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The next stop on my Song style fact-finding trip was to another teacher in Tianjin called Yu Chunhai. Although both Che Qiang laoshi and Yu Chunhai laoshi are both from Tianjin, they come from slightly different branches of Song style, as Yu Chunhai’s xingyi comes from Li Xuzhou, another disciple of Song Huchen who was previously profiled in this blog.
Yu laoshi comes from an area of Tianjin (Liu Kuai Zhuang) which was a hotbed of martial arts, and xingyiquan in particular, in the early 20th century. Famous xingyi masters such as Li Cunyi, Xue Dian and Shang Yunxiang all lived and taught for varying periods of time in Liu Kuai Zhuang. Growing up in this kind of area, and the fact that Yu laoshi has practiced both Hebei and Shanxi styles of xingyiquan gives him a unique perspective on how martial arts were taught and practiced in that era.
Yu laoshi was more than happy to share the history of Liu Kuai Zhuang and how he came to learn xingyiquan. As he tells it, the reason that martial arts were popular in Liu Kuai Zhuang was because it was a port on the Grand Canal running from Hangzhou in the south all the way to Beijing in the north. Many of the men in Liu Kuai Zhuang worked as stevedores at the port, and fistfights were commonplace as people fought for the right to unload the boats. Originally the main martial art was Hong Quan (a branch of northern Shaolin). Xingyiquan only started to become known in Liu Kuai Zhuang when one of Li Cunyi’s grandstudents defeated one of the better martial artists in Liu Kuai Zhuang. A year or so later Li Cunyi himself, having heard of the reputation Liu Kuai Zhuang had for martial arts, came to Liu Kuai Zhuang and soundly defeated one of the main local masters, sending him flying over a table with She Xing (snake). After that, more and more of the locals started to learn Hebei xingyiquan under Li Cunyi, and Liu Kuai Zhuang produced several noted masters, such as Yu Liancai and Liu Yunji. It was Liu Yunji who first taught Yu’s teacher, Zhang Guiliang.
Through his teacher Liu Yunji and his own father, Yu Chunhai was able to contribute many stories about the early days of how xingyiquan went from being an outsider’s art to the predominant art practiced in Liu Kuai Zhuang, as well as anecdotes about the characters who stayed there, including Li Cunyi, Xue Dian and Shang Yunxiang. One of Yu’s favourite stories is of how Shang Yunxiang came to study with Li Cunyi. According to Yu, Shang Yunxiang martial arts potential was first noticed by Guo Yunshen. Knowing that Li Cunyi was looking for talented students to pass on his system to, Guo brought Shang to see Li, who was at that time living in Tianjin. However, Li was distinctly unimpressed (Shang was short, only 1.6m tall, and quite skinny too) with Shang and at that time refused to accept him as a student. Guo, irritated that Li couldn’t see Shang’s potential, taught him xingyi’s Santi and Beng Quan (crushing fist). Some time later (some accounts say 1 year, some say three), Guo again brought Shang to Li. This time, impressed by the power of Shang’s Beng Quan, Li agreed to accept him as his disciple.
Given the controversy within Chinese xingyi circles in recent years over who, if anyone, learned Xue Dian’s full system, I asked Yu about this issue. Yu thought that the people with the best claim to this would either be Xue’s son Xue Zhiyi, or the Xin family (Xin Shiyin, Xin Shirong), who learnt both Xue’s xingyiquan and the Xiang Xing Quan which Xue formulated based on his experiences and knowledge.
Of course, quite apart from his deep knowledge of the MA history of the area Yu laoshi is well known for his ability to use his xingyi – he has fought in Leitai competitions 4 times in his life, the fourth time when he was 47 years old, soundly beating opponents who were often 20 years his junior. His special technique is a move called “raising the horse whip” (Ju Ma Bian 拘马鞭), a technique in which the wrist/forearm ‘crashes’ down on the opponent’s guard, which he has trained to be extremely heavy and penetrating. Having been on the receiving end of his Ju Ma Bian, I can attest that the pain and numbness from just one or two strikes was enough to discourage any further attacks on my part. He also demonstrated freely his ability to take strikes to the upper body and head, at one point picking up a small wooden bench and smacking his head with it, making a large ‘thwock’ sound which made all of us onlookers wince – not bad for a 60 year old!
