‘Iron Arm’ Wang Fuyuan

August 29, 2009

Flicking through Dan Miller and Tim Cartmell’s excellent book ‘Xingyi Neigong” (pictured below) the other day, I was curious about the master Wang Jiwu, whose exercises are profiled therein.

  xingyi neigong

 

It turns out Wang’s branch of xingyi is an interesting mixture of Shanxi and Hebei xingyi with some Dai xinyi influences.  Below is a profile of Wang’s teacher, Wang Fuyuan, translated from here :

‘Iron Arm’ Wang Fuyuan was one of Liu Qilan’s most accomplished disciples. He was Liu Qilan’s ‘shu tong’ [1] and from his youth practiced xingyi morning and night under Liu’s tutelage for over a decade. He mastered the essence of Liu’s xingyi. He never married, and hence kept his ‘tong zi gong’ [2] and his iron arm was as hard as steel.

As a young man, Wang Fuyuan once eliminated a local head of the ’3 Emperors’ gang  on his shifu’s orders. In order to evade the local authorities, Wang sought shelter with his shishu [3] Che Yizhai and lived in his home. In the evenings, Che, his disciple Li Fuzhen and Wang all practiced xingyi together. Che, seeing that Li wanted to ‘cross hands’ with Wang, ‘Changyou [Li Fuzhen's nickname], why don’t we watch Fuyuan’s xingyi?’ To which Wang replied ‘Shishu, what would you like to see?’ Che replied with ‘Whatever you like!’ In reply, Wang said ‘I guess I’ll do a bit of Pan Gen walking then.’ So saying, Wang went into a San Ti stance, sank his qi to the dantian, and started doing Pan Gen, with the steps directing the body, like a swimming dragon. The rotations and changes of directions made Wang’s movements hard to make out. By this point, Wang was moving so fast that his queue [4] was stretched out horizontally behind him. After Wang had finished, Che was full of praise. Che treated Wang as if he was his own indoor disciple, teaching him painstakingly. Wang also became fast friends with Li Fuzhen. Later on, Che recommended Wang for a job guarding a household in nearby Yuci county.

In Yuci, Wang also often met and sought instruction from some of his other xingyi uncles like Song Shirong, Li Taihe, Li Guangheng, Liu Yuanheng and He Yunheng. Hence, Wang’s xingyi can be said to combine the essence of various branches of Hebei and Shanxi xingyi. What’s more, even though at that time the Dai family still kept to their tradition of not teaching outsiders, Wang had contact with the Dai family, which is how Wang’s xingyi came to contain neigong concepts such as the ‘reverse bow’ [反弓一粒精] as well as the Dai family’s 3 fists (Drilling, Wrapping and Stomping ) as well as the 3 staffs (Peng, Pao, Fan Bei). Wang commonly carried with him a paired weapon called ‘bodyguard needles’, which were the same as the ‘iron chopsticks’ used by the Dai family. When Wang guarded convoys, he would carry these needles on his person in case of emergencies. Wang’s needles, 3 staffs and dragon sword (long xing jian) were taught to Peng Yingxi, who taught Wang Jiwu, who passed it on to his son, my teacher Wang Lianyi. For a period, Wang Fuyuan ran a caravan-guarding agency [biao ju] called Xing Yuan in Sanchahe in Inner Mongolia. During the years running Xing Yuan, his caravans were never successfully raided.

Both shiye and shifu emphasised to me that our branch is called Xinyi Liuhe quan – this emphasises that the contents of our branch come from the methods of the Dai family. In Wang Lianyi’s 1986 book, ‘Amazing Art’ (神功) he also calls our art Xinyi Liuhe quan. In this article I will refer to it as Xingyiquan to avoid confusion with the Xinyi Liuhe quan practiced in Henan.

