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).
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:
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:
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:
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.