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.
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).
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!
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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:
‘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?