Compared to solo forms in Chinese martial arts, a lot of questions you might have about why we do this, or don’t do that, are immediately obvious in application on a living, moving human being. And if they don’t make sense in that context, then you have to start asking yourself if what you’re practicing really has any point at all?
Switching the emphasis away from solo form doesn’t mean you have to be doing a sort of life and death battlefield combat every time you practice, it just means you need to be thinking about the other person, not yourself, so much.
Here’s one drill we practice in our Xing Yi system, called “5 Elements Fighting” – in its most basic form (shown here) it’s two people following the creative/destructive sequence of the 5 elements, so for example, your partner attacks with metal, you respond with fire, he responds with water, and so on. Later on you can improvise and vary the elements more so that you respond to metal with wood, or earth, for example. You can also add methods in from the 12 animals. But the idea is to keep a spontaneous feel, even if you’re following a set pattern, as we are here.
I’ve always been curious about the postures in martial arts forms where both feet are together, because these postures don’t look very martial at all. In fact, it’s hard to imagine why you would want to use a stance like that in a fight, and yet we find them in a lot of Tai Chi forms:
It seems to be mainly Taiji lineages that have some influence from Sun Lu Tang that do this the most. A lot of people attribute the distinctive ‘feet together’ postures he used to his prior training in Xing Yi, and there could be some truth to this. Xing Yi does have ‘feet together’ postures quite a lot.
Of course, the root of Xing Yi is spear fighting, but the modern interpretation of the art is heavily biased towards bare hand training, and this creates a misleading impression. Think about it – if you were at at least one spear length away from your opponent the risk of being tackled to the ground because your feet are together would be greatly reduced. You’re now free to use the power generation advantages that can be gained by letting both feet come together, which is handy when you are holding a heavy object, like a spear.
If you watch this excellent video of Xing Yi spear technique by Byron Jacobs you’ll see that he doesn’t hang out with his feet together all the time, but occasionally he uses the feet together moments for power generation (and of course, also standing on one leg for range advantage and manoeuvrability in a way that makes sense with weapons).
In Xing Yi the most famous example of the ‘feet together’ posture is the Half-Step Beng Quan. Here the back foot stepping up to meet the front foot in place creates a powerful closing action of the body, kind of like a door slamming.
So, is this the origin of ‘feet together’ postures in Taiji forms? Quite possibly. However, there is one more thing to consider. After first learning Xing Yi, Sun Lu Tang learned his Taiji from Hao Weizhen 1849–1920, who learned from Li Yiyu 1832–1892, who learned from one of the Wu brothers, Wu Yuxiang 1812–1880 who had learned directly from Yang Luchan 1799–1872 and also sought out Chen Qingping 1795–1868 who he learned from in Zhaoboa village.
It’s often thought that the distinctive stepping seen in Sun style Taiji, where the back foot is often lifted and brought up close to the front foot, is a consequence of Sun’s prior Xing Yi training. This makes sense as part of the narrative created as part of the Sun Style Taiji brand, which is that he incorporated his earlier Xing Yi and Bagua training into his Taiji style. However, if you look at the Wu (Hou) style he learned, it already had this distinctive stepping in it.
I think you can see that influence extending into Sun Lu Tang’s Taiji, which makes sense since he learned from this lineage.
Finally, I should note that thought this post I don’t want to create the impression that all the steps in either Xing Yi or Taiji performed by Sun Lu Tang are small or restricted. He also had plenty of wider postures in his arts too, for example.
However, compare it to postures found in other styles of Taiji whose practitioners didn’t have to wear court dress:
I appeared on the Drunken Boxing podcast run by my friend Byron Jacobs yesterday where we dived into the story behind all the martial arts I practice, who my teachers are and how I discovered them.
I’m usually the one interviewing other people on my podcast (I interviewed Byron back in episode 2) so this was a bit different. To be honest it feels a bit cringe listening to yourself talk about yourself, but hopefully there’s some interesting stories here to entertain people.
