The Martial Spirit of Tianjin – An Interview with Nitzan Oren By Jonathan Bluestein.

I’m happy to be able to host an article from guest author Jonathan Bluestein recording one long interview he did with his teacher, Nitzan Oren. For anyone with an interest in xingyi or other northern martial arts, it’s well worth a read. 
Nitzan holding a Zhan Zhuang posture
Nitzan holding a Zhan Zhuang posture
Tell us a bit about your background in the martial arts, past and present, and how you got to study with your current teacher.
I started training martial arts in 1992, when I was 17. That was my ‘official’ beginning. I really wanted to start much earlier, but my mother didn’t want her child “to turn violent” – a typical Jewish mother response. So at 15 I already had Karate and Judo books about which I was very enthusiastic, and from which I tried learning the best I could… Though obviously, this wasn’t serious. Then at 17 I started looking for ‘Kung Fu’, some Chinese arts. At the time in Israel there weren’t too many places teaching Chinese arts. The closest thing I could find was Goju-ryu Karate, and since my Sensei said it had originated from China, I chose that.
My teacher, Eliyahu Ovadia, was a student of one Yaron Binyamini – a famous Israeli teacher who still runs a large organization (Binyamini himself was a student of Kong Mienho, Ma Hong 马虹, Wu Bin  吴彬, Xie Bahua and other well-known Chinese teachers of various styles). Since Binyamini had studied and taught Chinese styles in conjunction with his Goju-ryu in his organization (though not much at the time), we also practiced some Chinese systems to a lesser degree; primarily, modern forms of Chang Quan and Nan Quan, and also some modern and simplified Chen and Yang styles (nowadays, Binyamini mostly teaches Chen style, and some Bagua). I enlisted for my obligatory military service about 1.5 years into my training, and kept training when I could from time to time (Nitzan was an army officer). I kept training at the dojo following my service as well.
In 1999, my teacher Eliyahu converted his secular way of life into Ultra-Orthodox Judaism, and as a result chose to stop practicing and teaching martial arts altogether (a common choice among such people who convert). Technically, I was supposed to start attending classes under Eliyahu’s teacher, Yaron, but his dojo was too far. This forced me to look for another path in martial arts.
I looked around and wanted to experience something different. I then pursued Abadá Capoeira under one Mestre Isaac for a year, which I greatly enjoyed. I was already about 24 years old, and discovered I could still be taught some very fine acrobatic and flexibility maneuvers, which greatly enhanced some of my overall physical abilities. Throughout that time I kept training what I previously learned, also practicing with some former friends from the Dojo. I still had the dream of seriously pursuing the study of Chinese arts, and began to examine the option of studying in China. I went on short trips to Shaolin, Wudang and Emei, but was not impressed with what I had seen in terms of the martial value that the arts publicly practiced there seemed to contain.
In 2000 I moved to China, to study Chinese Medicine in Tianjin TCM University (Nitzan studied there for 5 years, and then interned at a local hospital for an additional 2 years). I moved to Tianjin (a big, central city) of all places because that’s the only place I found which would have enabled me to begin my studies without prior knowledge of the Chinese language.
I started looking for a martial arts teacher the day after I had arrived in China. I had no connections whatsoever and didn’t really know where to look. I did do some research prior though, and had known that I was interested in the ‘Internal Arts’. In particular, I was keen on studying Bagua Zhang. A friend of mine from another class at the university told me that one of her professors, a distinguished man who specialized in Chinese Chiropractic,  did martial arts, and that one of his students was a very skilled martial arts teacher. That teacher turned out to be my future Shifu, master Zhou Jingxuan (pronounced:  Jo Jing-Shwen), under whom I still study today. I studied with him for 7 years in China, usually every day, and have also studied with him for some periods of time in the years following my return to Israel.
Celebrating Nitzan's birthday in 2010
Celebrating Nitzan’s birthday in 2010
What did you study under Zhou shifu?
I studied the following:  Xing Yi Quan and its entire curriculum (including Xing Yi spear), from several branches (different Hebei and Song family branches).  Two Baji Quan forms, number 3 and 4, and Baji partner drills. The 12 basic hands of Pigua, its Jibengong, and four of that style’s weapons – Feng Mo Gun (Crazy Demon Staff), Dao (curved sword), Miao Dao (Sprout Sword) and Hei Hu Bian (Black Tiger Whip). During my last two years with Zhou shifu I also studied Shaolin Jingang Bashi (Jibengong, basic hands, 64 soft hands and the Jian – straight sword). Under Zhou I also learned the use of additional weapons which do not specifically belong to any art – Pair of Iron Clubs (Shuang Jian), Pair of Tiger-Head Hooks (Hu Tou Gou; a Shaolin weapon) and the use of the Meteor Hammer.
What was it like studying under Zhou shifu in the beginning?
The first time I met shifu he asked me what I wanted to learn. He followed by telling me about the martial arts he was teaching. He wrote their names on a note, which I keep to this day. I heard all these weird names… “Pigua Zhang, Baji Quan, Fanzi Quan, Shaolin Jingang Bashi…”. I never heard about any of these martial arts before. But then lastly he said “Xing Yi”, and I chose that, because that was the only name I was familiar with… which is quite funny in retrospective, since I made a fateful choice as such so arbitrarily. Xing Yi wasn’t the Bagua I wanted, but I knew it was an ‘Internal’ art, and chose to follow my luck and see this as an opportunity. Years later shifu would also tell me, that in accordance to his own traditional Chinese view and beliefs, he felt it was a matter of fate that a student and teacher find each other like that.
Studying with shifu was quite difficult at first. We had a complex relationship. To begin with, I could barely speak any Chinese, and even with that, I had a hard time understanding anything shifu was saying, because he carried a heavy Tianjinese accent. During the first 6 months I could make little sense of his speech. Luckily, he was good enough at providing physical cues and examples for me to still be able to learn and advance. It also helped that I was being taught as a beginner, so there wasn’t too much need for overly complex explanations. At times, as is the case now, there were Chinese students of shifu around who knew some English, and could translate for me.
