So, as a kind of counterpoint to my previous post questioning whether all Chinese martial arts come from military methods, I’d like to focus on one that definitely does – Xing Yi. Although, this really just emphasises my previous point because Xing Yi looks very different to most other Chinese martial arts and the reason it looks different is because it comes from weapons-based military methods and is therefore more concerened with military engagements than civilian. As our podcast series is showing, there is a verifiable historical connection between Xing Yi and soldiers – for example, the oldest historically verifiable practitioner linked to Xing Yi – Ji Long Feng, was a real life soldier in the Ming Dynasty army.
But the real reason you can tell Xing Yi descends from military methods is that you can simply look at it. The arms and legs are generally close together and close to the body, the posture is narrow and the direction of techniques is straight in front of you. Everything is done within the profile of the body. There are two main reasons for this 1) you were wearing armor and had to accommodate for the weight of it, and 2) you were using weapons, which were probably quite heavy, since they had to penetrate armor.
The Xing Yi we have today is what military arts would look like if you did them without wearing armor and using hand techniques instead of weapons. Of course, many people still do Xing Yi with a spear, but it’s rare to see anybody wearing armor doing it these days, which I think leads people to get the wrong idea about it.
Take a look at this video of my friend Byron Jacobs from Beijing doing Xing Yi Zuan Quan (Drilling fist). Look how tight everything is to the body and how the hands are kept within the profile of the body:
Here’s an example:
All this leads me to this excellent new video by Karate Nerd, Jessie Enkamp called “I trained like a Samurai for a day”. Here he gets Dr. Kacem Zoughari, a Japanese martial arts expert to take him around the Samurai Museum Berlin. It’s pretty interesting then half way through, it gets super interesting because he gets to wear old Samurai armor and have a go with a few authentic weapons. Now this is really valuable because he tries to do Karate movements in the armor and very quickly realises that it’s completely inefficient and exposes all the vital parts of the body to strikes from the opponent. The expert, Dr. Kacem Zoughari, gets him to change his movements so that everything happens within the profile of the body and makes him use the footwork, momentum and body to power the arm movements. The strikes become hidden, and tight to the body rather than telegraphed and open… and bingo! It starts to look just like Xing Yi! He suggests a cross step at one point and it looks a lot like Xing Yi Dragon step. The strikes he has to do start to look like parts of the 5 Elements – Pi, Beng, Tzuan.
Take a look:
Now you may be thinking Japanese armor isn’t the same as Chinese armor and therefore none of this is relevant, but you would be wrong. That armor at the top of this post is not Samurai armor, (although I bet if you took the average person off the street and asked them what it was they would think it was Samurai armor). It’s based on Chinese armor from the Song Dynasty. This would have been officer armor, not what your average soldier was wearing, but the same principles would apply – you want your movements to protect your vulnerable areas – the neck and joints in particular.
Xing Yi is based on these principles – minimal movement, a tight profile, using the body, momentum and the step to power the arms, strikes based on timing rather than speed, etc. And that’s why it looks so different to something like Karate or Norther Shaolin or Long Fist, etc.
I’ve always been curious about the postures in martial arts forms where both feet are together, because these postures don’t look very martial at all. In fact, it’s hard to imagine why you would want to use a stance like that in a fight, and yet we find them in a lot of Tai Chi forms:
It seems to be mainly Taiji lineages that have some influence from Sun Lu Tang that do this the most. A lot of people attribute the distinctive ‘feet together’ postures he used to his prior training in Xing Yi, and there could be some truth to this. Xing Yi does have ‘feet together’ postures quite a lot.
Of course, the root of Xing Yi is spear fighting, but the modern interpretation of the art is heavily biased towards bare hand training, and this creates a misleading impression. Think about it – if you were at at least one spear length away from your opponent the risk of being tackled to the ground because your feet are together would be greatly reduced. You’re now free to use the power generation advantages that can be gained by letting both feet come together, which is handy when you are holding a heavy object, like a spear.
If you watch this excellent video of Xing Yi spear technique by Byron Jacobs you’ll see that he doesn’t hang out with his feet together all the time, but occasionally he uses the feet together moments for power generation (and of course, also standing on one leg for range advantage and manoeuvrability in a way that makes sense with weapons).
In Xing Yi the most famous example of the ‘feet together’ posture is the Half-Step Beng Quan. Here the back foot stepping up to meet the front foot in place creates a powerful closing action of the body, kind of like a door slamming.
So, is this the origin of ‘feet together’ postures in Taiji forms? Quite possibly. However, there is one more thing to consider. After first learning Xing Yi, Sun Lu Tang learned his Taiji from Hao Weizhen 1849–1920, who learned from Li Yiyu 1832–1892, who learned from one of the Wu brothers, Wu Yuxiang 1812–1880 who had learned directly from Yang Luchan 1799–1872 and also sought out Chen Qingping 1795–1868 who he learned from in Zhaoboa village.
It’s often thought that the distinctive stepping seen in Sun style Taiji, where the back foot is often lifted and brought up close to the front foot, is a consequence of Sun’s prior Xing Yi training. This makes sense as part of the narrative created as part of the Sun Style Taiji brand, which is that he incorporated his earlier Xing Yi and Bagua training into his Taiji style. However, if you look at the Wu (Hou) style he learned, it already had this distinctive stepping in it.
I think you can see that influence extending into Sun Lu Tang’s Taiji, which makes sense since he learned from this lineage.
Finally, I should note that thought this post I don’t want to create the impression that all the steps in either Xing Yi or Taiji performed by Sun Lu Tang are small or restricted. He also had plenty of wider postures in his arts too, for example.
However, compare it to postures found in other styles of Taiji whose practitioners didn’t have to wear court dress:
I listened to a rather interesting comment in a podcast recently from a Tai Chi practitioner who preferred to do weapons forms rather than hand forms because “Tai Chi is really a battlefield art” and the postures in the hand form are clearly derived from holding weapons, and it was therefore more authentic to practice the weapons forms. The implication is also that the hand forms were retrofitted onto the art, while the weapons forms are the true origin.
There’s some truth in this idea depending on which art you art talking about, of course. Xing Yi for example – there’s no doubt that the weapons forms came first. Doing a Beng Chuan (a straight punch to the belly or chest area) barehand, as presented in the classical 5 Elements form, leaves a lot of questions unanswered – why is your head not protected as you punch forward, for example? Why is your other hand pulled back at your hip where it’s not doing much of anything? What stops them punching you in the face?
As a barehand method, it’s clearly sub-optimal. Put a spear in your hand, and even better, wear armour, and it starts to make a lot more sense though. The hand withdrawing to your hip is pulling the spear back after a thrust, for example.
But if we’re talking about the long, elaborate weapons forms found in Tai Chi, done usually in silk pyjamas, then you’ve got to ask yourself – what good is all that dancing about if your goal is martial effectiveness on the battlefield? Do you think Chinese soldiers, village militia or bodyguards with spears or Guan Dao did this kind of practice? I don’t think they did. Or maybe they did for demonstrations at the many and frequent festivals in old imperial China in the Qing Dynasty, but what use is all that on a battlefield?
While using a spear, for example, might be connecting your art back to an earlier time and usage, I’m not sure that your 180-move spear form, with jumps, twirls and spins is any more “authentic” than a modern day hand form.
It’s very easy to fool yourself in Chinese martial arts. Stay sharp!
“Haft” here refers to the bit of the spear that you hold, but the same thing applies to holding a sword by the handle.
Later on in the classic it expands on what using Qi in the haft grip means:
“When the haft is gripped, this grip is done with the whole body; when one thing extends the whole body extends. The key to extending is to gain extension in the entrance; the key to the grip is to gain the grip from the root, as if coiling explosively. The coiling should become tight, like the power that exists in the bow at full draw.”
