His skills are top-rate, but because he lives a low-key existence in Shanghai, most people (even in martial arts circles) have never heard of him, unless mentioned to them by their teachers.
Master Li is 7 years older than the People’s Republic of China, he has been practicing Song style xingyi for 48 years, almost half a century. Because of his personality, Li liked martial arts from his youth, when he would practice kungfu in his village. However, at that time, he had no high-level teachers to guide his practice, so the kungfu that he learnt was very simplistic. LGL is a very determined man, if he was taught one exercise, he would drill it relentlessly. He spent three years practicing ‘pi kong jing’ (chop the empty well), which helped him develop a firm foundation.
In his youth, he studied Meihua Tanglangquan (Plum blossom praying mantis) and Bajiquan (8 extremities boxing). Onlookers who regularly saw him practicing in Shanghai’s Hengshan park marvelled at his speed, ferocity and dedication.
In the same park there was an old master who had practiced Shaolin for over 20 years and had achieved a small measure of fame amongst the locals. In a challenge between Li and this master, Li, being young and impetuous, hurt this master badly. Because Li was only 14 or 15 years old at the time, the Shaolin master felt depressed and stopped coming to the park. Li regretted his harshness.
Whenever Li used to practice, almost everyday he would see an old man observing him without making any comment. Some considerable time later, this old man offered to teach Li. Li, not knowing this thin, unassuming old man, and confident in the power of his praying mantis and baji, didn’t even heed the old man’s offer. Li’s rebuttal notwithstanding, the old man continued to watch him practice, with Li ignoring him. One day, the old man spoke up: “Young lad, let’s see if you can stay in a certain posture for 5 minutes, what about it?” Li thought to himself, “I can easily stand in horse stance for 40-50 minutes, 5 minutes is nothing!” and readily agreed, only to discover, upon copying the old man’s posture, that after only 3 minutes he was covered in sweat and his legs were shaking. Even so, Li’s competitiveness prompted him to grit his teeth and struggle on, only giving up after 10 minutes when he could hold on no longer, by which time the ground beneath him was drenched in sweat. The old man, for his part, had disappeared.
After the event, Li asked his friends about this old man, they said in surprise: “How can you have not heard of him? He’s Hao Zhanru, one of the best fighters in the whole of Shanghai!’
Li thought to himself: “That stance was really hard, I bet it really develops gongfu”, and so he started practicing that stance every day. The strange thing was, he didn’t see the old man for two months after that. Finally, on the last day of the third month, just as the park gates were about to close for the day, whilst practicing his stake standing Li saw a silhouette dart behind a large tree, but when he walked over to investigate, there was no-one there. The next morning, Hao Zhanru appeared in the park, and Li immediately requested to become his disciple. Hao readily accepted him, at the same time telling him that the stance he had been practicing was called San Ti, as well as correcting some errors that had crept in, such as the forward arm twisting inwards, etc. After 3 more months of sustained practice, Li was able to stand in San Ti for 45 minutes to an hour at a time. It was only then that Hao started to teach him Pi Quan (chopping fist), which Li practiced for a year before ‘getting it’. After that foundation, Li learned the rest of the system very quickly.
Hao was an eccentric character who liked to watch his students practice, but would rarely make any comments. Students had to practice exactly as he had told them to; once a student asked to study one of the 12 animals, upon which Hao not only stopped teaching that student, but cut off all contact with him. Even though Li and Hao had the best relationship out of all the students, when Li asked Hao about one of the fists (that he hadn’t learnt yet), Hao’s face was like thunder. As a result, Li stopped asking questions and went back to his practice. Looking back on his training, Li explained to me that the reason for Master Hao’s strictness was that there is a systematic sequence to learning xingyi, if you haven’t mastered the basics, there’s no benefit in trying to learn the advanced material.
As Hao was fond of a drink or two, Li would often invite Hao out for a drink. While Hao downed his drink, Li would practice form. Sometimes, when the mood took him, Hao would correct Li and give him pointers on his form. Every time Li learnt a move, he would practice it for 2-3 hours, until that move was imprinted in his mind.
At that time, most of Li’s salary after daily outgoings was spent on Hao. He often invited Hao to drink, normally once a week and sometimes even 2 or 3 times a week.
Out of all of Hao’s disciples, Li followed him the longest; in fact, for many years Li was the only disciple that Hao saw regularly. Li’s 12 years of dedicated study meant that he received the full transmission from Hao, and was well-versed in the various training methods of Hao’s xingyi.
Hao passed away in the Cultural Revolution, his exploits have been recorded by one of Hao’s other disciples, Shao Shan-kang.