I was taught privately by Shifu. He’d come to teach me at the University, and I was usually the only one there (apart from when other Israeli students were studying with me). The few other Chinese students he had studied elsewhere, in Xigu Park. It took him 45 minutes by bike in each direction to reach me, but he was a dedicated teacher, willing to go the distance for his students.
At the time I began studying with Shifu, he had some bitter experience with foreigners. Many came before, but did not take his martial arts too seriously. Quite a few simply wanted to study for a very short period of time, and learn as much as possible within that time frame. That is not how the teaching of Chinese traditional arts works, and Zhou was not fond of that approach and attitude. Also, these students weren’t respectful towards him as a teacher, and did not understand Chinese culture and local customs. Then when I came, he was assuming I was just like all of these other foreigners. So while he taught me seriously, as he is very professional about his teaching and arts, he did not pretend he liked me too much or anything like that. Back in the day when I just started, shifu would sometimes bring me before his friends to demonstrate. I would then hear him comment: “Look at those foreigners, they don’t understand anything… They just don’t get it”. That was the sort of attitude he had towards me, and foreigners in general, at that time.
We would meet every day for two hours. First thing I learned was Pi Quan. I would only do that and Zhan Zhuang for the first few months. Later I learned Zuan Quan and did that with the rest for another month, and then each month another fist was added until I learned all of Xing Yi’s Five Elements. I studied these basics for a very long period of time, given countless corrections and emphasis. I had also trained them all with different stepping methods. It was only after that long period of setting the foundations that Shifu taught me the rest of the material.
I was lucky to have already had some foundation in the martial arts beforehand. Because of this, the external postures and coordination were relatively easier for me to study. Otherwise, that ‘foundation period’ might have been longer. I was also lucky to have insisted to learn in that way. As I told you before, Zhou thought of teaching me more casually, like he was used to teaching all the other foreigners up to that point. But during my first classes I made it clear to him, through some friends who could translate, that I wanted to study Xing Yi in the traditional manner – like he had studied it. That is why and how I ‘earned’ this right of ‘eating bitter’ during my first year. It surely paid off later. The main point about that period was helping me develop my Yi (Intention). That was the focal point of my early training. Most of my movements, I trained at a very slow speed. Later I started learning the use of the Spear, beginning with the Five Elements done with the spear, to further develop the 5 forces contained in the empty handed Five Elements. The 12 Animals came later, with all the rest.
In the beginning I was just another regular student; not an indoor student (Tudi). I was more like a customer who hired a professional teacher. With time, our relationship became better. A gongfu brother of mine who was an English-speaking Chinese joined us. He was very friendly, and helped me and shifu become closer. As my Chinese significantly upgraded, and I had a chance to prove my dedication and persistence, the way Zhou treated me changed accordingly. I remember for instance that in earlier times, he’d really hurt me sometimes when demonstrating joint-locks. Later, when we had a closer Shifu-Tudi relationship, he no longer did that sort of thing. Once he used to speak of me like I wasn’t there, and referring to me as a representative of “all those foreigners who don’t take things seriously”. Later, he began to do the opposite, setting me as a positive example, and saying good things about me in front of his friends and gongfu family. Sometimes, he would even talk of me as a model for a good student, as compared to some other Chinese students who weren’t so dedicated. I remember that one of the greatest compliments I had ever received was when people started telling me that my gongfu looked like it came from Zhou shifu. First time that happened was a few years into my training, when one of shifu’s gongfu brothers came to visit and told me that.
Zhou stretching
Zhou stretching
How was Zhou different compared to other teachers you studied with?
Zhou was skilled in teaching and explaining without the use of words. He would do this by giving emphasis on sight and touch. His teaching as such was extremely accurate, down to the smallest details. He was very physical. When teaching, he would press and pull on different parts of my body to align me correctly – mold me into form like a sculptor. He was the first teacher that asked me to touch every part of his body whilst he did things so I could understand how he moved. He knew how to enlarge small and tight movements so they would make sense, and for the student to be able to grasp what they should feel like. He had an excellent ability to explain how to make the mechanics of something work, and wherein something did not work, he always knew what had been the small fault or the very specific movement which got things stuck. Following a lot of physicality, he could then also explain verbally quite well where, how and why things went wrong. Across the years, even though I kept practicing some exercises and movements which he taught me during my first month or two, he always had a lot of depth and breadth to add to them. He’d sometimes say that “I had already studied this or that”, but then find a deeper aspect of the same thing to teach me. His teaching as such was very structured. Whenever I got better, there was a higher level to the same practices. Additionally, each student was fitted with a curriculum and approach that best suited his personality and abilities.
Shifu also has a very distinct style of martial self-expression, which is uniquely his own. Though he teaches martial arts very methodically and in the traditional manner, his personal take on them is distinctive. He has an exceptional ability to enliven whatever martial movement or form he teaches or performs. For instance, when wielding a sword, he would appear like he was really cutting someone down. His mental state and expressions are often like those of a person doing real battle, sometimes complete with sound effects. He would ‘get into character’, so to speak… like an actor.
Zhou relaxing