Wang Fuyuan was famous in his lifetime and taught many students in the Yuci and Yangqu areas of Shanxi. From Yuci, there were Peng Yingxi, Wang Zhen-gang, Wang Jiwu, Zheng Zigang and Bo Zhanmei; from Yangqu, there were Mu Xiuyi, Peng Tingjun, Liu Shirong, Qi Zhenlin, and others. Amongst these, the most oustanding were Peng Yingxi, Peng Tingjun and Mu Xiuyi.

A short clip of Mu Xiuyi’s grandstudent, Cao Zhiqing, practicing Beng Quan can be found here

 Wang Fuyuan was born in 1856 and died in 1916 at the age of 60. According to Wang Jiwu, when he was 60, Wang caught a cold and went to a doctor. The doctor prescribed the wrong medicine, leading to Wang’s death. Wang’s passing was a great loss to the martial arts community. Wang Jiwu remembers that Wang Fuyuan was exceedingly fond of him (WJW) and treated him as an adopted son. Wang Jiwu studied with Wang Fuyuan for 6 years, learning San Ti, the 5 elements and the dragon and tiger shapes. After Wang Fuyuan’s passing, Wang Jiwu spent the next 7 years completing his studies with his shixiongs Peng Yingxi and Peng Tingjun, learning the rest of the animals, pair work and weapons. Later, Wang Jiwu went to work as a bodyguard in Li Cunyi’s caravan guarding agency, where he received further pointers from Li Cunyi himself. 

According to Wang Jiwu, the root of Wang Fuyuan’s superlative gongfu was his tongzigong, like that of the Shaolin warrior monks. This, together with his iron arm skill and Pan Gen stepping is what made him one of the most skilled masters of his era. I remember when I visited Wang Jiwu in the autumn of 1986. By that time Wang Jiwu was 94 years old. He showed me his ‘arm gongfu’ sitting on a rock bench by sticking out his arm. His arm was like a thick tree branch; in that year I was 24, and yet, try as I might, I could not move his arm an inch! After a while, I started to hang on his arm as if from a parallel bar – even then, his arm remained rock-steady. Wang himself did not consider this ‘iron arm’, it was merely a product of the practice of zhua tanzi [grabbing earthen jars] and ‘holding wooden bucket’ zhan zhuang. In his later years, Wang Jiwu’s arms were very thin – the skin was loose but the flesh was very firm, like an iron bat. Wang said that, with true ‘iron arm’, the practitioner’s arm could almost double in thickness after ‘circulating qi’ [运气], after which one would be able to break rocks and bend iron  pipes. At the time, I was not convinced. It was only after I met an anonymous master at the Wangfu Hotel who really did have this kind of iron arm ability that I believed what Wang Jiwu had said. After circulating his qi , this man’s arm doubled in thickness and turned red; he could hit his arm with a hammer without damage. He could also ‘project’ qi to heal illnesses.

Wang Jiwu told me that Wang Fuyuan, because of his iron arm and pan gen stepping, had never lost a challenge. In facing up to an opponent, he didn’t block, he just went straight on the attack, invariably ‘launching’ his opponent out. This is the pinnacle of combat in xinyi, called ‘just attacking, no looking [zhi da bu gu]‘. According to the old xinyi manuals, combat can be divided into 3 stages: ‘look first, then attack’; ‘looking & attacking together’ and ‘no looking, just attacking’. Not only that, at the peak of his powers Wang was able to sense movements within 10 steps behind him. It was then that Wang Jiwu told me of an incident that occurred in Wang Fuyuan’s later years.

One night in 1912, Wang Fuyuan was coming home on a deserted country road. On the way, he was accosted by two robbers. The two robbers, seeing that Wang was a skinny old man by himself, hid in the bushes by the side of the road. As Wang passed by, the two leapt out from either side clutching wooden staffs and attacked Wang from behind. Wang, perceiving the danger, ducked backwards through the gap between the two robbers, ending up behind them. Once behind, he hit the Fengfu point on the back of both their heads, causing the two of them to stumble. Wang then used the ‘hook back’ of Dai style Ying Zhuo [Eagle Grasp] to send the two robbers to the floor. From nowhere, Wang’s needles appeared in his hands as he barked “Why are you robbing people? If you don’t mend your ways, I’ll put an end to the both of you.” The two robbers knelt on the floor and begged for their lives; Wang, relenting, let them go.  

