Make Xing Yi wild again

animal animal photography avian beak

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Rewilding is an environmental process that brings nature back to life and restores living systems. Apex predators and keystone species are reintroduced and we let nature reclaim parts of the landscape, without human intervention.

The coronavirus pandemic has lead to a kind of enforced rewinding of the urban world. As the human race retreats indoors for the next few months it’s a chance for nature to reclaim parts of cities. As tourists left corona-stricken Venice, swans, fish and even dolphins returned to the canals. In England, the constant background hum of traffic is dimmed as people stay at home. As I stand in my back garden and look up at the last of the blossom on my cherry tree I can see more birds flitting about in its branches than normal. I can hear more bird song than usual.

One of my favourite martial arts, Xing Yi, was once a wild and untamed martial art, but over time it has become a rather domesticated and pale version of its former self. Human ideas have come to dominate in Xing Yi, where once nature was its real inspiration. But now Xing Yi can no longer be practiced freely with other people maybe we should take this time to do the same thing with it and other martial arts — rewild them and return them to the source.

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Our hook into the natural world

After trees and fields, our next point of entry into the natural world is usually from seeing wild animals. Even in cities, animals are all around us, but we rarely pay much attention to them. Foxes roam our streets at night, magpies land on our rooftops and birds of prey can even hunt in our gardens. In the past animals provided inspiration for many martial arts. Xing Yi, with its various animal ‘shapes’, in particular, was one of them. Unlike humans, wild animals aren’t separated from nature by civilisation. Even our pets can unexpectdly reveal their wild side on occasion.

Unusually, I was first introduced to Xing Yi Animals as part of my Tai Chi training. My teacher’s teacher had learned Xing Yi, along with various other martial arts in Hong Kong, before moving to the UK in the 1970s, but rather than teach the whole art to his UK students he used the 12 Animals as coat hangers for techniques which suited their individual body types and attributes. The main arts he taught my teacher were Tai Chi Chuan, Northern Shaolin and Buk Sing Choy Lee Fut, but to help his students become more effective in sparring he saw a lot of value in using the Xing Yi animal strategies. So, for example, one student who was good at straight punches would be given Horse to work with in sparring, and another, who was more stocky and good at rounded punches and kicks would be given Bear.  Learning in this way was very individual. You were given some sample movements, and it was then up to you to build from there by adding in other techniques that you found worked well in combination.

My own teacher also used the Xing Yi animals in the same way and from this little dip into the art my curiosity for Xing Yi was piqued and I became hungry to learn more. My search for Xing Yi-proper lead me to eventually meet an actual teacher of the full art, who was kind enough to take me on as a student. And while his techniques had more variety and specialisation, and the body methods looked more distinctively “Xing Yi”, (they required a good grounding in the 5 Element fists first, and were quite different to Tai Chi Chuan) I was pleased to see that his overall approach to the animals was roughly the same. After first learning a set sequence, he would then introducing variations to help you get the flavour of the animal through free experimentation. He encouraged you to actually observe the animal in question. Rather than being prescribed an animal to work with, his students tended to naturally gravitate towards one animal or two; the ones that suited their personalities and abilities.

Xing Yi Snake

The author practicing Xing Yi Snake with Glen Board, author of Xing Yi – A study of Tai and Tuo Xing . Photo by Emma Heeney (c) 2020 Somerset Valley Publishing

A proficient Xing Yi practitioner however, he taught me, should always be able to switch between animals freely, as required by the situation. Tiger, for instance, is good at entering from a distance while striking heavily on the opponent. Bear, for example, is good at close infighting and Snake is good at close quarter grappling. Moving between all three in an encounter may take only a few seconds.

Ultimately, the goal for a Xing Yi student is to get good at all 12, rather than just one or two, then leave them behind entirely and just practice “Xing Yi” itself. Of course, this training progression assumes you have hours of free time to practice, since this was the traditional way. The reality of adapting Xing Yi to our busy, modern lives is somewhat at odds with this expectation, so I found that focussing on an animal or two that suited me personally was perhaps a better use of my limited time. Bear-Eagle, Chicken and Monkey were my favourites.

