Because most practitioners of xingyi in the West belong to the Hebei branch, the giants of that subset (Guo Yunshen, Li Cunyi and Sun Lutang to name but three) are, if not household names, then at least familiar. However, the branches of xingyi passed on by two of Li Luoneng’s best students, Song Shirong and Che Yizhai, tend to be little known in the west. Today’s article will introduce Bu Bingquan, an inheritor of Che style xingyi; a later article will introduce Song style.
The following extract is taken from an article in the San Jin Metro (San Jin Dushi Bao), the original of which can be found here
Bu Style Xingyi Inheritor Bu Bingquan
Taigu county in Shanxi province occupies an important place in the history of Chinese martial arts. ‘Taiji, shaolin, bagua and xingyi’ are the ‘big 4’ of Chinese martial , and Taigu is known as the ‘hometown of Xingyi’. Taigu xingyi is not just an integral part of the history of the so-called ‘Jin Shang’ (Shanxi merchant class), it also forms part of the development of China’s physical education in the early Republican period.
Taigu xingyi cannot be mentioned without mentioning the famous master Bu Xuekuan. In 1918, Taigu county Physical Education Council appointed Bu Xuekuan as its director. Bu was later employed by Kong Xiangxi as martial arts instructor of Oberlin Shansi Memorial College. He worked as a martial arts coach his entire life, was universally respected and made great contributions to the promotion of martial arts in Shanxi. On the eve of the anniversary of Bu Xuekuan’s passing (6 December), I interviewed the head of the Bu Xuekuan Research Association, his son, Bu Bingquan.
6 Generations of Che Style Xingyi
Bu Bingquan’s home, named ‘Shang Xian Ju’, is located at 1 Bei Zhuan Dao Xiang, in Taigu town. This small, secluded siheyuan receives visits from martial arts enthusiasts from all over the world. For these people of all creeds and races, passing through Taigu town’s bustling main street, its quaint old drum tower, and entering a traditional Chinese courtyard to meet this mysterious xingyi master, must be the best way of getting closer to Chinese culture.
Reporter (hereafter R): Most people are familiar with shaolin, taiji and bagua, or will at least have a vague idea what they are about. Can you give our readers a brief intro to Che style xingyi?
Bu Bingquan (hereafter B): Xingyi is one of China’s ‘Big Four’ martial arts, it is widespread and has many sub-branches. Che style is one of the more influential sub-styles, and is a descendant of Dai style Xinyiquan. In the 1840s, Li Luoneng learnt Dai style Xinyiquan in Qi county (also in Shanxi). He began to accept disciples in Shanxi in 1856. Li’s early disciple Che Yizhai was a notable figure of the period, he was even awarded a ceremonial title by the Qing government. Che Yizhai was very selective in his choice of disciples, he accepted less than 20 disciples in his entire life, of whom the most outstanding were Li Fuzhen and Bu Xuekuan, my father.
During the Ming and Qing dynasties, commerce flourished in Taigu county, and with it the caravan escort business. The rich merchants of Taigu employed martial arts masters to guard their caravans of goods. For example, Li Luoneng was once employed by the merchant Meng Furu to guard his caravans and his compound, Che Yizhai and Li Fuzhen were employed by the Qiao family (a famous merchant family in Shanxi whose compound formed the backdrop to Zhang Yimou’s ‘Raise the Red Lantern’) as their private martial arts instructors, which is how Qiao Yingxia and Qiao Ying-geng came to learn xingyi. On a certain level, it was Shanxi commerce that helped xingyi develop and spread.
In the early years of the Republican period, xingyi earned itself a name as one of the ‘Big Four’ Chinese martial arts. It was in this period that xingyi produced many of its most famous masters and gained fame both at home and abroad.
R: There are many inheritors of Che style xingyi, what made Bu Xuekuan special?