The famed xinyi teacher Lu Song’gao had a relative named Chen who, because he learnt xinyi from Lu, was familiar with Hao and Li. During some friendly sparring after Hao had passed away, Chen exclaimed “You’ve inherited Hao’s skills!”, to which Li laughingly replied “I guess my moves look like Master Hao’s because I’m just as tall and skinny as him!”
I (the author) originally studied with Master Yan, a dignified man whose strikes were like something out of a legend. Even though my aptitude for martial arts is limited, because of my practice I am fairly well-built, and have pretty fast strikes. Several other older practitioners who thought that they could teach me a thing or two have had to keep quiet after they have felt my strikes. Even so, sparring with Yan is like a wolfcub fighting a fierce tiger, I could not withstand even one of his blows! My speed and strength became as for naught, it was like being struck by lightning. If I hadn’t personally experienced it, I would find it hard to believe that such a level of skill existed. Later on, Yan contracted an eye disease which meant that he was unable to fully fajin. Even so, his internal power was still much greater than mine. According to Yan, when he and Li were studying together under Hao, Li was the stronger of the two.
Li was tall and thin, no-one looking at him walking down the street would imagine he was a master of martial arts, and yet whenever I would spar with him, as soon as he advanced I felt as if there was danger on all sides and would be forced to immediately take evasive action. Afterwards, when I told Li how it felt to be on the receiving end, he commented that several other adepts had said the same thing after sparring with him.
When sparring with Li, I would never even know how I had been hit. Li repeatedly emphasised: if you wish to reach the mysterious point where we can do as we wish (sui xin suo yu) with our opponent, you must not telegraph your moves; the moment you telegraph your moves your opponent is prepared. With someone who has truly mastered xingyi, you cannot even see them hit you (wu xing wu xiang).
His strikes looked very casual, and yet actually there was a universe of profundity inside; only other adepts could have told you how he did what he did. The moment we started sparring, I would be hit.
Once, Li asked me how I defined ‘neijiaquan’ (internal martial arts). I replied that it was the difference between Shaolin and Wudang. In response, Li mimed a strike to the chest, saying “If you hit someone’s chest like this, there won’t be any external bruising, but there will be internal trauma, and your opponent will spit blood. Internal injuries like that can be cured with timely medical attention, but it only ever superficially heals: for a long time afterwards, he will often cough and feel a faint pain in his chest, as if he had tuberculosis. Only when you have mastered you art to the point where every strike is capable of producing internal injury, can you truly be said to be practicing ‘neijiaquan’. Li said that one of his kungfu brothers had once used this strike to defeat a Japanese master. When other arts strike with the palm they use zhen jin (shock power). If you hit someone with this zhen jin, the spot that has been hit will redden and eventually bruise, and may even cause some internal injury. The unique point about our strikes is that they can leave the opponents with long-lasting internal injuries, without leaving a mark on the skin.
The final skill Hao transmitted was dian xue (lit. point touching). The dian xue that people show nowadays is mostly point striking, which is very different to real dian xue. For dian xue to be effective, you need to take into account not just the location of the point, but also the time of day, yinyang, direction of qi flow, etc. In order to undo the dian xue, you have to know how the dian xue was applied, otherwise it can’t be undone. This is why, in old wuxia novels, the people undoing the dian xue are always kungfu brothers of the person who applied the dian xue, because they’re the only ones who know precisely how it was applied. One of the prerequisites of practicing dian xue is you have to bathe you hands in a special formula, which is why Li’s hands are soft, it’s a product of that formula. The problem is that nowadays some of the ingredients of that formula are very hard to find, so it’s very difficult for the younger generation of practitioners to make it.
Even if someone has practiced iron shirt, he will still be vulnerable to dian xue; there’s a saying in martial arts that goes: “ten fists aren’t worth one elbow, ten elbows aren’t worth one touch” – the ‘touch’ in that saying is referring to dian xue. Because touching some points can be fatal, you need to be incredibly careful when practicing these techniques.
Li considers that the Nei Gong Si Jing (4 canons of internal power), one of the important ‘classics’ of Song style xingyi, was actually created by Song Shirong himself. Many of the skills of Song style xingyi are contained therein; or, to look at it another way, the neigong si jing are in the forms, if you practice the forms correctly, you will gain the skills.
Xingyiquan derives ultimately from the spear, xingyi power is actually spear power. Because Practicing with a ‘live’ spear is quite dangerous, everyone removed the tips to make long poles (da ganzi). Waxwood poles (bai la gan) are dense, resilient and straight, and so are well-suited to practicing neijin (internal power). Li is accomplished with the long pole. A lot of people think that the xingyi 13 [move] pole (xingyi shi san gan) is just the taiji 13 pole, but actually there’s a big difference between the two.
