I Liq Chuan – a great teaching system

May 28, 2013

Through a friend, I was recently introduced to Sam Chin’s I Liq Chuan. First impressions are that it has all the hallmarks of an internal art – namely the emphasis on power through relaxation, the importance of the mind/intent, sensitivity/sticking, etc. However, what struck me even more strongly was how well-thought out and structured the I Lik Chuan training methodology is.

My general experience of the CMA (YMMV) is that while many arts have amazingly good material, the majority of the teaching of CMA tends to be very haphazard and ad hoc. The master teaches the student what he thinks the student needs (or, in more cases, what he is willing to reveal). Two students learning from the same master at the same time will probably learn the same things overall, but in a different order and with different emphases. The result of this is that when they themselves come to teach they also teach in a haphazard manner. Put charitably, this is termed ‘tailoring to the individual’ (yin cai shi jiao). However, my experience is that the lack of a systematic teaching method leads to divisions and disagreements between students, especially when they in turn start to teach, with the result that students effectively have to relearn much of the syllabus if they change teachers, even within the same style or branch. The best example of this is the 4 Buddha Warriors Attendant from Chen style taiji – despite the fact that the 4 men studied from essentially the same teachers during the same period, students of, say, Chen Xiaowang’s variation, will have to essentially relearn the form if they switch to studying from someone in Chen Zhenglei’s line, and so on.

Typically clear diagram of 3 Planes of Movement in I Lik Chuan (from excellent website, www.fallingleaveskungfu.com)

Typically clear diagram of 3 Planes of Movement in I Lik Chuan (from excellent website, http://www.fallingleaveskungfu.com)

What I like about I Lik Chuan is that, not only is the system standardized in the way it is taught, but also (a) it focuses on training body skills (which I would argue are the core of the art) rather than plunging straight into a form, and (b) the syllabus sets out very explicitly what skills each exercise is training. From the explanation of the principles of the style given out to students and the little I Liq Chuan my friend showed me, I Lik Chuan’s 15 Basic Exercies get right to the core of the body skills that we associate with high level internal martial arts – whole body connection, the different mechanisms for power generation (spiralling power, opening and closing of the various bows of the body), and how to absorb and project the opponent’s force.

Other styles, take note.


Downsides to the traditional teaching system

May 28, 2013

Just thought I would write a note on my impressions coming to the end of my first year in China (3rd year overall). Of course, all opinions are  based on my experiences in one city in China (Shanghai), which is a comparatively ‘modern’ westernised city by Chinese standards. Things in the heartlands of traditional CMA (Hebei and Shanxi) are probably slightly better than is portrayed below.

My impression of the situation in China at the moment with traditional CMA is that it’s not popular among the young. The number of young people learning and practicing trad CMA is very low. In fact, I would say the most common choice of martial art amongst young guys is TKD, with Sanda a close second, and Kendo for girls. For the country that invented kungfu, this is pretty depressing!

The situation with respect to the teaching of traditional CMA is in a state of flux. For the vast majority of traditional CMA (e.g. Tongbei, Xinyi Liuhe, Baji, etc), they are not taught in universities, nor are they taught in the commercial kungfu schools (which tend to teach a mix of Shaolin, Jeet Kune Do and Tae Kwon Do – whatever makes money). The only way to learn them is the old-fashioned way, i.e. find a master, get him to accept you as his student, and then practice under him either in a park or at his home.

The arts which have made big strides towards a recognisable western ‘kungfu school’ model are Chen style taiji and Yiquan – for both of these arts, a lot of full-time wuguan (=dojo) have popped up in the last ten years in several cities (mostly in the North). Personally I think this is a good thing, and hope to see more wuguan popping up teaching the other traditional arts. However, this is held back by a common belief amongst prospective local students of traditional CMA that a teacher that charges any money at all must be a fraudster with no real skill (?!).

The downsides of the traditional system are:

- it is relatively common for students to be completely neglected, with no instruction/correction for an entire lesson

- pervasive secrecy: not only are the contents of the art not on display to outsiders (i.e. do not practice in the parks), even amongst the same teacher’s students, there is definitely a separation between tudi and ordinary students. Different things are considered ‘inside the door’ in different schools. For example, in my school, Santi and the 5 fists are considered ‘open’, whereas spear shaking [dou da gan] and pangen  are considered inside the door.

