One of the hardest things I think that there is to convey in Xing Yi, to the perspective new student, is how the 5 fists work with the stepping. All the time I see people doing the arm positions of the five fists in a highly stylistic and precise way, but the body isn’t right. If the body isn’t right then the fault can usually be found in the legs and waist, and most likely it’s the stepping. In Xing Yi your stepping is the delivery system for the power of the body.
The words of the Xing Yi Classic of Unification apply here:
“When the upper and lower move, the centre will attack. When the centre moves, the upper and lower support, Internal and external, front and rear are combined, This is called “Threading into one”, This cannot be achieved through force or mimicry.”
i.e. everything moves together, as one.
In this video I look at some of the common faults I see in Xing Yi stepping, which could be described as problems of partiality. First, the foot arriving before the hand, then the hand arriving before the foot, and finally the foot and hand landing (i.e. finishing their journey) at the same moment with no penetration.
The real Xing Yi stepping is deeper and more penetrating. You’re hitting the person (or bag) while your front foot is still in the air, as you move through them, displacing their mass. That’s the trick.
(N.B. this style of striking in Xing Yi is more popular in the Hebei style – other styles of Xing Yi have different specialties).
This Xingyiquan video caught my eye recently. It’s a good performance and demonstrates a nice range of material drawn from Xing Yi’s animals and elements. The performer is doing it well, and using some untypical examples of the animals in some cases, which adds a nice bit of variety.
Check it out:
Xing Yi is typically split mainly into two big demographic styles known as Shanxi and Hebei. The video shown here is a good example of Hebei style. It’s practiced by Sun Liyong, a famous Xingyiquan master from Beijing Simin Wushu Club.
If you’d like to know more about the different styles of Xing Yi and how they evolved then check out my history of Xing Yi podcast series.
Tai Chi is just one of a number of Chinese martial arts that have extended forms practice as a key component of their training methods. An incredible amount of time in Tai Chi is dedicated to performing the form in just the right way. Of course, there are lots of martial arts that don’t have forms, but they tend to be more sportive and wrestling based, although striking arts like boxing don’t have set forms either. Exactly why so many Chinese martial arts have forms at all is another question – one that relates back to their cultural origin and use in entertainment and religious festivals, and has relatively little to do with martial efficiency. It’s a contentious point, so for now let’s just accept that most Chinese martial arts today do have forms, and if you’re going to practice a Chinese martial art in 2022, then you’ll be practicing forms too.
In my training I’ve been exposed to various Chinese martial arts, and they all had a number of “set in stone” forms to train, until that is, I was introduced to Xing Yi. Or rather, I should say, to my Xing Yi teacher. His method of teaching Xing Yi was entirely different to most modern teachers – he really didn’t like the idea of set forms. Beyond the 5 Element form (the basics of Xing Yi) he didn’t really believe that any form should be ‘set in stone’. In fact, he wouldn’t even let you call them “forms”. You had to metaphorically put a pound in the swear jar every time you said the word “form”. He preferred the term “linking sequence” (lian huan, in Chinese) because it implied that the postures were linked together and could just as easily be linked together in an entirely different way. This is not entirely true, either. Sometimes he would teach you a particular sequence that was the way one of his teachers did it, and we’d call it the “master xyz linking sequence”, on the basis that you had to start somewhere, but if you ever quizzed him too deeply about a particular movement sequence then the answers would soon start to turn into the “well you could do it this way, or you could do it this way…” territory. He really didn’t want to be pinned down into a specific way of doing anything.
I think the reason he was like this is that he didn’t want to kill the natural creativity in his students, and he wanted to keep the practice vital and alive. It should be obvious that your goal in martial arts is to be a formless fighter – even a small amount of light sparring will reveal the universal truth to you that if you try and adopt fixed methods to a live situation, the results are never good. To deal with any kind of live situation you need to be able to respond and adapt freely to whatever is happening. I think he saw the popular “fixed forms” training method as being part of the reason that some Chinese martial arts were less than successful when applied for real. It was also the way he’d been taught Xing Yi, and he wanted to teach in the manner in which he’d been taught. Of course, this makes it a lot harder to teach – having a few set forms makes teaching much easier, and also transfers to large groups well. Being spontaneous requires much closer attention from a teacher and is almost impossible to expand to teaching larger groups of people. The best class size is always 1-1, and commercially that’s a hard thing to pull off. Luckily money was never part of the equation when we trained! I can’t say his method was universally successful in creating good students either – it’s definitely not. I’ve seen students of his who ended up being pretty delusional about their own abilities from following this method. It requires time (years) of prolonged contact so that you can absorb a martial art this way. If you get separated from the teacher too much then you can easily go off on the wrong track. It’s a bit like throwing mud at a wall – sometimes it sticks, sometimes it doesn’t. And sometimes the mud decides it’s somebody who has nothing left to learn from other people, and develops delusions of grandeur while trying to maintain the illusion of being humble. But, c’est la vie.
