose, relaxed coiling movements.

 

2. Eagle

Eagle is a powerful predator and has the most exaggerated postures of all the Xing Yi animals. Eagle provides the Eagle Claw to San Ti Shi. Eagle and Bear are always practiced together, but this sequence has more emphasis on Eagle than Bear.

 

3. Bear

Bear provides the concept of Bear Shoulders – a very round structure to the shoulders. Bear is heavy, relaxed and rounded.

4. Tiger Embrace

The Tiger lends Tiger Embrace to the San Ti Shi posture. This is the feeling of always embracing something. The tiger is a powerful animal, and the linking sequence is fast-paced and full of energy.

 

5. Chicken Leg and Thunder Sound

The last animal we’ll look at is Ji – Chicken. The chicken provides the Chicken leg quality to San Ti Shi. The ability to keep almost all your weight on one leg and the fast-paced stepping. We combine this with a look at Thunder Sound, since it’s related to the stepping.

 

 

Tai Chi throws

A new comment on one of my older YouTube videos called simply “Tai Chi Throws”, made me realise that it’s now got 13,000+ views on YouTube. It was nice to watch it back and remember those times 🙂

There are applications for many popular Tai Chi moves here: Single Whip, Diagonal Flying, Needle at Sea Bottom, etc.

Here it is:

 

 

Defining martial arts

arrow feather stock selective focus

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Excellent article by Ben Judkins on defining martial arts:

“If you asked someone in Beijing what the most important martial arts were in the year 1770 they would likely have said (in the following order) 1) archery 2) riding 3) strength training. Why? These were the specific skills that were tested on the imperial military service exams. It is often forgotten now, but many working martial artists actually made their living coaching students to pass this exam. Wrestling, fencing, boxing and spear work were also widely taught and had their own specialists. But archery was clearly at the apex of martial culture during much of imperial China’s long history. Many more books seem to have been published about archery than fencing or boxing.”

 

The importance of the Dragon to Xing Yi

black dragon roof ornament

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The Dragon is unique amongst Xing Yi animals because it is the only mythical one. Yes, I’m aware that some lineages of Xing Yi include a Phoenix as one of their 12 animals, but I think this is simply a mistranslation of Tai, a kind of flycatcher bird native to China. You sometimes also see it mistranslated as Ostrich, which is even stranger. You occasionally see Tuo translated as “water lizard”, or “water strider”, but it’s clearly a crocodile, another animal that is (or effectively was) native to China.

The question of why Xing Yi, whose animal methods are based on real, observable native animals, should include a Dragon we’ll leave until the end of this post, but for now, let’s look at its characteristics.

Dragon in San Ti Shi

The Dragon is one of the important animals in Xing Yi Quan because, together with Bear Shoulders, Eagle Claw, Chicken Leg, Tiger Embrace and Thunder sound, Dragon Body forms the famous San Ti Shi posture, (different lineages have slight variations on those, but they’re fundamentally the same).

san ti

San Ti Shi demonstrated by master Zhu Guang, credit Hsing Yi Leeds

Dragons in Chinese mythology have very flexible spines – they fall and rise through clouds with a long, flexible body that coils and rotates, twists and turns. You often seem them decorating Asian temple roofs, or spiralling around a pillar:

yellow and green temple

Photo by Elina Sazonova on Pexels.com

It’s the flexible nature of the spine that is the characteristic we seek to emulate in Xing Yi Quan. In Xing Yi the spine is characterised by a coiling action, a counter-rotation between hips and shoulders, that means the practitioner can easily generate power, or, always has the potential for generating power from all positions.

The typical Dragon Shape example you see demonstrated looks something like this one:

zhu

Dragon, demonstrated by master Zhu Guang, credit Hsing Yi Leeds

 

Notice how his posture is placing a lot of torque on the spine, and creating potential energy. The right shoulder pushes back, but the right hip pushes forward. That is what is meant by “dragon body” in our style.

(And just to counter some things I’ve read a few times: It is not about creating a ‘spinal wave’ that moves vertically up the spine – that’s not how spines are designed to express power in human beings if longevity is one of your goals. Force (jin) itself can move up the spine to the hands, but there’s no actual physical ripple or wave that should move up your spine, like a whip cracking. I have seen some styles of Chinese martial arts that do this – they crack their spines like a whip. Good luck with that when you’re 70 I’d say, but each to their own.)