- there is no way of accelerating the learning process. In a western class situation, it is often possible to learn more of the art by simply attending more classes (and by practicing harder, of course!) In a traditional situation, it is bad manners to ask to be taught ‘the next move’ – the unwritten understanding is that you will be taught new material when the teacher feels you have mastered what has been taught up till now, and not before.

The above are just some of my impressions after what is a relatively short time in China – who knows, by this time next year I may have a completely different view of things!


Sticking Energy – or Reconsidering What is Possible in Taiji

May 28, 2013

Probably like most people interested in taiji, I am familiar with the concept of ‘sticking’ (nian) or sticking energy (‘nian jin’) in taiji. A good encapsulation of the topic was put together many moons ago by Peter Lim in his article ‘Discourse on Jing’ (http://www.itcca.it/peterlim/lunjing.htm), which I believe is translated from some of Li Yaxuan’s writings. My impression, until about a week ago, was that it was just an extension of the ‘listening’ that we are exhorted to do in taiji – don’t resist but maintain contact (bu diu bu ding), try to sense the opponent’s force, etc. However,  there are several sources (e.g.  Doug Wile and T.T. Liang’s books) which suggest that nian jin is more than this, that at its higher levels it is more like a magnetic force, where the opponent cannot take his hand/leg away even if he wants to.

I had always thought that these were just the typical exaggerations found in Chinese writing about martial arts. However, a recent experience has changed my mind – or at least forced me to keep an open one. Through a friend, I had been invited to an experimental practice session of a local taiji teacher. The friend, knowing that I was familiar with the style, promised that it would be worth my while. Always curious to see real taiji skills, I agreed.

What followed was 2 hours of pushing hands practice – unremarkable in its patterns, which were familiar to me from my previous experience. What was remarkable was the skills of the teacher.

One ability which he showed was to direct his power (neijin). He had such control over the direction of his fajin that he would state before starting to push where he would target, and lo and behold, off the student would go. For example, if the teacher said ‘now I will target the back of his head’, his student would fly off with the head going first; or if the teacher said ‘now I will target his hips’ , the student would collapse to the ground. The teacher allowed me to put my hands on his students’ bodies as he did this, and I am sure of what I felt – his jin was indeed striking first in the area he had targeted.

 Perhaps more remarkable was his sticking energy.  In pushing with his students (who were all fairly fit young guys), his ‘nian jin’ was such that his students were pulled from pillar to post (almost literally).  On several occasions, he dragged them around with his hand on top of their arm! Speaking to them afterwards, they said that the sticking doesn’t work 100% of the time, but when it does work, they have no chance of escaping at all.  For fairness’s sake I should point out that the teacher declined to demonstrate on me (for fear of hurting me) – so it’s an open point as to how useful this skill is in combat or whether it would work on strangers. Maybe to a lot of people these are just parlour tricks, not useful in real combat. Nevertheless, it has made me reconsider how much of the skills talked about in the old records are actually real and achievable.


The Importance of Drills

May 28, 2013

A happy coincidence led to this note. A few weeks back, when chatting after class with my xingyi teacher, he mentioned that if one wanted to fight with xingyi, reaction drills were very important. I was curious, as so far as I know no book in English (and very few if any of those in Chinese) has even referred to this part of the xingyi curriculum. I asked him exactly what he meant by reaction drills. He said that once the empty hand forms are up to scratch, the student should focus on practicing drill patterns in which student A punches/kicks the other while student B reacts. Obviously, as time goes by, this would be combined with footwork, counter-attacks, etc. The aim is to ingrain the reactions into the student’s body so that it becomes unconscious, only then can it be relied on in the “adrenaline dump”, stressful situation of a real fight.

