Are weapons forms more traditional than hand forms?

(Chen Wei Ming – Tai Chi Sword 1928)

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?

(Liu Dianchen, Beng Chuan, 1921)

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!

The middle of the Yuan Dynasty

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.

Horse and Groom, handscroll after Li Gonglin by Zhao Yong, China, Yuan dynasty, 1347, Freer Gallery

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.

Medieval warhorses no bigger than modern-day ponies

Jurchen Jin Dynasty

The traditional legend handed down in Xing Yi circles is that Yue Fei’s army successfully cut down the horses of the Jin cavalry, whilst only being foot soldiers.

This legend is often scoffed at by anybody who has experience of standing near to a charging horse, and quite rightly so! But it does depend on the size of the horse…

A recent study has concluded that English Medieval war horses were no bigger than a modern day pony.

“In films and literature they are usually depicted as hulking, foot-stomping, snorting beasts but a new study has claimed that the medieval warhorse was typically a much slighter, daintier animal.

A team of archaeologists and historians searching for the truth about the steeds that carried knights into battle has concluded that most were probably only the size of a modern-day pony.”

How big were the horses being ridden into battle by the Jin, I wonder?

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.



Criticising solo forms – again

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.

But, what do you think?

Is Xing Yi a nature-based martial art any longer?

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.

[Photo by Amiya Nanda on Pexels.com]

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.

Quite often it hits back.

Xing Yi part 12 Rocks and Bamboo

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:

Gong Kai (1222-1307?), Emaciated Horse, in [Yuan shidai no huihua]. Tokyo (Nara?): Yamato Bunkakan, 1998. pl. 1, p. 26. Collection of the [Daban shili meishuguan]. ink on paper, 29.9 x 56.9 cm.

Baji Principles – Tiger head

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!

Photo by Alexander Isreb on Pexels.com

The boxing is tightly reeled

The Classic of Fighting is part of Yue Fei’s 10 Thesis, a collection of works also known as the Xing Yi Classics. (I once got into a bit of a tiff about these documents being attributed to Chen Changxin in error, but that’s another story.)

Photo by Dan Galvani Sommavilla on Pexels.com

The Classic of Fighting is one of the more practical works in the classics, and contains some fascinating insights on martial matters. Amongst the verse is this part:

“The outstanding person boxes through freely releasing technique. It is also useful if the boxing is tightly reeled using Qi in the haft grip”. 

The translation I’m using here is by my teacher Damon Smith and Shan Gao, and is reproduced in full in Xing Yi Quan, A study of Tai and Tuo Xing by Glen Board.

“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.

Sword as your main practice

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.