Make Xing Yi wild again

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

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

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

animal close up country countryside

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Our hook into the natural world

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

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

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

Xing Yi Snake

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

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

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

Rewilding Xing Yi

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

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

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

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

Xing Yi Chicken

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

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

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

brown and white eagle

Photo by Magda Ehlers on Pexels.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s let nature be our teacher once more.

Let’s make Xing Yi wild again.

woman walking on a log in the forest

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Tai and Tuo Xing videos (part 1 and 2)

As I was reading Glen Board’s excellent new book Xing Yi: A study of Tai and Tuo Xing I thought there really needs to be a video of these linking sequences he’s presenting in the book so people can see how the moves work and get a flavour of it. So I made one myself in a bit of free time instead of my usual morning practice.

During filming I got a visit from a local village Peacock (we call him Peter) who decided to bless my video with his presence. Tai is the flycatcher, a small to medium bird with a long tail. Now, while Peter may also have a long tale, he’s a very large bird. Also, he’d be more like Chicken Xing (Ji Xing), so he’s a not a perfect fit with Tai, but you have to use what you’ve got.

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Peter, standing proud.

Here’s the first video:

The problem is, (as I discovered) if you want make a video of animals Xings that if useful for people to follow along you have to take a lot of the character of each animal out, and it becomes a bit bland and (dare I say it….?) more like Tai Chi…

So I did another video that had less emphasis on relaxed movement and accuracy and more on expressing the Xing of each animal. Glen described the Xing well in his book, but in short, I’m trying to generate more torsion through the dragon body in Tuo and more agility, abrupt change of direction and surprising strikes in Tai.

My Xing Yi is always a work in progress, and I’ve been out of the loop with it for a few years, but Glen’s book has inspired me to pick it up again, so I’m not presenting myself as a “Laoshi” or expert here or anything, just a glimpse into my personal training. Anyway, here it is and hopefully people who buy the book will find it helpful in some way:

 

Xing Yi Quan, a study of Tai (Flycatcher) and Tuo (Crocodile) Xing, a review

I finally got myself a copy of my friend Glen Board’s new Xing Yi book: Xing Yi Quan: A study of Tai and Tuo Xing. It arrived in the post today:

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UK link to Amazon.

US link to Amazon.

Firstly, the book looks great. It’s thick, there are a lot of photos, some of which are colour, but most are black and white. They’re well taken and it’s easy to see what’s happening. In terms of content, there is lots of historical information about how Xing Yi was created in the book and the philosophical and martial ideas that lie behind it, but there’s also lots of very practical real-world applications of the movements shown as well. Glen even covers that tricky subject of how Qi is used in Xing Yi Quan as well as taking in the Xing Yi Classics, San Ti Shi and weapons. It’s a pretty hefty volume.

The real focus of the book though is on two of Xing Yi’s 12 animals: Tai and Tuo, but it also covers an awful lot of general Xing Yi theory. The inclusion of a full translation of the two most important Xing Yi classics writings – the Classic of Unification and the Classic of Fighting, from Yue Fei’s 10 Important Thesis – is particularly welcome. As is the inclusion of an Appendix on the I Ching, which explains the 8 trigrams and how you can use them to post-analyse martial arts movements or situations in Xing Yi Quan.

Full disclosure: Glen and I have the same Xing Yi teacher and this book follows on from my Xing Yi teachers first attempt to write a book on each of the Xing Yi animals. He only got as far as Bear Eagle, before stalling on Snake. So, it’s good to see that Glen has picked things up in our lineage and got something into print on a couple more of the animals. I’d like to see him do the same thing for Horse and Snake (if you’re taking requests Glen? 🙂 )

(You might also like the podcast series I’ve been doing with Damon on the history of Xing Yi).