Drunken Boxing #042 Graham Barlow
Here’s a few links to some of the many and varied things I talk about:
Master Lam and Sifu Raymond Rand on the cover of Fighters magazine 1983:
Sifu Raymond Rand, Tai Chi Chuan applications 2022:
Stand Still Be Fit, Day 1: Master Lam Kam Chuen’s original Channel 4 TV series.
Graham in a BJJ sub-only competition 2013, blue belt
My guest in this episode will need no introduction to anybody who trains in the Chinese styles of Xing Yi and Baguazhang, especially in the United States. Tim Cartmell is a lifelong martial artist who spent many years living in Asia learning the internal arts, before heading back to the US where he took up BJJ, becoming a black belt. Tim is now the head jiujitsu coach at Ace Jiujitsu Academy in Fountain Valley, California where he teaches classes and trains professional MMA fighters. https://www.acejiujitsu.com/
In this podcast I ask Tim about his training tips, especially for older martial artists, where he thinks martial arts is going in the future and his approach to combining all the arts he knows into a single principle-based, reality-driven approach.
You can find out more about Tim at his website www.shenwu.com and don’t forget to check out the Shen Wu Martial Arts group on Facebook.
I hadn’t talked to Tim before this interview, but many of the people I’ve had as guests on my podcast have rated him highly, and now I know why – for somebody with so much experience of martial arts Tim is a very humble and genuine guy, as I hope you’ll discover over the next hour or so.
You can support The Tai Chi Notebook Podcast by becoming a patron. Head over to www.patreon.com/taichinotebook and become a patron today! You’ll get a version of the podcast you can download, exclusive video clips and articles.
I listened to a rather interesting comment in a podcast recently from a Tai Chi practitioner who preferred to do weapons forms rather than hand forms because “Tai Chi is really a battlefield art” and the postures in the hand form are clearly derived from holding weapons, and it was therefore more authentic to practice the weapons forms. The implication is also that the hand forms were retrofitted onto the art, while the weapons forms are the true origin.
There’s some truth in this idea depending on which art you art talking about, of course. Xing Yi for example – there’s no doubt that the weapons forms came first. Doing a Beng Chuan (a straight punch to the belly or chest area) barehand, as presented in the classical 5 Elements form, leaves a lot of questions unanswered – why is your head not protected as you punch forward, for example? Why is your other hand pulled back at your hip where it’s not doing much of anything? What stops them punching you in the face?
As a barehand method, it’s clearly sub-optimal. Put a spear in your hand, and even better, wear armour, and it starts to make a lot more sense though. The hand withdrawing to your hip is pulling the spear back after a thrust, for example.
But if we’re talking about the long, elaborate weapons forms found in Tai Chi, done usually in silk pyjamas, then you’ve got to ask yourself – what good is all that dancing about if your goal is martial effectiveness on the battlefield? Do you think Chinese soldiers, village militia or bodyguards with spears or Guan Dao did this kind of practice? I don’t think they did. Or maybe they did for demonstrations at the many and frequent festivals in old imperial China in the Qing Dynasty, but what use is all that on a battlefield?
While using a spear, for example, might be connecting your art back to an earlier time and usage, I’m not sure that your 180-move spear form, with jumps, twirls and spins is any more “authentic” than a modern day hand form.
It’s very easy to fool yourself in Chinese martial arts. Stay sharp!
We’ve recorded a new episode on our long running ‘history of Xing Yi’ series. There’s no actual Xing Yi in this episode – it’s more about a period of Chinese history that little is written about – the middle to end of the Yuan dynasty.
In the middle to late part of the Yuan Dynasty the former Confucian ruling class came back with a vengeance and started a downward spiral that would ultimately lead to the fall of the dynasty. In this episode we examine how and why this happened, which will set the context for the important events at the end of the dynasty in the next episode.
If you like Chinese history, then you’ll enjoy it.
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.