The age of a martial art has no bearing on its effectiveness

Long Zixiang performing the “press” movement of Tai Chi Chuan (1952, Brennan Translation).

People always want their favourite martial art to be really old, as if that somehow makes it more effective. In reality, age has no bearing on effectiveness and it’s the practitioner that is effective anyway, not the art.

In short, it doesn’t matter what martial art you practice, it matters what you can do with it.

Looking for scraps of evidence to somehow prove your art is older than it is, is a pedantic and pointless route to go down.

I’ve still seen no credible evidence that Tai Chi existed before 1850 beyond legends and myths. However there were plenty of Republican era Tai Chi manuals published in China by the Kuomintang, and almost all of them include some sort of dubious history section that traces Tai Chi back over a thousand years. Don’t latch onto these things – they are a product of their time, a time when the martial arts was being politicised to strengthen the nation in the face of foreign aggression and burn out the memory of previous humiliation by European powers who had advanced all the way to Beijing and captured the city during the second Opium war, forcing humiliating concessions from the Ching.

Thanks to the Brennan Translation website, you can read a lot of these Republican era manuals for free, and look at the photos, which are a fascinating insight into martial artists of the time and what they looked like.

Gu Ruzhang, “King of iron palm” and author of Taiji Boxing.

Myths and legends

For example, the famous Gu Ruzhang, the “King of Iron Palm”, wrote a 1936 “Taiji Boxing” manual which contains one of these history sections.

He writes: “China’s boxing arts have many names, but amount to no more than the internal skill and the external skill. The ancestor of the external is Shaolin. Its movements are all magnificently expressed. Since its principles have been spelled out by many previous generations, they do not need to be repeated here. The ancestor of the internal is Wudang. Its strength is stored within, such as in Taiji Boxing. Its power not being outwardly displayed, it instead has a pure naturalness. Like an unending circle, its movements are lively. And so it is deemed internal and is different from Shaolin.
    Taiji Boxing’s origin can be separated into five versions:”

The idea of Taiji Boxing being different to Shaolin is the thing he’s highlighting here – he’s trying to create something in contrast to Buddhist outside influence. Something Chinese that can bind the nation together in the face of foreign aggression (British and French before and Japan had just invaded). So, he’s saying that anything from this “internal school” is  “Taiji Boxing’s origin”, without an actual lineage connection, this is a bit dubious at best, but let’s go with the flow.

Gu Ruzhang performing the Press movement from Tai Chi Boxing. 1936 Brennan Translation.

One “Chinese” lineage he then mentions is Chan Seng Feng on mount Wudang  (which has no validity, and is just myths and legends):

He writes: “What Zhang Sanfeng taught was of the Wudang branch (because he was living in the Wudang mountains), and it was known as the “internal school” of boxing. This version had the highest number of movements yet. Again the name was changed, now to Taiji Boxing, and it went down two paths:

Again, Wudang = Taiji Boxing!

Another 2 lineages of Taiji Boxing he lists starting in the Tang dynasty (the Tang Dynasty was 618AD-907AD, which is over a thousand years ago!), he also lists 1 southern and 2 northern lineages for Taiji Boxing that go through Chen village (our podcast has discussed this and found it unlikely, but not impossible).

It appears that Taiji Boxing is springing up everywhere in China from multiple sources!

He concludes with: “These are just the people we know about, to give a general idea. To cover every person who has received it and make a clear survey of the prominent practitioners of each generation, that will have to wait for a future edition. More will be added later so that future students can know about the source of their art.”

This statement seems to be that he’s admitting he doesn’t really know. It’s just a collection of things he’s been told. None of which there is credible evidence for beyond what he’s been told. Sure there could be a document somewhere proving “Yu family taught something called Innate Nature Boxing” in the Tang dynasty, but how does that related to Taiji Boxing?

There’s no connection beyond the idea that anything Wudang-like must be the origins for Taiji Boxing because,….. it just is, ok? :wink: 

Obviously, nothing comes from nothing – whatever Yang Luchan created post 1850 in Beijing was from what he learned previously. You could use the same logic to argue for a lineage all the way back to the pre-human monkey in 2001 banging bones together in front of a black monolith. Or you could go back to the start of the universe. It’s an interesting philosophical question, but for sanity’s sake I think you have to start somewhere with a style that has a name and a collection of training methods called “Tai Chi Chuan”. Otherwise, all martial arts are infinity years old.

But to get back to my point. It’s not the age of the art that matters, it’s what you can do with it that does. These old boxing manuals are a real treasure, but I look at them for their practical advice, their description of forms and strategies and applications, not their accounts of history from an age where saying the wrong thing could get you beheaded. Unfortunately for the writers of many of these manuals, the Communists took over in 1949 and they were forced to flee to Taiwan and Hong Kong. A lot of them didn’t make it.