[1] A ‘shu tong’ [书童] , in feudal China, was a servant to a scholar, responsible for odd chores such as fetching books, grinding ink, tidying the scholar’s study, etc.. 

[2] ‘Tongzi Gong’ [童子功] refers to a set of exercises to make the body extremely supple and the joints flexible. It usually has to be practiced from early childhood to have the desired effect.  

[3] Terms of address in Chinese martial arts: shi fu = teacher, shi xiong = elder kungfu brother, shi shu = kungfu ‘uncle’, shi ye = grand-teacher

[4] The queue was the characteristic long ‘ponytail’ hairstyle imposed on Han chinese men by the Manchu emperors during the Qing dynasty.

 


Yang Luchan on the silver screen

August 21, 2009

During the late Qing dynasty, a young man from Hebei named Yang Yuqian leaves his village to seek out a kungfu master. After many travails and escapades, he ends up in Chen Family Village in Henan. Once there, he asks to become a student of the taiji master Chen Zhengying, but is refused, as the Chen family art is not taught to outsiders. However, eventually Chen accepts Yang as his disciple. Yang masters the art and brings it to Beijing, where he defeats allcomers and sets up his own school teaching the art.

Sound familiar?

That’s because this is the plot of the 1997 mainland series ‘Master of Tai Chi’, which, of all the various kungfu films and series over the years with the word Tai Chi in the title, cleaves closest to the actual story of tai chi. Of course, the directors Zhang Xinyan [1] and Yuen Woo-ping [2] have taken artistic liberties with the story: names have been changed (Yang Yuqian for Yang Luchan, Chen Zhengying for Chen Changxing), Yang becomes Chen’s disciple after saving him from poisoning (rather than working as an indentured servant like the real Yang Luchan), Yang falls in love with Chen’s daughter, and so on.

The most interesting departure from history is that Yang, in his quest for high-level kungfu, first goes to Beijing, where he meets Dong Hancheng (a thinly disguised Dong Haichuan) and asks to be accepted as his disciple. However, because Dong is on a mission to assassinate the emperor (coincidentally mirroring a real-life theory as to how Dong came to become a eunuch [3]), he refuses and it is only later that Yang finds his way to Chen Family Village.

Wu Jing

Wu Jing in a wushu-ised taiji posture

The fight between Dong and Yang is a standout of the entire series in that both Dong and Yang are (to a certain extent) shown to use recognisable techniques and principles from their respective styles. An excerpt of the final fight between Dong and Yang can be found here.

‘Master of Tai Chi’ is also rare in celluloid versions of the taiji story in that the main protagonist actually practices taiji. Wu Jing, the actor playing Yang Yuqian, performs a speeded-up version of the Chen 56 competition routine throughout the series.

In a 2006 interview, Wu revealed that he went to Chenjiagou to learn the routine from Wang Xi’an and is good friends with Wang’s second son, Wang Zhanjun. Even after the filming finished, he continues to visit Chenjiagou at sporadic intervals to learn taiji and relax from the stresses of his ‘day job’ as an actor.

Wu Jing pushing hands with Wang Zhanjun

Wang Zhanjun (L) pushing hands with Wu Jing (R)

[1] Zhang Xinyan was the director of 1984′s Shaolin Temple, the film which started Jet Li on his path to fame.

[2] Yuen Woo-ping is one of the most respected and successful martial arts choreographers in the world having worked  on such films as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the Matrix series among others.

[3] Li Ziming, in his 1993 book “Dong Haichuan & Baguazhang”, put forward a theory that Dong came to Beijing and became a eunuch in order to assassinate the emperor. This theory was based on interviews with masters from the second and third generations of bagua.


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