At the end of my visit, Yu laoshi said that it is his greatest wish that more young people both in China and abroad would start studying xingyiquan. Yu laoshi is doing his bit by teaching local teenagers for free. If any readers are interested in how to really use xingyiquan, they could do worse than to pay a visit to Yu Chunhai laoshi.
One of the benefits of having quit my job is that I can travel and visit masters in other parts of China. One of the teachers I had been wanting to visit for a long time is Che Qiang (车强), who is the grandson of Che Runtian (车润田), one of the first people to bring authentic Song style xingyi to Tianjin. What originally sparked my interest was that many in-depth articles about Song style xingyi on the internet were actually originally written or uploaded by him, and my impression was that he and his grandfather are an encyclopedia of knowledge about how Song style is/was practiced in Shanxi.
Having found his contact details online, I called M Che and he graciously invited me to come and watch their regular weekly practice, which is held in Tanggu, a suburb about a 45 minute railway ride from downtown Tianjin. After a short train ride, I found myself walking towards an unprepossessing 70s style dusty concrete compound, with nothing to distinguish it from millions of others in China. However, I knew I had come to the right place when I saw a 3.5m waxwood spear resting against the railings of the main courtyard of the compound. Sure enough, a group of middle aged men were supervising a small group of youngish guys as they practised the 5 elements. Recognising M Che from his pictures, I walked over and introduced myself. Besides him, there were also several other teachers, such as Liu Baojie and Yu Yanhua, all long-time disciples of Che Runtian’s senior student, Zhou Jinzhu.
As a member of the Song kungfu family, after the usual pleasantries it was not long before M Che began filling me in on the background of this branch. His grandfather, Che Runtian, was originally from Shandong but moved to Taigu in Shanxi to escape the droughts and famines which were afflicting Shandong at that time (late Qing dynasty). Also at that time Taigu was one of the richest financial centres in the north of China. Before long, Che found himself an apprenticeship as a dentist in Taigu, and later on went to open his own clinic. At the same time, Che was on the lookout for a martial arts teacher – in his youth he had practiced San Huang Pao Chui (3 emperors cannon fist), and still retained a deep fascination with the martial arts. Through a mutual friend, he was introduced to Song Huchen – the eldest son of Song Shirong, the founder of Song style, who at the time was a martial arts instructor for a local militia. After being convincingly defeated by Song, Che started his studies of xingyiquan with Song, which would last all the way until Song’s death in 1947. After Song’s passing and looking to improve further, Che became a disciple of Song’s cousin, Song Tielin.
By this time, Che was already a middle aged man, and moved back to his hometown in Shandong shortly afterwards, as his business had been handed over to the Communists as part of the nationalisation and collectivisation movement that accompanied the founding of the PRC. It was only after his retirement that Che moved to Tianjin, which is how Che Qiang came to be born there. Judging from both the articles published by Che Qiang and the book self-published after Che Runtian’s death in 1993, Che was a living encyclopedia of Song style (empty hand routines, paired practice, weapons, pangen stepping, neigong, etc).
I was very impressed by M Che’s extremely relaxed, sharp fa jing, demonstrating the characteristic shaking power (dou jue jing) for which Song style is famous – from the demonstrations he gave I am sure such a strike to the chest or belly would stop an opponent in their tracks, or certainly give them pause for thought. He also very kindly gave me some training tips, particularly in terms of small exercises to help open up and relax the shoulders and arms, which is an area which is heavily stressed in Song style – both M Che and my teacher stress that the fists should feel like a meteor hammer (liu xing chui) – an ancient weapon with a spiked ball on the end of a metal chain.