Zhou relaxing

What was shifu like, as a person?
Well, he sure got a sense of humour! Zhou is mischievous and loves pranks and physical humour. Though one has to become acquainted with it… sort of an acquired taste. For instance – he won’t shy away from using something like a Wedgie as a martial technique, and incorporate it into a takedown of sorts.
At first glance, especially watching him train and teach from the side, he might appear stern and overly serious. But as a matter of fact, he is quite nice and likable. He likes to joke and fool around. He loves the company of other people, and is at his best when together with more than one person. Once you get to know him on the more personal level, things become easier overall.
He has a very practical approach to anything related to martial arts or otherwise. He likes to test things, see if they work. I once bought him a fine custom-made sword, as a gift for teaching me the use of that type of sword. He felt compelled to check out if the sword could cut through the nearby tree and wooden bench… had to be practical. Excessive motions and beautiful movements for the sake of beauty do not appeal to him. In fighting, he believes and advocates that one should be cruel.
Some aspects of his personality stayed very consistent since I’ve known him. For instance, he has always been a patriot – very passionate about the Chinese as a people and culture (though not politically inclined). However, throughout the years he also changed a lot of his other views and inclinations. His approach toward foreigners had changed dramatically. When I had first known him, he wasn’t much inclined to use modern technologies (having grown up in a poor environment, following the Cultural Revolution). Nowadays he’s always with his smart phone, and runs an online blog and video channel in Chinese. His nationalistic agendas, I suppose are due not in small part to the invasion of foreign armies to China, and Tianjin in particular, over the last 200 years. This is what had originally made him suspicious of foreigners. On the other hand, I had the advantage in this regard, because I came from Israel, and oftentimes the Chinese consider the Jews and Israelis to be ‘the wise and successful underdogs who fight bravely for their existence’ – something which they can identify with (in general, Jews tend to have a good reputation in China – somewhat of a reverse Anti-Semitism). Over time, as I brought more foreigners to learn from him, his attitude changed for the better. He simply did not originally live in an environment in which he had a chance to get a positive exposure to foreigners. His former biases are now long gone, and he has students from all over the world – Israel, Canada, France, the U.S., Latvia, Poland, etc.
Nitzan with Zhou and gongfu brothers

