There’s a lot of great martial stuff in Xing Yi Quan, which is feeling more and more like an untapped resource these days. With that in mind I interviewed one of my old training partners, Mike Ash, for the latest episode of my podcast. Mike has always been interested in training Xing Yi Quan as a martial art, and that’s what we talk about. He’s also practiced plenty of other martial arts and has recently started a new study into Taijiquan.
We talk about all of that, plus the spiritual side of martial arts. Here’s the podcast:
One of the hardest things I think that there is to convey in Xing Yi, to the perspective new student, is how the 5 fists work with the stepping. All the time I see people doing the arm positions of the five fists in a highly stylistic and precise way, but the body isn’t right. If the body isn’t right then the fault can usually be found in the legs and waist, and most likely it’s the stepping. In Xing Yi your stepping is the delivery system for the power of the body.
The words of the Xing Yi Classic of Unification apply here:
“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.”
i.e. everything moves together, as one.
In this video I look at some of the common faults I see in Xing Yi stepping, which could be described as problems of partiality. First, the foot arriving before the hand, then the hand arriving before the foot, and finally the foot and hand landing (i.e. finishing their journey) at the same moment with no penetration.
The real Xing Yi stepping is deeper and more penetrating. You’re hitting the person (or bag) while your front foot is still in the air, as you move through them, displacing their mass. That’s the trick.
(N.B. this style of striking in Xing Yi is more popular in the Hebei style – other styles of Xing Yi have different specialties).
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.
The blossom is out on my tree and spring is in the air! So, it’s time to record a new video.
Yesterday was St. Patrick’s Day, the saint who drove the “snakes” out of Ireland (a country which has never had snakes). I see a lot of people doing Xing Yi snake forms and generally I don’t like most of it. Sorry. It always seems a bit “dumbed down” to me. Linear and basic, and not very representative of the actual animal. Snakes coil, they twist, they wrap and they strike suddenly and swiftly. Those characteristics need to be present if you are going to embody the Snake (She Xing).
But rather than post videos of other people’s work and criticise it, (which seems to be a favourite pastime of people on the Internet), I thought I’d make my own and try to promote my mate Glen’s Xing Yi Snake book in the process:
Somebody commented on another of my videos that they liked the weapons work I’ve included previously, so I put some Snake sword in there too. As with all Xing Yi, you can see the barehand work is simply a translation from the weapons work. The application pictures are from Glen Board’s book Xing Yi Snake, (which I’ve reviewed here), that I worked on with him.
I actually recorded this video just before I did my regular Tai Chi practice, and I noticed that my Tai Chi form became infused with the flavour of the Snake Xing I’d been practicing previously and became very coily indeed! This is what the Xing Yi animals are like – they’re like strong flavours of tea, that you add to your hot water. Ultimately you should be able to blend all 12 freely. I don’t think there’s enough lifetimes left for me to do that though, which is why I tend to stick to the ones I prefer. Different Xing Yi practitioners tend to be heavily ‘flavoured’ by the animals they prefer.
But why snakes? What’s the advantage in studying them? There are many legends about snakes, but not many actual snakes to be found in the UK, so we don’t generally know too much about them, but it’s pretty clear from watching this YouTube video showing python attacks that they’re absolutely fearless predators:
What surprised me most about that video is how close the python manages to get to its prey before it strikes. I guess it must be to do with being absolutely silent as it moves? I don’t know. Either way, a python is a terrifying grappler and an ambush predator combined into one. You can see why horses, monkeys and man has a built-in snake phobia.
As Wikipedia notes: “Historically, serpents and snakes represent fertility or a creative life force. As snakes shed their skin through sloughing, they are symbols of rebirth, transformation, immortality, and healing. The ouroboros is a symbol of eternity and continual renewal of life. … In Hinduism, Kundalini is a coiled serpent.”
Carl Jung had a lot to say about snakes. The ouroboros is cool symbol, a Western Yin/Yang, but the most recognisable snake symbol in our daily lives is the caduceus, the traditional symbol of Hermes and a symbol used in many esoteric religions and associated with healing:
“Some accounts suggest that the oldest known imagery of the caduceus has its roots in a Mesopotamian origin with the Sumerian god Ningishzida; whose symbol, a staff with two snakes intertwined around it, dates back to 4000 BC to 3000 BC.“
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 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 (yi timing). This is the hardest timing to achieve, because it’s very easy to get wrong. For true Yi timing you need to hit them before they launch their attack, but equally, their attack does need to be 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.
Timing 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, naming it Jeet Kune Do, the way of the intercepting fist.
I’ve been in conversation with Miika Wikberg of Baji Wasa, Finland. Baji is a martial art that shares a lot of similarities with Xing Yi. One of those is the idea of Tiger as a body attribute/strategy.
Here’s Miika talking about Tiger Head in Baji:
I really like this video because it’s very similar to how Tiger Xing works in Xing Yi – notice that Miika is going from a position that’s outisde the range of his opponent’s attacks, straight into an almost body to body position. That’s the flavour of Tiger Xing in Xing Yi.
