The importance of the Dragon to Xing Yi

black dragon roof ornament

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The Dragon is unique amongst Xing Yi animals because it is the only mythical one. Yes, I’m aware that some lineages of Xing Yi include a Phoenix as one of their 12 animals, but I think this is simply a mistranslation of Tai, a kind of flycatcher bird native to China. You sometimes also see it mistranslated as Ostrich, which is even stranger. You occasionally see Tuo translated as “water lizard”, or “water strider”, but it’s clearly a crocodile, another animal that is (or effectively was) native to China.

The question of why Xing Yi, whose animal methods are based on real, observable native animals, should include a Dragon we’ll leave until the end of this post, but for now, let’s look at its characteristics.

Dragon in San Ti Shi

The Dragon is one of the important animals in Xing Yi Quan because, together with Bear Shoulders, Eagle Claw, Chicken Leg, Tiger Embrace and Thunder sound, Dragon Body forms the famous San Ti Shi posture, (different lineages have slight variations on those, but they’re fundamentally the same).

san ti

San Ti Shi demonstrated by master Zhu Guang, credit Hsing Yi Leeds

Dragons in Chinese mythology have very flexible spines – they fall and rise through clouds with a long, flexible body that coils and rotates, twists and turns. You often seem them decorating Asian temple roofs, or spiralling around a pillar:

yellow and green temple

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It’s the flexible nature of the spine that is the characteristic we seek to emulate in Xing Yi Quan. In Xing Yi the spine is characterised by a coiling action, a counter-rotation between hips and shoulders, that means the practitioner can easily generate power, or, always has the potential for generating power from all positions.

The typical Dragon Shape example you see demonstrated looks something like this one:

zhu

Dragon, demonstrated by master Zhu Guang, credit Hsing Yi Leeds

 

Notice how his posture is placing a lot of torque on the spine, and creating potential energy. The right shoulder pushes back, but the right hip pushes forward. That is what is meant by “dragon body” in our style.

(And just to counter some things I’ve read a few times: It is not about creating a ‘spinal wave’ that moves vertically up the spine – that’s not how spines are designed to express power in human beings if longevity is one of your goals. Force (jin) itself can move up the spine to the hands, but there’s no actual physical ripple or wave that should move up your spine, like a whip cracking. I have seen some styles of Chinese martial arts that do this – they crack their spines like a whip. Good luck with that when you’re 70 I’d say, but each to their own.)

Xing Yi and Xin Yi Liu He Dragon comparison

A question came up recently (which inspired this post) about how Dragon in Xing Yi can possibly be the same as Dragon in its sister art Xin Yi Liu He, since they look different.

My first response to that is, of course, they are the same. Not identical in outward expression, but the same root.

These two arts developed in different geographic locations, but they share a common root. Take monkeys as an example: In biological terms, all modern-day monkeys look different, but they share a common ancestor. You can tell they are related. While their colourings, their sizes and their behaviours may have evolved along different lines, they’re still belong to the same species. It’s the same with Xing Yi dragon and Xin Yi Liu He dragon.

One phrase my Xing Yi teacher liked was “one root, 10,000 endings”, so there can be infinite variations on a dragon posture, or sequence, but the root, the essence of what is being expressed, is the same.

Every lineage of Xing Yi has its own slight variation, but in Hebei Xing Yi you usually see Dragon expressed in that rising and falling squatting posture shown above.

Here’s a video of Mike Patterson showing some applications:

This is the posture that is not found in Xin Yi Liu He? Really?

First, I’d dispute that. Here are two videos I found quickly online that are very similar to the standard Hebei Xing Yi version. This one looks like a prototype for the standard Hebei move, ending in a similar squat:

 

And then there’s this one called “Dragon wags tail” from http://www.xinyiliuhe.net , which has a different stance, but the movement is virtually identical:

 

Perhaps the confusion happens because the most common “dragon” movement you see in Xin Yi Liu He is this one (that you see translated as variations of “dragon shakes its shoulders” or “dragon shoulder” or “dragon carries the shoulder pole”.)

It’s one of the “3 old steps”. I like that name. Again, it implies that the dragon is a fundamental quality to the art, which is what we say in Xing Yi. I’m speculating here, but perhaps in Xing Yi’s San Ti Shi we see the bringing together of these “old steps” into a single posture that is held and practiced without movement, but with the same internal feeling?

If you look at what is being practiced in the Xin Yi steps above you see the same qualities of dragon that we look for in Xing Yi – the flexible, rotating spine. On the inside, it’s the same thing. Also notice that his arms are being held in a way that resembles wings, like dragon wings?

Let’s look at some more dragon movements you find in other lines of Xing Yi beyond the usual rise/fall squat movement you see:

This is Zhang Xi Gui is the director of the Shan Xi Xing Yi Research School. Notice the same ‘wing’ shape to his arms?

Notice the different flavours of the dragon are there – the strategic leg placement to set traps and trip, the coiling body motion and the ‘wings’ and ‘claws’ feel in the arms.

It’s already clear there is more to the ‘dragon’ than just a single move. I’m trying to get to the point where I can convince you that dragon is a quality, not a move, that can be expressed in various different ways.

Dragon principles in Xin Yi Liu He

In terms of Dragon principles being expressed in Xin Yi Liu He the best video I’ve found is this one below.

Dragon is expressed all through this video and the teacher really goes into detail about the body actions. And again, it all matches with Xing Yi – the rotation of the spine, the actions of the hips and shoulders to create power that I talked about earlier.

I really like this video (despite whatever that young German man is doing to that tree 🙂 )

 

I hope that’s been enough to get you thinking. We need to stop thinking about Xing Yi animals as ‘this move’ or ‘that move’. It does this massive, practical, ancient and subtle art a huge disservice.

And going back to what I mentioned earlier – the other reason for the dragon being the only mythical creature in Xing Yi/Xin Yi’s animal styles?

Well, the dragon is the emblem of Yue Fei’s family and he is often illustrated with a dragon emblem on his robe:

yue fei

Qing dynasty illustration of Yue Fei By Unknown author – 清宫殿藏画本. 北京: 故宫博物馆出版社. 1994., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=57090030

Was Yue Fei practicing what we call “Xing Yi” today in his back yard? Of course not, but the ideas that underpin it? Then yes, he was. His army used these strategies very successfully in battles against the Jin army, but for (much) more of that story, see my podcast.

What makes Xingyi’s Bengquan different to a normal straight punch?

 

human fist

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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:

giphy

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.

giphy1

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Xin Yi Squatting monkey basics

Xin Yi (also called Xin Yi Quan) is the oldest of the ‘internal’ martial arts, and possibly something of a precursor to Taijiquan. It was certainly the precursor to XingYi Quan.

There are numerous different regional and family styles of Xin Yi. The basic exercise used to develop the body in the Dai family version of Xin Yi is known as Squatting Monkey. Here Xin Yi practitioner Steve Chan goes through the basics of the exercise. It’s a fascinating look into the fundamentals of ‘internal’ movement.