Xing Yi Stepping Basics

One of the hardest things I think that there is to convey in Xing Yi, to the perspective new student, is how the 5 fists work with the stepping. All the time I see people doing the arm positions of the five fists in a highly stylistic and precise way, but the body isn’t right. If the body isn’t right then the fault can usually be found in the legs and waist, and most likely it’s the stepping. In Xing Yi your stepping is the delivery system for the power of the body.

The words of the Xing Yi Classic of Unification apply here:

“When the upper and lower move, the centre will attack.
When the centre moves, the upper and lower support,
Internal and external, front and rear are combined,
This is called “Threading into one”,
This cannot be achieved through force or mimicry.”

i.e. everything moves together, as one.

In this video I look at some of the common faults I see in Xing Yi stepping, which could be described as problems of partiality. First, the foot arriving before the hand, then the hand arriving before the foot, and finally the foot and hand landing (i.e. finishing their journey) at the same moment with no penetration.

The real Xing Yi stepping is deeper and more penetrating. You’re hitting the person (or bag) while your front foot is still in the air, as you move through them, displacing their mass. That’s the trick.

(N.B. this style of striking in Xing Yi is more popular in the Hebei style – other styles of Xing Yi have different specialties).

Good Hebei style Xing Yi Quan (Xingyiquan)

This Xingyiquan video caught my eye recently. It’s a good performance and demonstrates a nice range of material drawn from Xing Yi’s animals and elements. The performer is doing it well, and using some untypical examples of the animals in some cases, which adds a nice bit of variety.

Check it out:

Xing Yi is typically split mainly into two big demographic styles known as Shanxi and Hebei. The video shown here is a good example of Hebei style. It’s practiced by Sun Liyong, a famous Xingyiquan master from Beijing Simin Wushu Club.

If you’d like to know more about the different styles of Xing Yi and how they evolved then check out my history of Xing Yi podcast series.

Are set forms the death of creativity?

Xing Yi Eagle link

Tai Chi is just one of a number of Chinese martial arts that have extended forms practice as a key component of their training methods. An incredible amount of time in Tai Chi is dedicated to performing the form in just the right way. Of course, there are lots of martial arts that don’t have forms, but they tend to be more sportive and wrestling based, although striking arts like boxing don’t have set forms either. Exactly why so many Chinese martial arts have forms at all is another question – one that relates back to their cultural origin and use in entertainment and religious festivals, and has relatively little to do with martial efficiency. It’s a contentious point, so for now let’s just accept that most Chinese martial arts today do have forms, and if you’re going to practice a Chinese martial art in 2022, then you’ll be practicing forms too.

In my training I’ve been exposed to various Chinese martial arts, and they all had a number of “set in stone” forms to train, until that is, I was introduced to Xing Yi. Or rather, I should say, to my Xing Yi teacher. His method of teaching Xing Yi was entirely different to most modern teachers – he really didn’t like the idea of set forms. Beyond the 5 Element form (the basics of Xing Yi) he didn’t really believe that any form should be ‘set in stone’. In fact, he wouldn’t even let you call them “forms”. You had to metaphorically put a pound in the swear jar every time you said the word “form”. He preferred the term “linking sequence” (lian huan, in Chinese) because it implied that the postures were linked together and could just as easily be linked together in an entirely different way. This is not entirely true, either. Sometimes he would teach you a particular sequence that was the way one of his teachers did it, and we’d call it the “master xyz linking sequence”, on the basis that you had to start somewhere, but if you ever quizzed him too deeply about a particular movement sequence then the answers would soon start to turn into the “well you could do it this way, or you could do it this way…” territory. He really didn’t want to be pinned down into a specific way of doing anything.