The only real difference is that in my Xing Yi we call it “Tiger Embrace” and it’s more about the embracing quality of the arms than anything you’re doing with your head. As an observation of how a tiger moves it’s spot on though – the body follows the head. I’ve heard other Xing Yi lines talk about Tiger head as well, but in ours we emphasis the embracing quality of a tiger’s attack more – you can see what I mean in this video I shot over the summer:
In Xing Yi you use the Tiger embrace to do as much damage as you can as you close the distance, once the distance is closed you have the final bite to the neck, which is expressed in Xing Yi usually as a choking method. Knowing a bit of BJJ can be helpful here!
“When the opponent expands, I contract. When he contracts, I expand. And, when there is an opportunity, I do not hit – it hits all by itself.” ― Bruce Lee
Practicing both Xing Yi and Tai Chi together helps you gain insights into both arts. Here’s what occured to me this morning: If you were to strip down Tai Chi and Xing Yi forms to their essentials then Tai Chi is a series of deflecting moves interspersed with occasional punches or kicks, and Xing Yi is a series of punches or kicks interspersed with occasional deflecting moves.
That’s a gross simplification, but I think it’s true to some extent. It’s what makes the two arts good companions for each other.
I’ve written before about not putting power in the form, but in a related note I think the idea of not using your arm to punch is another way of looking at it from a more Xing Yi perspective. It’s the same nut, just another way to crack it.
The famous Tai Chi practitioner, Cheng Man Ching, is said to have had a dream in which he had no arms, and it was only after that that he grasped the secret of pushing hands. The secret was that pushing hands had nothing to do with hands at all, and he credited this dream with in his ability to push people.
But I find it a lot easier to understand the ‘not using your hands’ thing when you are constantly pushing and deflecting. It’s a lot harder to do it when you are striking.
Xing Yi is obsessed with striking. Most of the forms are a series of strikes linked together (called “links” – Lian Huan). I’ve come to appreciate however that the key to it is to not use your arm to strike. I mean, yes, your arm is doing the striking, of course, but it’s like it’s not involved in the process. I’m thinking about what Bruce Lee said when he said “it hits all by itself”. But while I believe Lee was talking about a more spiritual process (the top line of the hexagram), I’m thinking about a more mid-line process that’s rooted in the body. The hand moves into the position you want, but what moves it there has nothing to do with the arm at all, it’s all from the body. I find that when Xing Yi becomes “too much in the arm” it ceases to be the art it’s supposed to be.
Paradoxically by trying to hit hard, you ruin it. You’ve got to ease back a little bit – take your foot slightly off he gas and let the body do the work, almost as if you are a craftsman using a tool skillfully (your body) rather than making a great effort to get things done and just making a mess in the process.
“When the haft is gripped, this grip is done with the whole body” – Xing Yi classics
I am still trying to make sure I do some sword practice every day. Specifically I’m using Bear Eagle from Xing Yi as my main practice.
One of the big issues that becomes apparent when you do a lot of sword practice is the grip. My experience is that a solid grip means less wear and tear on your wrist.
I was therefore quite pleased to read this blog on how to grip a sword by Scott Rodell, since it confirms what I was taught and have found to be the best way to practice in terms of logevity. He recommends the same grip that I use.
The way I was taught was to grip the handle with all my fingers, not any kind of thumb/finger arrangement as you often see, and make sure all the fingers are below the guard, for obvious reasons. I think one of the keys to making your grip strong is to grip really hard with the little finger, that way you make sure it never sips off, because once it does the rest of the fingers tend to follow. As the Xing Yi classics say, “When the haft is gripped, this grip is done with the whole body“. With a strong, stable, grip you can start to connect the sword to your centre, so that movements from the torso can be reveald in the extremities – in this case, the sword.
“I am curious to find why Bear and Eagle are always together. Have you come across or know of any reasoning behind this?
Thank you in advance for your time!”
This is a good question – if you practice Xing Yi you’ll notice that all the animal forms are practiced as individual animals, yet Bear (Xiong) and Eagle (Ying) are often mixed together as something called a “harmonious fist” (He Quan). (Although you also find them as separate links too). There are a few reasons why this is so.
Firstly, although Xing Yi has no particular connection to Taoism, it does make use of the concept of Yin and Yang. All the animals have Yin aspects and Yang aspects – this can be most clearly seen in something like snake, where the yin aspects are represented by the pythons – crushing, choking and coiling, and the yang aspects are represented by the vipers – quick, darting and venomous.
In Bear and Eagle, each animal represents an extreme of the postures found in Xing Yi – Bear should be the most extreme Yin (softer, heavier, shorter posture) and Eagle the most extreme Yang (hard, powerful and big). Bear is only ever Yin and Eagle is only ever Yang. So, to have a balance of Yin and Yang, both are practiced together to produce the optimum fighting strategy.
Bear is used at close range, rolling on and around attacks through your structure and position the attacker should naturally lands on the end of your blows. Think of slipping a jab in boxing and landing an uppercut. In contrast, the Eagle actively goes out to strike the opponent using long piercing strikes at a longer range. So, as a strategy they work well together.