Nitzan with Zhou and gongfu brothers

Tell me a little bit about other students of shifu at the time you studied with him
Well, a few of Zhou’s students have been very dedicated, and stayed for many months or years at a time, training hard and really putting their minds and hearts into it. Most students weren’t as devoted and serious though.
There was one guy from Spain, who came over for two weeks, and immediately stated he was planning to do the following within the confines of his short trip:  Learn a sword form, learn Traditional Chinese Medicine, and achieve enlightenment and understanding of the Dao. Modest goals indeed. He came with a translator, since he couldn’t speak Chinese. He didn’t quite get the movements and principle Zhou was teaching him. Shifu did his best to explain things to him through the translator, but the Spanish guy insisted that it was the translator who didn’t get it, and that he was doing things correctly. By the time he ‘finished’ learning the sword form, it was quite a mess. He later took that little knowledge he got back to Spain, and apparently began teaching it to his students.
There were also Chinese fellows who came to train with crazy ideas in mind. In China, there are many TV shows based on Wuxia 武侠 novels (stories and legends of Chinese knights and martial heroes, and their fantastic adventures). Many Chinese are touched and influenced by these, especially as such stories are often interwoven with real pieces of Chinese history. One such guy came to train with shifu, and asked if we had a ‘secret book containing the special methods for learning the arts quicker and better’. He was quite delusional. Another time when this student was injured (not from training), shifu gave him a herb formula to put in his bath. He was super-excited about this. Thinking he got some ‘secret formula’, he went to several different herb stores, to buy in each of them only some of the ingredients – so “no one store could copy the entire recipe”. In retrospect, since I am a TCM doctor, I can tell you that this had been a really basic formula, which is quite commonly used.
I noticed that in the summertime often came groups of high-school youngsters, who had really put in an effort for 2 months, and asked to be taught basic self-defense and practical fighting. They used to spar and lot with gloves and work with heavy bags. It was later found out that they came to study so they could gain a reputation as ‘notorious school bullies’, to ensure people won’t pick fights with them. Street fighting is very common in Tianjin, or at least was at the time, for all age groups. I had seen people there fighting over the most arbitrary and ridiculous things all the time.
Zhou shifu with his baji teachers Shen Jiarui (R), Sun Zhenyao (L)
Zhou shifu with his baji teachers Shen Jiarui (R), Sun Zhenyao (L)
I know you have met some of Zhou shifu’s teachers. Please tell us about them.
Shifu had studied with over 13 teachers in his lifetime, and is indoor student of about 7 of them. Zhou’s main teacher overall was Shen Jiarui, who taught him Baji Quan and Shaolin Jingang Bashi. Shen is a very interesting person, whose skill in the arts is only equaled by his modesty and kindness. In traditional Chinese society, it is the custom that students pay for the teacher in restaurants, and put food on the teacher’s plate. That is a show of respect. But Shen wouldn’t have any of that. He’d go and pay for meals in advance, so people won’t be able to pay for him. Since Chinese martial families are like real families, Shen figures it is his duty as a ‘father’ to pay. Once we went with him to Cangzhou it was very cold, so I voluntarily gave Shen one of my hats to wear (he was already in his mid-60s at the time). He seemed moved by what I did. Later when we sat down to eat dinner, he suddenly put food on my plate by surprise. This was in front of many other martial artists. That sort of show of respect from a teacher to his gongfu grand-student is unheard of in traditional China.          When Shen practiced and demonstrated, he was like a fierce tiger, but with his normal gait he appeared much more like one would expect from the older gentleman he is. One could never guess he is such a skilled master.
Li Guoliang teaching Nitzan
Li Guoliang teaching Nitzan
Zhou’s next most prominent teacher is Xing Yi and Bagua master Li Guoliang (not to be confused with Li Guoliang from Taigu, who is also a Xing Yi teacher). He was in his late 70s when I met him, and the first thing he asked me to do is show him my Zhan Zhuang. He didn’t even say for how long he expected me to hold the stance he asked for, which is psychologically troubling, because I knew he could have kept me in that posture for an hour or more. He only bothered to start correcting me after over 40 minutes of doing this. But following that, he earnestly said he was convinced I was taught correctly. He only came over that day, it turned out, to meet me, since Zhou had told him I had been a serious student of Xing Yi Quan (unfortunately, Zhou did not have any other such serious students for that art). His skill was of such high level that I couldn’t really imitate anything he did – only follow his instructions and corrections. He was drawing tiny circles across his entire body as he was moving, and even though he allowed me to feel him up as he was doing it, I still couldn’t quite figure out how he had done such things. His minute and subtle internal movements created a lot of power. Months and years later, his insistence that I feel his body going through the motions paid off, as I was slowly and gradually able to recapture the essence of some of these skills, based on having known what they should feel like.
M Gong Kuifeng teaching Nitzan
M Gong Kuifeng teaching Nitzan
Another Xing Yi teacher of Zhou that came to the park to meet me one time was Gong Kuifeng, who practiced Hebei style from Liu Qilan’s lineage (unlike Li Guoliang, who is from the Shanxi branch, Song family lineage). Gong was in his mid-80s at the time. He gave me a lot of corrections and good advices. Due to his life’s circumstances and the place he lived in, he used to climb an endless amount of stairs every day, covering hundreds of storeys altogether. He was convinced that climbing that many stairs contributed a lot to his gongfu, and suggested that I follow his example and do the same.