Another point he stressed was that people learning TCMA often try to copy pictures of the postures of masters from when they were in their old age (common examples would be his own grandfather, or the famous taijiquan master Ma Yueliang), when in fact these masters practiced very differently in their youth, with much lower, straighter, more strenuous postures. He explained that as one’s practice improves, such postures are no longer necessary, the postures can be become more curved and the circles can become smaller – so for beginners it is definitely a case of ‘do what your teacher says, not what he does now’.
All in all it was a very enlightening trip and I would encourage anyone interested in this style who has a chance to travel to Tianjin to seek out M Che.
Alex Kozma, the distinguished martial arts teacher and author, has produced a great interview with Gordon Tso, a Hong Kong-based teacher of Song style xingyiquan, in which Gordon talks about the history and practice of the style, how he came to learn xingyiquan, and also features several great training snippets with Gordon’s teacher GM Song Guanghua, as well as M Song Baogui (Song Guanghua’s son) and M Zhao Chuanhui, son of the famous Song style teacher Zhao Yongchang.
For anyone interested in Song style xingyiquan, this is a great introduction to the art:
In the interests of full disclosure I should probably point out that I am not exactly an independent party – Song Guanghua is my shiye, which makes Gordon my kungfu uncle!
For me personally it is great to see shiye in the familiar Song family courtyard in Taigu which I have visited several times, I hope he and his family members can carry on the art for many more years to come.
I understand that Alex is now training a group of students in Song style xingyi in the UK, so am happy to provide Alex’s contact details by PM if any UK or Europe based readers would like to check it out for themselves.
I realize I have not updated my blog in a while – as usual, it has been a case of life getting in the way, and also not having many new insights to share!
As I will be leaving China in a few months’ time, I have been trying to make the most of the time I have left by learning as much as I can, as in future my opportunities for returning to the mainland for any extended period of time will be very limited. One of the unintended positive consequences of my imminent departure is that my xingyiquan shifu (Dai Xueqi) seems to feel the urgency as much or even more so than I do, and has decided to teach me certain forms / content which I guess he had previously thought I was not ready for, for which I am very very grateful.
During this process, I have had two realizations recently which I wanted to share, to see whether other fellow readers have had similar experiences.
The first one is what I call “the Plateau effect”. Oftentimes when we are practicing martial arts, it is very easy to slip into a rut – practicing the same forms or exercises in the same way. This can go on for days, weeks or even months, with the feeling that actually you are not making any improvement at all, or sometimes even going backwards. In my case, I had a period of maybe 3-4 months of practicing different variations of basic fajin / footwork exercises, Xingyi’s 5 fists plus the linking fist (wuxing jintui lianhuan) set, without feeling that I was improving. However, from comments from both my shifu and some of his shixiong (i.e. my kungfu uncles), they feel that I have been improving, in my ability to relax the upper body, leading to improvement in the quality of fajin, starting to get what is called Dou Jue Jin (‘shaking power’) in Song style. Also in testing moves/applications against my shixiong (kungfu brothers), they have said that I am starting to get the penetrating power (chuan tou li) that is another characteristic of xingyi as a whole. This just goes to show that your own assessment of where you are in your practice can sometimes be out of whack, and the best is to get feedback from your teacher / kungfu brothers, who have probably gone through the same stages before.