Perhaps a couple of weeks after that, I came across a long article written by the Chen style master Jiang Jiajun, a student of Chen Zhaopei who later went on to study under Hong Junsheng and Chen Yuxia, Chen Fake’s daughter. It is too long for me to translate here, covering as it does a time frame of about 20 years. However, one portion that struck a chord with me was his description of learning Chen style sanshou under Hong Junsheng:

A young Jiang Jiajun pushing hands with M Hong Junsheng

A young Jiang Jiajun pushing hands with M Hong Junsheng

‘Teacher Hong said “Back when I was learning, in training sanshou, Master Chen [Fake] would start off with ‘hitting hand mitts’ (da shou bazi), combined with advancing and retreating footwork. A pair of students would start from the ‘hidden thrust punch’ (yan shou hong chui) posture with left hand leading, right hand over the heart and with the left foot forward. Stance width was about one and a half shoulder-widths, which allowed for agile movement and easy advancing and retreating. The correct distance  between the two students should be such that left hands just touch.  Student A hits Student B’s left palm with a punch or palm strike, at which Student B should retreat whilst keeping a fixed distance (bu diu bu ding), repeating on alternative sides back and forth. Speed can be fast or slow. This is a basic training method of taijiquan sanshou , but it is also one of the most effective. Once the students are familiar with the ‘yan shou hong chui’ version, they can practice myriad other variations:

high attack – low response, (gao lai di da)
low attack – high response (di lai gao da)
left attack – right response (zuo lai you da)
right attack – left response (you lai zuo da)
empty attack – substantial response  (xu lai shi da)
substantial attack – empty response (shi lai xu da)
Straight attack – horizontal response (zhi lai heng bo)
Horizontal attack – vertical response (heng lai peng ya)

Repeated long-term practice of these combat drills is required if one is to reach the advanced level of sanshou gongfu, which is ‘the hand launches but is not seen, once the hand lands it cannot be evaded’ (chu shou bu jian shou, shou dao bu neng zou). And all of this is built on the foundation of hitting hand mitts, the better your foundation in this, the faster one’s progress will be.

M Hong and my kungfu brother(shixiong) Li Zongqing demonstrated the basic steps of the hand-mitt striking. It was fairly obvious that Zongqing’s footwork was not very coordinated, so that every time M Hong punched his hand he either resisted (ding) or lost contact (diu); M Hong, on the other hand, was as if there was a fixed track, every time he would be in exactly the right place and receive at just the right speed. After a little while of this, Zongqing’s footwork was more and more all over the place and he was getting out of breath, while M Hong was not showing any signs of effort, as if he had plenty in reserve.

Seeing this, I offered to replace Zongqing in the drill. M Hong joked ‘What? You want to play a tag match with the old man?’ Everyone watching laughed at M Hong’s joke. M Hong may have been laughing and joking, but his hands and footwork showed no signs of slackening, I launched a series of palm and fist strikes, but only touched the skin of his palm, it felt empty. When it was M Hong’s turn to attack, however, his fists were like drills, drilling into my palms, dead on target every time. I tried to evade and neutralize, but couldn’t, and was thrown more than one zhang (3m) away.”

So it seems like reaction drill training is a crucial part of the traditional training syllabus for both xingyiquan and Chen style taiji, especially if you want to be able to use it in a fight. Have any readers had experience with this kind of practice?


Shanghai Training Diary

May 2, 2012

Just came back from training for a week with Wang Senlin of Shanghai, who I have mentioned in this blog before. Like most Chinese kungfu teachers, Master Wang teaches and practices in a park near his home every morning. He does his personal practice from 4 – 6am and then from about 6am to 9am is for teaching and supervising students’ practice. Mornings came to follow a predictable pattern:  I would turn up at 6.30 am (lazy Western student!), and after a few warm-ups, would practice Santi for about 45 minutes (changing legs of course), followed by about an hour of Piquan. Around me, Master Wang’s students ran through various elements, or if I was lucky, we would get to see some Za Shi Chui or animals (rarely). During the breaks in training, the more senior students would often stand around smoking and chatting about xingyi or recent gossip, stopping from time to time to offer Master Wang a fresh cigarette. Over the course of the week, I talked a lot with Master Wang about xingyi and also his life history in general. He mentioned several xingyi-related topics which I thought might be of interest to readers, such as:

