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:
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’.
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.
In this post I want to ask a question. I’m going to give an answer too, so the question is slightly rhetorical, but I think it needs to be asked.
“Why do internal martial artists spend so much of their time criticising each other’s solo forms?”
Let’s break this down – firstly, is this statement true?
I’ll give you one recent example to act as a poof of the statement:
As somebody who has been involved in discussing internal martial arts on the Internet since around the year 2000 I can attest that this happens all the time. In fact, I would say that it’s the majority of the discussion is of this nature.
You don’t need to watch the whole video. It’s long, boring, petty and doesn’t display a particularly high level of etiquette or skill.
It’s essentially one Chinese martial artist ciricising another Chinese martial artists for the same thing over and over, which is sticking his elbow out a bit too much. I know! The horror!
Ok, he probably has a point, but you could easily turn this around and criticise all the mistakes that the tall skinny guy is making too.
The question I have is why did he make this? Why must internal arts people spend all their time criticising each other’s solo forms?
Look at other martial arts – especially the ones that have a sporting side. They don’t tend to do this. MMA people do not do this,
With internal arts it’s an endless debate on degree of uprightness, too much or not enough opening of the kua, level of relaxation, sinking enough or not enough, degree of the knee flextion, etc. The list goes on…
But ok, here’s my caveat. Internal arts are obsessed over these details because they matter. The amount of opening and closing of your kua dictates the amount of power you can produce, and the quality of your movements. The position of your elbow has a direct connection to whether you can produce whole body power or not.
But nobody has the same set of rules that these things are being judged by. In theory, there should be a standard set of rules, but in reality, different styles do things in different ways, and always will. I’m more inclined to think that obsessing over details of solo forms is a bit of a trait of internal arts and less valuable than seeing what a practitioner can do in application/sparring.
The language of internal arts is also based on the same ideas. People go to their Tai Chi teacher to get corrected. The language itself is kind of negative. Nobody talks like this is in sports. You spend time with a good boxing coach and get improved.
I quite often see this written in Xing Yi discussions:
“The animals are just variations of the five elements”.
I should probably just let it go, but I can’t. This idea that Xing Yi’s 12 animals are just variations of the 5 element fists has become so ubiquitous now that it’s almost impossible to counteract. And, of course, it’s true in a very basic sense, but it’s far from the whole story of Xing Yi, and it creates a misleading impression of what the art really is. It’s also buying into the whole reductionist movement in Chinese martial arts that happened in the 20th century, performed by both the Republic of 1912 and the Communist state of 1949, when these rich, smokey, traditions turned into somewhat culturally bland, ideologically driven, if athletically more challenging, versions of themselves.
If you look at a sample movement from the Xing Yi animals, like say Tiger, (firstly there’s the problem that this animal has been reduced to but a single movement in most lineages of Xing Yi, but let’s ignore that for now), you’ll see that it consists of a kind of aggressive double-palm push, or strike, to the chest, repeated over and over. The way the push is done is clearly related to Pi Quan (Splitting) from the 5 element fists, which also uses a palm to strike, so I can see why this generative view of the relation between elements and animals is so popular.
Take the wood element – Beng (often called crushing fist). It’s a straight strike, like a spear thrust, usually to the body using a strong opening and closing action. Again, it pops up all over the animals: For example, you could look at the double fist strike seen in Tai Xing – another of the 12 animals, and say that it’s a variation of Beng using both fists with a particular fist shape. (You can extend the knuckle of the middle finger in Tai).
Viewed like this it does start to look like the elements came first, but what I believe really happened in the historical development of Xing Yi was that somebody (one of the Dai family or Li Luoneng, who learned from them, are the most obvious candidates) created the 5 elements out of the pre-existing animal movements as a way to teach beginners.
(Historically we can say animals came first with some certainty, since an older lineage known as Xin Yi Liu He has the animals, but not the 5 elements).
