Western fans of taiji will no doubt be familiar with the exploits of the Yang family. The vast majority of Yang stylists worldwide derive their taiji from Yang Luchan’s grandson, Yang Chengfu. But how many are aware that in the hometown of the Yang’s (Guangfu town, Yongnian county in Hebei province), there remains a group of practitioners who preserve the system as practised by Yang Chengfu’s uncle, Yang Banhou, notorious for his swift temper?
The history of this branch is outlined at http://www.yangbanhou.com/newsinfo.asp?id=56, an extract of which I have translated below:
“The system transmitted by Yang Banhou in his hometown comprised: large frame, middle frame, small frame, fast frame, ti tui jia (lift legs frame), pao chui, liaokua baguazhang (hoist-carry 8 trigrams palm), 32 duan da (short hitting), sanshou, tuishou, da lu, taiji stake standing, taiji ball, taiji neigong as well as sabre, sword, spear etc. He passed on his skills unreservedly to the locals.
Banhou’s disciples in his hometown consisted of Chen Xiufeng, Zhang Xinyi, Ji Laofu, Li Wancheng and others. [The contemporary masters] Lin Jinsheng and Jia Zhixiang were both disciples of Li Wancheng.
Chen Xiufeng and Zhang Xinyi were 2 of Banhou’s early disciples, having been both accepted ‘inside the door’ before Banhou left to teach in Beijing. According to Zhang Xinyi’s son Zhang Huan, Zhang Xinyi at that time was working at the county yamen (a combined court, police station and county hall in imperial China), so was fairly well-off and obtained the true transmission (zhenchuan) from Banhou. After Banhou gained fame in Beijing, he was made a duke (houye) and the prince asked him if he had any accomplished students in Guangfu who could come teach in Beijing. Banhou mentioned that he did indeed have one disciple, Zhang Xinyi, whose gongfu was good, and subsequently wrote to Zhang Xinyi several times inviting him to teach in Beijing. Zhang, not wishing to get involved in the rivalries and factions of the Beijing martial arts scene, refused each time. Upon Banhou’s return to Guangfu, Zhang arranged a banquet to welcome his master back. During the banquet, Banhou recounted his victory over ‘Xiong county Liu’ (the chief martial arts master for Prince Gong), re-enacting the techniques he had used against him. As he did so, he accidentally hit Zhang in the stomach, causing Zhang chronic diarrhoea and Zhang’s eventual death 3 months later. That incident, coupled with Banhou’s killing his eldest daughter accidentally in sparring, meant that even Chen Xiufeng was too afraid to push hands with his teacher, to the point that, on his visits to Li Yiyu (of Wu[Hao] style) he would enter Guangfu by the west gate rather than the south gate in order to avoid meeting Banhou!
Ji Laofu and Li Wancheng ‘entered the door’ relatively young, and often accompanied Banhou following Zhang Xinyi’s death.Banhou particularly valued his two young, naughty disciples, teaching them with patience. Banhou was particularly fond of Li Wancheng as he was a member of the Yang family, and as a consequence Li received comprehensive training. The author’s (Jia Anshu) father knew Ji Laofu, his form was identical to that of Li Wancheng.
Li Wancheng, nicknamed Li Laowan, comprehensively mastered and passed on Banhou’s art. After the Yang family left Guangfu, Li was considered the most accomplished master in Yongnian. His mother had been Banhou’s wet nurse. According to my father Jia Zhixiang, Li Wancheng was Banhou’s neighbour. His father had passed away when he was a child, leaving his family impoverished. His mother worked as a maid in the Yang’s house doing needlework and odd chores. Mother and son lived and ate in the Yang home. The young Li Wancheng often carried Banhou’s rifle and cage on his duck-hunting expeditions. Banhou had a son (Yang Zhaopeng) relatively late in life, and so treated Li almost like a son, teaching him gongfu at any time. With such a conducive learning environment, Li quickly mastered Banhou’s art. If friends came to Guangfu for friendly exchanges or hooligans came looking for trouble, Banhou would always let Li fight the first bout.
One time tens of men from a neighbouring village came to Nanguan village armed with staffs looking for a fight. As they were standing on a bridge shouting and cursing, Banhou greeted them, saying “I’ll only take you on if you can beat this little kid (Li Wancheng)”. He then handed Li Wancheng a staff and made him stand at the near end of the bridge.The men charged Li Wancheng only to be knocked into the river, one by one. In the years that followed, Li Wancheng never left Banhou’s side. Even after Banhou’s death, Li didn’t leave the house of the Yang’s. Instead he set up a teahouse from which he also taught taiji. Yang Chengfu returned to Guangfu several times to ask Li to teach outside the village, but Li declined each time. Li was buried by his disciples upon his death in 1947.
The system as passed on by Li is very complete. He taught many students in the Yongnian area, but only taught the middle frame to ordinary students. His disciples include: Lin Jinsheng, Jia Zhixiang, Guo Zhenqing, Zhang Qi, Hao Congwen, Han Huiming, etc, most of whom went on to become well-known local teachers. Among these, only Lin Jinsheng and Jia Zhixiang learnt Banhou’s complete system.
Lin Jinsheng (1910-1986), nicknamed ‘Lin Laoyue’, was from Nanguan village, Guangfu town in Yongnian county. He loved martial arts from his youth and had unusually strong arms. He was a neighbour of Li Wancheng and the two families got on well. Seeing that Lin was clever and studious, and loved martial arts too, Li accepted Lin as his disciple. After a few years of hard practice, Lin made considerable progress. Banhou, seeing that Lin had an aptitude for the art and was willing to ‘chi ku‘ (‘eat bitter’) in his training, passed his art in its entirety to Lin. Lin became Li’s ‘doorman’, taking challenges for his master. As Lin’s mastery grew, so did his fame in the Guangfu area. Lin lived near Li his entire life, right up until Li’s passing.
When I (Jia Anshu) was studying Banhou’s taiji with Lin, I once witnessed Lin shake a tree with a trunk as thick as a ricebowl simply by ‘sticking’ to it with his long pole (da ganzi). On other occasions, I witnessed him lift up children using this same ‘sticking’ skill, and then place them gently back down on the ground.
He had developed his internal power to such an extent that he could pick up a stone roller used for threshing wheat from his courtyard, roll it up his arm and then hold it on his shoulder. In taiji, this is called ‘dan tuo‘ (single supporting). He was extremely selective in who he taught, and was a strict teacher. As a result, he didn’t have many students and only had 5 disciples, namely Jia Anshu (the author), Su Yongzhi, Chen Jianguo, Zhang Xiangkui and Guo Jianzeng. Only Jia Anshu mastered his complete system.
Because Lin Jinsheng had no children, during the entire decade I spent studying taiji from Lin (fron 1977 to 1986) I would help him with chores in the fields like planting, harvesting and ploughing. Lin passed away in 1986, followed soon after by his wife. I was responsible for dealing with their affairs after their passing.
Jia Zhixiang, was born in South Street (Nan Jie) of Guangfu town in 1917. He was Li Wancheng’s youngest disciple. Because of his robust physique, youth and hard graft, he made swift progress in grasping the material and received extra attention from Li Wancheng. Even though he received the true transmission, he has never shown off or sought fame, he embodies the chinese proverbs ‘shang shan ruo shui’ [‘ the greatest good is like water’] and ‘da zhi ruo yu’ [great wisdom may appear foolish]. To this day, he has persisted in his daily practice of taiji. He turned 90 this year, his eyesight and hearing are still keen and he can still practise the low frame (practiced under a table) with ease.