Tai and Tuo

Tai is a fly-catching bird from Asia with a long tail. It’s sometimes referred to as “Phoenix” in English. It’s quite an agile little bird that’s good at evading predators by using its long tail to confuse the attacking bird and also good at catching insects in flight. As you’d expect, there are a lot of changes of direction and spiraling type actions amongst its martial applications.

Tai uses a special fist formation to strike with where you protrude the middle finger knuckle ahead of the others when you form a fist. You use it to strike with in the same way that a “Phoenix-eye fist” can be used in Shaolin arts to strike with. The book explains all these aspects of Tai.

Tuo is the Crocodile. Sometimes you see it translated as “Water lizard”, (but come on people – just put the pieces together 🙂 )

Tuo doesn’t have any specific fist shapes, but emphasizes the ambush nature of the crocodile when hunting. It also makes use of the side to side rolling action that a crocodile performs when trying to drown and rip apart any prey it has captured in its jaws.

The book has a linking sequence (a form) for each animal as well as applications of the movements in a huge amount of detail. There are 31 applications shown for Tai and 22 for Tuo with photographs of the steps involved in each. They’re all bare-hand applications rather than weapons applications, but that’s fine by me.

Overall I’d say that this book is one of the most accessible and practical books you’ll find on Xing Yi Quan. It doesn’t matter if you’re new to the art or pretty experienced – you’ll find something new here to pique your curiosity. If you’ve got any interest in the art of Xing Yi Quan at all then I’d suggest you get yourself a copy, because you’ll really enjoy it.

Here are some photos of what it looks like inside:

 

 

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Kung Fu Tea on Sun Lu Tang

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There’s a great article over on Kung Fu Tea about the life of one of the most influential Chinese martial artists of all time, Sun Lu Tang.

One of the persistent problems that I see in amateur discussions of “Chinese martial studies” is a lack of understanding of how broad the traditional martial arts really were, and the variety of life experiences that they encompassed.  In fact, rather than discussing China’s martial culture in the singular, it would probably be better to think about these cultures in the plural.  The martial arts never were just one thing, and our experience with the modern “traditional” arts tends to seriously skew our perceptions of the past.

It’s a good read, so sit down with a cup of tea and put your feet up with your laptop.

Link.

The Drunken Boxing podcast. Episode 1 Marin Spivak.

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Byron Jacobs, who produced the excellent XingYi San Ti Shi primer I posted recently, has launched a new podcast that’s well worth checking out.

In the first episode, Byron talks to Marin Spivak, Chen Tai Chi disciple of Chen Yu, about what it’s like going to live and train gung fu in Beijing as a Westerner back in the 1990s and 2000s. Both Byron and Marvin made the jump to live and train in Beijing, so they have a good insight into Chinese culture, and particular gong fu culture.

I really liked the discussion of the tangled network of gong fu culture a prospective student has to find their way through in China, and which the average western student has no idea exists at all.

Enjoy. Link.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Image Credit: Dragons Armory.

From:

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

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

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

 

 

What makes Xingyi’s Bengquan different to a normal straight punch? Part 2: The bow draw.

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Chinese archer, photographed in the 1870s

Following on from my previous post about Bengquan, one of the 5 Element fists of Xingyiquan, I want to take a closer look at some of the internal characteristics of the strike.

In learning to do a Bengquan correctly you must first learn the mechanical way to do it, then later you can tackle what should really be going on. By the ‘mechanical way to do it’ I’m talking about things like weight distribution, a slight contraction and a slight expansion as you punch, a counter rotation on the spine between hips and shoulder, and the way the fist continues straight forward like an arrow shot from a bow. Generally, these are the things I talked about in the last article. A lot of this is simply maintaining the requirements of San Ti Shi – the 6 bodies posture – while in motion.

Once you are able to do these ‘mechanical’ actions it’s time to look a little a little deeper at some of the internal aspects.

At this point, we need to introduce the concept of the leg bows, arm bows and the back bow. Together that makes 5 bows, all of which need to be coordinated together to produce a perfect bengquan. The word ‘bow’ is used here in the sense of a bow and arrow – the string can be drawn to create potential energy and released to fire that energy.