Xing Yi Bear link

I think the reason he was like this is that he didn’t want to kill the natural creativity in his students, and he wanted to keep the practice vital and alive. It should be obvious that your goal in martial arts is to be a formless fighter – even a small amount of light sparring will reveal the universal truth to you that if you try and adopt fixed methods to a live situation, the results are never good. To deal with any kind of live situation you need to be able to respond and adapt freely to whatever is happening. I think he saw the popular “fixed forms” training method as being part of the reason that some Chinese martial arts were less than successful when applied for real. It was also the way he’d been taught Xing Yi, and he wanted to teach in the manner in which he’d been taught. Of course, this makes it a lot harder to teach – having a few set forms makes teaching much easier, and also transfers to large groups well. Being spontaneous requires much closer attention from a teacher and is almost impossible to expand to teaching larger groups of people. The best class size is always 1-1, and commercially that’s a hard thing to pull off. Luckily money was never part of the equation when we trained! I can’t say his method was universally successful in creating good students either – it’s definitely not. I’ve seen students of his who ended up being pretty delusional about their own abilities from following this method. It requires time (years) of prolonged contact so that you can absorb a martial art this way. If you get separated from the teacher too much then you can easily go off on the wrong track. It’s a bit like throwing mud at a wall – sometimes it sticks, sometimes it doesn’t. And sometimes the mud decides it’s somebody who has nothing left to learn from other people, and develops delusions of grandeur while trying to maintain the illusion of being humble. But, c’est la vie.

Anyway, I’ve peppered some video of me throughout this post so you can see some examples of what I mean by linking sequences – these are little Xing Yi linking sequences I’ve create to fit the space I’m working in. I like this sort of practice where you create new links each time you practice. You can combine different animals and elements in an almost endless number of variations. You can even do the movements from one animal but in the style – the xing – of another. Each day you train is different and depends on how you feel and the environment you’re training in. In fact, letting your environment (preferably, nature) into your practice is part of the training.

Xing Yi Tiger link

Now contrast that to typical Tai Chi training – you practice the same form in the same way, every day, for the rest of your life. Sounds a bit dull, doesn’t it?

Well, perhaps not. While the sequence in a Tai Chi form never varies, you can introduce a tremendous amount of variation within that fixed frame. This was how my Tai Chi teacher taught me, years before I started Xing Yi. After you’d learned the form you’d do the form in different ways, depending on what you were working on. The size of the postures could vary, the height of the postures could vary, the speed could vary from very fast to very slow, or you could focus on the breathing, on separating empty and solid. Again, the list was almost endless. It worked better if you stuck to one particular ‘thing’ for a good few months though, before you moved on to the next. Again, close contact with a teacher is required, over years. 

Once the Communist ideology took over in China it infiltrated everything, including martial arts, and it’s influence is still there today. The Communist ideal is that everything looks the same, and is done in the same way. The individual identity is subsumed by the group identity. You can see this influence in the martial arts of the period and its effects echoing into modern times. Row upon row of silk pyjama-wearing Tai Chi people practicing exactly the same form in perfect unison. If you want to get good at martial arts, that’s the thing you want to avoid. And if you’re thinking right now that your practice doesn’t involve enough spontaneity or creativity, then perhaps some of the ideas contained in this post can help.

Xing Yi Chicken link

Three views of qi in Tai Chi

Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash

When it comes to “qi” it seems that every teacher has a slightly different view about what it is. After meeting many martial arts teachers, over the years (and ignoring the clearly delusional amongst them) I’ve paired these various views down to three models that I feel can act as a guide for helping the practitioner sort out what your teacher means when he or she says “qi”, and therefore, what you mean. I don’t think the three are exclusive at all – following one does not negate the others – and all three can be applied at once.

Many people would rather we kept qi out of Tai Chi Chuan teaching altogether, and I respect that view, however the Tai Chi Classics refer to qi quite often, so I think we’re stuck with it. And if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

Of course, qi relates to things well outside of the realm of martial arts too, so I think that it’s important to say that what follows is from a martial arts perspective. I’m looking at qi with a view to how it relates to the human body in things like Xing Yi and Tai Chi Chuan. If I was thinking about how qi related to, say the universe, or the landscape, I’d be looking in different places. Although, it has to be said that in Chinese thought the microcosm often mirrors the macrocosm.

Biological qi

The first view we’ll call the biological model. This is the view that what the Chinese call qi is simply the energy the body creates in the cells using the ATP cycle. We’re not talking about a controversial “bio energy” here, just the normal way energy is created in the cells of the body.

Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) is the energy-carrying molecule found in the cells of all living things and the universal energy carrier in the living cell. The German chemist Karl Lohmann discovered ATP in 1929.