Xing Yi and Xin Yi Liu He Dragon comparison

A question came up recently (which inspired this post) about how Dragon in Xing Yi can possibly be the same as Dragon in its sister art Xin Yi Liu He, since they look different.

My first response to that is, of course, they are the same. Not identical in outward expression, but the same root.

These two arts developed in different geographic locations, but they share a common root. Take monkeys as an example: In biological terms, all modern-day monkeys look different, but they share a common ancestor. You can tell they are related. While their colourings, their sizes and their behaviours may have evolved along different lines, they’re still belong to the same species. It’s the same with Xing Yi dragon and Xin Yi Liu He dragon.

One phrase my Xing Yi teacher liked was “one root, 10,000 endings”, so there can be infinite variations on a dragon posture, or sequence, but the root, the essence of what is being expressed, is the same.

Every lineage of Xing Yi has its own slight variation, but in Hebei Xing Yi you usually see Dragon expressed in that rising and falling squatting posture shown above.

Here’s a video of Mike Patterson showing some applications:

This is the posture that is not found in Xin Yi Liu He? Really?

First, I’d dispute that. Here are two videos I found quickly online that are very similar to the standard Hebei Xing Yi version. This one looks like a prototype for the standard Hebei move, ending in a similar squat:

 

And then there’s this one called “Dragon wags tail” from http://www.xinyiliuhe.net , which has a different stance, but the movement is virtually identical:

 

Perhaps the confusion happens because the most common “dragon” movement you see in Xin Yi Liu He is this one (that you see translated as variations of “dragon shakes its shoulders” or “dragon shoulder” or “dragon carries the shoulder pole”.)

It’s one of the “3 old steps”. I like that name. Again, it implies that the dragon is a fundamental quality to the art, which is what we say in Xing Yi. I’m speculating here, but perhaps in Xing Yi’s San Ti Shi we see the bringing together of these “old steps” into a single posture that is held and practiced without movement, but with the same internal feeling?

If you look at what is being practiced in the Xin Yi steps above you see the same qualities of dragon that we look for in Xing Yi – the flexible, rotating spine. On the inside, it’s the same thing. Also notice that his arms are being held in a way that resembles wings, like dragon wings?

Let’s look at some more dragon movements you find in other lines of Xing Yi beyond the usual rise/fall squat movement you see:

This is Zhang Xi Gui is the director of the Shan Xi Xing Yi Research School. Notice the same ‘wing’ shape to his arms?

Notice the different flavours of the dragon are there – the strategic leg placement to set traps and trip, the coiling body motion and the ‘wings’ and ‘claws’ feel in the arms.

It’s already clear there is more to the ‘dragon’ than just a single move. I’m trying to get to the point where I can convince you that dragon is a quality, not a move, that can be expressed in various different ways.

Dragon principles in Xin Yi Liu He

In terms of Dragon principles being expressed in Xin Yi Liu He the best video I’ve found is this one below.

Dragon is expressed all through this video and the teacher really goes into detail about the body actions. And again, it all matches with Xing Yi – the rotation of the spine, the actions of the hips and shoulders to create power that I talked about earlier.

I really like this video (despite whatever that young German man is doing to that tree 🙂 )

 

I hope that’s been enough to get you thinking. We need to stop thinking about Xing Yi animals as ‘this move’ or ‘that move’. It does this massive, practical, ancient and subtle art a huge disservice.

And going back to what I mentioned earlier – the other reason for the dragon being the only mythical creature in Xing Yi/Xin Yi’s animal styles?

Well, the dragon is the emblem of Yue Fei’s family and he is often illustrated with a dragon emblem on his robe:

yue fei

Qing dynasty illustration of Yue Fei By Unknown author – 清宫殿藏画本. 北京: 故宫博物馆出版社. 1994., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=57090030

Was Yue Fei practicing what we call “Xing Yi” today in his back yard? Of course not, but the ideas that underpin it? Then yes, he was. His army used these strategies very successfully in battles against the Jin army, but for (much) more of that story, see my podcast.

The principles of Xin Yi Liu He (Six Harmony Heart-mind boxing)

 

full length of man on water

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Xing Yi is a fascinating subject. Because it’s such an old martial art, there are so many different branches of it. These different branches have tended to focus around geographic location. So, there’s a Shanxi branch, a Hebei branch, a Henan branch, etc.

Ultimately, while they’re all different, they’re all part of the same family, so it can be useful to investigate how other branches train and how it relates to what you were taught in your branch.