Rewilding Xing Yi

In modern times, Xing Yi animals have taken something of a back seat to the 5 element fists, or set linking forms. Rather than expansive fighting strategies derived from nature they have become somewhat domesticated, reduced and institutionalised. Really, each animal should be practiced like a mini martial art in itself, yet it is often shrunk down to a single move repeated over and over.

Rewinding Xing Yi would involve putting the focus back on the 12 animals and expanding them. And that’s starts with research.

We live in a time when it’s possible to view Xing Yi from all over the world on your laptop at home. Between all the different lineages of Xing Yi there is enough animal content preserved to fully flesh out the characters of each animal. If we start to look at as many variations of them as we can possibly find between both Xin Yi and Xing Yi, we can build up a bigger picture of what a Xing Yi animal represents.

Even better, find another Xing Yi practitioner and share your animal methods.

Xing Yi Chicken

The author practicing Xing Yi Chicken. Photo by Emma Heeney (c) 2020 Somerset Valley Publishing

And let’s not forget that we can still do with a lot of the Xing Yi animals what the founders of the Li tradition of the Song Dynasty tried to do, which is to get back to nature through direct observation. Amongst the 12 animals, there are several which it’s possible to observe directly yourself in the countryside and woodlands of the United Kingdom. For instance, chickens can be found in farmyards. Horses can be found in fields, and swallows still perform their aerial acrobatics in our skys. While there are a goshawks living in Wales and Scotland, Sparrow hawks are common throughout Brtain, and you can at least find birds of prey on display at many centres throughout the UK.

The other way we can rewild our practice is to change where we practice. My teacher always taught outside, in nature, because that was the way he learned in China. It didn’t matter what the weather was like, if he said he was going to be there, he was there. In fact, if you turned up to practice in a snow or rainstorm he’d be happier and teach you something especially good! Experiencing the weather directly is one way to get closer to nature. You can only learn to take the environment into account in your practice if you have to deal with it on a regular basis. Practicing at night under the night sky where you can see the stars is another great way of turning your head back to nature. Stop practicing indoors. Training in village halls is fine, but that perfectly flat wooden floor is making life too easy for you. Get outside and feel the wind on your face, it will do you good.

brown and white eagle

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I’m not suggesting that we abandon the fundamental principles of Xing Yi and adopt a delusional approach to practice, where our only judge of what’s correct is our own opinion. Animals living wild in nature don’t have the luxury of opinions. Their methods of hunting for prey or defending against predators either work, or they starve or get eaten.

The principles of Xing Yi are not derived from old sayings or old books. They’re derived directly from nature.

We’ve been ignoring nature for a long time now. As the coronavirus sweeps the world an old, uninvited guest has returned to the table. To quote the excellent poem, Sometimes a Wild God, by Tom Hirons,

Sometimes a wild god comes to the table.
He is awkward and does not know the ways
Of porcelain, of fork and mustard and silver.
His voice makes vinegar from wine.

When the wild god arrives at the door,
You will probably fear him.
He reminds you of something dark
That you might have dreamt,
Or the secret you do not wish to be shared.

We can fear this guest, or we can embrace him.

Let’s let nature be our teacher once more.

Let’s make Xing Yi wild again.

woman walking on a log in the forest

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Staying rounded in Taijiquan

My Xing Yi teacher invented the word “chalicity” as an English equivalent of the Mongol phrase “Bak Tam Stay Saub”, which means (very roughly) “a bit like a capacious container”. So, chalicity means, “a bit like a chalice.”

A chalice, or a cup, is a rounded structure designed to contain a fluid with no leaks, and has parallels for both the mental aspect and physical aspect of a posture in the internal arts.

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Photo by Jametlene Reskp on Unsplash

In the context of his shamanism practice, chalicity is more about the mental parallel – the space inside the cup reflecting the space inside a mind that is empty of thought.

However, in the context of Taijiquan and martial arts, you can think of ‘chalice-like’ as the physical structure of the body creating the space necessary to contain “Peng” energy, that is, the ground force used in internal arts expressed through a rounded structure.

Think of Peng energy as being the fluid inside the cup and your body as being the structure of the cup. Or you can think of it as the air inside a rubber ball. If you keep your body rounded, it holds the Peng energy nicely. If you don’t, it leaks out.