That’s the most basic reason.
Secondly, 英雄(hero) and 鷹(eagle)熊(bear) have the same pronunciation in Mandarin and Cantonese. This may just be a coincidence.
Now we can slip into the more esoteric reasons. This is something I’ve only ever heard from my teacher, but it makes no difference to the first theory, so let me present it.
There is an animal native to China and Japan called the Bear Eagle (Xiong Ying). In the west we call it the Mountain hawk eagle. (Spizaetus nipalensis in Latin.)
From Wikiepdia: “ it is usually perceptibly bulkier and more massive than most other members of its genus. It is seemingly the largest member of the 10 currently recognized species in the genus Nisaetus, notwithstanding the recently recognized Flores hawk-eagle (Nisaetus floris) (which was separated from the changeable hawk-eagle).”
You can see its powerful legs in this picture. I always like the little tuft it has on its head.
The bear eagle gets it’s name from the way it will grapple with prey on the ground – a bit like a bear. So this single animal represents both qualities. If you believe that the Xing Yi animals were derived directly from observing nature (which was the thrust of the Li movement in the Song Dynasty) then it’s possible that the hunting and fighting tactics of the Mountain Hawk eagle were studied to produce what we have handed down to us in Xing Yi. It’s an unprovable theory, but there you have it.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter to me if you think of the Xing Yi animal as representing a separate bear and an eagle, or a mountain hawk eagle. It’s all the same thing, and you can gain a lot of insight into the Xing Yi link by observing all 3 animals. Sadly, YouTube is probably your best bet for that these days.
Thanks to Richard Johnson for commenting on my last post, which had a section of the Xing Yi classics (The 10 Thesis of Yue Fei) translated by my teacher. My teacher’s translation definitely differs from others you find online – it includes many more references to weapons that are omitted in other translations I’ve seen, specifically a haft-grip and a bow, in these sections.
It matters, because reading other translations I’ve seen you’d get the impression it was about gripping your opponent, not your spear.
I thought it interesting that Richard called it “quite interpretive rather than a strict translation“:
The first quote is quite interpretive rather than a strict translation. I found it in the manual attributed to Yue Fei. It could also be instructions to curl one’s fist tight with the same energy as gripping a handle.
I’d agree with him, but, with a rather large caveat: I think all translation is an interpretation.
There is no such thing as a “strict” translation of these Chinese classics into English, because a literal translation of characters often comes off looking like the work of Yoda. Confusing, it is!
To get at the meaning of the text you have to rejig it into English, and here you need to know the context of the work, the time period it was written in and also have some working knowledge of the subject to do it in a meaningful way.
“I’m looking at my translation of the Jiaoshou Lun now. So the first quote is:
用拳要卷緊 Yòng quán yào juǎn jǐn,
用把把有氣 Yòng bǎ bà yǒu qì.
Literally – Use fist must roll tight. Use grip must have Qi.
So fist could be the fist or it could be “boxing”. There is no mention of a haft here, there is nothing immediately before or after, but a little bit further on we get this:
手以心把 Shǒu yǐ xīn bà,
心以手把 Xin yǐ shǒu bà.
Literally – Hand uses xin to grip. xin uses hand handle (shou ba together means handle/haft).
In my own interpretation Shou (hand) can also mean “a technique”. So my take on this is: The methods use the xin to grasp and the xin transmits through the haft. Given this later reference to a haft/handle it is legitimate to understand that the entire section is talking about weapons so D earlier use of haft is in context.
一握渾身皆握, Yī wò hún shēn jiē wò,
一伸渾身皆伸, Yī shēn hún shēn jiē shēn
伸要伸得進, Shēn yào shēn dé jìn
握要握得根 Wò yào wò dé gēn
如卷炮, Rú juǎn pào
卷得緊, Juǎn dé jǐn
崩得有力, Bēng dé yǒu lì
One grasp mix body (hunshen together means “everything” or whole body) all grasps.
One extends everything all extends
Extending important to extend while entering
Grasping important grasp must root
As reeled (rolled up/coiled) cannon (explosion)
Reel must be tight
Collapse/compress must have power/strength
When grasping [the haft], the whole body grasps [the haft].
When one part extends, the whole body extends.
The key is to extend while entering.
When grasping the grasp comes from the root, as if coiled ready to explode.
The coiling becomes tight, Compressing to store power.
The first two phrases could also be interpreted as: Grasp with the whole body and everything holds. Extend with the whole body and everything extends.The last phrase is tricky. Damon like the alternative 绷 – beng meaning to draw tight. But the character used in the text I have is 崩 – beng same as “Beng quan” meaning to collapse/crush/compress.This phrase could mean that the reel must be tight, like something compressing to store power (or if the alternative beng is used – like a bow at full draw).Or collapsing could refer to releasing the reel, letting go. Meaning that when released the power has to transmit. That phrase isn’t easy it could mean both.”