During my later years of training I traveled with two gongfu brothers of mine to meet Pang Zhiqi – Zhou’s Pigua teacher, in order to learn an ancient version of the Pigua Miao Dao form. It was slower, and had many more steps, compared to the modern one I know. It focused more on large, expansive and flowing motion, in contrast with the more compact structure of the modern Pigua Miao Dao form, which has lots of explosive movements. It was also less ‘whipping’. This experience showed us that after the assimilation of Miao Dao into Pigua in the early 20th century, it had been influenced a lot by the body mechanics of that style. Pang was 70+ years of age when we studied with him, and had still been very active and enthusiastic. A while prior to our visit he started learning Baji Quan from another teacher, and was excited to demonstrate to us what he had learned.
Nitzan and gongfu brothers with Pang Zhiqi
Nitzan and gongfu brothers with Pang Zhiqi
Why did you go and study other martial arts in China besides Xing Yi Quan? And who were your other teachers?
The little bit of Baji I learnt was to improve some aspects of my Xing Yi (more on that later). I started studying Pigua because I really liked its weapons, which eventually lead me to study some of the empty handed material as well. I focused on Xing Yi for 5 years, and then started learning Jingang in depth, since I have already covered most of the Xing Yi curriculum.
Zhou always wanted me to study Jingang Bashi. I think that’s the art he likes and appreciates the most. He settled for teaching me Xing Yi because that’s what I wanted, but I think he’d rather have taught me Jingang. The traditional Chinese view dictates that the student should learn what the teacher tells him to, but he made compromise since I was a stubborn Westerner. By the time I had 5 years’ experience, I became open minded enough to listen to his advice on that front.
Shifu had studied with many teachers, and within a few years’ time began encouraging me to eventually do the same, especially with Xing Yi, to get a broader perspective of the art. By the time I was with him for 5 years, he was keen on me finding another Xing Yi teacher to expand my knowledge. I eventually found Wu Bingwen, who belonged to our extended Xing Yi gongfu lineage (from the Song family line), and also practiced Yin style Bagua Zhang. With Wu shifu I studied the basics of their Song style – their specific Zhan Zhuang and Five Elements, on visits to Wu’s place on the outskirts of Tianjin (Liu Kuai Zhuang village) over the span of my last 2 years in China. I’ve had many long conversations with Wu shifu about the arts, and these helped me tremendously in understanding the similarities and differences between different lineages of Xing Yi Quan. Wu shifu never agreed to take a penny from me. My enthusiasm and willingness to train was enough motivation for him to teach me. He even gave me a hard time gifting him with fruits I brought over to his place on occasion.
At one point I became interested in Shuai Jiao. Compared to other grappling and throwing arts like Judo, I felt that Shuai Jiao had a far more ‘Internal’ quality to it, at least in some respects, and that had drawn me to this art. It had lots of low stances and practices that resembled Zhan Zhuang, and I liked that. A friend from Beijing told me of a famous Shuai Jiao teacher he knew from his extended gongfu family, Gao Futong, whose line came from Tianjin. When I first arrived to study with Gao shifu, and first thing they did was to accept me as a tudi within their line; which is unusual, as such a ceremony rarely takes place upon first acquaintance and with people the teacher doesn’t know well). It was even more strange given that Gao shifu was already in his 70s, and I was 30 years old. Under such circumstances, a person would normally be listed as a grand-student of a teacher, and not as his direct student. That is to avoid a scenario when one’s “gongfu brothers” are decades older than oneself, and even a situation wherein, students of one’s gongfu brothers are older than oneself (Chinese martial society is strongly influenced by Confucianism and its familial hierarchy, which abhors that sort of disorder). But for this particular gongfu family, it had been their first opportunity to accept a foreigner to their ranks, who might perhaps help spread their tradition overseas, so they made an exception. My time training Shuai Jiao tremendously improved my understanding of standing grappling, throws and takedowns. Gao shifu lived very close to me in Tianjin. We trained at the shelter beneath his apartment building (or was it a club of sorts? Nitzan isn’t sure what the heck that space was supposed to be). He would invite me to eat at his home, as I was like family to him. He was an extremely nice individual, and I spent a lot of time with him and his family.
During my last year in China, I’d travel to Beijing once a week to work at airport security for an Israeli airline company.  I figured that since I was there and my teachers weren’t around, I should find some nice new martial activity to pursue. I then spent that year doing Kendo once a week. I liked it because it was fighting oriented, and had lots of contact involved. I found it excellent for working on one’s fighting intent. Another reason I chose Kendo was because I figured that while it was something different, it did not conflict with my other martial studies.
I was able to locate a great dojo there, run by a 3rd dan. There was a large Japanese business community in Beijing, and the Kendo teacher was constantly bringing high-ranking Kendoka to train with us. I even trained with several 6-7th dans, and one 8th dan.
How did the practice of additional martial arts help your Xing Yi Quan practice?