The posture requirements of Taijiquan

All the posture requirements of Taijiquan create a rounded structure for the body. Here are some:

1. Head suspended from above

2. Elbows drooped.

3. Chest sheltered / back lifted

4. Shoulders rounded.

5. Chi sunk to the dantien.

6. Kua rounded

7. Knees bent.

These requirements create the structure for your ‘chalice’ within which you can hold the Peng force.

These days all internal martial arts make use of Zhan Zhuang, “standing like a tree” standing postures, which the practitioner is required to hold for extended periods, work the same way. They all maintain this same Peng shape, with gently rounded limbs and upright spines.

adult and cub tiger on snowfield near bare trees

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Xing Yi Quan uses the San Ti Shi standing posture which has 6 requirements, two of which are bear shoulders and tiger embrace. Together these two requirements mean your torso and arms take up the same chalice-like posture. You maintain the Peng shape. It’s all the same idea.

Maintaining structure while moving.

Structure isn’t something that’s meant to be achieved only in a static posture. Part of what you’re training when you perform a Tai Chi form, for example, is the ability to keep this Peng shape as you move.

If you keep the requirements you can maintain Peng. If you break the requirements then your Peng force will leak out of your body, just as water would leak from a cup with a hole in.

So, if you start to drop your head or stiffen the neck, for example, or straighten your legs or raise your elbows, you lose the natural power of the body working together all powered from the ground, and you have to start muscling it to compensate in your techniques.

So, to work in internal arts, all the techniques need to be expressed within the framework of this structure, and some techniques in martial arts just aren’t suited to maintaining this Peng structure.

Take for example, a side kick.

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Photo by Jason Briscoe on Unsplash

There’s nothing wrong with a side kick, but you physically can’t keep the body ‘rounded’ while performing a side kick to the opponent’s chest because of the angle you need to open your hip to. Just look at the photo.

I think that’s one reason why you don’t often see the a side kick in most Tai Chi forms or in fact in Xing Yi or Bagua. The kicks you do see in the internal arts tend to not take the hip out of alignment with the rest of the body.

Does that mean you can never do a side kick again? Of course not, but generally, you need to keep your rounded structure at all times when practicing internal arts, that way you keep your Peng energy rounded and the true power of the internal martial arts can be expressed.

History of Xing Yi parts 7 and 8 – Armour, weapons, and their influence on Xing Yi

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Jurchen Jin Cavalry. Illustrations of Auspicious Omens [Public domain]

After looking at the rise of the Mongol Empire for a few episodes my Heretics podcast has come back around to looking at Xing Yi and in particular the use of weapons, military strategy and armour in the Song Dynasty armies.

Part 7 starts with a rebuke to the criticism “You haven’t even got to talking about Xing Yi yet!” then looks at some animal-based military strategy. These are the same strategies that are used in the Xing Yi animals today.

In particular, we look at Ma Xing – Horse strategy – but also look at Snake (She Xing) and Eagle (Ying Xing).

Listen to “#29 Xing Yi (part 7)” on Spreaker.

 

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Part 8 looks at Chinese armour in more detail, but also talks about Xing Yi fighting tactics in relation to armour and how the armour influences the way the art works – stepping, continuous movement, minimal movement, twisting the fist in Tzuann, etc…

There are two versions of part 8, the first is for public consumption, available here:

https://www.spreaker.com/user/9404101/30-xing-yi-part-8-short-version

and we got into some controversial topics at the end of the episode, so the full version is reserved for our Heretics/Woven Energy Patrons ($5 and up):

https://www.patreon.com/wovenenergy/posts

Here’s some nice Song Dynasty style armour a google search turned up

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Image Credit: Dragons Armory.

From:

http://dragonsarmory.blogspot.com/2017/07/heavy-song-dynasty-armor.html

Like Damon says, you could show that to a ‘normal’ person and tell them it’s Samurai armour and they would probably believe you 🙂

Also, here’s an interesting clip showing how effective Lamellar designed armour was. This design is taken from the much earlier Tang Dynasty armour:

 

 

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:

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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.

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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.