  • Importance of Pai Da Gong (body-beating exercises) if xingyi is to be used for fighting. In Master Wang’s line, there is a set of pai da gong in which various parts of the body (back, arms, ribs) are struck by a fellow student to increase ability to take hits.
  • Concept of Dui La (opposing forces) in training
  • Guo – ‘Wrapping’ – xingyi shenfa requirement similar to ‘han xiong ba bei’ (hollow the chest, round the back) in taiji
  • Huo Kua – ‘opening up’ the kua. For most people, the kua (inguinal crease) has very limited flexibility, it is almost a dead joint. However, the kua is one of the keys to generating power in xingyi, and so Master Wang teaches his students a couple of exercises to open up the kua. This is the first step to achieving the ‘wringing’ (called ‘ning’) of the waist and kua that is a key part of xingyi power generation.

One of the things I found most interesting was Master Wang’s experience with Sanda. During the early 80s, Master Wang was part of and eventually coached the Shanghai Workers Union Sanda team. He said that at that time, they had no experience with modern protective equipment, and so had to copy it from pictures in martial arts magazines. For head protectors, they used ex-military caps and for the chest they used padded vests with bamboo strips in them. The vests turned out to be a very bad idea as the bamboo strips often splintered under impact. He said the only additional training he did to prepare for these competitions was long-distance running to build stamina. Later on, Master Wang refereed several Sanda competitions in other parts of China which were open to all-comers, and he said that the early Sanda competitions the fights often lasted less than a minute, with many competitors either giving up or being too injured to continue.


Zhao Bin and the Yang family

December 17, 2011

It is not often realised that, of the commonly listed disciples of Yang Chengu, 3 were actually relatives of his, namely Fu Zhongwen, Zhao Bin and Zhang Qinglin. Both Fu and Zhang are fairly well known in the West through the efforts of their students and grandstudents, but Zhao (perhaps unfairly) is much less well known.

Zhao Bin

An account of his formative years, of which I’ve translated an extract below (written by Zhao’s son, Zhao Youbin, who teaches in Xi’an), is a precious snapshot of growing up in one of the ‘homes’ of taiji.

“…Yang Jianhou had 3 sons, Yang Zhaoxiong (known as Yang Shaohou), Yang Zhaoyuan (Yang Zhonghou), and Yang Zhaoqing (otherwise known as Yang Chengfu). Yang Zhaoyuan inherited much of his uncle Banhou’s temperament and was quick-tempered and had a prodigious appetite for food and drink. Because he had no son but two daughters [in those days it was considered most unfortunate to not have to son to carry on the family line], he became depressed. Later, he developed diverticulitis and died at a young age. He left behind two daughters, Yang Cong and Yang Min, who were brought up by Yang Jianhou and his wife.

During the years of these events, another Yongnian family, the Zhaos, was prosperous and growing. The master of the house, Zhao Lin (Zhao Bin’s grandfather) had five sons, who people called ‘the 5 tigers of the Zhao family’. The Zhao family owned a restaurant near the front gate of Guangfu village called ‘Wan Xing Lou’, which was run by the second son. The eldest son was a scholar, the third was purchaser for the restaurant, the fourth was the restaurant’s book-keeper and the fifth studied in Beijing.

The fourth son, Zhao Bin’s father, was called Zhao Shutang (1882-1951). From a young age he displayed a cautious and loyal nature and was generous to others less fortunate. In his years as book-keeper of the family’s restaurant, he was very generous to customers, always rounding bills down to the nearest 10. Whenever poor people came into the restaurant begging for food, he would straight away instruct the waiters to give them mantou (steamed buns) with some meat and veg. Friends who came to him to borrow money found that he was only too happy to help. As Zhao Shutang got older, his elder brother kept an eye out for suitable girls in the town for him to marry. As luck would have it, he set his sights on Yang Zhaoyuan’s elder daughter, Yang Cong (1888-1962). Both families agreed at once to the match, and the two were married in 1904 when Yang Cong was 17 years old.