B: My father was born in Gongjiabao (Gong family fort) in Qi county in 1876. He later moved to live in Taigu. His family were farmers, but managed to send him to a private school. He was apprenticed to a wine jar seller, but learnt his trade in a grain shop. He took a liking to martial arts in his youth and started studying martial arts when he was 16. He was later accepted as one of Che Yizhai’s disciples. Because his postures were outstanding, Che paid special attention to his development. As his skills slowly improved, so his fame grew. My father ‘opened the door’ (started accepting disciples) in 1913, and trained many disciples. In 1917 he was appointed director of Taigu county Physical Education Council. In 1930 he was employed as a martial arts instructor at Oberlin Shansi Memorial College. His efforts while at the Taigu PE Council helped to popularise xingyi in Taigu.
After the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War, Oberlin College moved to Sichuan, leaving my father behind among others to guard the old premises, which he did with no mishaps. After liberation, he was appointed as a commissioner in local government and as chairman of the wushu association (amongst other posts). At every post-liberation provincial-level wushu and shuaijiao (Chinese wrestling) competition, my father either acted as head or deputy head judge. He always gave his all for the Spring Festival wushu performance. In 1963, Taigu county set up 75 ‘wushu popularisation stations’; even though at that time my father was over 80, he still indefatigably rushed between stations, promoting wushu and even applying his xingyi knowledge to training the local people’s militia!
My father published books on the ‘Marrow-washing classic’ (Xi Sui Jing), ‘Applications of Yuanyang Kicks’ (Yuanyang Jiao Yingyong Fa) and the ‘Linked Fists’ (Lianhuan Shou) two-person set. He remained clear-eyed and sprightly right up until his passing at the age of 96。 His branch of xingyi has already reached its 6th generation, amongst a number have gone on to make a name for themselves in their own right, like the coach of the Provincial Wushu team Li Sanyuan as well as others. In 1986, the Shanxi Sports Commission made the following comments about my father: “Bu Xuekuan was one of the more influential martial artists of his generation, who made great contributions to the popularisation of martial arts.” In 1996, with the support of commissioner Zhao Xikuan, we set up the Bu Xuekuan Research Association.
R: You are a direct inheritor of your father’s art. I’ve heard that you get a lot of visitors wanting to learn from you – is that true?
B: Che style xingyi has already been passed down 6 generations, there have been famous people in every generation. I am one of the inheritors of the art, that’s true, but I’m no celebrity. Even though my father was a professional martial arts coach, he didn’t force his 9 kids to study kungfu, he waited to see if we had any interest first. In our upbringing, he mostly emphasised culture, wisdom and ethics. Even though we all grew up practicing kungfu, not one of us actually teaches it for a living. Out of us 9 kids, there have been 4 university students and 3 college students, looks like our family has gone from being a family of warriors to one of scholars! That said though, we’re all pretty sporty, for example, one of my sisters in on the provincial handball team, and my table tennis isn’t too bad either.
When we were young, our house had a big courtyard out the back which was often full of dozens of people practicing xingyi. Us kids would imitate them as a kind of play, really. After 1957, this impetus dropped away. There are still several large iron pots in my house as a remnant of that period. Our father expected us to ‘strengthen our bodies, pay back the motherland’. My father had me when he was already elderly, seeing that I always used to get car-sick, he made me practice bagua. It was only after I realised that a month of bagua has cured my car-sickness that I started to get into martial arts.
In all honesty, I haven’t even got a tenth of my father’s skill [Chinese modesty?], it’s only since I retired from the Taigu Trade Commission that I’ve started to really probe into my father’s art.
It’s true that my father is a well-known figure in xingyi circles. I remember there was a young Japanese guy who saved up enough money to come to Taiyuan as an overseas student. Every week he would come to Taigu to learn xingyi from me. He felt that he not only learned about real kungfu, but about chinese culture at the same time. One of my father’s disciples, Wu Chaoxiang, went to Taiwan, where he was a bank manager, and later moved to Brazil, where he taught xingyi and eventually passed away. He (Wu) once taught Che style xingyi to a class of American army officers, amongst whom was Stanley E Henning (the American martial arts historian), who is now a professor at the university of Hawaii. Mr Henning, in an effort to contact Bu Xuekuan’s descendants, contacted Jarek Szymanski in Shanghai, who suggested that he come to Taigu to find me. And so he did, once last year and once this year.”