ATP contains three phosphates and when it is converted to Adenosine Diphosphate (ADP) a phosphate is removed and energy is released that cells can use for processes like movement, synthesis and active transport.

https://www.britannica.com/science/adenosine-triphosphate

While the chemical process of the ATP cycle is hard to explain, the impact on things like Tai Chi and martial arts is quite simple and uncomplicated – qi is nothing mysterious here, and all movement therefore requires qi.
In this model, qi is related to breath because oxygen is required for the ATP cycle, which ties into the Chinese view of qi being related to breath quite nicely. The lungs therefore take over a prominent role in qi production, since oxygen is required for the ATP cycle to work.

Teachers that have this view of qi tend to focus more on the middle dantien in the body, as the the focus of movement, since qi production is higher in the body, towards the lungs, compared to the lower dantien. Stances tend to be higher and not as wide. Mobility is stressed over stability. Arts like Xing Yi and Yi Quan are good examples of these sorts of martial arts.

Qi as strength in a conditioned body

The second view of qi fits in more with Chinese concepts of acupuncture. This view sees the body as containing a number of muscle-tendon channels that run from finger tips to toes. On the soft yin parts on the front of the body we find the yin channels, and on the harder yang parts of the body, the yang channels. These qi channels are the channels along which strength can ‘flow’. By strength we’re not talking about the normal isolated limb movements, but the type of springy whole-body strength exhibited by animals and some marital artists. You can view movement in animals (and humans following this model) as a series of opening and closing movements using these channels. When we contract inwards, for example, we pull along the yin channels and when we open the body outwards we are pulling along the yang channels.

Think of the movements of a Cheetah running – as the legs stretch out the yin part on the front of the body is ‘opened’ and the back ‘closed’. As the legs retract inwards, the front closes and the back expands and opens. The process repeats in a cycle. This movement from yin to yang and back again is the Tai Chi cycle in action.

These channels are not real anatomical structures in the body, but constructed as distinct pathways containing various muscles, tendon, ligaments and fascia groups. (The acupuncture meridians that most people are familiar with are a similar idea, but came later and are obviously based on this idea of muscle-tendon channels in the body.)

In a normal human being these channels are not particularly strong or well developed, and work is required to strengthen them – to give you a “strong qi” – which is what neigong and chigong is for.
Qigong practice is therefore designed to condition these muscle-tendon channels – notice a lot of Qigong practice is to do with stretching along these muscle-tendon channels, using the breathing to assist (e.g. the baduanjin set of exercise). Over time this stretching and breathing can strengthen the channels so that they become a tangible, physical presence in the body. Once they are strong enough to physically manipulate the body with, various martial arts feats can be performed using them, like explosive punching (Fa Jin) or strong twisting and coiling movements.

You most often find this qi model used in arts like Chen Taijiquan, which is known for its twisting and coiling locking and throwing methods (chin na) and its explosive, whole body strikes called Fa Jin. Silk reeling exercises, which are part of Chen style Tai Chi, are excellent for developing this kind of conditioned strength.

Qi as a non-physical body

The final, more esoteric, view of Qi is as a non-physical body. Chinese medicine has the concept of the Sanbao – the three bodies. The physical body – Jing (related to our ability to replicate ourselves by reproduction), the energy or Qi body and Shen the mental or spiritual body. All three bodies are thought to inhabit us at once.

The physical body is the most apparent being the one we use most obviously, but through practices such as Zhang Zhuang Qi Gong, where you stand and hold postures over time, we can gradually become more aware of the more subtle energy body. The Qi body becomes apparent through sensation observed over time. The act of being aware of the qi body, usually in standing Qigong postures, (although seated or lying meditation practice also exists), strengthens your connection to it and your appreciation of it. The same is, presumably, also true of the Shen body, but that is not something I’ve ever experienced myself.

These more esoteric practices tend to be associated with spiritual groups (Taoist internal alchemy traditions), secret societies (exploited in the Boxer Rebellion) and martial arts groups that tend more towards stillness in their practice – like Yang style Taijiquan, or ones that practice seemingly impossible feats of conditioning, like iron palm and iron body practices.

While this view of qi is the one that’s hardest to ‘prove’, it’s also one of the most accessible. Practicing with stillness over a period of time can be done by anybody anywhere and usually produces some tangible results – heat in the hands, etc. But I think this is also the qi model it’s easiest to become deluded with. After all, if your only feedback is judging the things you experience yourself it’s easy to lose your objectivity. This is of course why having a good teacher is important.