Each martial art gave me a different perspective on fighting. Xing Yi was very much focused on moving the whole body as a single unit, moving all at once. Training the Yi and fullness of the body were the focal points in training. It was very direct, like a train. Baji, while also being direct, was more wide and expansive in its movements. There was a lot more sideways action. Rooting was more strongly emphasized, while Xing Yi puts more emphasis on constantly striving forward. Jingang Bashi has a totally different flavour and character to the previous two. The feet are very light and agile, and one constantly changes directions. Evasion is encouraged. Its body mechanics are more flexible and pliable. Speed is key, and the power and feel of this art are more ‘External’. The hands make large movements, while Xing Yi likes minimalism and working from up close. Jingang is more akin in its strategies and tactics to Western Boxing than other Chinese arts. Pigua gave me a lot of flexibility, and the ability to whip with the entire body. It was great for helping me develop Heavy Hands skills, used with large motions. Pigua is big on striking from odd directions and angles, which is also useful to learn and train in.
Zhou always thought of Jingang as ‘a martial art for martial artists’. Reasons being:  1. That Jingang includes so many techniques of so many kinds, that there is hardly any standing technique which does not appear in its vast curriculum.   2. Jingang works out its fighting with a ‘problem-solving’ attitude, providing a definite ‘answer’ for any ‘questions’. Each offense is given a ‘solution’, and then there’s a solution for that solution, and so forth. These are usually trained with elaborate movement combinations, of 4-5 movements. My main style, Xing Yi, is focused on principles. It helped a lot, then, to study a style like Jingang, so focused instead on applications.  Another unique aspect of Jingang is that one trains charging the opponent with short sprints, throwing many combinations one after the other. It is a type of practiced I have not encountered in other arts.
At one point I was studying Tuo Xing, one of the Xing Yi animals. The end segment of this movement requires the issuing of strong fa jin sideways, which is uncommon in Xing Yi. I had trouble with developing that sort of power, and then Zhou suggested that I practice Baji Quan for a while, to work on my sideways power. Xing Yi is very much focused on the center, moving into and issuing power to the front. Baji contains a lot of sideways manipulations and power issuing. Before I started to learn Baji, Shifu asked me to stop working on my Xing Yi. I then studied our third Baji form (Xiao Jia). I wasn’t too keen on giving up my Xing Yi, because Baji “wasn’t the art I came for”. But since I had by that time learned to abide by the more traditional Chinese mindset, I decided to listen to Shifu and do as he asked of me, completely abstaining from any Xing Yi training for about a month (besides the Zhan Zhuang). This turned out to have helped me tremendously, and my Xing Yi was much better when I came back to doing it.  A few years later, I also learned our fourth Baji form, together with my gongfu brother Ben.
Kendo was beneficial in that I was constantly getting hit. I used this sort of learning environment to teach myself how to keep focus under pressure. Maintain a flowing and unbroken fighting intent.
Shuai Jiao helped a lot with my ability to keep stable while being grabbed. It also has a lot of fighting-intent training, and had helped me hone my psychological edge in combat.
What would you recommend to people who are interested in moving to China to study martial arts?
Find a teacher who is a ‘folk teacher’ – of the people (called Mínjiān 民间 in Chinese).  Not someone with a large school or from a monastery. A person with an authentic lineage which can be traced a few generations back, who teaches out of the love for the arts and not strictly for money (if at all). In choosing a teacher, one is better to follow personal recommendations from direct students of a teacher, rather than rely on advertisements or hearsay advice. In taking advice, try to do so from a person whom you can safely assume have had serious training.
Since many teachers in China require recommendations for students to be accepted into class, it might prove important to get such recommendations in advance (simply approaching a teacher in a park would not always work). Wherein one lacks social connections for this, it is possible to ask for advice and recommendations on various online forums. Otherwise, one can sometimes make contact with students of a certain teacher by sending messages to people running online video channels with videos of teachers one is interested in. Try asking some of your new Chinese friends while in China – there’s always someone around who knows something about a good teacher.
Listen to the teacher of your choice – he probably knows better. You should trust him. Do not rush to learn, take measured steps in your learning curve. Forms and weapons can wait. Don’t be too eager to get to them as a beginner.
Having knowledge of the Chinese language would certainly help. That being said, a good teacher can give a lot to a beginner even without them speaking the same language (though it is eventually important to learn decent Chinese). Knowing Chinese is more important for those without prior background in the martial arts.
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Master Zhou’s official website can be found at:   http://swz.weebly.com
More about training experiences with Zhou shifu may be read here:
http://cookdingskitchen.blogspot.co.il/2012/12/master-zhou-man-artist-teacher.html
The man who conducted this interview, Shifu Jonathan Bluestein (Nitzan’s top disciple and also a student of Zhou shifu) is the head of the Tianjin Martial Arts Academy, and teaches Xing Yi Quan and Pigua Zhang in Israel. He is also a martial arts author and researcher. His list of published articles, most available for free reading with links (and on this blog), can be found at the following link:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Jonathan.bluestein#Articles_I_published_outside_of_Wikipedia_.28On_Martial_Arts.29
If you liked this article, please ‘like’ the page of shifu Bluestein’s school on Facebook:
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Taigu Xingyi Training Trip – Part 2

