Reminiscences of Yao Zongxun – Part II

The following forms the second part of my translation of a long interview with Cui Ruibin (taken from here ).
Cheng Bao Zhuang

Yao Zongxun in Cheng Bao Zhuang ('Hugging a Tree' posture)

“A: Just now, you said that there was quite a difference between the teachings of M Yao and M Li. Could you go into a bit more detail?
C: When M Yao started teaching me from Cheng Bao Zhuang (‘hugging a tree’ posture), he noted that I wasn’t holding my hands quite right. His requirements were very detailed, down to the exact position of each finger whilst holding the posture. When I got home, I would do zhan zhuang for as long as it took until I ‘found the feeling’, sometimes spending hours in one posture. After I had found it, I would tell M Yao, whereupon he would move on to the next step. Learning it this way really helps improve your gongfu. Nowadays, there’s a lot of people teaching Yiquan, but what they teach is mostly the same. The difference between M Yao and these other people was in the details, I think these details are very important, because they affect the internal changes going on in your body. Take the process of ‘qiu jin’ (looking for power), for example: when I was studying under M Li, we were just told to imagine we were hugging and shaking a tree. For M Yao, on the other hand, there were several stages of ‘qiu jin’. First, you should imagine yourself pulling at the tree. Then, there is a stage where you’re pulling the tree but you can’t move it. Once you’ve reached this feeling in your zhan zhuang, it’s time to imagine the tree pulling at you. And what if, once it’s pulling you, you start pulling at it….? Later on, I realised that this way of teaching ‘qiu jin’ is actually a way of training your reflexes.

Every time I went to see M Yao, I would faithfully report any new experiences or sensations encountered in my practice. One day in 1980 I was practicing Ti An Shi Li (Lifting-Pressing Testing Power) near the lake in Tao Ran Ting Park. I must have practiced for about an hour solid when I suddenly felt that not only was there a front-to-back horizontal force, but also a vertical force, as well as a left-to-right horizontal force within this shi li exercise. At that moment, it was like I was a man who had been blind for years suddenly regaining his sight. What was even more interesting was that as I used less and less muscle and more and more intent, the feeling got even stronger. When I reported these feelings to M Yao, he was really happy, saying “Keep practicing, my boy!” The same thing happened later on when I first felt as if my body was going to fly away in zhan zhuang, M Yao said “Young lad, this is what we call ‘Ba Di Yu Fei![Lit. leave the ground, wishing to fly]!”

A: In Yiquan, zhan zhuang isn’t just about training strength, there’s a lot to it. Are all of these things connected to actual combat?
C: In my experience (and according to M Yao), the sensations and abilities you exhibit in zhan zhuang should carry over into shi li and real combat. Take ‘jingshen fangda’ (magnifying the spirit), for example: it’s no good if you can do it in zhan zhuang but not in shi li or combat. Zhan zhuang is trying to control internal movements when your exterior is motionless; when your limbs are moving (in shi li), can you maintain the same feeling, project the same force? And what about under actual combat conditions? The converse is also true: only when you can maintain all of these qualities and sensations in combat can you approach the condition in Yiquan’s ‘Jian Wu’ (health dance).

A: Speaking of Jian Wu, when is student ready to practice it?
C: You should only practice Jian Wu after you’ve reached the stage of ‘body solid like iron cast (ti zheng ru zhu), limbs as if filled with lead (shen ru guan qian), flesh and skin as one (ji rou ruo yi), body hairs like lances (mao fa ru ji)’, then and only then will you exhibit the right ‘flavour’. Think about it, if you can’t even maintain your connection to the outside world during shi li, is your ‘Jian Wu’ really Jian Wu? As well as the 4 requirements I said above,you must have also developed the sensation of ‘zhi guo liu hen‘[lit. fingers leave traces as they pass by]. As GM Wang said, if you don’t have that jin, that power, all you’re doing is waving your arms in the air.  My personal advice to Yiquan enthusiasts is that you can still ‘try out’ stuff that you experience in zhan zhuang or shi li, to see if you can still maintain that sensation whilst moving in a freeform way. If the sensation becomes weak, then you should go back to your zhan zhuang and shi li to strengthen it.

