Tai Chi Notebook News, May 25th 2023

So, a heads up about a couple of new books on the way, a robot teaching Tai Chi and a seminar write up that’s worth a mention. This post actually makes me think, should I be doing a newsletter? What do you think? Do you want one? Would you read it? Let me know!


Dragon Body, Tiger Spirit

Byron Jacob has a new translation of the Xing Yi Classics, Dragon Body, Tiger Spirit, coming out, which looks like it will include a chapter on the history of Xing Yi written by Jarek Szymanski who you may know from his popular website China from inside.

Image Credit: Mushin Martial Culture

This is looking like it’s going to be good. The title is a nice play on “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and it refers to things mentioned in the Xing Yi Classics. The cover also features a nicely-colourised version of the only photo we have of the famous Xing Yi master Guo Yun Shen, which has been very nicely done. (Master Guo is the guy seated centre right, and wearing the light blue tunic, next to Master Che.)

There have been many books that contain the Xing Yi classics translated, of course, but I’m hoping that Byron’s commentary will be the thing that makes this one different.

Byron says: “Dragon Body, Tiger Spirit will be available in hardcover, softcover as well as digital versions. To be notified of release visit mushinmartialculture.com and sign up to the newsletter.”

I’ll do a review once I get my hands on a copy.


Yang Style Short Form

Another nicely presented book on my horizon is Yang Style Short Form by Sifu Leo Ming and Caroline Addenbrooke. The short form in question is the Cheng Man-Ching Tai Chi form, and calling it the “Yang Short Form” is a bit of a liberty, since it is not the official Yang Short Form. But names aside, it looks like it’s going to be interesting.

Here’s the description:

“A beginners guide to Taiji Chuan is a comprehensive training guide for all students of Taiji who are serious about mastering the art of Taiji. It is unique in that it details each of the forty four postures that make up the complete Yang Style Short Form, and it does so in a way that the student can experience the smallest nuance of each movement, from the opening sequence to the closing posture.”

It sounds interesting, especially since it goes on to say it will teach you how to breathe correctly during your practice and how the “Tan Tien drives all movement, opening the meridians so that the universal llife [sic] force can flow through you. “

A spelling mistake in the description of the book on the website (“llife”) is a bit of a red flag, but that could be Barnes & Nobles fault, and nothing to do with the book. However, I’m curious about the use of “Taiji Chuan” as a Romanisation on the cover though, since it seems to mix both Pinyin and Wade-Giles Romanisation systems. I have genuinely never seen anybody mix the two quite like this before. It’s usually either “Tai Chi Chuan” or “Taijiquan”. This will upset some people, I’m sure, but I don’t mind.

I’ll be reviewing the book soon.

Robot Tai Chi

I guess it was inevitable, but somebody has made a life-size robot that teaches Tai Chi.

Image Credit: Credit: Rochester Institute of Technology

Depending on how it works (there’s no video!) this looks quite impressive, however, I’m left with one burning question – why? I don’t know how many thousands or millions of dollars it took to create this robot, but economically I’m pretty sure that paying Bob, your local Tai Chi teacher $50 to teach Tai Chi to the people in the old folks home once a week is a business model that is going to be hard for a multi-million dollar robot to beat. This looks like a solution in search of a problem to me.

Chen style seminar write up

Let me give a shout out to my friend Ken Gullette of Internal Fighting Arts for his write up of a recent seminar with Chen Tai Chi mastermind Nabil Ranne in Philadelphia. Here’s a quote:

“What impressed me most about Nabil’s teaching was the level of detail. And there were differences — in the shorter stances where feet are parallel most of the time, in the shifting of weight, in the awareness of different jin in each movement, the fullness of the dan t’ien and the coordination of the mingmen, the opening and closing of the chest and back, the folding of the chest and stomach, the closing power in the legs, the grounding from the heels, the stability of the knees and the spiraling through the feet, and connecting it all in each movement; and peng — always maintaining peng, which I have worked on for over two decades but still learn new aspects.”

Image Credit: Ken Gullette

Nabil teaches Tai Chi in the Chen Yu lineage, and to my eye seems by far the best of the teachers available if you want to follow that particular line of Chen style. Plus, you can learn with him online at the Chen Style Taijiquan Network

If you want to get a quick glimpse of his style of Tai Chi then check out this Instagram page.


Recent Tai Chi Notebook posts

Here are 3 things I wrote this week that you should read:

1. The power of connection with Henry Akins:

I came across this video recently of Henry Akins explaining the concept of connection in BJJ, as taught to him by Rickson Gracie, and it doesn’t half remind me of Tai Chi…

2. Way of the Warrior episode: Shorinji Kempo

The classic BBC TV series, Way of the Warrior’s episode on Shorinji Kempo just appeared online, and it still holds up today.

3. Where should the elbows be in Xing Yi?

This blog is about a weird quirk of the Xing Yi world. There’s a surprisingly large amount of online debate in Xing Yi circles about where the elbow should be when performing Xing Yi.

If you haven’t checked The Tai Chi Notebook out on Facebook then please do, and why not give our Instagram page a look too, and our YouTube channel?

Episode 23 – Mike Ash on using Xing Yi Quan for combat

There’s a lot of great martial stuff in Xing Yi Quan, which is feeling more and more like an untapped resource these days. With that in mind I interviewed one of my old training partners, Mike Ash, for the latest episode of my podcast. Mike has always been interested in training Xing Yi Quan as a martial art, and that’s what we talk about. He’s also practiced plenty of other martial arts and has recently started a new study into Taijiquan.