Thoughts on Tai Chi Push Hands

Photo by mana5280 on Unsplash

Range

People tend to do push hands at the wrong range. I think the combat benefits of training push hands disappear almost entirely when you are too far out.

I notice when I train it with people they keep wanting to edge back. You need to be a range that feels uncomfortably close, until it feels comfortable.

If you look at MMA (sorry to use that as an example, if it rubs you the wrong way, but it provides brilliant examples and feedback of the dynamics of two people in a violent encounter) one of the big, high-percentage, often fight-ending, techniques is the counter left (or right) hook; the check hook. This happens after the fighter throws a jab – you move back (or slip) and throw your hook over the top – that’s the range push hands is working in, and a good practical example of what skill at that range can do.

If you watch this video of Cheng Man Ching pushing hands you can see he tries to stay in close all the time – in fact, when he’s launching people he kind of ‘cheats’ and takes an extra half step in so he’s right inside their base, which enables him to show off a bit more on the distance he can push them – this is only possible because they are keeping their ‘front door’ open with a wide stance. The way I was taught is that your toes match the opponent’s heels, fist width apart to allow for ‘shin biting’. (Lots of people do this distance correctly, but go shoulder width apart – leaving the groin too open and letting people step in to launch them. It’s just a bad habit to get into).

Don’t mistake push hands for sparring

Chinese martial art people in general I think spend too long in these double or single ‘arm contacted’ type positions – in more martial sparring sessions these moments happen in split seconds. People don’t stay here. If you end up putting your arms out looking for that position you get punched on the nose. I think doing too much of it breeds bad habits. You’re doing that ‘safe’ training to learn skills that are hard to acquire, which then get used in freer environments, rather than try to mimic the ‘safe’ environment in freer training.

Staying in this range all the time with another person doing ‘soft’ stuff like push hands seems to lead to teachers who start showing off and generating cult-like guru behaviour. It’s a trap you can fall into if you’re not careful. If your students start treating you like a holy saint, then that’s a red flag!

I’m really not a fan of the kind of following that builds around some of the big names in Tai Chi, like this guy, Adam Mizner. He plays the guru card well, and I’ve seen lots of videos where his students really overreact to him in a way that makes me think they all fell down a rabbit hole years ago. However, the guy clearly has some good skills at push hands, as you can see in this video. This video I think is one of the least worst of his I’ve seen (in terms of over reaction from his students) – yet the group still all stop what they are doing to ‘watch the master’ and play his guru game:

Fighting

It’s always worth repeating, even though its kind of obvious, – you don’t need push hands to fight. Combat sports turn out accomplished fighters quickly without these methods.

You can practice all the applications in a Tai Chi form in push hands – it’s one step up from doing them as stand alone techniques because it requires more timing, flow and ‘listening’, but this is still not ‘fighting’.

Jin

One of the reasons for push hands is to learn to use Jin not Li. For a short answer of what that means, I mean using the ground strength in your movement (jin), not local strength (li). It’s easy to fool yourself that you’re ‘doing it’ when you perform a Tai Chi form, because there’s nobody else there. Can you ‘do it’ when somebody is providing some light resistance? Or trying to ‘do it’ back to you? Push hands enables you to find out. I wish people would view push hands more as a tool for learning that, not as a competitive sport of limited wrestling. It’s like people have been given a knife, but they insist on using it like a spoon.

And the use of Jin in directions also requires a strategy to use them, which can also be practiced in the laboratory of push hands. Listen, stick, yield, neautralise and attack.

In push hands you ‘listen’ to the push from the opponent (with your body), you stick to their limbs (so you can feel and listen) then you yield to their pressure, which leads to neutralising their attack, so that you can attack yourself.

