Why you should know (at least) two different styles of Tai Chi Chuan

Back when I interviewed Michael Babin on my podcast he mentioned that in addition to Yang style he also practiced Sun style on the side. He felt he got quite a lot out of it because Sun style emphasised different things when compared to his main style.

Single whip posture by Sun Jianyun, 1957

I didn’t mention it at the time, but I also have a Tai Chi-style (1) that I do on the side, and I practice it for exactly the same reasons as Michael: I get things out of it that aren’t emphasised to the same extent in my main style.

While my Yang style uses deep, wide stances with obvious circular movement coming from the dantien, my side style has slightly higher, narrower stances and is less obviously centred around the dantien area. Both styles use whole body movement, but with the different physical emphasis there’s more headspace available to focus on other ways of achieving whole body movement – effectively making more use of opening and closing the body. I think that is also exactly how Sun style compliments Yang style, too. By practicing my side style I get to focus more exclusively on the opening and closing of the body, and I can then bring that back into my Yang style practice.

Of course, style purists will find fault with this approach. I’ve nothing against people who only practice one Tai Chi style all their life, or even practice only one martial art all their life. There’s definitely something to be said for ‘don’t fear the man who has practiced 10,000 techniques, but fear the man who has practiced one technique 10,000 times’. And, of course, any Tai Chi style should be enough, on its own, to take you to the highest levels of the art. But I think that if you only practice one style then it’s at least worth dabbling in another, just to get that new perspective on what you already do. In my experience this will make you a better Tai Chi practitioner and a more well-rounded martial artist, if for no other reason than you’ll gain experience of defending attacks from more than just one style.

When we look at well known martial arts masters of the past there’s a pervading view that they only practiced one style, or were only permitted to practice one style by their teachers, but history is full of examples of famous masters who were well known for cross training – Ku Yu Chang, Sun Lu Tang and Wang Xiangzhai, to name but 3.

In terms of biology, nature prefers diversity, if the gene pool of a species starts to become too small you get inbreeding leading to genetic defects. You can see this happen in marital arts styles that become too insular as well. They maintain their purity, but at what cost? They becoming dysfunctional.

I’m all for diversity in my martial arts training and in life.

  1. The side style of Tai Chi I practice is a UK-centric style called Li style. I’ve been doing it since the 90s and while my interest in it can wax and wane it’s been a constant for over 30 years now. The Li style form is a nice, relaxing form to do. It’s slightly controversial because you can’t find the style in China, which is an obvious red flag, but I stopped caring about that a long time ago. I do it because I enjoy it. If I didn’t enjoy it I wouldn’t do it. It doesn’t matter to me if it was “made up” in the 1950s, or not. I mean, at some point everything was “made up” anyway, right? So what matters is if you get something out of it and if you can do it following the Tai Chi principles, which in the case of Li style, you can.

    Li style essentially looks a bit like Wu (Jianquan) stye. The form starts off following (very) roughly the same pattern as Wu Jianqan style, but after White Crane Spreads Wings it splits off into its own sequence, which is nothing like any other Tai Chi style I’ve seen before. It’s a very long form, with no repeated sections, and I’ve never quite been able to get to the end of it and remember all of it satisfactorily, but I can get quite a long way through it. Here’s a video of the Li form being done.

Getting lost in words like Qi and Yi

Photo by Happy Pixels on Pexels.com

I was observing the usual argument/discussion between two people about ancient Chinese words like Yi and Qi that frequently happen in Tai Chi circles, and it was going down a familiar route..

“Don’t lecture me! I read classic Chinese and Yi means ‘idea’ and Qi means ‘movement’.”

“Really? Wang Yongquan wrote ‘To mobilize Qi, you create an empty space, by Soong and a light Yi to empty the area. The differentiation of yin and yang is what makes Qi flow.”

“Seems quiet different then…”

Confused! Photo by Oladimeji Ajegbile on Pexels.com

And on and on and on…

Recently I had a conversation with a very experienced Chinese martial artist (it will be released as a podcast soon, don’t worry) about how these things are trained in Asia vs how we do it in the West. 

He made the point that in the West we have to understand something intellectually before we will do it. i.e. we have to know we’re not wasting our time, that we will get something out of this. It has to ‘make sense’. And we usually ask loads of questions before even trying it. In contrast, in Asia, there is a lot less questioning and a lot more doing. You just do it. If you’re doing it wrong you hope your teacher will notice and put you on the right track. But generally you just keep doing it secure in the knowledge that eventually you will get it. It’s all in the feel. If you have the feel right, then you are doing it. End of story.

