The style of bagua created by Dong Haichuan’s top student, Yin Fu, has only recently started to be known about in the West, largely due to the efforts of the late Xie Peiqi and his disciple He Jinbao. Just as in any other style, Yin style also has its own sub branches, each deriving from one of Yin Fu’s main students. In this article I intend to introduce the sub-branch passed on by Yin Fu’s student Cao Zhongsheng by translating an interview (taken from here) with one of its inheritors, He Puren.
“He Puren is a nationally-famous acupuncturist who has been praised as ‘tian xia di yi zhen‘ (‘the first needle under heaven’). He is also a third-generation master of Yin style baguazhang, who was appointed honorary head of the Beijing Bagua Research Assocation for two successive terms.
Encountering Great Teachers
He Puren was born in 1926 in Shigui village in Laishui county of Hebei province. When he was 14 (1940), through a friend’s introduction he managed to apprentice himself to study acupuncture in Beijing under Beijing’s most famous acupuncturist of the time, Dr Niu Zehua. Doctor Niu quickly took a liking to his hard-working and humble new student.
In addition to liking acupuncture, He Puren also had a fondness for martial arts. From the moment he entered Beijing, he dreamed of studying wushu under a master of martial arts. In the year that he turned 18, he had the good fortune to meet one of Cao Zhongsheng’s best disciples in the form of Zhang Jinchen. Zhang, seeing that He was honest, strong and clever, recommended He to Cao Zhongsheng.
Cao, as one of Yin Fu’s favourite disciples, had received the full transmission from Yin and was well-versed in all the techniques of Yin style. In addition, he was really good-tempered, he treated his disciples as if they were his own sons, held nothing back and answered whatever questions they had. And so, He Puren’s wish of studying under a good teacher came true, he studied bagua with Cao for 8 years. Looking back, He exclaimed “I was really fortunate to meet two great teachers who taught me what they knew unreservedly, I will never forget them. From the day that I finished my training, I resolved to follow the example of my two teachers and make a contribution to the happiness and health of others by organically integrating wushu and medicine.”
Amongst the styles of bagua, Yin style is considered the representative of ‘hard palms’, its palm techniques being fierce and vigourous., and the representative of Yin style was, of course, Yin Fu.
Yin Fu, Dong Haichuan’s top disciple
Yin (1840-1909), styled Yin De-an, literary name Yin Shou-peng, was from Ji county in Hebei province. He had practiced wushu since his youth and was skilled at Tantui (‘springy legs’, a style of kungfu emphasising kicks). During the reign of the emperor Xianfeng he became Dong Haichuan’s disciple and studied bagua from him. He integrated the Luohanquan (‘Arhat boxing’) and Tantui he had learnt into his bagua. Through years of arduous practice, he became famous throughout Beijing. A good many of his students also made names for themselves.
The characteristics of Yin’s bagua are its use of the ‘ox-tongue palm’ (niu she zhang); in terms of power, it emphasises Gan (dry), Leng (cold) and Zhi (direct). Externally, it emphasises Leng (cold), Tan (springy), Ying (hard), Cui (crisp), and Kuai (fast). Internally, it emphasises Suo (contracting), Xiao (small), Mian (continuous), Ruan (soft), Qiao (skill). After He entered the door of bagua, he often heard stories and even personally witnessed the feats which the older generation of bagua practitioners were capable of. In his words, “To look at, no-one would think that Cao Zhongsheng was a martial artist: he was thin, bookish, he looked more like a scholar than anything else. His Jingang Rouqiu Zhang (Buddha’s warrior attendant rolls a ball), Shuang Zhuang Zhang (Double crashing palm) and wrist strikes were all fearsome, really explosive. When he practiced Jingang Rouqiu Zhang his hands looked like they were just rolling around, but the moment you touched him you were thrown back. In applying Shuang Zhuang Zhang, he would first pull you in towards him and then shove out with both hands, often sending people tumbling out several yards.
Because Yin Fu appreciated Cao’s honesty and good work ethic, Yin often gave him private one-one-one instruction. As a result, we can say that Cao’s Yin style is distinguished by its completeness and ‘purity’. As Cao was a jade carver, he treated his work as an opportunity to practice his kungfu. When he was working on the mechanical jade lathe, he was subconsciously practicing bagua.