Anyway, I’ve peppered some video of me throughout this post so you can see some examples of what I mean by linking sequences – these are little Xing Yi linking sequences I’ve create to fit the space I’m working in. I like this sort of practice where you create new links each time you practice. You can combine different animals and elements in an almost endless number of variations. You can even do the movements from one animal but in the style – the xing – of another. Each day you train is different and depends on how you feel and the environment you’re training in. In fact, letting your environment (preferably, nature) into your practice is part of the training.
Now contrast that to typical Tai Chi training – you practice the same form in the same way, every day, for the rest of your life. Sounds a bit dull, doesn’t it?
Well, perhaps not. While the sequence in a Tai Chi form never varies, you can introduce a tremendous amount of variation within that fixed frame. This was how my Tai Chi teacher taught me, years before I started Xing Yi. After you’d learned the form you’d do the form in different ways, depending on what you were working on. The size of the postures could vary, the height of the postures could vary, the speed could vary from very fast to very slow, or you could focus on the breathing, on separating empty and solid. Again, the list was almost endless. It worked better if you stuck to one particular ‘thing’ for a good few months though, before you moved on to the next. Again, close contact with a teacher is required, over years.
Once the Communist ideology took over in China it infiltrated everything, including martial arts, and it’s influence is still there today. The Communist ideal is that everything looks the same, and is done in the same way. The individual identity is subsumed by the group identity. You can see this influence in the martial arts of the period and its effects echoing into modern times. Row upon row of silk pyjama-wearing Tai Chi people practicing exactly the same form in perfect unison. If you want to get good at martial arts, that’s the thing you want to avoid. And if you’re thinking right now that your practice doesn’t involve enough spontaneity or creativity, then perhaps some of the ideas contained in this post can help.
Byron Jacobs is a teacher of Xing Yi and Bagua based in Beijing, China. He’s a student of the famous Shifu Di Guoyong and is heavily involved in the martial arts scene in Beijing. As well as training traditional martial arts he’s also a BJJ practitioner and competitor.
In this wide ranging discussion we talk about training Xing Yi, Bagua and Tai Chi and whether Wu Shu will ever get into the Olympics. We also find out what it was like to train martial arts in Beijing during the Corona virus pandemic, and what the Chinese BJJ and MMA scene is like.
I’m still fascinated by that film I posted a little while ago of China from 1901-1904. It’s as close as we’ll get to seeing the people who were around at the time that the popular martial arts of Northern China – Taijiquan, Baguazhang and Xingyiquan were being formalised into the structures and routines we still know and recognise today.
It gives a small insight into what the martial arts of the time were like, we have an idea of what they practiced, but we don’t always know where they practiced them, and to some extent really why they practiced them. There’s a particular sequence starting at 17.10 in the film where we see a procession of sorts going along a riverbank and then entering a village or town. There are martial arts performers doing twirls and spins of their weapons as they go. The setting is informal, music is being played (we see the musicians) and it has something of an air of the Saint’s Day religious processions you still see going on between villages in rural European nations, or the May Day “Hobby Hoss” procession that can still found in Cornwall in the United Kingdom.
But back to China. The martial artists involved seem embedded into the culture of the place and time as much as the musicians or flag holders.
“There was a well established pattern of village festival culture in Northern China. The ritual was called a sai and it was based on a three-part structure: inviting, welcoming and seeing off the gods. Ritual could last anywhere from three days to a month. Wherever you happened to be, these rituals were happening nearby every two weeks. A smaller sai might have only 50 people officiating and a thousand participants, while a large one might involve hundreds of ritual experts and 100,000 participants. A large ritual could invoke as many as 500 gods, their statues escorted out of temples in massive processions with armed escorts of martial performers that snaked between villages for miles.”
“According to David Johnson, ritual festivals were so common and so old and so large that they were overwhelmingly the most important influence shaping the symbolic universe of the common people. Regionally they happen about every two weeks and could involve over a hundred villages, with processions that strung out for miles attracting thousands of spectators. “It is quite impossible to understand what villagers… in North China thought and felt about the world of politics, about Chinese history and traditions, about the world of gods and demons, or about any of the grand matters of life and death, without a close familiarity with sai [and similar rituals]. Ref: David Johnson 1997, “Temple Festivals in Southeastern Shanxi”, Overmyer 2009,8.”
From Tai Chi, Baguazhang and the Golden Elixir: Internal martial arts before the Boxer Rebellion by Scott Phillips, p173.
I don’t think we can assume, from one film. that all Chinese martial art of the period was like this, but it’s fascinating to see a glimpse of how well it was integrated with everything else.
