This is a very informative interview with Ma Yue who is a Mashi Tongbei master. He talks about (amongst other things) what it was like growing up in a traditional martial arts family when the Cultural Revolution happened in China, and he had to be taught in secret. He also talks about the making of the first Shaolin Temple film, which is father was involved in, and what he sees as the many problems with Wu Shu today.
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.
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:
“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.
“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.
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.
I’d like to give a quick shout out to Cook Ding’s Kitchen who reposted one of my blog posts “Don’t Try“, which gave me the chance to read it again. It was about using less effort and not forcing things. Difficult words to live up to.
This started me thinking about one of the things that can help in using less effort in Tai Chi. A good trick is to turn our normal perspective on the human body upside down. We normally think of doing things with our arms and hands and don’t think much about the legs at all. In Tai Chi we want to reverse that.
If we watch a boxing match, for example, we tend to look at what’s going on with the hands a lot, since that’s where all the action is, and generally miss the subtle changes of the legs.
Tai Chi is boxing with the legs: You use your legs like arms, and your arms like legs. When you’re doing the Tai Chi form, stop using your arms to ‘do’ things and put all your focus into using your legs to do it. It’s a bit like walking on your hands: your arms and legs swap their normal functions over.
When doing the form or applications, your toes grip the ground, your weight moves fully forward or backward on the feet (no wishy-washy stances floating about in the middle ground, please), you are sunk and slightly low in your stance so you can get fully into your legs. In contrast, the upper body should be empty. Relax. Let the arms go where they need to go, but don’t move them there deliberately. Let your legs, directed by your middle, do the work. Think them into position with a directed focus (yi).
The Press posture is a good example of what I’m talking about:
Yang Cheng Fu – Press
You put your inside hand on the outside arm wrist and push towards the opponent in a linear direction. Because you’re forming a particular shape with your hands in Press, it’s tempting to do this move with your arms cut off from the body. Instead, the power needs to come from the ground via the legs. Drop down and release from the dantien area to the ground and let the power of the ground rise up to the hands. Done right, you’re hitting the opponent with the force of the planet (jin), not just the force of your body.
As it says in the classics:
“The jin should be
rooted in the feet,
generated from the legs,
controlled by the waist, and
manifested through the fingers.”
“The whole body should be threaded together
through every joint
without the slightest break.”
“All movements are motivated by yi,
not external form.”
This is a great video from Forrest Chang showing what Jin is in Chinese Martial Arts and how it can be used.
As he explains in the video, he calls these “stupid jin tricks” because they’re the sort of thing a teacher would look at you like you’re stupid if you asked him to do them. Somebody trained in internal martial arts should just be able to do these.
There is another thing that’s worth pointing out that he doesn’t explicitly state, but which should be obvious – there’s one jin.
All the early books on Tai Chi that came out in the 80s started listing all these different Jins, and I think that’s lead to a lot of misunderstanding that they are all separate things – when in reality there is one Jin in Chinese martial arts, and lots of ways of using it.
Once you’ve got a handle on what he’s doing it’s worth watching videos of famous teachers of Chinese Martial Arts and trying to analyse what they’re doing from a Jin perspective. I find their own explanations are often not very clear, so it’s better just to watch what they’re actually doing: