I thought I’d start a series of posts commenting on what I like about photos of famous masters of the past. I thought I’d start with this photo of Yang Cheng-Fu doing rollback from the Yang long form.
Yang Cheng-Fu comes in for a lot of criticism, mainly I think because of his weight. He was a big man, but I’ve always been impressed with how precise and delicate his postures seem to be. What I like most about this picture is that you can almost feel the heaviness and sinking in what he’s doing, yet at the same time there is the precise placing of his hands and feet.
Tai Chi is a paradox in that you are supposed to feel light yet also heavy. According to the Tai Chi Classics your head needs to feel like it is being pulled up “as if suspended from above”, and yet your body needs to also have the feeling of sinking, “Make the chi sink calmly” and “The abdomen relaxes, then the chi sinks into the bones.”
You can see both these qualities in Yang Cheng-Fu performing Rollback, head upright, light and nimble, yet also firm and heavy. With the placement of his hands you also get a sense of the yin and yang being distributed throughout his body. The back hand has the intent of pulling and the front hand has the intent of pushing. He is not “double weighted” – each hand is expressing a different energy. The weight on his feet is on the back leg – again, not in no man’s land in the middle, but clearly distinguished.
You also get a sense of calm. This is not a frantic and hurried performance. It’s slow and deliberate, like a great river rolling.
Jack Slack was the first person to draw my attention to the parallel between rioters storming government buildings that happened in China’s Boxer Rebellion around 1900, and the storming of the Capitol Building by Trump Supporters in 2021. Both involve a kind of “spirit possession”.
Of course, America, along with many European nations, was involved in the Boxer Rebellion:
“In 1898 the Yellow River burst its banks and destroyed the harvest in much of Northern China, but this misfortune was followed by an agonizing drought which dried out the land and hardened the dirt. As young men went hungry and without work, some Chinese noted the connection between the anger of nature and the construction of train tracks, telegraph lines and churches since the arrival of foreigners in the Qing Empire. Anti-foreign sentiment brought together groups of peasants practicing martial artists and calling themselves the Righteous Society of the Harmonious Fists—though the West came to know them as “The Boxers”. The Boxers attacked and murdered missionaries across the Empire and in the summer of 1900, Tianjin and Beijing were plunged into chaos as the Boxers received the blessing of Empress Dowager Cixi and the Imperial army. 400 foreigners and 3000 Chinese Christians endured a two month siege in Beijing’s legation quarter—a stone’s throw from the Imperial Palace but completely helpless. The Boxer Rebellion is a story about agriculture and diplomacy, magic and court intrigue, and it stands as both the last great event of the Victorian Era and the beginning of the end for the Qing Dynasty. ” – Jack Slack
Of course, I’d contest that the events that lead to the end of the Qing Dynasty had started much earlier, back in 1860s. It was these conflicts with foreign powers and internal rebellions which lead directly to the creation of Tai Chi Chuan, as we discussed on our History of Tai Chi podcast series. Yes, I’m sorry, the myth of a Taoist inventing Taijiquan after a dream about a snake and a crane, is just a fairytale. The real reason is much more pragmatic.
Jack has done an excellent podcast episode on the Boxer Rebellion, which he’s just released to the public, instead of being behind his Patreon paywall. If you want to find out more, have a listen:
“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.
In the video above amateur Chinese MMA fighter Xu Xiaodong is fighting Chen Yong, the self-proclaimed sixth-generation Tai Chi Master of the Wu lineage. It’s the latest in a long line of fights between Xu and people who claim to be martial arts ‘masters’.
If we analyse the 10 seconds of action we can see Chen takes a forward weighted stance with his hands up in a high guard. It leaves him completely imobile and open for a kick. Xu kicks him low, Chen drops his guard and that was all she wrote.
Presumably Chen thought that whatever he had been doing for the past few decades was good enough training to actually fight with. But whatever Chen has been practicing… it wasn’t fighting.
Some of my Chinese Martial Arts colleagues get really upset with these fights. They think the whole thing is set up to make Chinese marital arts look bad and promote the UFC, and I’m somehow complicit in a plot designed to bring the whole Chinese martial arts down. Or that Xu won’t fight anybody young and fit and only challenges old men. It’s classic conspiracy theory nonsense.
I find this attitude odd because, frankly the UFC doesn’t give a crap about any of this. And nobody is making these delusional ‘masters’ fight anybody – they’re doing it of their own free will and more often than not, they are the challengers in the fights, and put up all the money required to make them happen. They clearly think they are going to win with their martial skill despite a huge age gap or a gap in fighting experience.
There is a strong tradition of Chinese Kung Fu masters appearing in faked fights on Chinese TV and seeming to be all-powerful. It’s that delusion that Xu fighting against. Watch this:
A common thing I’ve hear is that nobody has heard of these ‘masters’ before. Again, that’s true, but there are a lot of delusional people in martial arts, so I don’t think that’s surprising. China is a big place. Perhaps it’s the use of the term “master” that gets bandied about so freely? In light of all these fights there has been a government move in China to ban the use of the word. Xu Xiaodong has been heavily persecuted – being forced to hide his face in clown makeup and have an insulting nickname in one fight. It didn’t stop him beating these ‘masters’.
But it’s not just Xu doing it. Here’s another video from a couple of years ago. In white pyjamas we have “The 47-year-old expert Zhu Chunping, who has been practising tai chi for decades” vs Yao Hantian “The 22-year-old Yao has been training kick-boxing for just six months”. Read the report in the South China Morning Post. From the 5 seconds of action in the video we can see Zhu takes up what looks like a version of the San Ti Shi stance from Xing Yi while Yao immediately starts moving, establishing range and holding his hands in a modern guard position. One right hand from Yao, which goes right down the middle of Zhu’s guard and he doesn’t react at all to, and it’s all over.
As for the attitude of trying to pretend these fights aren’t happening… I believe it’s some misguided implementation of Wu De – martial virtue. Why shouldn’t people watch these fights? If you engage in a bout with a ring, a judge, and cameras involved, that’s designed to be streamed or televised then clearly you are now in the entertainment industry. That’s what prize fighting is. If this was some sort of battle for honour or revenge it would all be played out in a dark alley somewhere and nobody would ever know about it.
I think the lessons these videos teach is so valuable that they’re worth posting. You need to keep it real (to some extent at least) if you want to teach “martial arts”. Even if that “real” is realising your limitations, and that you shouldn’t be fighting a 22 year old in a ring when you’re 47 and don’t have any fight experience.
Chinese martial arts are full of fantastic skills and valuable content, but if you spend all your time doing your “body method” training and no time doing fighting training, then don’t expect to be able to fight with it.
And let’s not keep hiding this stuff away – you don’t fix your problems by pretending they don’t exist.
Before the Internet, back in the early 90s, there were only a few books on the subject of Tai Chi in the West, so the authors of these books achieved a kind of fame and notoriety that wasn’t really proportional to their actual importance, or impact on the Tai Chi world. Or maybe their fame became proportional because of the books themselves, in a kind of self fulfilling prophecy. It’s hard to say.
Either way, one book title that always stuck in my mind was “Master Cheng’s New Method of Taichi Ch’uan Self-cultivation”.
This idea of “self cultivation” is kind of the main reason that people practice Tai Chi in the modern world. It’s kind of like exercise, but a little deeper, involving something a little more like meditation. This idea of using eastern spirituality to go on a personal odyssey, or journey into your self is sold to us all the time in the world of Tai Chi, Yoga and health or spiritual practices.
The fact is, it’s nonsense. I hate to break to to you, but individually, we are really not that deep. Scratch our surface and there’s really not that much to us. The idea of cultivating yourself is really a huge waste of time. Our depth lies in our relationships to other people, places and non-human animals. And to find our connection to the world, to the land, the first thing you need to do is get rid of this little self that you’ve been busy cultivating with your various yoga, tai chi and martial arts practices.
Just look at what the Zen or Tao masters of old wrote. They were telling us this constantly in their writings.
When you do something, you should burn yourself up completely, like a good bonfire, leaving no trace of yourself.
– Shunryu Suzuki
One must be deeply aware of the impermanence of the world.
The practice of Zen is forgetting the self in the act of uniting with something.
– Koun Yamada
Those were literally the first three quite in an article I just searched up called “25 Zen Quotes“.
I feel like I could quote any chapter of the Tao Te Ching too, but let’s go with chapter 3:
The Master leads by emptying people’s minds and filling their cores, by weakening their ambition and toughening their resolve. He helps people lose everything they know, everything they desire, and creates confusion in those who think that they know.
Practice not-doing, and everything will fall into place.
Bowman notes that instead of helping people, the myth busting of martial arts which is going on all the time in academic circles is probably destroying the careers of some martial arts teachers. So it’s “doing a service to the world which is actually also a kind of violence”. It’s an interesting point. He notes that people often fall in love with the martial arts for silly orientalist reasons – they fall for the myth of studying an ancient and mystical martial art, then read a well-researched book about it, by somebody like Ben Judkins or Peter Lorge, which shatters their beliefs and makes then doubt the validity of the art they are doing.
My own Heretics podcast does its fair share of myth busting too – our Aikido episode, Kempo & Jiujitsu history series and Tai Chi history series spring to mind as good examples. I’ve had first had experience of those episodes visibly upsetting teachers I know. Whether they know it or not, these teachers are heavily emotionally invested in the myths of their own arts superiority – they believe all the stories of old practitioners and the amazing feats they can do, and know exactly why their martial art is superior to others. If you start to chip away at those beliefs then the whole facade is at risk of crumbling, and they don’t like it! Unfortunately reality is usually disappointing when compared to the myths.
When the Chinese martial arts first started making an impact on the West in the 1970s they were full of obvious untruths. Tall tales of Buddhist and Taoist origins abounded. For example, that Tai Chi was apparently created by a Taoist immortal who had a dream about a crane fighting a snake, and Wing Chun was named after the girl who was taught it by a female Buddhist monk, when it turns out that there’s no evidence that she even existed. Over time these myths then get added to by other myths – like the one that Yang LuChan was “invincible”, for example. Even in the modern age the myth of Ip Man has been enhanced to bursting point by a series of pseudo-historical films in which he combats the Japanese, western wrestlers, boxers and even Mike Tyson at one point!
These more marketing-orientated myths about the prowess of practitioners – how deadly they were, how unbeatable their martial arts was, how the power of Qi was greater than physical strength all fed directly into all that nonsense about no touch knockouts and “empty force” that has marred the image of Chinese martial arts in the modern age.
And politics also gets involved. When obvious myths about the origins of martial arts are dispelled they often get replaced by more politically motivated stories about the arts origins that are equally as unprovable and unreliable yet fit a natioanlist agenda. It seems like the Chinese martial arts are forever being used to support some sort of Chinese government propaganda.
In short, the Chinese martial arts world was in need of, and remains in need of, a lot of myth busting, because much of what we are being told and sold is basically not true. But Bowman’s fears, that we are in danger of spoiling the fun for everybody with this relentless search for the truth, holds true, I think. I was certainly attracted to Chinese martial arts by a steady diet of orientalist propaganda from the likes of David Carradine’s Kung Fu TV series and Marvel comics with heroes like Iron Fist. This is often what draws us to the martial arts in the first place and there has to be some way of searching for truth in the martial arts, but keeping the magic that drew us there in the first place.
I had an interesting conversation with a reader recently about Tai Chi and butts, which I thought I’d share as it’s a good topic. A lot of Tai Chi people, me included, tend to stick out their bottom slightly during form and push hands. Maybe more so in push hands… either way, it’s a fault that inhibits relaxation.
I think in push hands it happens because people try to “brace” against the incoming force to stop themselves being pushed backwards, but by going for a short term solution they are inhibiting their progress in the long term.
Q: Do you have any experience of Chen style TCC? I’ve been to a few lessons. Seems like, in order to soften the kua sufficiently, you need to stick your backside out more than in Yang….?! Having spent a whole lifetime trying not to do this, it feels weird…..!
A: I’ve never really done Chen style, but I’ve looked into their silk reeling exercises quite a bit – just the simple one hand “wave” – I really like that and do it quite often.
I’ve seen some Chen stylists that stick their butt out a lot, but to be fair I’ve also seen a lot of Yang styists do the same. I think as part of an opening and closing movement it’s ok (like in Yoga, for example), but leaving it “stuck out” all the time can’t be right. Tai Chi requires you to move from the waist (or the dantien, if you like) and that encompasses both the front (belly), sides and back of the body around the waist line – the lower back is part of that. If you put your hands on your lower back then stick your butt out you can feel your muscles contract and tighten – having a tight lower back as your default means you can’t effectively “move from the dantien” so everything else you do, no matter how clever or artful looking, has to be wrong because the foundation is wrong.
When doing silk reeling exercises I try to keep my lower back relaxed and “hanging down” – that’s the right feel – so the movement can originate there. The form should be no different. I feel like the people who stick out their butt have simply missed an obvious problem with their Tai Chi.
I recently reviewed Mark Chen’s book “Chen SyleTaijiquan Collected Masterworks” which is a really good translation of Chen Zhaopi’s 1935 book on Taijiquan with additional translation notes from the author and appendices on Tai Chi matters. It’s a good book and he did a great job. That should be the end of it, but I’ve somehow got dragged into a side issue.
As part of my review I did notice that some included documents, called “Chen Chanxing’s Discussion of Taijiquan’s 10 main points”, that Chen Zhaopi attributes to his ancestor Chen Chanxing, were in fact the 10 Thesis of Yue Fei, but with the name “Taijiquan” unscrupulously inserted into them and Chen Chanxing attributed as author.
These documents are widely known as the “Xing Yi Classics” or “The 10 Thesis of Yue Fei” – and while nobody really thinks, or can prove, that Yue himself wrote them, they’ve always been associated with the martial art of Xing Yi/Xin Yi – there is simply no debate about this. I raised this issue in my review.
Mark has posted a response to this issue in my comments section, which I’ll address in full here:
“Thanks to Taichi Notebook for the review and thanks to Mike for his thoughtful comments. As a point of clarification, please note that I do not make the assertion that the “Ten Main Points” was written by Chen Changxing (though the version in the book was obviously written or adapted by a taijiquan partisan). My introductory remarks for chapter 3 say that it “may” have been written by Changxing, and in the preface I indicate that this attribution is used throughout the book for convenience. I further allege that the document “plausibly dates to Changxing’s lifetime,” and the argument for this is given in appendix C.
OK, he’s factually correct about this, (except for calling Mr Sigman’s comments “thoughtful” 😉 ) but he’s taken a position worthy of a modern politician, I feel. He’s simultaneously leaving enough room to wiggle out of saying Chen Chanxing wrote the 10 Main Points (dropping just one single “may” in the book, before making the assertion several times) while at the same time doubling down on the inference that it is true because the time period fits.
“Regarding Li Jianqiu’s claim (in his 1919 book) that it was written by Yue Fei: while it is certainly possible that the document was written by someone other than Changxing, it was written by Yue Fei only in the same sense that the “taiji classics” were written by Zhang Sanfeng; that is, it was not written by Yue Fei. First, its idiom clearly belongs to the nineteenth century (a fact that is easily discernible in the original Chinese). Second, it quotes from Ming dynasty sources. For example, the passage beginning, “can go, can accomplish, . . .” on page 31 of my book is lifted directly from Zhuge Liang’s delightful letter to Cao Zhen in chapter 100 of _Romance of the Three Kingdoms_ (as far as I know, the only instance of epistolary homicide in recorded history). Other similar references are noted in the book, and while they could theoretically have been taken from pre-Song historical texts (specifically, the _San Guo zhi_), this is not likely the case. General readers were unaware of the cited events until the publication of _Romance_ during the Ming dynasty, so the references would have been meaningless before that time. As another example, the expression _shen fa_ (“body technique”) is a term of art originating in Qi Jiguang’s “Quan jing”–again from the Ming dynasty and further evidence of a taijiquan connection.
First let’s deal with Mark’s strawman argument of Yue’s authorship. Nobody sensible these days is claiming that this is true, so let’s not get distracted. The way Mark draws a parallel between Chang San Feng and Yue Fei is interesting though.
I’ve heard this comparison between Chang San Feng and Yue Fei before. For sure, Yue Fei didn’t write the Xing Yi classics, but they certainly do embody his philosophy – which we know in detail because he was real. The Tai Chi classics have got nothing to do with Chang San Feng’s philosophy, especially because he never existed, whereas there is incontrovertible evidence that Yue Fei was a real, flesh and blood person.
The point about citations from Ming Dynasty works being supportive of a Tai Chi origin of the Xing Yi classics is very strange – maybe I read it wrong, but the postures mentioned in General Qi’s Ming Dynasty manual are in virtually everything – there are more variations on single whip in Baji than there are in Tai Chi, for example.
Richard Dawkins made the criticism that comparisons between imaginary details of imaginary things seem to be more important in religion than is the actual existence or otherwise of those things. It’s a really good observation, and I think 100% true when people start to defend the religion of Taijiquan.
But the real elephant in the room is the content of the 10 Main Points/10 Thesis. Theses are replete with Xing Yi terminology, but there is very little Tai Chi terminology. Mark himself notices this and remarks upon it in his book! I would offer a simpler explanation: Perhaps the reason why these writings are so untypical of Taijiquan is that… they’re not about Taijiquan?
And then there’s the long history of these writings being associated with Xing Yi both in a literary and oral tradition, which Mark completely ignores.
Here are just 3 examples of quotes from the 10 Thesis from the literary tradition on Xing Yi to establish my case:
And inside, in a preference written by Zheng Lianpu it states:
“In the summer of 1915, I returned south, and as I passed my hometown, people praised me as a prominent expert for making a study of the contents of Yue Fei’s boxing manual. Within it are nine chapters of essential principles and one chapter on fighting. Although the content of the writing is not without its flaws, the style of the writing is marvelous, powerful, and smooth, and as suits the work of Yue Fei, the theory is refined and thorough. It is certainly not the case that Yue Fei was unable to communicate. I say that equipped with this old Xingyi manual, you too will obtain such a level of clarity.”
3. Liu Dianchen’s Selected subtleties of Xingyi Boxing Art (1920)
This book from 1920 quotes freely from “The manual”, which is, of course, Yue Fei’s 10 Thesis.
E.g. “The Manual says: “The hand lifts like an arrow and drops like the wind, chasing the wind and pursuing the moon without letting up.” It also says this on the quickness of the hand techniques: “Attack where he is unprepared and appear where he does not expect. Do not fear his vigor and fierceness, for with but a move he is defeated.” “
This is from Thesis 9, the Thesis of Stepping.
“In view of these and related observations, it is nearly certain that “Ten Main Points” was written in the nineteenth century. If it did not originate in Chen Village, then the arguments in my book’s appendix C indicate that it was adopted there around or before the middle of that century. So we can further assert that if any borrowing occurred, it happened roughly during Changxing’s lifetime.
Finally, it’s worth noting that Mike’s comments are generally correct. As I explain at length in appendix B, many martial-arts things (particularly from the Central Plain) lack a tidy provenance, and “Ten Main Points” may well be an example of a document that was exchanged and adapted by many hands over time.”
Yes, I think that’s exactly what it is!
A version of it has possibly ended up in the Chen village at some point and been adapted. However, I think I’ve shown that the oral and literary provenance unequivocally connects it to the martial art of Xing Yi/Xin Yi explicitly, not Taijiquan. Mike’s argument (as I understand it) is that the 3 internal arts are all the same “stuff”, so what applies to one applies equally to all 3. I’d disagree. I’ve already posted about how this mashing together of history is just intellectually lazy. In reality, most Tai Chi people know very little about Xing Yi but they feel like they are authorities on it because they know the “main thing” in the internal arts, (according to them).
Like I said, Mark’s book is great – you should get it. He’s said his piece about my review, which is fair enough, but personally, I disagree. C’est la vie. I’ve little enthusiasm for getting into a long protracted debate over it with either Mark or Mr Sigman because I don’t know what else there is to say, so hopefully they’ll just let it be.
In our last look at Tai Chi for a while, we examine the context of the times in which Chen Zhaopei and Chen Fake became prominent for their martial arts in Beijing, and then at a national level, joining the wave of commerciality that had been originally instigated by the legacy of Yang Luchan and the Wu brothers. In addition we explain why the forms are similar in general order between the Yang/Wu and Chen lineages.
Here’s some Chen Canon Fist (mentioned in the podcast episode, posted here as a visual reference) – – under the Heretical Hypothesis this would be representative of the “original stuff” of the Chen village. Everybody is free to make their own mind up 🙂
Interesting comment from Mike Sigman on my blog. No, that’s not him in the picture, I just though it was a funny picture 🙂
….The real problem with a lot of these theories that basically denigrate the Chen-style Taijiquan as being “only an offshoot of something else” or “it’s really a Shaolin art” is that none of the westerners engaged in those musings have any minor skills in how to move the body in the way that the Chen-style Taijiquan does. It really doesn’t matter that “Chen-style has umpteen of the same techniques/moves shown in the XYZ style of martial-art” … the essence of the Chen-style Taijiquan is in how the body moves, using jin, qi, dantian, and silk-reeling.
So, if you listen to our Heretical Hypothesis, I think you’ll find that although we’re challenging the usual narrative of the origins of Taijiquan, we’re not really denigrating Chen martial arts, calling it an offshoot of something else, or “Shaolin” (as if that’s so bad). In contrast I think it’s actually quite positive about what it really is. It’s the brand name “Taijiquan” that is looking less authentic, not Chen village martial arts.
Chen village has a long history of marital prowess. If we’re talking around the time period we’ve got up to in the podcasts (- around 1900) – then at this point I’d say Chen village style is a genuine badass martial art – it’s practitioners are bodyguards, militia fighters and people with the name Chen are tracking down and fighting “bandits” (Or “freedom fighters” – as usual, it often depends which side of history you are looking at them from) for the Ching as ‘guns for hire’. In contrast, the “Taijiquan” passed down from Yang in Beijing is a kind of court-sanctioned entertainment. Sure, Yang had genuine skills but it’s much of a domesticated experience compared to the “in the wild and doing it” Chens.
From my point of view that’s not denigrating it at all, it’s lifting it up. Around 1900 you’ve got people like Chen Yanxi being employed full time as a martial arts teacher in Shandong by General Yuan Shikai because of his reputation as a badass fighter.