Legend has it that, at the ‘hui men’ part of the wedding ceremony [where the new groom visits the home of his new in-laws according to Chinese custom], Yang Zhaoyuan had already passed away a year before, so it fell to Yang Jianhou and Yang Shaohou to welcome the new groom. During the banquet, they asked Zhao Shutang if he knew any martial arts. With a shy smile, Zhao pulled aside his chair and performed the Yang family’s low frame set underneath the table. At this, Yang Jianhou laughed and said ‘You’ve got potential; when you have some free time, please come over, I’ll have Shaohou take your studies further’. And so this episode has come to be called ‘Yang Jianhou tests his new son-in-law at the banquet’ by their descendants.

From then on, Zhao Shutang took on the responsibility of looking after his new wife’s mother and sister. Two years later, Yang Cong gave birth to a son (Zhao Bin 1906 – 1999) and two daughters: Zhao Guizhen (1908 – 1875, who would later marry Fu Zhongwen) and Zhao Xiuzhen.

Yang Chengfu (L) with Zhao Bin (R) c.1930

Zhao Bin was not only Zhao Shutang’s only son, but also the Yang family’s precious first grandson. Although his grandfather Yang Zhaoyuan had passed away, his great-uncles Yang Shaohou and Yang Chengfu treated him as if he were their own grandson. Zhao spent much of his early years playing at his grandmother’s house, and from the age of 6 or 7 would deliver roast chicken, donkey meat and crispy pancakes (you su bing) to the Yangs. His great-uncles also taught him to practice taiji from an early age. Even Zhao’s original name ‘Zhao Wu’, carried the meaning of inheriting the Yang family’s martial traditions. Zhao’s primary school teacher was none other than the famous Wu (Hao) style master Hao Weizhen, who taught taiji as a one of the school subjects. Zhao was intelligent, had a good memory and liked to fight…At that time, there were a dozen or so male cousins in the Zhao family, and Zhao Bin would be the one leading the fights…

Speaking of group fights, my father mentioned enthusiastically that back then it was mainly the Zhao family kids fighting against the Li family (the grandchildren of the taiji master Li Yiyu). In these fights, Zhao Bin would lead the Zhao family, while the Lis were led by Li Huaiyin (Li Yiyu’s grandson, who would also later go on to become a master of his family’s taiji). Of course, these fights weren’t serious, and neither side held grudges. When Zhao Bin met Li Huaiyin many years later in Nanjing, they had great fun reminiscing over their childhood escapades and decided there and then to become sworn brothers. Unfortunately they never met again. In the early 90s, the chief editor of ‘China Taiji’ magazine, Li Guangfan, wrote to Zhao requesting him to submit an article. My father casually asked Li if he knew of Li Huaiyin’s whereabouts, and was stunned to be told that he was Li Guangfan’s father! Upon hearing that Li Huaiyin had already passed away, Zhao began corresponding with Li Guangfan and the two became good friends.”

Zhao Bin performing Yang taiji


Tong Zhongyi and his Shuai Jiao

December 11, 2011

Tong Zhongyi (1879 – 1963), styled Tong Liangchen, was a famous wushu master of Manchu extraction.

Tong Zhongyi

His ancestors were bannermen in the Qing army who followed the Manchu royal family from Liaoning into ‘Han’ China and eventually settled in Cangzhou. Tong’s grandfather Tong Mingkui was garrisoned on China’s frontiers and gave his life defending them. Tong’s father, Tong Enrui,was a skilled martial artist as well as an accomplished bone-setter. At the age of 6, Tong Zhongyi began to learn both the martial and medical arts which had been passed down within the Tong family, which included shuai jiao and liu he quan. By the time he was an adult, he was a master in his own right and was particularly adept at shuai jiao and flicking shot-pellets (tan wan).

In the dying days of the Qing dynasty (in 1902), Tong followed his elder brother (Tong Zhongcheng) to work as a caravan guard in the De  Sheng guarding agency in Fengtian (modern-day Shenyang). His work as a guard took him all over China, and in his travels he met many great masters of the time. It was during this period that Tong and Wang Ziping won the accolade of ‘the 2 heroes of Cangzhou’. After the fall of the Qing and the Xin Hai revolution, Tong spent most of the early Republican period working as a martial arts instructor in various local militias in Fengtian, Baoding, Anhui, etc.