A: You mentioned that M Yao was very detailed in his teaching to you. Was he this way with all his students?
C: His teaching methods depended on the person’s aptitude, it was very much a gradual, elicitive approach. It’s true that I did receive some ‘special treatment’, mainly in the sense that M Yao would  tell me the whys and wherefores of each posture. For example, although M Yao started teaching me from Cheng Bao Zhuang, he explained that actually the sequence should go: Ti Cha Zhuang – Tuo Bao Zhuang – Fu An Zhuang – Cheng Bao Zhuang. He added that Ti Cha Zhuang is about practicing vertical power. Each posture is about practicing different ‘jins'[forces].It was just like when I was in the first grade at school: M Yao would continually teach me something just a little bit higher than my level at that point, and explain the process, the sequence to it. To most other people he would just teach them what they needed to know at their particular stage, and not go into the sequence of learning.


Yao Zongxun in Ti Cha Zhuang

I think the critical quality in a teacher is that he should not only teach you the requirements of a posture, but also the underlying logic of training. I remember whenever I used to go to M Yao’s house, I used to practice until midnight, sometimes even till 1am. And then, after I’d finished practicing, M Yao would talk to me in depth about Yiquan (as well as other things) until 3 in the morning. The next morning, I would wake up at 5am to find M Yao already there practicing zhan zhuang.

A: What postures did he practice?
C: He practiced Fu An Zhuang in front of the mirror on his cupboard. Fu An Zhuang is a particularly ‘rich’ posture, there’s a lot to it. Actually, there’s a lot to each one of the postures, there’s a lot of ‘layers’ to them. The main thing is which ‘layer’ you’re on. When I saw M Yao already practicing, I got up. Seeing me in the mirror, he told me to go back to sleep.


Yao Zongxun in Fu An Zhuang


A: Didn’t GM Wang admonish students to not practice while looking in the mirror?
C: That’s true. But when you get to a certain level, you can ‘face the mirror but forget your shape’ (dui jing er xi er wang qi xing). This is talking about the connection between the outward form and your spirit.

A: Yiquan is a very combat-oriented art; when did you first get a taste of M Yao’s fighting skills?
C: Because I had previously practiced shuai jiao (chinese wrestling) and boxing, and had also studied with M Li for 4 years, I already had a decent foundation in pushing hands and sparring before I started studying with M Yao. After I started studying under him, all we did was practice zhan zhuang, shi li or footwork, we never did any sparring, so I wanted to ‘test out’ M Yao. And so, one day, I brought a pair of boxing gloves to M Yao’s house. As soon as M Yao saw the gloves, he said “There’s no need for gloves, if you want to hit me, just hit me. Don’t hold back!” As he said it, I was thinking ‘What if I actually hurt him? Isn’t that a bit disrespectful (to M Yao)?” These misgivings notwithstandng, I still hit him with about 80% of my full strength.
A: Was this in a pushing hands situation (i.e.arms in contact)?
C: No, I opened up some distance between me and M Yao, feinted a couple of times, and then attacked. M Yao used his lead hand to block my guard hand. As his guard hand connected with my fist, I suddenly felt as if the sky had gone dark (it was about 3 in the afternoon at that point). My mind went totally blank. After a while, the sun came back. It was only when the ‘lights’ came back on that I realised that he had hit me. It was like when you slam on the brakes in a car really hard, everything in the car lurches forward and it goes dark.

Funnily enough, I didn’t feel afraid at the time, just a bit out of it. Later on M Yao said to me “If you want to nourish talent, you can’t beat someone’s spirit out of him. If you destroy his spirit, you destroy him. Plus, it takes a very long time for someone’s spirit to recover. All I wanted to do was show you that Yiquan is a good martial art” From this, we can see that M Yao really valued talented people. When he was boxing with me, the strength he used was under exquisite control. There’s a fundamental difference between this and all-out sparring or combat. When I sparred with people while I was teaching seminars in England, I saw that, as they were suddenly thrown to the ground, there was an expression of fear on their faces. Every time I crossed hands with someone, I asked the translator to take photos of the encounter. But every time, instead of taking pictures he just stood there, slack-jawed. I wish we’d managed to get some photos of those encounters.