Most of the animals in Xing Yi and Xin Yi have a kind of downward cutting Pi action, just expressed in different ways. By identifying it and using it as one of the 5 elements, and practicing it in isolation away from the complexity of the animals you have a way ‘in’ to Xing Yi, so it’s quite useful. You have something simple that you can practice over and over again.
So, it’s not like the elements aren’t a useful addition – they are. And you might be left wondering if it really matters which way you view the relationship between Xing Yi’s animals and elements?
Our podcast on the history of Xing Yi has been gently making the case that Xing Yi grew out of the ideas contained in the Li movement in the Song Dynasty, which was a turning back to nature and the natural way of things. Xing Yi as I generally see it being practiced today isn’t a nature-focused martial art anymore. That time has gone, and the focus on nature was stripped out a long time ago, from the start of the 20th century onward. It’s an understatement to say that in nationalist and communist ideologies, taking inspiration from nature and the natural world is not a popular idea. The concept of an animal-based martial art didn’t really fit in a China where people could live or die based on their belief in abstract political ideas. These things were understandably more ‘real’ to the average person than the natural world around them. So, the martial arts were changed accordingly.
That leads on to the obvious question – if you aren’t practicing a nature-based martial art anymore then what’s the point of fussing about the place of animals within it?
I think that’s for the individual practitioner to answer for themselves, but I’ll just leave you with this thought – nature-based martial arts are, or should be, reality-based martial arts. They should be grounded in the way the real world actually functions, and not in the world of concepts about the way we think the real world should be. The modern trend in China for (self proclaimed) Chinese martial arts masters to take on challengers trained in fight sports and get a good pasting can be seen as an example of what happens when ideology hits the nature of reality.
In part 12 we pick up our series on Xing Yi with a new dynasty, the Yuan, examining the social changes that Mongol rule brought to China and their implications for the martial arts through the lens of the artwork of the period.
Damon also covers a bit on Marco Polo and covers one of the central points of the podcast series, that he’s building the historical case for the connection between Xing Yi and Yue Fei – essentially the idea that it’s not a fiction, joke or a legend – it’s just that people are framing the question in the wrong way.
Gongki’s Horse painting, which he uses as an example of Chinese political art from the period:
I’ve been in conversation with Miika Wikberg of Baji Wasa, Finland. Baji is a martial art that shares a lot of similarities with Xing Yi. One of those is the idea of Tiger as a body attribute/strategy.
Here’s Miika talking about Tiger Head in Baji:
I really like this video because it’s very similar to how Tiger Xing works in Xing Yi – notice that Miika is going from a position that’s outisde the range of his opponent’s attacks, straight into an almost body to body position. That’s the flavour of Tiger Xing in Xing Yi.
The only real difference is that in my Xing Yi we call it “Tiger Embrace” and it’s more about the embracing quality of the arms than anything you’re doing with your head. As an observation of how a tiger moves it’s spot on though – the body follows the head. I’ve heard other Xing Yi lines talk about Tiger head as well, but in ours we emphasis the embracing quality of a tiger’s attack more – you can see what I mean in this video I shot over the summer:
In Xing Yi you use the Tiger embrace to do as much damage as you can as you close the distance, once the distance is closed you have the final bite to the neck, which is expressed in Xing Yi usually as a choking method. Knowing a bit of BJJ can be helpful here!
“Haft” here refers to the bit of the spear that you hold, but the same thing applies to holding a sword by the handle.
Later on in the classic it expands on what using Qi in the haft grip means:
“When the haft is gripped, this grip is done with the whole body; when one thing extends the whole body extends. The key to extending is to gain extension in the entrance; the key to the grip is to gain the grip from the root, as if coiling explosively. The coiling should become tight, like the power that exists in the bow at full draw.”
I really like this description as it gets across the feeling that needs to develop with the sword or spear as you use it day in, day out. So when it says “the coiling should become tight” I think it means over time. When you grip, it becomes like your whole body gripping the weapon, and if you want to move the weapon you have to move your whole body in a coiling manner. In fact, the best way to manipulate a weapon with your whole body is using reeling – spiral actions that move inwards and outwards. Our bodies are built for spiral movements.