Everywhere in China the martial arts either present themselves in the guise of simple exercises or are shrouded in arcane religious mysteries. Western enthusiasts often feel impelled to strip away these religious trappings and construct a version of the martial arts that is neither simple gymnastics nor religion, but emphasizes true hand-to-hand combat skills. The question remains, is this an authentic understanding of the martial arts?
Charles Holcombe, Theater of combat: A critical look at the Chinese martial arts
Here’s a nice video of a Xing Yi Quan linking form showing some really nice Xing Yi Quan body methods.
Xing Yi Quan master Tian Jinglong (田景龙) shows Advanced and retreat linked form(Ji Tui Lianhuan（进退连环拳). Tian Jinglong is disciple of Li Jinbo(李金波), youngest student of legendary Hebei province warrior “Iron Luohan” Zhang Changfa (张长发aka Zhang Xiangzhai张祥斋) . Lineage: Li Luoneng(李洛能)—Liu Qilan(刘奇兰)—Liu Dianchen(刘殿琛)—Zhang Changfa(张长发)—Li Jinbo(李金波)—Tian Jinglong(田景龙)
So, I decided to make a short-ish video to clear up some confusing points of discussion in my previous posts, about transfer of weight between legs. This lead me on to talking about the store and release of power in the body that Xing Yi can produce and how you don’t need to “load up” because you should always be “loaded”.
N.B. This is not the same as the jin – ground power – produced by down power on the front foot (that’s going on as well, obviously) but it’s more analogous to the 5 bows concept in Tai Chi, except this is the Xing Yi version, which I think is more suited for continuous striking, not a big “one shot kill”. We call this way of producing power the Dragon body in Xing Yi.
As always, I’m not saying this is the only way to do it, or the best way, or that you suck, or I’m brainwashed, or you are brainwashed. I’m just presenting some information, feel free to reject it if you don’t like it. And all the best in your training.
“Lord make my words as sweet as honey for tomorrow I may have to eat them.”– Unknown.
It’s been pointed out by a kind reader that I didn’t explain myself very well in the last post, and that I was putting “weight” onto the front leg despite saying that I wasn’t. After a long chat with the reader – (thanks Igor) – and some reflection, I think he’s right. So, thanks to Igor for pointing this out. I’ll have another go at explaining what I meant here:
What I was trying to explain was that in a general Xing Yi step I’m not going from a back stance to a front stance. Like this:
Back stance (weighted back leg):
Front stance (weighted front leg):
I desribed not doing this in my last post as “not putting my weight on the front leg“. However, I now realise that this is misleading because at the point in the video where I’m hitting the tennis ball my mass is landing on the front leg. Here’s the moment:
You can hear it as well, if you have the sound on. The rear leg then follow steps and catches up and “catches” under my body.
So, while my stance is not changing from a back stance to a front stance, my mass does go into the front leg, and the ground.
One of the reasons I write this blog is to write out my thoughts, because then I can be really clear with what I mean, and correct them if necessary. So, I think I just got a little bit clearer, thanks to one of my readers. The point of this blog is never blind adherence to a particular viewpoint, but to research and challenge what I’m doing, and keep an open mind.
The other point that I think is worth making is that the ‘mass going into the ground’ is only happening because I’m not hitting something of substantial mass. You can hear the sound of my foot hitting the ground as I hit the tennis ball. If I was hitting something heavy, like a person, I think that’s what should be making the sound. That’s the real “Thunder sound” of Xing Yi – the sound of your first hitting the person. Chinese martial art is done so much against the air that I think people have become too obsessed with putting power into the ground. It’s what happens with generations of people punching air. It seems clear to me that the power should be going into the opponent. When we have no opponent, or one of little mass (like a tennis ball) then the power ends up going down into the ground.
Here’s the video again, if you want to see what it does in motion:
Edit: I wrote a second post that added a clarification about the difference between what I meant by “weight” and “weighted leg”, because I realise that this post isn’t very clear on the subject. I’ve left the rest of this post unedited.
Here’s the good news: our recent podcast about Yi Quan seems to have upset far fewer people than our one about Baguazhang. In general, reaction to the Yi Quan podcast has been positive. It’s a good point to remind people that our Heretics podcast isn’t a history podcast, it’s a podcast about the miasma – cultural assumptions and how they have played a role in the development of various arts, religions and institutions throughout history. The episode was as much about Xing Yi as it was about Yi Quan, and also the kind of tradition of criticism that the founder, Wang Xiangzhai, baked into it.
As we discussed in the podcast, Wang Xiangzhai’s criticism can be viewed as “the spirit of the times” speaking through him. At the time it was required to talk down to “rotten old traditions”, of which Xing Yi was an example (China has never really had a free press). You can read some of Wang’s criticisms in his article “Essence of Boxing Science”, which is an interview he did, turned into an essay.