The second point is the value of aimless practice. This may seem counter-intuitive – how can you improve at something if you are not deliberately focusing on practicing that one area? However, in reality the situation is more complicated than that – in Chinese martial arts, often times what we are trying to improve is the ‘quality’ of our movement, which is a whole mix of things, including awareness, relaxation under pressure, ‘aliveness’ of the body, etc etc. What I have found through my own practice is that sometimes “aimless” practice – i.e. trying to link together moves spontaneously as a reaction to imagined attacks, seeing what comes out – is actually a very useful method for changing what we practice from ‘dead’ forms (si taolu) into an “alive” practice (ba quan lian huo), which is one of the keys to being able to actually use your art. This ties in nicely with something which my xingyi shifu said to me in the early days of studying with him: “In xingyiquan, the forms are not fixed in stone, they are just a particular collection of techniques – once you have mastered the individual movements [dan cao], I expect you all to be able to put together your own forms!”.
Would very much like to hear from any blog readers who have had similar experiences, and how you got through the plateau!
The longer one stays involved in martial arts, the more obvious it becomes that certain arts / lines / groups have a serious case of “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. The phenomenon I’m referring to is where a comprehensive, usable fighting art gets degraded as it passes through the generations, until all that is left is an empty dance, a husk masquerading as a martial art.
In the description that follows I will deliberately avoid mentioning specific arts, as my intention is not to start a flame war. What I want to discuss in this blog post is a general trend in the world of CMA.
Generally what we see in Chinese martial arts (CMA) and possibly Japanese MA (JMA) as well – although I don’t have enough experience with JMA to make that call – is that during the heyday of the art, which for a lot of CMA was the late Qing dynasty, the art was practical, comprehensive (including conditioning, applications, sparring, neigong, etc), and training was with a view to actually using the art. This applies to several famous CMA that we can think of, such as taiji, xingyi, bagua, baji, etc.
Then, with the passage with time, various historical and personal factors conspired to dilute the art:
- Withholding the Art:
Certainly in the older generation of teachers it was not uncommon for teachers to withhold certain key aspects of the art such as neigong. In extreme cases, this meant that that material may be lost from that line altogether. Controversial examples would be the 24 neigong set in Wu style taiji, or the 72 kicks set in Jiang Rongqiao bagua.
- Selective Teaching / Favouritism:
Historically, for most TCMA in most places in China, the majority of the real teaching did not take place in formal classes but in small gatherings in parks or at the teacher’s house, or even one-on-one. The result of this is that it is / was common for teachers to be very selective about what materials were taught to certain students. In the xingyi that I practice I know for sure that there are portions of the art that are held very close to the chest and are not demonstrated in public, and I’m sure this is the same for my friends studying other traditional CMA.
- Cultural Revolution:
The damage wrought by the Cultural Revolution to CMA in China cannot be overestimated. Many famous taiji masters, such as Wang Peisheng, Yang Chengfu’s disciple Cui Yishi, Chen Xiaowang’s father Chen Zhaoxu etc were all struggled against. On the xingyi side masters like Zhu Guofu, Zheng Huaixian (Sun style), and Liu Molin (famous Hebei style master in Shanghai) were all targets of public struggle sessions. The word in Shanghai kungfu circles is that in the end Liu Molin could not stand the beatings and denunciations and committed suicide by jumping in the Huangpu river. Even if masters survived the Cultural Revolution, in most cases they were not allowed to teach and in certain examples were not even allowed to practice their arts. For example it is said that red guards were posted outside the house of Zheng Jun, the son of the famous Zhaobao taiji master Zheng Wuqing, to stop him from practicing!
- Chinese Political Environment
Even after the Cultural Revolution had passed and China started opening up, the Chinese government viewed the practice of real martial arts as at best a waste of time and at worst a threat to its control over its people. The teaching of fighting techniques in public was frowned upon, and even ostensibly less violent forms of practice such as stand-up wrestling received no government support.
- Commercialization of the Art / McDojo-isation
Separate to the trend of development of TCMA in China, other trends in the West also helped to further the dilution of the arts. Unlike China, the main way TCMA has spread in the West is through commercial schools (dojo / wuguan). This has the advantage that the art (hopefully) is taught in a more public, systematic way, but also has the associated downside that it can lead to creating a large pool of people who have only obtained a superficial understanding of the art, to the point where they may not have even learned the choreography of the main forms properly. If these people then go on to teach, the results can be imagined.