We talk about all of that, plus the spiritual side of martial arts. Here’s the podcast:

Xing Yi 5 Elements Fighting drill

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.

The Heretical Baguazhang and Xing Yi Monkey connection

Bagua and Xing Yi are two styles that have historically been trained together. The story you usually read is that martial artists living in Beijing in the 1900s rooming together found the two styles to be complimentary and therefore a long history of cross training naturally arose between them. I think this description of history is true, however, I often wonder if the real story is that earlier in time the two styles sprang from the same source, so this period was more of a reuniting of styles than two separate styles meeting?

Xing Yi Beng Quan

We speculated about the origins of Baguazhang before in the Heretics episode I did with my teacher. That one seemed to upset a lot of people, especially those were emotionally invested in Baguazhang, but hey it’s not called the Heretics Podcast for no reason! You’re going to get an heretical view of things there, and that will always upset people. Perhaps we should have put a big disclaimer on the front! If you’re going to listen to it, we’d suggest emptying your cup first. But anyway…

If we forget historical lineage questions for a moment and just look at the arts as presented today, it’s not hard to see a connection between the two. The stepping is very similar. Xing Yi normally steps in a straight line, but once you look at the turns at the end of each line you start to see what is clearly the same sort of stepping that is used in Baguazhang’s circle walking.

I think this is a very good video by a martial artist called Paul Rogers explaining how Bagua circle walking is basically two steps – an inward turning out step bai bu (inward placing step) and kou bu (hooking step).

Notice that his student is asking him questions about why they circle walk in Baguazhang and he keeps returning to the same answer, which is “you could do it in a straight line”. The problem with doing things on a straight line is that you need a lot of space, doing it in a circle helps you make more efficient use of whatever space you have. So, it’s the steps that are important, not the circle.

Here’s a short article about the two steps and their usage in Baguazhang. Plenty of styles of Baguazhang do have straight line drills too. And when you take the circle walking away, I think the connection between Xing Yi and Baguazhang starts to become clearer, at least to me.

In the Xing Yi lineage I’ve been taught the animal that most looks like Baguazhang is the monkey. These days Xing Yi is know for short little forms (or Lian Huan: “linking sequences” -as we prefer to call them) however I believe this is a result of years and years of politically-directed reformations being applied to the rich and varied martial systems that existed before the Boxer Rebellion. After the Boxer Rebellion and the religious secret societies that fueled it, there was an effort to strip martial arts away from any religious connections. Then came the Kuo Shu movement (we’re simplifying history here, but several authors have written about this – have a look on Amazon, and this video from Will at Monkey Steals Peach will help) and then the Communists arrived with the WuShu movement. The result was that the rich and varied lineages of Xing Yi became standardised, often into short sequences that could be easily taught to large groups. In any case, the idea of set sequences doesn’t have to be the be all and end all of martial arts. Some teacher encourage students to create their own, once they have a good enough understanding off the principles.

We have an extended linking sequence for Monkey, taught to me by my teacher. Here’s a video of me doing a fragment of it, being a Xing Yi Monkey in a forest grove. My natural home :). I’ll put the full video in my Patron’s area if you want to see more of it.

But look at the steps I’m doing – can you see the bai bu and the kou bu? I think that if I added circle walking into that it would be almost indistinguishable from Baguazhang.

This begs the question, which came first? Xing Yi is historically older than Baguazhang, but I think because of the mixing of the arts, they both influenced each other at this point, and possibly are the same art to begin with!

I like to think of the best answer to the terrible question that plagues martial arts lineages of “which is oldest?” is “right now, we are all historically equidistant to the founder”.

Xing Yi Stepping Basics

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).

Good Hebei style Xing Yi Quan (Xingyiquan)

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.

Are set forms the death of creativity?

Xing Yi Eagle link

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.

Xing Yi Bear link

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.

Xing Yi Tiger link

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.

Xing Yi Chicken link

Podcast Episode 2: Byron Jacobs on Beijing martial arts

Episode 2 of the Tai Chi Notebook podcast is out!

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.

If you’d like to be taught by Byron in the arts of Xing Yi and Bagua, then he has an online learning platform available at https://www.patreon.com/mushinmartialculture

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.

Show notes

Byron’s Hua Jin Online learning platform

Byron’s Mu Shin Martial Culture YouTube channel

DQ’d for Kicking TOO HARD? – Doctor Reacts to Olympic Karate Controversy and Knockout Science

Speed passing by Rafa Mendes

Ku Yu Chang (Guruzhang’s) Yang style Taijiquan:

Stand Still Be Fit by Master Lam Kam Chuen

You can find it on all the usual places you find podcasts – search for The Tai Chi Notebook on Apple podcasts, Spotify, etc.. or here’s a link:


What is an authentic understanding of Chinese martial arts?

Qing Dynasty martial artists performing in a procession (between 1901-1904)

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.
Qing Dynasty martial artists performing in a procession (between 1901-1904)

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.

As Charles Holcombe wrote at the start of his seminal 1990 essay on the subject, Theater of combat: A critical look at the Chinese martial arts

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

Xing Yi Quan by Tian Jinglong

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)