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.
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.
I dropped a theory-heavy post about Xing Yi Dragon recently, so I thought it might be nice to do a more practical post about Dragon, and here it is – it’s a nice little routine I do for 5 minutes solidly, it essentially like doing five minutes of squats, so it’s quite hard work!
I 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:
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.
I wrote a blog post the other day in which I mentioned that the Taoist origins of Tai Chi are historically unproven, yet the similarity in ideas is obviously there.
I got an interesting comment back on Facebook from somebody linking to a book I wasn’t aware of:
“Roel Jansen: Your information on the origins of Tai Chi is outdated. Please read ‘Tai Chi – the true history & principles’ by Lars Bo Christiansen to get up to date with the latest findings on the daoist origins of Tai Chi.”
So I looked the book up and it exists – it’s on Amazon.
You can read a lot of the book on Amazon’s “look inside” feature. It’s about the newly found Li family manuscripts from which the author draws some pretty wild conclusions, one of which is that the Taoist link to Tai Chi has now been proved beyond doubt.
The book author has a website too, which contains his main arguments in the QnA:
I thought something seemed a bit ‘off’ with the whole thing, so I looked around and found the eminent Douglas Wile, who wrote two books on the Tai Chi Classics that are very good, and that classic essay on Chan Sang Feng, had written a massive article on these Li manuscripts, (and Lars’ book) which is here:
It’s a mammoth read, but looks at the whole thing from a more balanced perspective, including all the political leanings.
The TL;DR version is: It’s complicated. The verdict is still out
Here’s a pertinent quote:
The question of whether taijiquan is the product of Daoism creating a martial art or a martial art absorbing Daoism is a critical issue in Chinese martial arts historiography. If anything, Daoism is an even more slippery term than taijiquan itself, but the issue has become highly politicized, which is understandable in the context of Chinese history and culture. However, for a Western scholar to stumble into this minefield bespeaks a certain naiveté. The assertion of Daoist origins has become associated with cultural nationalism and the search for Chinese identity, often called ‘Chineseness’. Chinese scholars have built entire careers out of championing either Zhang Sanfeng or Chen Wangting, but it is very unseemly for Western scholars to insert themselves in this politicized process of roots-seeking and competing attempts to identify origin, creator, or birthplace as ‘transient points of stabilization’
[Laclau 2000: 53].
I think there are other questions that need to be asked about the whole question of “Is Tai Chi Taoist?”
For instance how many of the concepts we associate with Taoism, like the Tai Chi symbol, the I-Ching, Wu Xing and Bagua are actually Taoist in origin? Chinese Folk Religion, is actually the largest religion in China, and makes use of many things that we in the West think are “Taoist”.
As HotSoup on the RSF forum posted recently:
“There is an opinion that asking a CIMA practitioner from the beginning of the nineteenth century whether his art was “Buddhist” or “Taoist” would make as much sense, as asking a medieval fence teacher whether his fencing was “Catholic” or, say, “Juwish”.