What is left at the end of this process is just a dance or form of calisthenics, fine for general exercise but devoid of any real martial substance, and not leading to any real fighting ability.
If you (like me) are studying TCMA not just for health but also with the genuine intention of at least being able to use what you have learnt, then you need to ask yourself:
- Do I know the usage of these moves that I’m learning?
- Can I actually use these moves under pressure?
- In the system that I am learning, is there a systematic step-by-step training method that leads from training applications to controlled sparring to semi-realistic fighting conditions?
If the answers to all of those questions are yes, congratulations! You are on the right track 🙂
It is an unfortunate truth of the kungfu world that there is no necessary connection between how skilled someone is and the size of their ego. In general, my experience in the Chinese kungfu world has been that humble teachers actually tend to be in the minority.
Most Chinese traditional kungfu teachers I have met can be very dismissive about other styles and even teachers in their own branch, especially ones that they have only seen on video.
My own xingyi teacher frequently disparages the fighting ability of other teachers he has met from our style, and only has respect for a few of the teachers in his generation who he feels can really fight.
Another, perhaps more exaggerated example of this was with the taiji teacher I have recently started studying with, who I have mentioned in previous posts – Teacher Li. Teacher Li himself has very interesting skills, and apart from taiji has practiced several other arts such as shuai jiao, xinyi liuhe and bagua before settling on taiji as his main art. Generally he has respect for people he has crossed hands with or arts that he himself has trained in, but can often be quite scathing about other arts. Somehow we got into a conversation about a famous Yiquan teacher from Beijing who shall remain nameless.
Having seen a video of this teacher online, Teacher Li immediately started making unflattering remarks, such as “Look at his push hands with his students! They are giving him a framework [jian jia] to launch them with, I’d like to see him try that on me, he’d be 6 feet away before he knew it!”.
Normally I try to ignore comments like these, but having been on the receiving end of said Yiquan teacher’s attacks I made a feeble attempt to convince Teacher Li that the Yiquan teacher did have some real skill, but he was having none of it. The only result of that conversation was that Teacher Li spent the morning throwing me into the bushes near our training ground to prove the various ways in which to deal with the Yiquan teacher’s attacks!
In future I will know when to keep my mouth shut!
I recently had an encounter with a teacher here in Shanghai which made me change the way I think about the IMA concepts of relaxation (song), sinking (chen) and peng jing (expanding force) – how to define them and what is possible with peng in particular.
To give a bit of background, I had been continuing my search for a push hands group that actually allowed the use of force, or could at least deal with force, as opposed to the ‘polite pushing’ normally found in Shanghai’s parks. Through an MA group in Shanghai I had met a guy online (who I shall call Wan) who had mentioned to me that if I was interested in push hands his teacher was quite good.
Naturally I was curious to see if the teacher had the kind of skills I had read about. However, due to various hiccups along the way it took 2-3 months before I finally got round to visiting the teacher in question (Jiang laoshi). According to Wan, Jiang laoshi was quite unusual in that he had studied at least 3 of the major styles of taiji (Yang / Chen / Hao) with direct students of some very famous teachers (e.g. Yang style from a student of Tian Zhaolin; Chen style from a student of Chen Zhaokui; etc).
I arranged to pay a visit to a local sports stadium, which was where Jiang laoshi normally taught at the weekends. So it was one morning that I found myself one Sunday morning at a sports centre on the outskirts of Shanghai. I was met by Wan, a friendly bespectacled young guy in his late 20s. After some twists and turns we reached a clear open space surrounded by trees which provided some shade, a perfect place for taiji practice. And lo and behold, a small group of students of varying ages were being instructed on the finer points of push hands by a short, skinny elderly gentleman who I (correctly as it turned out) assumed was Jiang laoshi.