Nowhere is this distinction between the Eastern and Western approach more clearly represented that on discussion forums about Tai Chi that are full of Westerners. We love to argue about what these ancient concept and words like Qi, Yi and Xin really mean. As if one day we will arrive at the ultimate answer. It seems we can’t get enough of it. 

But here’s the secret: it doesn’t matter how you define these words, what concept or theory you use for their implementation, or how well you read Classical Chinese from the Ming Dynasty. What matters is – can you do it? Can you show it to me?

If I said, “Show me your Yi. Let me feel your Jin” Could you do it?

If you can then it doesn’t matter wether you define Yi as “idea”, “mind” or “intent”. I’m sure we’re all familiar with the famous phrase coined by Polish-American scientist and philosopher Alfred Korzybski, who gave a paper in 1931 about physics and mathematics in which he wrote that “the map is not the territory” and that “the word is not the thing”, encapsulating his view that an abstraction derived from something, or a reaction to it, is not the thing itself.

So, all these online arguments about Qi and Yi, are effectively pointless. They are map, not territory. However, I do think that a little intellectual understanding can be useful. Especially if it stops you asking questions long enough to just practice. Also, there’s always this temptation to think that if I can just understand something perfectly, or write it down in the perfect, most simple way, then eventually everyone will go “Yes! That’s it!”

Anyway, as I was practicing this morning a thought popped into my head which I thought felt right, so I thought I’d write down and share it:

“Yi is the direction you’re sending your mind in, and the Jin follows.”

To me, Yi is always about a direction. And it is directed. It’s the opposite of a vague, warm, fuzzy haze. It has a steadfastness and a focus. There. Did that help? Or did it just make you more confused. Answers in the comments section please. If you have your own pithy phrase to summarise a concept as subtle as Yi that works for you, then feel free to add it below.

I’ve written before about Yi in Tai Chi Chuan. So, you can have a read of that too.

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? 🙂

The middle of the Yuan Dynasty

We’ve recorded a new episode on our long running ‘history of Xing Yi’ series. There’s no actual Xing Yi in this episode – it’s more about a period of Chinese history that little is written about – the middle to end of the Yuan dynasty.

Horse and Groom, handscroll after Li Gonglin by Zhao Yong, China, Yuan dynasty, 1347, Freer Gallery

In the middle to late part of the Yuan Dynasty the former Confucian ruling class came back with a vengeance and started a downward spiral that would ultimately lead to the fall of the dynasty. In this episode we examine how and why this happened, which will set the context for the important events at the end of the dynasty in the next episode.

If you like Chinese history, then you’ll enjoy it.

#71 Xing Yi (part 13) The Water Chestnut Mirror

This episode explores the connection between the martial arts of the great Song generals’ tradition and Chinese theatre, which emerged during the height of the Yuan Dynasty.

Xing Yi Part 13, The Water Chestnut Mirror

I would also recommend this short, funny and smart crash course on Chinese Theatre as background ‘reading’:

A lot of the “x number of shoes, y number of hairdos” regulatory stuff was added later by the Confucians from the Ming onwards. In the Yuan it was much more Vale Tudo in spirit 🙂

To see some Yuan Dynasty plays we talk about in action I’d recommend this page, which also gives some more background on Yuan Zaju plays.

A mural from a temple in the Shanxi province, dated 1324. It shows zaju actors and musicians. Image source: The Archives of Finland–China Society.

Is Xing Yi a nature-based martial art any longer?

I quite often see this written in Xing Yi discussions:

“The animals are just variations of the five elements”.

I should probably just let it go, but I can’t. This idea that Xing Yi’s 12 animals are just variations of the 5 element fists has become so ubiquitous now that it’s almost impossible to counteract. And, of course, it’s true in a very basic sense, but it’s far from the whole story of Xing Yi, and it creates a misleading impression of what the art really is. It’s also buying into the whole reductionist movement in Chinese martial arts that happened in the 20th century, performed by both the Republic of 1912 and the Communist state of 1949, when these rich, smokey, traditions turned into somewhat culturally bland, ideologically driven, if athletically more challenging, versions of themselves.