Will of the Monley Steals Peach YouTube channel has put out a lot of content recently on various different styles of Xing Yi and Xin Yi. (The arts have slightly different names, but to me they’re all part of the same family).

What I’ve found most interesting is seeing his videos on Xin Yi Lie He (6 Harmony Heart-Mind boxing). This style is practiced mainly amongst the Muslim community in Henan province in China, but also elsewhere. As Will says “There are two main branches of Xinyi Liuhe, one in the city of Zhoukou which you can also find in Shanghai, and the Luoyang style which is incredibly rare. In this episode, we meet Ma Zhi Ping in the local Mosque to learn about the Luoyang style of Xinyi Liuhe.”

If you look at XYLH it initially looks quite different to my style – Hebei Xing Yi – there are lots of jumps, big movements, extended arms and long stances. None of these things you could say are characteristic of Hebei Xing Yi. Have a look:

 

However, if you look closer you will find that the principles behind the art are closer to what I was taught by my teacher than versions of Xing Yi in other places.

My teacher did not empahsise the dantien, but instead talked a lot about the Dragon Body. You find the same explanation in this second video on the Shanghai branch which looks at the fundamental body movements behind XYLH:

  • Dragon coiling around tree
  • Chicken step
  • Thunder sound

 

These principles so easily map onto what I was taught that I can undertand them straight away.

Let’s take Chicken Step as an example: while the Chicken Step exercise in XYLH (in the video above) is a different stepping pattern to what you commonly see in Xing Yi the principles behind it are the same –

  • Constant motion,
  • Using your stepping for defence not blocking
  • Twisting the body so there’s always power available
  • No “pushing off” the ground – more like a hovercraft.

While my Hebei Xing Yi doesn’t look like XYLH on the surface, I find it interesting that in terms of principles it’s much more similar to this style (which mine branched off from 100 years of years ago!) than even some of its more closely related Xing Yi styles based in Shanxi, which seem to specialise in a type of shaking power or the more dantien-rotation-centric styles like Dai style Xin Yi.

You can never hope to even try to learn all of the different Xing Yi/Xin Yi styles. The art is just too big! But you can at least see how they do things and spot similarities which help you reflect on your own practice, thanks to YouTube, and thanks again to Will for making the videos and doing all the traveling for us! Check out his channel, it’s full of content.

Journey to the West – revisit the classic text on taming the monkey mind

monkey

In the world before Monkey, primal chaos reigned!

I grew up watching Monkey on TV. This Japanese TV series based on the ancient novel Journey to the West was dubbed into English and run by the BBC from 1979 onwards. It was hugely influential in introducing Kung Fu and Taoist/Buddhist ideas to the West via a children’s story.

It’s quite fitting that I watched it as a child, because it is a story for children, but if you look closer, you’ll find that it deals with a lot of deeper issues.

Journey to the West follows the story of a Buddhist monk and three immortal animal spirits (four if you count the horse) who follow ‘him’ (this was always confusing to me, as the actor in the TV series was clearly a woman) on a journey to ‘the west’, which was India, in search of the Buddha. Along the way, they have to endure various trials and tribulations.

Journey to the West is a classic work of Chinese literature, and can be read as an allegory for all sorts of things – is it about the taming of the ‘monkey mind’? Is it a criticism of Buddhism by Taoists? Or Taoist by the Buddhists? Or is it a religious text that acts as a guide to spiritual enlightenment?

As you’ll discover from this fascinating discussion between Chinese language and literature professors Katherine Alexander and friend of the Tai Chi Notebook, Scott Philips, all things are possible!

Katherine Alexander is a professor of Chinese Language and Literature at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and has a PhD from the University of Chicago. Her PhD dissertation, “Virtues of the Vernacular: Moral Reconstruction in late Qing Jiangnan and the Revitalization of Baojuan” addresses popular religious literature and culture in Jiangnan during and after the Taiping War. https://www.colorado.edu/alc/katherin…

The “Make Xing Yi Wild Again” podcast episode

makexingyi

My last post, “Make Xing Yi Wild Again“, about how the global coronavirus pandemic is offering us a chance to reconnect with nature and change our approach to martial arts practice, inspired the latest episode of our Heretics podcast with my Xing Yi teacher Damon Smith.

Check it out.

In the podcast we discuss a lot of the ideas thrown up by the article including rewidling, degrowth and shamanic practice. Of course, we also delve into the martial art of Xing Yi and how it has changed over the years, what the 12 animals are really all about and we look at how we can approach rewilding Xing Yi again.