What makes Xingyi’s Bengquan different to a normal straight punch? Part 2: The bow draw.


Chinese archer, photographed in the 1870s

Following on from my previous post about Bengquan, one of the 5 Element fists of Xingyiquan, I want to take a closer look at some of the internal characteristics of the strike.

In learning to do a Bengquan correctly you must first learn the mechanical way to do it, then later you can tackle what should really be going on. By the ‘mechanical way to do it’ I’m talking about things like weight distribution, a slight contraction and a slight expansion as you punch, a counter rotation on the spine between hips and shoulder, and the way the fist continues straight forward like an arrow shot from a bow. Generally, these are the things I talked about in the last article. A lot of this is simply maintaining the requirements of San Ti Shi – the 6 bodies posture – while in motion.

Once you are able to do these ‘mechanical’ actions it’s time to look a little a little deeper at some of the internal aspects.

At this point, we need to introduce the concept of the leg bows, arm bows and the back bow. Together that makes 5 bows, all of which need to be coordinated together to produce a perfect bengquan. The word ‘bow’ is used here in the sense of a bow and arrow – the string can be drawn to create potential energy and released to fire that energy.

beng bows

Arms, legs and spine form the 5 bows.

By utilising the 5 bows we are able to source power from areas of the body that aren’t used in normal movement. The process that co-ordinates the 5 bows working together is known simply as opening and closing. I’m going to try and explain how it works with a bengquan, in a very basic way. Obviously, the situation is more complex than I’m trying to make out, but let’s just go with a basic explanation for now.

I’ve mentioned the muscle-tendon channels before. We try and condition them in the internal arts. They run from the fingertips to the toes on the same sides of the body. The opening, or Yang channels, run roughly along the back of the body. The closing, or Yin channels run roughly along the front of the body.

The connection along these channels start as very weak and difficult to get a sense of, but with repeated conditioning, in the correct manner it can be strengthened, so that the limbs can be manipulated using the channels, rather than by using normal muscle usage. Your muscles are still involved, of course, but you are repatterning the way you use them, so they can be controlled from the body’s centre, known as the dantien.

(Try my free Qigong video course for details on how to do this.)

Think of the channels as elastic connections. You need to be relaxed to access them. If a joint is tense then it reduces your access to the elastic force (hence the constant admonitions to Sung “relax’ in internal arts). Ultimately it is your breath, via reverse breathing that enables you to access these bows. Pulling in along the Yin channels creates the action called closing, and pulling in along the Yang channels creates the action of opening. This phenomenon is observable in most animals in nature. Similarly, in internal arts, one side of the body is always contracting as the other side is expanding, and so on. This opening and closing action enables us to use the ‘bows’ of the legs, arms and back in the same way a bow can power an arrow. There’s a storing phase, and a releasing phase.

While the bows certainly ‘add’ to the power, it’s important not to think of them as ‘additives’ that you can apply on top of the wrong sort of movement. They fundamentally are the correct way the body should move if you are using the muscle-tendon channels.

The image at the top of this post shows a Chinese archer, photographed in the 1870s using what’s known as a recursive bow – the very top and bottom actually curve away from the archer when in a neutral position and are pulled back when he draws the arrow. This type of bow was popular throughout Asia.

Here’s one being built using traditional methods:

If you think of a recursive bow mapped over the top of a human body, then you get some idea of how the bows concept works.


Of course, this is just to get the general idea – the overal feel. There are actually 5 bows involved, as I’ve said.

In the last article we looked at how a bengquan has a storing phase of the movement, then an expansive phase of the movement. Now we can form a parallel with the action of drawing and releasing a bow.

However (and Mike Sigman needs credit for pointing this out to me) instead of thinking of the bow as firing an arrow out from your middle behind you, think of the string being pulled inwards towards the shaft of the bow, on the storing/closing cycle, and then released back to normal with a snap on the expansive punching section as you punch. That’s more like what is actually occurring within the body.

In the drawing phase the arms bend, the legs bend and the back bows and the dantien contracts.

The spine would ‘bow’ out. The bottom tip of the spine bow would be the coccyx and the top tip the head.


Spine in a neutral position before the ‘string’ is pulled back towards the ‘bow’.

The flexing and straightening of a leg, for example, is another bow. Same with an arm. All the bows need to be utilised as a team, lead by the dantien, and activated using the muscle tendon channels rather than just local muscle.

On release, the dantien is going down and out, which releases the back bow. The leg bows release which add a vertical component to the power. These combined forces drive and the arm bow to extend on the punching side.

The visual image of drawing a bow has long been associated with Xingyi’s Bengquan because the Bengquan ‘form’ is a perfect training vehicle to work on developing your back, leg and arm bows.  I haven’t mentioned intent (Yi) yet or Jin yet, so there’s more to the story, which I hope to mention next time, but if you’re looking for a way to practice the 5 bows in conjunction with a power release then Bengquan is a perfect mechanism to practice it with.