[Photo by Amiya Nanda on Pexels.com]

If you look at a sample movement from the Xing Yi animals, like say Tiger, (firstly there’s the problem that this animal has been reduced to but a single movement in most lineages of Xing Yi, but let’s ignore that for now), you’ll see that it consists of a kind of aggressive double-palm push, or strike, to the chest, repeated over and over. The way the push is done is clearly related to Pi Quan (Splitting) from the 5 element fists, which also uses a palm to strike, so I can see why this generative view of the relation between elements and animals is so popular.

Take the wood element – Beng (often called crushing fist). It’s a straight strike, like a spear thrust, usually to the body using a strong opening and closing action. Again, it pops up all over the animals: For example, you could look at the double fist strike seen in Tai Xing – another of the 12 animals, and say that it’s a variation of Beng using both fists with a particular fist shape. (You can extend the knuckle of the middle finger in Tai).

Viewed like this it does start to look like the elements came first, but what I believe really happened in the historical development of Xing Yi was that somebody (one of the Dai family or Li Luoneng, who learned from them, are the most obvious candidates) created the 5 elements out of the pre-existing animal movements as a way to teach beginners.

(Historically we can say animals came first with some certainty, since an older lineage known as Xin Yi Liu He has the animals, but not the 5 elements).

Most of the animals in Xing Yi and Xin Yi have a kind of downward cutting Pi action, just expressed in different ways. By identifying it and using it as one of the 5 elements, and practicing it in isolation away from the complexity of the animals you have a way ‘in’ to Xing Yi, so it’s quite useful. You have something simple that you can practice over and over again.

So, it’s not like the elements aren’t a useful addition – they are. And you might be left wondering if it really matters which way you view the relationship between Xing Yi’s animals and elements?

Our podcast on the history of Xing Yi has been gently making the case that Xing Yi grew out of the ideas contained in the Li movement in the Song Dynasty, which was a turning back to nature and the natural way of things. Xing Yi as I generally see it being practiced today isn’t a nature-focused martial art anymore. That time has gone, and the focus on nature was stripped out a long time ago, from the start of the 20th century onward. It’s an understatement to say that in nationalist and communist ideologies, taking inspiration from nature and the natural world is not a popular idea. The concept of an animal-based martial art didn’t really fit in a China where people could live or die based on their belief in abstract political ideas. These things were understandably more ‘real’ to the average person than the natural world around them. So, the martial arts were changed accordingly.

That leads on to the obvious question – if you aren’t practicing a nature-based martial art anymore then what’s the point of fussing about the place of animals within it?

I think that’s for the individual practitioner to answer for themselves, but I’ll just leave you with this thought – nature-based martial arts are, or should be, reality-based martial arts. They should be grounded in the way the real world actually functions, and not in the world of concepts about the way we think the real world should be. The modern trend in China for (self proclaimed) Chinese martial arts masters to take on challengers trained in fight sports and get a good pasting can be seen as an example of what happens when ideology hits the nature of reality.

Quite often it hits back.

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:

 

 

The Jing Cheng Wushu archives

Screen Shot 2019-12-30 at 9.22.07 AM.pngI just wanted to give a quick shout out to the work Byron Jacobs is doing preserving old Chinese TV performances of Chinese martial art from the 1980s.

“Jing Cheng Wushu” (京城武术) is a series that ran on Beijing TV in the 80’s. The title “Jing Cheng Wushu” means ‘The Wushu of Beijing’. Each episode focused on a Chinese martial art style popular in Beijing at the time and featured many prominent older generation practitioners, many of whom have passed away since.

He’s done three episodes so far, digitising and adding English subtitles. They are:

XingYi Quan

 

Bagua Zhang

 

Taiji Quan

 

 

 

 

Chinese Opera in Glitch

Screenshot 2019-09-29 at 09.43.55.png

Just finished watching series 4 of Glitch. It’s a Netflix show where dead people get reanimated in a rural Australian town (why this happens is a long story).

In season 4 a Chinese immigrant who died in the dust and mud of the bush in the 1850s comes back to life.

At the time, Australia was the most multi-cultural place on earth. We see flash backs from his life touring the Chinese camps of the Victorian goldfields performing Opera, which was the pop music of its day.

It’s pretty well done. Here’s some background on the history:

There are several bits in the series where the actor Harry Tseng performs Opera moves that look just like “kung fu”.

These days it’s pretty hard to imagine what life was like over 100 years ago. Some people still have the idea that “Kung Fu” has absolutely nothing to do with Chinese Opera. Clearly it was all part of the same cultural mix.