The gongfu of Cao’s elder kungfu brother Ma Shiqing (aka Ma Gui) was of an even higher order than Cao’s. In order to practice his wrist-striking, he would do a press-up style exercise that involved him falling forward onto the floor onto the back of his wrists and then springing back up to a standing position, which he would practice repeatedly and could do with ease. He had bested many famous masters using only his wrist-striking. You couldn’t touch his body, if you did it felt like being electrocuted. Once a local master asked Ma Shiqing to help him establish a kungfu school at Tianqiao (by taking on challengers for him). After the challengers had left, the master invited Ma to a teahouse. As they were walking up the steps, the master held Ma’s arm to steady him. Ma, feeling someone grabbing his arm, swatted lightly backwards with his arm. This light swat left a black and purple bruise across the master’s chest that apparently took years to heal. Ma Shiqing, although he was strictly speaking Yin Fu’s disciple, was held in high regard by Dong Haichuan. Thus, Dong would often ask for his help with his palace duties; in so doing, Dong would give him pointers and teach him techniques and drills. It was this extra instruction from Dong that helped Ma’s gongfu stand out amongst the third generation of bagua practitioners. On one occasion, Ma and Dong went to Inner Mongolia to buy horses (for his employer). As Ma was amongst the herd picking and choosing, a particularly wild horse kicked him, and in response Ma broke the horse’s leg with a single palm strike.
Even though Ma’s gongfu was peerless among his generation, he could still not best his teacher. Once, when Ma and Yin were sparring, whilst Ma was attacking Yin crouched down and hoisted him up by his ankles. Baguazhang is really amazing, the palm techniques are simple, but as long as you put in the effort, ou can achieve almost miraculous skills. Many martial arts masters used to live near Yong An Rd (where I originally lived), so I got the chance to chat to many older martial artists about the feats of the previous generations of bagua masters. I have to say, it really encouraged me in my own practice.
Cao was normally an amiable man, but he was extremely strict when it came to bagua. Beginning students would first be made to stand in bagua’s ‘Zhuan Zhang Shi‘ (Turning Palm Stance), practicing the stance first on the right then on the left. Every day they would stand for over an hour in the morning and then do some more standing in the evening at home. When you first start to practice stake standing (zhan zhuang), your waist and legs ache and your thoughts wander, it’s very difficult to stick at it. Cao often said, zhan zhuang is both the foundation and the essence of bagua, you have to do it before you can go on to the rest of the art. And so, I persevered with it, only to find that after a while, I started to feel comfortable and full of energy while standing, as if my feet were rooted to the ground. The more I practiced zhan zhuang, the more I had a feeling of courage and strength. The more I practiced, the more I got to like standing. I must have practiced only zhan zhuang for over a year. One day, having pushed down on my arms and shoulders, Cao said “You can start circle-walking now”. So saying, he began to teach me circle-walking. Cao’s circle-walking uses small steps, low postures and the ‘ox-tongue palm’. Whilst walking, the palm is either cocked upwards or is a straight ‘entering’ palm. When practicing ‘piercing palm’ (chuan zhang), the front hand presses down while the back hand pierces; in practice, the palm ‘pierces’ from under the elbow, whereas in real usage it pierces from above the forearm. The idea is to ‘follow naturalness’.