I really like this description as it gets across the feeling that needs to develop with the sword or spear as you use it day in, day out. So when it says “the coiling should become tight” I think it means over time. When you grip, it becomes like your whole body gripping the weapon, and if you want to move the weapon you have to move your whole body in a coiling manner. In fact, the best way to manipulate a weapon with your whole body is using reeling – spiral actions that move inwards and outwards. Our bodies are built for spiral movements.
It’s also worth noting that the coiling is not done slowly, but explosively, although I’d suggest starting to find these coiling movements slowly and without using force first. If you want a simple exercise for developing coiling movements, then I’ve got one of those as well.
The other thing I wanted to mention before I go was the use of the word “boxing” here. Boxing would imply empty hand martial arts, but it instantly goes on to talk about a “haft grip”, which implies weapons. Of course, “fist” “boxing” and “martial art” are all implied by “Quan”, so it’s all open to interpretation.
Either way, it’s long been said that Xing Yi is a spear fighting art that is done mainly bare hand. The frequent references to weapons in its classics would seem to confirm this theory.
I got into a discussion about Bengquan, one of the 5 fists of Xingyiquan, a Chinese martial art I’ve written about before, recently, which prompted me to consider what really made a Bengquan different to a regular straight punch that you’d find in any number of other martial arts. I thought I’d just jot down a few of my ideas about it, because that forces me to organise my thoughts, but it has turned into quite a long post. So, apologies for that, but I’m going to post it anyway 😉
Xingyi is the oldest of the 3 big internal martial arts of China. Because it is so old and has gone through the hands of so many different practitioners and been secreted into several different secretive families, who often don’t teach outsiders, there are various different ways of doing Xingyi/Xinyi these days. They all employ different exercises and can look pretty different to each other, so it’s hard to talk generally about XingYi without somebody disagreeing with you. Still, all the different branches of the art remain one family, and you can talk about the art in general to some extent while still making sense. Which is what I’m going to attempt to do.
One thing to note is that historically Xingyi was developed as a barehand adaptation of military spear fighting methods. Ji Jike, (died 1662) also known as Ji Long Feng “God of spear”, was the oldest historically record practitioner. He was a soldier for the Ming Dynasty who found himself on the losing side and had to hand over his weapons and adapt to civilian life. He kept practicing his spear skill but adapted it for barehand work.
These days Xingyiquan is famous for having 5 fists. Each of these is a different kind of strike. Bengquan, “Crushing fist”, is one of the most famous of these fists. It’s representative of the Wood element, and consists of a very direct, forward strike, usually kept low, to the solar plexus or abdomen.
Xingyiquan has been featured in a few movies recently, and it’s its Bengquan that always gets the glory so you can consider it a kind of representative technique for the whole art.
In this scene from The Grandmaster a Xingyi master runs through the 5 fists, ending with Bengquan, then proceeds to fight Wing Chun master Yip Man, who is quite impressed with the Bengquan fist.
In the clip he then goes on to fight a second master who is doing a Shaolin art (my guess would be that it’s meant to represent Hung Gar) – it’s interesting to contrast the two styles (something I will be doing below).
What I would consider a good example of Bengquan outside of movies is this XingYi performer Yang Hai, originally from China, but now living and teaching in Canada:
I think most people I know who do XingYi, regardless of their particular style, would regard this performance “good”.
So, the question I want to answer here is what makes what he’s doing a Bengquan as opposed to a regular straight punch? In short, if you were just to punch forward in a straight line, with your body weight behind it, would it be a Bengquan?
Unsurprisingly, my answer is “no”, so let me explain.
Starting at the top of the body and working down, the first thing to look at is the arm movements. One arm is retracting in Bengquan as the other punches – that action utilises the whole body in a very relaxed way because it makes the spine rotate. Nothing is stiff. The arms are working together in harmony, the spine is rotating and the hips are also moving around it.