In sparring you use the same idea, but you cannot rely on being stuck to their arm. However, you need to keep the same process going that you’ve learned in push hands, just sometimes there will be no contact – you can still neautralise, and yield, through subtle changes in body posture and position, thanks to your use of sensitivity. Once you take ‘push hands’ into a more real sparring environment, I think you’re in the same territory where Xing Yi spends most of its time training. In Xing Yi it’s just the same idea, even if it looks different – you do not attack blindly at the opponent – that won’t lead to success against somebody good, bigger or stronger. In Xing Yi we have this phrase “don’t attack when you see an opening, attack when you see the heng” – I would interpret that as you only attack once the opponent’s attack has been neautralised (heng being the point of neautralisation); depending on your level of timing, this can be before the attack has even been launched. Good opponents will leave fake ‘openings’ for you to attack. Therefore you don’t attack based on what your eyes alone see – you attack based on feeling for that moment of neautralisation. Different training methods – same results.



Podcast Episode 2: Byron Jacobs on Beijing martial arts

Episode 2 of the Tai Chi Notebook podcast is out!

Byron Jacobs is a teacher of Xing Yi and Bagua based in Beijing, China. He’s a student of the famous Shifu Di Guoyong and is heavily involved in the martial arts scene in Beijing. As well as training traditional martial arts he’s also a BJJ practitioner and competitor.

If you’d like to be taught by Byron in the arts of Xing Yi and Bagua, then he has an online learning platform available at https://www.patreon.com/mushinmartialculture

In this wide ranging discussion we talk about training Xing Yi, Bagua and Tai Chi and whether Wu Shu will ever get into the Olympics. We also find out what it was like to train martial arts in Beijing during the Corona virus pandemic, and what the Chinese BJJ and MMA scene is like.

Show notes
—————

(9.45)
Byron’s Hua Jin Online learning platform
https://www.patreon.com/mushinmartialculture

(15.22)
Byron’s Mu Shin Martial Culture YouTube channel
https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCg_V6eznSvYOFz2naGlgRpg

(47.05)
DQ’d for Kicking TOO HARD? – Doctor Reacts to Olympic Karate Controversy and Knockout Science
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6QFxxM3QOws

(1.05.30)
Speed passing by Rafa Mendes
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qu_9Lcdrh_w

(1.18.11)
Ku Yu Chang (Guruzhang’s) Yang style Taijiquan:
A STUDY OF TAIJI BOXING by Long Zixiang
https://brennantranslation.wordpress.com/2018/03/30/the-taiji-manual-of-long-zixiang/

(1.23.00)
Stand Still Be Fit by Master Lam Kam Chuen
https://www.youtube.com/user/StandStillBeFit

You can find it on all the usual places you find podcasts – search for The Tai Chi Notebook on Apple podcasts, Spotify, etc.. or here’s a link:

Spotify
Apple
Web

#71 Xing Yi (part 13) The Water Chestnut Mirror

This episode explores the connection between the martial arts of the great Song generals’ tradition and Chinese theatre, which emerged during the height of the Yuan Dynasty.

Xing Yi Part 13, The Water Chestnut Mirror

I would also recommend this short, funny and smart crash course on Chinese Theatre as background ‘reading’:

A lot of the “x number of shoes, y number of hairdos” regulatory stuff was added later by the Confucians from the Ming onwards. In the Yuan it was much more Vale Tudo in spirit 🙂

To see some Yuan Dynasty plays we talk about in action I’d recommend this page, which also gives some more background on Yuan Zaju plays.

A mural from a temple in the Shanxi province, dated 1324. It shows zaju actors and musicians. Image source: The Archives of Finland–China Society.

Xing Yi fast, Tai Chi slow

I seem to have entered a little phase of practicing Tai Chi in the morning then immediately doing some Xing Yi straight afterwards. I’ve never really been into doing Tai Chi especially slowly, as some people seem to love to do, but the contrast with Xing Yi straight after has really accented the speed differences, and it’s made me think about the strategy of each art.

Reflecting on the reflections at today’s practice spot.

Tai Chi forms are performed much more slowly than Xing Yi links. We all know that Tai Chi should be done slow-ish, but how fast should Xing Yi be? Because it’s an “internal art” (check out my podcast for some thoughts on what that means) people often think that Xing Yi should be done relatively slowly too. My teacher recalled to me a story of one of his teachers who would always shout at them “Faster! Faster!”, whenever they did Xing Yi. The rule was, the faster, the better. They could never be quite fast enough to satisfy him.