He says about Xing Yi: “ It must be noted that Xing Yi Quan in its orthodox form had no such thing as the Twelve Forms (Twelve Animals), though their should be twelve forms of the body. Nor did it have the theory of mutual promotion and restraint of the five elements.”
Actually I’d agree with him – that is the way Xing Yi should be practiced. The animals are not “forms”. That was the general theme of the podcast – there’s very little difference between Yi Quan and Xing Yi done right.
However, Yi Quan people still like to criticise 🙂
I read a post recently by a (good) practitioner of Yi Quan criticising Xing Yi’s punching method – using Beng Quan as an example.
“It still baffles me when I see xingyiquan people Beng Chuan without turning the waist and shoulders, even worse almost hopping on the rear leg as all the weight is held back.”
I’d agree with him – you need movement in your body using your spine as an axis – it’s no use being like an inflexible lump of wood. And, yes, “hopping” is another mistake. Don’t hop.
But we do hold the weight on the back leg in a lot of movements. This is the hardest thing (I think) for people new to Xing Yi to understand. How can you generate force without putting your weight into the front leg?
That’s a good question to ask a Xing Yi practitioner, because they should be able to punch you and show you 🙂
“Every punch must have 2 important components: Shift of weight. [to front leg] Transference of kinetic chain from lower to upper extremity.”
Well, yes, but with caveats. That’s certainly how you generally punch in boxing, or in other martial arts. However, let’s remember that people in these arts can still generate power while retreating – enough to knock somebody out. Anderson Silva famously knocked out Forrest Griffin, while stepping backwards to avoid his rushing attack. So the situation is clearly not as cut and dried as some would like.
I’m not really into hitting things much these days – I prefer the joys of pyjama wrestling on soft mats (with minimal brain injury), but I thought I’d make a short video to show you can generate force without putting your weight into the front leg, as Xing Yi teaches us, and that maybe we should all keep an open mind on the matter.
If you look at my front leg in the video you’ll see I never put my weight onto it. It steps out in front of the body, then the back leg catches up. Obviously, it holds some weight, but the weight is ‘held’ mainly on the back leg. This is how you’re supposed to do it in my line of Xing Yi. You can, of course, also do it with a weighted front leg, but the principle of “Chicken Leg” is that one leg holds the weight – it doesn’t matter which one – and we don’t need to transfer the weight between legs to generate force, instead, the force comes from correct stepping and body movement (Dragon body).
Yes, I know need to get a bag to hit, but instead I’ve got a tennis ball on a string to play with (we go with what we’ve got available, right?) I’ll get a bag at some point and do another video.
Why do it like this? Good question.
i) You arrive quicker to where it is you’re getting to – it’s much more “all at once” than having to transfer weight between the legs. It’s sharper and better if you’re looking to intercept the opponent (Jeet) which matters most in weapons fighting, where timing is much finer than with fists (Xing Yi comes from weapons, spear being the main one).
ii) You keep your body “back”, which is better for defence. Leaning too much into things is a great way to get knocked out, as we all know. Or with weapons, you want to keep the vital organs as far back as you can. If you look at the Xing Yi Classics it says things like “do not wither and do not be greedy” – you need to keep a reserved attitude to fighting, especially with weapons.
In other news – the blossom is coming out on the cherry tree – you might be able to see it in the video. Spring is here!
As lockdown lingers around the world martial arts classes are facing a tough time, however, there are plenty of stimulating online discussions on martial arts to listen to. Here are three discussions I’ve listened to recently that have tickled my cerebral tentacles. Maybe they’ll do the same thing for yours?
It’s very interesting to listen to the criticisms that Qays makes in the above discussion then watch this clip I found of “Viking martial arts/Glima” – (which was litterally the first clip that came up when I searched for Glima). This martial art looks exactly like No Gi Brazilian Jiujitsu to me…
Xing Yi and Yi Quan
Next is Byron Jacobs excellent Drunken Boxing Podcast in which he interviews Yi Quan practitioner James Carss. What I like about this discussion is that it’s very down to earth and real about what it’s like training martial arts in China and Hong Kong. It’s not all smiles and rainbows and it was interesting hearing about the animosity between different groups of the same martial art that naturally spring up. Plus you get to find out more about the connections between Yi Quan and Xing Yi Quan, and how they are a lot closer than a lot of people think.
Finally, here’s a bit of an older discussion, but fascinating if you are interested in the connection between Chinese theatre and martial arts. Scott Park Philips is in conversation with Daniel Mroz about all the subjects you find in his latest book. Scott never gives the same answer twice, but it’s an interesting slice into his mind. In particular he answers the question “What is the Golden Elixir?” at 41.44.