In 1922, Tong arrived in Shanghai at the invitation of the Guo Yu Wushu Research Society and soon afterwards set up the ‘Zhongyi Guoshu Academy’, which taught 5 subjects, namely shuai jiao, quanshu, weightlifting, archery and weapons. In the 1928 ‘Guo Kao’ inNanjing, Tong placed in the ‘Excellent’ category.

Upon opening the ‘Zhongyi Boxing Academy’, Tong set 3 rules:

-         he would not compete with swords or spears;

-         he would not compete with sticks and staffs;

-         he would not compete at kicking and punching.

He made clear that challengers could only challenge him at 4 contests:

1)     Pole-shaking: whoever shook the pole the most times was considered the winner;

2)     Drawing a bow: whoever could fully draw a 100-pound bow the most times was considered the winner;

3)     Flicking pellets: whoever could hit bronze cymbals suspended from a tree at a distance of 30m the most times with 30 pellets won; and

4)     Shuai Jiao: whoever could beat him 2 times out of 3 bouts would be considered the winner.

No challenger ever managed to beat him at these 4 contests.

Tong’s methods of teaching shuai jiao were very special.  He would first teach willpower and endurance, along with leg and arm strength drills. For example, he would have his students practice the shuai jiao techniques  ‘single hook and comb’ (dan gou gua) and ‘double hook and comb’ (shuang gou gua) in a horse-riding stance in order to train leg and arm strength at the same time. Each session of horse-riding stance training would last about half an hour.

Tong Zhongyi in traditional shuai jiao uniform, the 'dalian'

He would also have his students train in common shuai jiao methods such as low-stepping whilst doing left and right kicks, shaking leather strips, ‘wringing’ small and big sticks (bangzi – much like the ‘rolling pin’ type stick used in taiji ruler), and ‘jumping and exploding’ (tiao bengzi – see link here: http://www.ycgf.org/ShuaiJiao/Training/BanZiGongTraining.html) . There were also characteristic training methods of his like carrying wicker baskets, moving vats of water, etc. Although these methods may seem a bit unsophisticated, they were extremely effective.

Tong Zhongyi practicing thows with his disciple Liu Fei

(Note that both photos above were taken in 1948, when Tong was 69 years old!)

Tong taught the 24 traditional shuai jiao techniques (banzi) in a sequential progression from easy to hard, simple to complex. He also allowed his students to learn techniques by applying them on him (i.e. allowing his students to throw him out).

One story will suffice to show the level of his shuai jiao skill:

Not long after Tong had established the ‘Zhongyi Boxing Academy’, one day a dozen young men walked in to the academy, saying that they wanted to become Tong’s students. However, it was clear from their tone and demeanour that they had actually come to challenge Tong.  At their head was a famous strongman called Zha Ruilong, who was not only good at martial arts but could also lift a 100+ pound stone barbell over his head as if it were a toy. Tong, discerning the visitors’ real intentions, agreed to a wrestling match. Zha’s friends took on Tong  one by one, losing each time. Finally, it came to Zha’s turn to wrestle Tong. Before the match, Tong asked Zha if he had a handkerchief. Zha, puzzled by this request, pulled one out and gave it to Tong.

Tong then took the handkerchief and blindfolded himself, saying “Before becoming a student of a shifu, of course students want to see the teacher’s skills – this is normal. I’m going to wrestle this young man blindfolded – if I say that I’m going to throw him to the front door but he actually lands somewhere else, that will count as losing the match.” So saying, the two of them started to wrestle. Suddenly, Tong employed the move ‘gai ba wo’ (盖把握) and said “Zha Ruilong, to the front door with you!”. And sure enough, Zha had been thrown so that he landed next to the front door.

In the second bout, Tong said “This time, I’m going to throw you to the back door.” A few moments later, Tong surprised Zha with a leg hook throw (tiao gouzi) – all onlookers saw was Zha flying behind Tong to land in front of the back door. Tong made to help Zha up and begin the 3rd bout, but by this point Zha was convinced of Tong’s skill, and asked to become Tong’s student there and then.

Tong passed away in Shanghai in 1963 at the age of 84, having trained dozens of champion wrestlers and published several books on Wushu, Qin Na, Shuai Jiao, and other subjects.


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