Xing Yi works as an intercepting art – ideally you want to be attacking inside the opponent’s attack. It’s a very different approach to standing your ground and trading blows with an opponent. Once you’re ‘inside’ their attack you want to keep on pressing forward, which is why Xing Yi ‘forms’ are generally done in a straight line. The hardest thing is getting that inside position, but once you’ve got it you don’t want to give it up until you’ve got in several decisive blows, all the while moving forward with full body connection. Nobody said it was an easy strategy to achieve, but that is the strategy.

Doing Xing Yi quickly helps you develop that fast footwork you need to rush forward when required, without falling into disaray. It says in the Xing Yi classics somewhere that when standing you want to stand like a mountain – solid, unmoving, but when it’s time to move you want to move like the sound of thunder or a landslide.

Tai Chi – at least the Yang style and its sub-styles – in contrast seems more interested in doing as little work as possible. Relaxing, using natural body motions and letting your body weight do the work are the order of the day.

When you do Tai Chi you shouldn’t really be getting out of breath*, when you do Xing Yi you should. As such the two arts compliment each other nicely.

* Your style may vary.

A bit of Xing Yi Snake to welcome in the spring and St. Patrick’s Day

The blossom is out on my tree and spring is in the air! So, it’s time to record a new video.

Yesterday was St. Patrick’s Day, the saint who drove the “snakes” out of Ireland (a country which has never had snakes). I see a lot of people doing Xing Yi snake forms and generally I don’t like most of it. Sorry. It always seems a bit “dumbed down” to me. Linear and basic, and not very representative of the actual animal. Snakes coil, they twist, they wrap and they strike suddenly and swiftly. Those characteristics need to be present if you are going to embody the Snake (She Xing).

But rather than post videos of other people’s work and criticise it, (which seems to be a favourite pastime of people on the Internet), I thought I’d make my own and try to promote my mate Glen’s Xing Yi Snake book in the process:

Somebody commented on another of my videos that they liked the weapons work I’ve included previously, so I put some Snake sword in there too. As with all Xing Yi, you can see the barehand work is simply a translation from the weapons work. The application pictures are from Glen Board’s book Xing Yi Snake, (which I’ve reviewed here), that I worked on with him.

I actually recorded this video just before I did my regular Tai Chi practice, and I noticed that my Tai Chi form became infused with the flavour of the Snake Xing I’d been practicing previously and became very coily indeed! This is what the Xing Yi animals are like – they’re like strong flavours of tea, that you add to your hot water. Ultimately you should be able to blend all 12 freely. I don’t think there’s enough lifetimes left for me to do that though, which is why I tend to stick to the ones I prefer. Different Xing Yi practitioners tend to be heavily ‘flavoured’ by the animals they prefer.

But why snakes? What’s the advantage in studying them? There are many legends about snakes, but not many actual snakes to be found in the UK, so we don’t generally know too much about them, but it’s pretty clear from watching this YouTube video showing python attacks that they’re absolutely fearless predators:

What surprised me most about that video is how close the python manages to get to its prey before it strikes. I guess it must be to do with being absolutely silent as it moves? I don’t know. Either way, a python is a terrifying grappler and an ambush predator combined into one. You can see why horses, monkeys and man has a built-in snake phobia.

As Wikipedia notes: “Historically, serpents and snakes represent fertility or a creative life force. As snakes shed their skin through sloughing, they are symbols of rebirth, transformation, immortality, and healing. The ouroboros is a symbol of eternity and continual renewal of life. … In Hinduism, Kundalini is a coiled serpent.”

Carl Jung had a lot to say about snakes. The ouroboros is cool symbol, a Western Yin/Yang, but the most recognisable snake symbol in our daily lives is the caduceus, the traditional symbol of Hermes and a symbol used in many esoteric religions and associated with healing:

The (very similar) Rod of Asclepius is still used on ambulances today:

Close Up of Caduceus Medical Symbol on Rear Corner of Ambulance Vehicle

“Some accounts suggest that the oldest known imagery of the caduceus has its roots in a Mesopotamian origin with the Sumerian god Ningishzida; whose symbol, a staff with two snakes intertwined around it, dates back to 4000 BC to 3000 BC.[3]

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caduceus

In Roman mythology the caduceus was often held by Mercury, harald of the gods, which brings me back to where I started, with the blossom on my tree being the herald of Spring.

And, bit like the ouroboros itself, I took a circuitous route to get there!