SONG FAMILY 

Readers of this blog may remember that I had previously visited the Song family home in December 2009. At that time I was still practicing taijiquan and had not even come into contact with xingyiquan. This trip was very different, as I now had a year and a half of Song style xingyiquan under my belt and M Song Guanghua was now officially my grandteacher. And so it was that with trepidation I picked up the phone and asked M Song’s son, Song Baogui shibo (kungfu uncle) if it would be OK to come train in Taigu over the Chinese Mayday holiday. Shibo kindly agreed and so it was that I found myself back in Taigu 5 years later. Although the town itself has changed quite a lot (shiny new buildings and new roads), I was relieved to find that shiye’s house has not changed at all – a typical walled Chinese courtyard house of the sort commonly found all over north China, with one entire wing devoted to the history of Song style and photos of prominent masters. 

A potted history of Song style in photographs in one wing of the Song family house

A potted history of Song style in photographs in one wing of the Song family house

Because of the Chinese Mayday holidays, it was full house, with several members of the extended Song family (including various grandchildren) staying in the wings, so the students had to find digs in town. As the Song family house is essentially an unregistered wuguan, the rhythm of days there is essentially as follows: 

9am – noon Morning practice 

Noon – 3pm Lunch + siesta (still very common in Chinese small towns and countryside) 

3pm – 6/7pm  Afternoon practice 

There were 4 other students training there at the same time as me: 2 were, like me, Song xingyi enthusiasts from other parts of China who had taken advantage of holidays to get in some concentrated training; and 2 young guys who were effectively studying Song style full-time and planned on staying in Taigu for several months to a year. Training at the Song family house is fairly ad hoc, with the students generally getting on with training by themselves with M Song Baogui or shiye coming out at regular intervals to offer corrections and instruction. General training (morning or afternoon) consisted of stretches, warm-ups (kicks), zhan zhuang (lots and lots of Santi!!), stationary fajin practice, 5 elements, spear shaking and occasional two man drills (ai shen pao, san hua pao). 

Song Baogui shibo overseeing practice

Song Baogui shibo overseeing practice

As one of the other full-time students had previously studied at Shaolin temple for 3 years and had quite a bit of Sanda experience, he definitely gave me some food for thought as to the kind of techniques that actually work against people with that kind of training. 