Cao’s circle walking was composed of 8 routines, making 64 palms in total. However, the first 8 palms are the most important, namely:
Chuan Zhang [Piercing Palm]
Mo Zhang [Grinding Palm]
Shangchuan Zhuanshen Fancha Zhuang [Reverse Inserting Palm]
Wanda Zhuangxi Kaoshen Zhang [Close-in Wrist-strike & Knee-butt]
Jinbu Qianchuan Fanbi Zhang [Advancing Penetrating Arm-reverse]
Cejian Ningwan Suishi Zhang [Slant Shoulders & Wrist Twist]
Yaozi Chuanlin Zhang [Hawk flies through the forest]
Shangchuan Zhuanshen Liaoyin Zhang [Turn body & attack the groin]
These 8 palms were practiced and corrected repeatedly. One palm would only be taught after the previous palm was ‘up to scratch’. I practiced the 8 main palms under Cao for 3 years. Cao taught the other palms as well, and you could practice them if you had time, but the main 8 palms had to be practiced and mastered. During the 8 years I studied under Cao, he introduced a lot of the secret sanshou, weapons and neigong of Yin style. Cao did not lay down hard and fast rules as to which ones you had to practice, we were allowed to choose which ones to practice according to our own circumstances. For example, when it came to basic exercises, there are many different stances, of which I chose Ning Shen Zhuang [Twist Body Stance]; there were 14 tendon-stretching methods, of which I only practiced 4 or 5. For power-training, there were 8 methods: raising pots, stabbing sand, pulling nails, digging wells, sweeping stakes, standing plum-flower posts, grabbing mud mantou (a chinese bun) and rubbing iron balls, of which I chose only mounting pots and grabbing mud balls. ‘Pot-raising’ involved raising and lowering a wooden stick to which had been suspended a clay pot full of sand. At the beginning, the weight of the pot was a couple of pounds, with one pound of sand being added every day until 30 or 50 pounds was reached. Grabbing mud mantou (aka grabbing round mallets) involved mixing together earth, water, ashes and hemp together into the shape of a mantou. Once the mantou had dried, we would do exercises holding one of them in each hand. There were over 10 different exercises, including stretching to the front, to the back and to the side, each strengthening the grip and the ‘xuan li‘ (‘suspending power’) of the arms and wrists. Initially, the mantou weighed 3 pounds, eventually reaching as heavy as 30 pounds each. Training for ‘light skill’ (qing gong) consisted of ‘qi practice, running on stakes, ‘pull-jumps’, jumping over pits and running up boards, of which I only did the ‘qi practice’ and the awareness training. The awareness training involved suspending two copper coins together tied together with a piece of string from the rafters of a roof at about eye height. The student then tried to not blink as the coins were swung right in front of his eyes. The training for our hearing was to pinpoint the location of the two coins as they swung around. Unfortunately, I didn’t practice any of Cao’s evasion drills. In Cao’s system there are 8 kinds of strikes, namely strikes with the fist, palms, wrist, elbow, shoulder, leg, knee and hips, 24 kinds of hand techniques, 14 body postures and 23 different kinds of stepping. There was also point striking targeted at the 36 ‘deadly’ points, which I learnt but did not focus on. In addition, students practiced their strikes against ‘wooden men’ or punching bags.
Yin style weapons are many and varied, but I only learnt the Wuji Gun (Ultimate Emptiness Staff) and the 18-section sabre (Shi Ba Jie Dao). My favourite free-fighting (sanshou) techniques are Jin Gang Rou Qiu (Buddha’s Warrior Attendant Rubs Ball), Dai Shou (Carrying hand) and wrist-striking, which were also Cao’s trademark techniques.
In summary, the sequence of progression of learning in Cao’s system is: First, students learn zhan zhuang (stake standing). Circle-walking is not taught until the student’s zhan zhuang is up to scratch. Cao’s circle walking is different from that of Cheng style or Liang (Zhenpu) style, we don’t talk about the Ding Shi Ba Zhang (8 fixed palms) or the Lao Ba Zhang (8 old palms), there are just 64 palms arranged into 8 routines. If you had time, you could practice them all if you wanted, but the 8 palms of the first routine had to be mastered (both the form and the applications).
As for the rest of Cao’s sanshou, weapons and secret skills, you practiced what Cao taught you. He was fine with students exchanging what they had learnt between themselves. Not many people learnt all 64 palms, amonst us disciples only Zhang Jinchen (who passed away in 1983) could remember them all.”
At the end of the interview, He Puren said earnestly “The various branches of bagua ought to pull together to overcome the forces of factionalism and commercialism. We shouldn’t waste time bickering over who’s the most ‘authentic’, who has ‘the true transmission’. Even the students of the same teacher practice differently; in some cases, it is a problem of the student, in others the student has developed his own understanding. In terms of gongfu, modern people cannot compare with the previous generations. Back then, mastering bagua was about survival, about honour. Nowadays, everything’s different. Besides, no-one is invincible, there’s always someone better, we should be humble and cautious, and learn from others’ good points, instead of living in our own little ‘bubbles’.”