One hand coming back to the hip as the other strikes is also a feature of the Reverse Punch in Karate. So how is this different? Notice that in Bengquan the two fists cross over the top of each other, rather than being unconnected, and on different sides of the body. (Does the similarity point to a common ancestor? Possibly, back in the mists of time… it’s hard to say).
On a deeper level, the whole action of Bengquan is formed by the opening and closing of the body to move the arms. The section where the hands end up just in front of the body (meeting in the middle) is the ‘close’ part, the section where one hand punches out and the other retracts to the hip is the ‘open’ part. (A half-step Bengquan is where you punch on the close section as well).
The concept of opening and closing goes a bit outside the scope of this article, and involves the dantien usage and back bow, amongst other things, but I’ve talked about it before. You find this opening and closing action in Taijiquan, Baugazhang and other Chinese martial arts.
The question of why the arm retreats all the way to the hip in bengquan is also a good one. It doesn’t initially seem like something that particularly practical to do in a barehand combat situation. (Note different styles of Xingyi retract the arm to different degrees, too). However, I believe it’s there for a couple of reasons. Firstly, considering the spear origins of the art, the hip it’s a natural place to hold the butt of the spear, and where it naturally ends up when you retract after a spear thrust. Secondly, bringing the hand all the way back (an exaggerated movement) helps with the feeling of opening and closing. If you can do it big, then you can (over time) learn to do it small.
Note that if you are doing a Bengquan with a spear in your hands then your other hand cannot retract to the hip while thrusting with the spear (since you are holding the spear with two hands), but apart from this the action is identical to the barehand method. But after the thrust, you’d retract the spear back, so the hand was back at the hip again. So, doing Bengquan with a spear (correctly called Beng Qiang) is repeating the action on one side of the body over and over (until you swap sides), while doing it barehand, you are alternating sides of the body with each punch. Like this:
The next thing I’d look at is the footwork. in Bengquan you step as you punch. You don’t land your feet, then punch, or punch without stepping. The step is an integral part of the movement. It’s part of the opening and closing of the body and part of the technique. In Xingyi your feet should always be moving.
Notice that his back foot stays connected to the floor for a comparatively long time for a stepping-in punch. He’s keeping that ground connection for a long, long time. His body and head are generally kept quite upright – he’s not lunging forward. All this is down to the type of footwork that XingYi uses, where the feet are kept under the body on a comparatively small base, as opposed to a wider stand where you have a longer base.
I believe that part of the purpose of this footwork is to aid a key feature that makes a Bengquan different to a regular straight punch – that is its ability to penetrate deeply into the target.
If you track the path of the fist in this example, it is on a slightly upward but mainly forward trajectory, like an arrow being shot from a bow. It goes right through the target in a straight line. It should be doing damage to anything it contacts on its trajectory, just like an arrow would, not aimed to land at a particular spot.
This feature marks Bengquan out as being different to a lot of punching methods that aim to land in one particular place in time and space. If you look at the path of a typical punch that is ‘swung’ at a target it is mainly swinging in an arc. So you’re timing it to land on the target as you drop your weight forward onto your front leg. That produces power, sure, but I wouldn’t call that a Bengquan as it’s not going through the target like you see in the Bengquan example above. Even if the force then goes through the pad or target, the punch itself doesn’t. To me a typical punch is about “landing on the target with your weight”, like a sledgehammer hitting something. Yes, that hurts and it’s effective, but it’s not what you should be doing in Bengquan. Done correctly it should displace a pad holder significantly. This is much easier to train on a person than a pad holder to be fair, as the contact of the fist on a pad is not the same as the contact of a fist on a body – the body is softer and crumples more as you impact, making it easier to get the right feel.
A key to look for in Xingyiquan, when its applied under pressure, is that the footwork doesn’t devolve into other methods, like say, falling into a long riding horse stance to help make up ground.
Xingyi is a collection of particular body methods (Shenfa)- once you start to lose one of them, the whole thing unravels, and you have… something else.