As my previous experiences with teacher N (the shuai jiao teacher) had shown, in situations like these most Chinese teachers are very wary, as they are not sure whether the visitor has come to ti chang (lit. ‘kick school’ – issue a challenge) or actually to study, so it is common practice for the teacher just to acknowledge the visitor, maybe show them one or two things, and then leave them to get on with it.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that Jiang laoshi was very open, and we had a long, interesting conversation about the early history of Yang and Chen style in Shanghai, in particular how Chen Zhaokui’s xinjia came to be taught there. I later learned from Wan that it was very unusual for Jiang laoshi to be so chatty, and that normally it took several months before he opened up to students. After some brief introductions of my background, Jiang laoshi and his longtime student Li put me through some tests to see where I had gotten with my neijia practice. The tests were very similar to some “teacher tests” or single posture testing which can be found on the internet – where someone (A) assumes a posture and then B applies pressure to it from various angles, or where two opponents try to prevent being uprooted by the other.
Sad to say, they were disappointed to find that I had little ability to relax (song), sink (chen) or display integrated whole body power (peng jin / zheng jin) and were able to uproot and move me around easily. They both remarked that if I had not told them they would have barely thought that I had practiced any neijia before. Obviously, this was disheartening, but I reminded myself that you only improve by being shown your shortcomings / weaknesses.
Jiang laoshi and Li then proceeded to show me what they meant by these 3 concepts (song, peng and chen). Perhaps I have not been exposed to enough high level teachers, but I was amazed by some of the abilities of both Jiang and Li – I discuss some concrete examples below:
SONG (relaxation): Li was able to generate incredible power from his hands (grip strength), all the while stressing to me that his arms and shoulders were completely relaxed (song). He allowed me to feel his arms and shoulders with my hands, and I found to my surprise that they were almost completely relaxed – very difficult to detect any tension at all. He also showed several qinna methods which were extremely inventive and painful for the person on the receiving end – my wrist is still a little sore a week later!
PENG (expansive / integrated force): My previous understanding of peng was that it was a structural force based on maintaining a certain structure and alignment. However, both Jiang and Li demolished this idea, as they were able to exhibit peng in positions in which it seemed they were at a tremendous mechanical disadvantage. For example, Li demonstrated that he could allow me to push his arm to completely collapse against his chest (called ‘sealing’ in taiji, and which normally is described as a beginner’s error), and still have extremely strong peng force expanding out. Even in such disadvantageous situations, he seemed to have huge stores of power in reserve and was able to launch me away with little effort. To explain, he just said that peng does not rely on a fixed structure and what he had done was merely a demonstration of small circle vs large circle peng, something which I am still trying to puzzle over now.
CHEN (sinking): Jiang and Li also reinforced an idea which I had been mulling over for a while but had not seen put into practice until that point, namely that sinking in taiji has nothing to do with low stances. Jiang and Li were both able to withstand pushes from me (using all of my strength) without any discernible sinking into a stance – albeit that their knees were slightly bent. When asked about this, Li answered by saying “You are pushing up here [indicating his chest]. But my centre of gravity is still down here [pointing to his dantian], so of course it is easy for me to keep my balance. However, when I push you, your centre of gravity floats up into your chest, so of course it is easy for us to push you out.”
Jiang and Li then proceeded to teach some simple exercises and stances to try and help me get rid of the excess tension in my body, particularly the shoulders.
One other comment that Jiang laoshi made that has stuck with me is that the precise form you practice in taijiquan is not that important – the form is merely a vessel, the important stuff is what is inside. Without the elements I have mentioned above, then you cannot even be considered to have ‘entered the door’ of taiji. Jiang laoshi implements this in his own teaching – in terms of form, his students are free to choose whether to study Yang or Chen style form with him, to him there is not such a big difference in the goals and content of both. Certainly food for thought.
Needless to say, I will be continuing to visit Jiang laoshi in the future and hope to have breakthroughs to report.