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Arms, legs and spine form the 5 bows.

By utilising the 5 bows we are able to source power from areas of the body that aren’t used in normal movement. The process that co-ordinates the 5 bows working together is known simply as opening and closing. I’m going to try and explain how it works with a bengquan, in a very basic way. Obviously, the situation is more complex than I’m trying to make out, but let’s just go with a basic explanation for now.

I’ve mentioned the muscle-tendon channels before. We try and condition them in the internal arts. They run from the fingertips to the toes on the same sides of the body. The opening, or Yang channels, run roughly along the back of the body. The closing, or Yin channels run roughly along the front of the body.

The connection along these channels start as very weak and difficult to get a sense of, but with repeated conditioning, in the correct manner it can be strengthened, so that the limbs can be manipulated using the channels, rather than by using normal muscle usage. Your muscles are still involved, of course, but you are repatterning the way you use them, so they can be controlled from the body’s centre, known as the dantien.

(Try my free Qigong video course for details on how to do this.)

Think of the channels as elastic connections. You need to be relaxed to access them. If a joint is tense then it reduces your access to the elastic force (hence the constant admonitions to Sung “relax’ in internal arts). Ultimately it is your breath, via reverse breathing that enables you to access these bows. Pulling in along the Yin channels creates the action called closing, and pulling in along the Yang channels creates the action of opening. This phenomenon is observable in most animals in nature. Similarly, in internal arts, one side of the body is always contracting as the other side is expanding, and so on. This opening and closing action enables us to use the ‘bows’ of the legs, arms and back in the same way a bow can power an arrow. There’s a storing phase, and a releasing phase.

While the bows certainly ‘add’ to the power, it’s important not to think of them as ‘additives’ that you can apply on top of the wrong sort of movement. They fundamentally are the correct way the body should move if you are using the muscle-tendon channels.

The image at the top of this post shows a Chinese archer, photographed in the 1870s using what’s known as a recursive bow – the very top and bottom actually curve away from the archer when in a neutral position and are pulled back when he draws the arrow. This type of bow was popular throughout Asia.

Here’s one being built using traditional methods:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F0nEocphm-M

If you think of a recursive bow mapped over the top of a human body, then you get some idea of how the bows concept works.

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Of course, this is just to get the general idea – the overal feel. There are actually 5 bows involved, as I’ve said.

In the last article we looked at how a bengquan has a storing phase of the movement, then an expansive phase of the movement. Now we can form a parallel with the action of drawing and releasing a bow.

However (and Mike Sigman needs credit for pointing this out to me) instead of thinking of the bow as firing an arrow out from your middle behind you, think of the string being pulled inwards towards the shaft of the bow, on the storing/closing cycle, and then released back to normal with a snap on the expansive punching section as you punch. That’s more like what is actually occurring within the body.

In the drawing phase the arms bend, the legs bend and the back bows and the dantien contracts.

The spine would ‘bow’ out. The bottom tip of the spine bow would be the coccyx and the top tip the head.

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Spine in a neutral position before the ‘string’ is pulled back towards the ‘bow’.

The flexing and straightening of a leg, for example, is another bow. Same with an arm. All the bows need to be utilised as a team, lead by the dantien, and activated using the muscle tendon channels rather than just local muscle.

On release, the dantien is going down and out, which releases the back bow. The leg bows release which add a vertical component to the power. These combined forces drive and the arm bow to extend on the punching side.

The visual image of drawing a bow has long been associated with Xingyi’s Bengquan because the Bengquan ‘form’ is a perfect training vehicle to work on developing your back, leg and arm bows.  I haven’t mentioned intent (Yi) yet or Jin yet, so there’s more to the story, which I hope to mention next time, but if you’re looking for a way to practice the 5 bows in conjunction with a power release then Bengquan is a perfect mechanism to practice it with.