Labels like ‘internal’ do matter in martial arts


It’s quite ‘Zen’ and deconstructionist to talk about labels not mattering. But over long years I’ve come to the conclusion that labels (for martial arts) exist in the world because they do matter. If they didn’t matter (to whatever extent) then they wouldn’t exist.

I was reading recently (an idea from Mike Sigman) that the best way to view a martial art with regard to the question of “How internal is this?” is as a sliding scale of 1 through 10 from just using local muscle on the left (0-1), through to external martial arts in the middle (5) that use Jin (ground force) to some extent, on to internal martial arts at the end (10 being the highest) that use full dantien control of movement.

I’d put things like Wing Chun or Karate that go beyond just using basic movement in the middle of the scale. These things often get called the true ‘internal’ versions of the arts, but they don’t really use the dantien. The official version of Yang style Tai Chi that you see done by Yang Jun I don’t think is a full 10 either – it just doesn’t use the datien for full control all the time. I think Chen style Tai Chi would be a 10 – of course, that’s the theory. Most practitioners would be bottom to middle of the scale at best.

There was some talk recently on internal aspects in arts like BJJ. I think BJJ and Judo have the potential for being in the middle of the scale – some Jin usage. Often this is what you see termed as ‘invisible jiujitsu’. I think that’s exactly what you need for groundwork (and for fighting generally) – beyond that it’s a case of returns vs time spent. If you want to make your living as a pianist you don’t need to become a master of the very hardest pieces of classical music. It’s almost irrelevant. Of course, if you want to devote your life to it then, it’s your life and it’s a world of discovery.

The lost jin skills of Judo

There is an interesting theory about martial arts that I want to talk about today. Let’s call it the Golden Age theory, as it posits that at one time there was a Golden Age of martial arts, probably in China. Now, ok, you might not buy into that theory, but please bear with me. Drop your natural cynicism for a moment and allow the idea to percolate in your mind a little as we take a trip back to ancient China…


The knowledge the ancients had in this golden age about how the body functioned was complete, detailed and comprehensive, producing something more than normal strength. It was an overarching understanding, so it covered all sorts of skills, not just martial arts, but as time went on, and social, political, economic and geographical environments changed this knowledge slowly degraded and fewer and fewer of these old skills survived intact. Today we are left with remnants of them passed down in different traditions, most notably Tai Chi, XingYi and Bagua, and clues left in the historical record.

That body of knowledge consisted of what is known today as the Internal skills of the martial arts. Most Chinese marital arts still contain some internal skills, what you might call “basic Jin”. We can tell that all martial arts descended from this skill set as you see the remains in today’s marital arts and you can still see clues everywhere, including the names of old martial arts like ‘Six harmony spear’ or ‘Six harmonies, eight methods’. This “six harmony” nomenclature refers to a way of moving the body in a connected fashion from the toes to the finger tips.

This way of moving existed in all martial arts once, and survived amongst a special few even into the modern age. For example, Morihei Ueshiba of Aikido had it, and he died in 1969. Some people have it today, to various degrees. Usually you find these people in the Chinese Internal arts, but there are glimpses of it everywhere, even in the Japanese maritial art of Judo.

If you’ve seen Olympic Judo matches you can see it’s an incredibly athletic sport that requires supreme physical conditioning and strength mixed with a high level of technique. But is today’s Judo really where the art originally started out?

There is an old kata in Judo called Gu No Kata, which consists of a number of movements performed with a partner. It’s pretty safe to say that these days the meaning of the movements has been lost, as it’s performed with raw physical stength, not what the Chinese would call Jin, but dig under the surface and you’ll find that it’s a series of Judo techniques which serve as internal strength testing exercises, linked together.

This article provides a description of Go No Kata.

And here’s what it looks like done in modern times:


It doesn’t look very “internal”, but watch this informative video by Mike Sigman in which he explains and demonstrates how the various postures of Go No Kata are done with Jin – i.e with strength from the ground through a relaxed (‘song’) body.

In Mike’s own words:

“The “tests” in Go-no-kata resolve into Up, Down, Back, Forward, and sideways. You need to develop your qi/frame and you need to work with jin forces until you’re comfortable with them because not only can you resist forces (they’re doing it for development purposes, not as a basic strategy for good Judo), but you can learn to take kuzushi using only the mind-directed forces of jin.

Here’s the video. It’s fairly short. If you haven’t played much with jin forces, it may not be obvious what is going on, so please try to meet up with someone that has some jin skills.”

Here are the different pictures he’s referring to:


Finally, watch this comparison video between Kanō Jigorō the founder of Judo and a modern practitioner, and ask yourself, what has been lost?