The lin jiao dao (unicorn horn broadsword) has many striking surfaces, it’s a weapon that is dangerous both to the user and the opponent. All it takes is to lose concentration for a moment and you can cut yourself. For this reason, it should only be practiced after the user has experience of other bladed weapons.
Li’s straightsword is peerless, he wields the sword in a Qing-dynasty manner. His strikes are practiced and probing.
III Teaching Disciples
Li started teaching Song style xingyi, on Hao’s instigation, from the age of 19. In the beginning, he taught on Shanyin Lu in Hongkou park. Later, it became common for Hao’s disciples to either start with Hao and finish their studies with Li, or start with Li and be introduced to study with Hao. Li used to be pretty famous in the Zhabei and Hongkou areas, to the point where once when Li went to watch a film. The other cinema-goers, upon finding out that Li Guoliang was in the audience, stood up and gave him a round of applause.
In the past, learning kungfu was much tougher than it is today, teachers were extremely strict and a lot of students were injured by their masters. Li Guoliang decided to abandon such an approach and instead patiently and attentively instructs his students. It is because of this that many of his students have achieved high levels of skill.
My kungfu brother, Wang, is one of Li’s disciples who entered the door in the 70s who is good at real combat. In the early 80s, a Japanese martial arts delegation came to Shanghai. When Wang found out that they were staying at the Hengshan hotel and that they usually practiced in a small garden near the hotel, he told Master Li. Under Li’s instructions, Wang went to the aforementioned garden and asked to cross hands with a member of the delegation. The member chosen had practiced kungfu before and was well-known for his push hands in Japan. However, the moment the delegate crossed hands with Wang, he was knocked down. His yells attracted the attention of passers-by, who crowded over to rubber-neck. The leader of the Japanese delegation exclaimed “Real gongfu is still amongst the ordinary people (rather than in the wushu colleges)!”
Li placed great emphasis on his students’ character, and would teach ethics and xingyi together. He was of the opinion that perseverance, not intelligence was the crucial factor that decided whether a student mastered xingyi or not. He often used to say that “Gongfu doesn’t come from talking about xingyi, it comes from practice. A martial artist must be courageous and decisive in combat, this is a basic prerequisite for any martial artist. If you get scared after taking a few hits or bleeding a little, then there’s no point practicing martial arts. A martial artist should be sincere and keep his word. When crossing hands with opponents, he should maintain a tranquil mind, wait for the opponent to make the first move, and then hou fa zhi ren (defeat opponent by moving later). A martial artist should never attack the weak or those who have lost the ability to fight back, he should respect his teacher and uphold righteousness.”
Hao Zhanru, Xu Wenzhong (another Xingyi master from Shanghai) and Lu Song’gao were close friends and also blood brothers (jie yi xiongdi). Xu Wenzhong’s son Xu Jian’guo knew shaolin, xinyi and xingyi. Because of this, other martial arts teachers would often visit Xu Wenzhong’s house. Hao Zhanru would often take Li Guoliang to Xu’s house for lunch, normally once a week. It was through these visits that Li bcame friends with martial artists from the previous generation such as Ji Jinshan and Wang Ziping.
Li did not like showing off, so even though many fellow martial artists wanted to get a glimpse of authentic Song style xingyi, he never demonstrated for outsiders. Almost no-one outside a small circle of masters knew the level of Li’s skill. Anyone wishing to gain confirmation can ask the remaining ‘elders’ of the Shanghai martial arts scene, like the Shanxi xingyi master Wei Chunyuan, xinyi master Yu Hualong or shaolin master Bai Yunfei.
In his youth, Li was impetuous, and frequently injured challengers; after he started studying with Hao Zhanru, he became more restrained, only occasionally taking on challenges, and when he did accept challenges, it was only light contact, purely for the sake of comparing skills.
Wang Zhuangfei’s bagua was very combat-oriented, but because he made his living teaching martial arts he rarely showed off in public. Because the students of Wang Zhuangfei’s bagua and those of xinyi both considered their arts the best for combat, there were often challenge fights between students from the two factions. These challenges eventually led to conflicts between the heads of the factions themselves. On one occasion Hao Zhanru and Li went to Wang Zhuangfei’s house to pay him a friendly visit, only for Wang to call the police on them! Wang knew that Lu Song’gao and Hao Zhanru were close friends, and so thought that Hao and Li had come to his house to rough him up.”