An added highlight is that various kungfu uncles/brothers would often stop by and offer tips and corrections, and lunch and dinner would be had with the family, really adding to the family atmosphere.   

Shiye and Song Baogui shibo offered many valuable corrections, probably the most important of which was also the most basic: they emphasised many times that in Song style (and probably other styles of xingyi too), the striking power does not come from the arm, it comes from dantian and rotation of the kua around the central axis. In fact it is only by relaxing the striking arm that one can start to produce the dou jue jin (‘shaking power’) that Song style is famous for. I was also amazed by the energy and nimbleness of shiye given that he is 83 years old this year!

Song Guanghua shiye correcting students' stationary fajin

Song Guanghua shiye correcting students’ stationary fajin

It was a great (but tiring) training trip and I would encourage anyone who is interested in Song style or even xingyiquan in general to make the trip to study at the source. 

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Taigu Xingyi Training Trip – Pt 1

I’ve just returned from a training trip to Taigu in Shanxi province, one of the cradles of xingyiquan in China and the stronghold of Song and Che styles. During my week-long trip, I managed to visit Zhao Chuanhui (the son of famous Song style master Zhao Yongchang) and train with my shiye (grandteacher) Song Guanghua and his son, Song Baogui. I just wanted to share some of my impressions during the trip on this blog. 

ZHAO CHUANHUI 

M Zhao lives and teaches in the tiny town of Dongguan, which is located almost exactly between Taigu town (home of Song and Che style xingyi) and Qi county (where Dai style xinyi developed). When M Zhao heard I was interested in meeting him, he very kindly offered to pick me up from Taigu train station. After a 20 minute ride in his Suzuki minivan we arrived at his house, a traditional brick courtyard that you see all over much of northern China. He explained that he runs a small provisions shop in town, and that he only has time to train students in xingyiquan in the evenings and weekends. After a quick tour of the downstairs, M Zhao asked if I wanted to see his wuguan (dojo). It was only then that I realised that he had converted the second storey of his house into a concrete-floored wuguan large enough for a dozen or so people to train in at the same time, complete with an assortment of spears, swords and whipstaffs (biangan – short, whippy staff very popular in Shanxi and Northeast China). 

Zhao Chuanhui strikes Santi pose in his wuguan

Zhao Chuanhui strikes Santi pose in his wuguan


Once up there, M Zhao told me about his training under his father Zhao Yongchang. Zhao senior was one of the senior disciples of the famous Song style master Song Tielin, and was a professional coach for the Shanxi wushu team as well as various cities in Shanxi from the 1960s until his passing in 1993. M Zhao started training under his father from a very young age, and given that he is currently in his 50s has been practicing xingyiquan for over 4 decades. We then spent the next 4 hours discussing various points of Song style xingyi. I was particularly impressed by his explosive fajin – he is not tall (~1.6m) and probably only weighs about 120 pounds, but the power he can generate is out of all proportion to his size, easily lifting me (~150 pounds) clear off my feet when demonstrating hu xing (tiger) for example. 

Like all teachers of Song style I have met, he stressed that the power in xingyi comes from the kua and dantian, not the arms. He also emphasised several times the requirements of suo (contraction) and zhan (expansion) of the dantian when striking, and lifted up his shirt to explicitly show this. With such a clear-cut demonstration, it is easy to see the links between Song style and its ancestor art, Dai style xinyi. 

As it started to get dark, several of M Zhao’s students started to trickle into the wuguan, most of them ranging in age from early 20s to late middle age. M Zhao said that he previously taught a lot of young kids (6 – 16) and in fact many of his younger students have gone on to specialise in wushu at the sports institutes in big cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Harbin etc. However, in recent years he has not had as much time to coach younger students. When asked about fighting training, he said that he knew that side of the art but very few of his students were interested in training it. After several impromptu demonstrations by his students, including an interesting free-style mix of different versions 5 elements, we retired to a local restaurant for a delicious meal of home-style Shanxi cooking and the usual toasts of baijiu (Chinese moonshine) which almost invariably accompany such meals in China. 

I bid farewell to M Zhao regretting that I did not have more time to spend to train with him, and would encourage anyone with an interest in Song style xingyi to visit him: he is a very open teacher with great skills and a deep understanding of his art.   

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I Liq Chuan – a great teaching system

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.

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Downsides to the traditional teaching system

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!

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Sticking Energy – or Reconsidering What is Possible in Taiji

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.

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The Importance of Drills

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?

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