It’s also worth noting that the coiling is not done slowly, but explosively, although I’d suggest starting to find these coiling movements slowly and without using force first. If you want a simple exercise for developing coiling movements, then I’ve got one of those as well.
The other thing I wanted to mention before I go was the use of the word “boxing” here. Boxing would imply empty hand martial arts, but it instantly goes on to talk about a “haft grip”, which implies weapons. Of course, “fist” “boxing” and “martial art” are all implied by “Quan”, so it’s all open to interpretation.
Either way, it’s long been said that Xing Yi is a spear fighting art that is done mainly bare hand. The frequent references to weapons in its classics would seem to confirm this theory.
Sorry there haven’t been many blog posts lately. I just didn’t feel inspired to write anything, and when I don’t feel inspired, following the Tai Chi principle, I don’t like to force it.
Something has got me back into writing recently though. I was having a conversation with a friend about Chinese marital arts and specifically weapons, and I thought – ‘well, instead of trying to describe things in words, I can just show you this on Zoom’, and I ended up teaching part of a sword form. What a time to be alive! It’s great that we can do this. When I started martial arts there was no such thing as the Internet, and if you couldn’t make it to see your teacher all you got was the occasional crappy VHS tape to learn from. Now we can Zoom between continents in seconds. I love the spontaneity of it.
As usual, the process of having to teach something means you get as much out of it as the person learning – you have to riffle out your old memory box, and then practice it hard enough so that it’s polished back up to a decent level before you teach it. I’d definitely put my Xing Yi sword on the back burner to focus on other things since lockdown began back in March, so getting back into it was an absolute pleasure. I miss the physicality of it, and the subtlety.
What occurred to me is that we (the general corpus of Chinese martial arts practitioners) tend to practice bare hand as our main art, then tack on weapons as an afterthought. Historically (and I’m generalising here, but stick with me), it was always the other way around. Our precious bare hand forms are actually more recent things, tacked on the end of weapons systems. Wing Chun practitioners, for example, spend most of their form training time practicing Siu Lim Tao, not butterfly knives. This got me thinking… what happens if we swap it back to the way it used to be?
What if, instead of heading outdoors to do Chi Kung, Tai Chi practice and Kung Fu each morning, I instead picked up my sword and did sword routines, then tacked on a few barehand bits on at the end if I’ve got time?
I’m going to experiment with this idea for a couple of weeks and see how it feels.
What I usually find is that practicing barehand does nothing for your sword practice, but practicing with a sword doesn’t seem to knock back your bare hand practice as much as you think it would: It’s much easier to transition from weapon to bare hand, than it is to transition from bare hand to weapon.
Even after a couple of days I can feel the physical difference. My forearms and wrists ache a bit from lack of conditioning. The sword I use is quite heavy – 800 grams, I think – and it’s a replica of a Ming Dynasty sword, hand made by Tigers Den in the UK. It’s great. I’ve put some tape over the handle, because it was slipping in the cold weather. That might ruin the esthetic, but at least it makes it look like a “used” weapon, rather than something that you hang on the wall.
Anyway, back to Zoom. Of course, as soon as I stepped outside to wave my sword around it started raining. This is Britain, after all. However I managed to get my laptop somewhere dry enough that it was only me getting wet, not the machine, and taught a few moves. It all went rather well I think. We’re going to do it again this week.
The whole thing brought back a lot of memories about practicing Xing Yi sword in the rain somewhere in a field back in the “naughties”, as the 2000s was called. My teacher used to be very into practicing outdoors in nature, and his mood positively lifted the worse the weather got and the further away from other people we got! There’s something to be said for not giving in to nature and working with it, no matter what it throws at you.
But, anyway, I think having the sword as your main “thing”, rather than it existing on the periphery of your practice, could lead to some interesting results. I’ll experiement and see. Let me know what you think, or if you’re doing something similar.
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.
Rewildingis 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.