A: During that period in the countryside, apart from discussing martial arts, didn’t you talk about other things with M Yao?
C: M Yao also talked about his life and background, all the way from when he was 4 years old to when he was ‘sent down’ to Changping. He also talked about how he came to learn Yiquan from M Wang. He said that when M Wang was teaching people, he would explain the various forces in a posture and then tell them to practice, he didn’t go into that much detail at first. M Wang was a bit of an odd bird: if you’d ‘found’ the feeling in a posture, he would give you a ferocious scolding as to where your posture was still wrong; if your posture was ’empty’, he wouldn’t say anything, just turn on his heel and walk off. Of course, this led to misunderstandings amongst his students. Those who had actually got it right thought they’d done something wrong, whilst the ones who were way off base thought they were doing OK. Of course, this wasn’t the case: to M Wang’s way of thinking, it was only students who actually displayed signs of ‘getting it’ who were worth scolding. During that period, he used to avoid M Wang when practicing; if M Wang was in the front yard, M Yao would scoot round to the back to practice, and vice versa. In zhan zhuang, M Yao first sought ‘up and down’ [force], then front and back, then right and left. It was this step-by-step practice that led to M Yao developing those skills.

Wang Xiangzhai practicing Du Li Shou Shen Zhuang

Wang Xiangzhai practicing Du Li Shou Shen Zhuang (single-leg post)

Actually, you could say it’s the same for any process, really, you can’t expect overnight results. Take making a machine as an example: first, you have to produce all of the various components, then assemble the machine from them. That’s why, although several of M Wang’s disciples developed great skill, only M Yao really passed on and built on M Wang’s true teachings. M Yao became M Wang’s disciple in autumn of 1937 and started teaching students and accepting challenges on behalf of M Wang only 3 years later, in 1940. Before studying under M Wang, M Yao was already a well-known figure, as he had studied Tantui, Xingyiquan and Hongquan [Flood boxing – a Shaolin style] with M Hong Lianshun. M Yao once showed me his Tantui: barefooted, he could kick the corners off a brick at will. In his university days M Yao was a pretty good basketball player and middle-distance runner. Apart from telling me about how he had learnt Yiquan from M Wang, we also talked about M Wang’s experiences in coming to develop Yiquan. It was the same for M Wang: he had to develop one idea or skill before he could move on to the next stage, it was a step-by-step process.You have to really learn something inside out before you move on to the next step. I had the same experience learning shuai jiao: you have to really master one throw first, then when you move on to the second throw, you can freely interchange the two throws at will: this ability to change comes only from true mastery. One of M Wang’s common sayings, “Hard and soft, empty and full, movement and stillness, tension and relaxation, they all simultaneously interact”, is talking about exactly this principle. This idea (of the ability to change coming from mastering material in stages) is a scientifically sound learning method, it’s an objective fact, it’s not as if M Wang just made it up on a whim. It’s a product of years of training, application and investigation. The only way to get good at Yiquan is if you follow and understand the reasoning behind this approach. It doesn’t just apply to Yiquan, either: the learning process in any field of endeavour is like this. It’s as M Yao used to say: “The tao is unchanging (dao nai wan yi), although the expressions of it are myriad, there is only one unifying principle behind them”.

A: Just now, you mentioned that in order to develop hunyuan li (normally translated as ‘omni-directional power’), you have to train each aspect one step at a time. Is there a way to develop hunyuan li in one go?
C: There is, but you have to have the right foundation. I remember, one Sunday in 1981, I went to a small park near Li Shi Rd South to practice zhan zhuang by myself. I was standing in ping bu cheng bao zhuang (‘hugging a tree’ stance). Later on, I saw M Yao walking towards me from some distance away. When he reached me, he said: “What’s going on inside you?”. I knew then that he’d been observing me for a while. It was on that day that he told me the way to develop hunyuan li in one go.

A: For as long as Yiquan has been around, people have been saying that Yiquan was created because Wang Xiangzhai hadn’t properly mastered and understood Xingyiquan. Some people I know even say that Yiquan is basically zhan zhuang plus half of ‘hu pu’ (pouncing tiger stance). Other people say that Da Cheng Quan is just zhan zhuang plus boxing, or that Yiquan has no kicks.

C: Sometimes ignorance is bliss, isn’t it? People wouldn’t say these things if they just came to my training centre and experienced what we have to offer. As for Yiquan’s kicks, M Yao taught me GM Wang’s ‘Yi shi San Tui’ (3 kicks in 1 posture): the kicks are divided into lower, middle and upper. The first kick is aimed at the opponent’s kneecap, the second is aimed at the heart, and the third targets the throat. The speed of the three kicks should be the same as the time it takes to do 3 jabs. As Wang’s gongfu reached Hua Jin, he used kicks less and less, but that doesn’t mean that Yiquan has no kicks. I remember one time Guangzi and I were practicing advancing fists in Tucheng, we must have punched our way from Tucheng all the way westwards almost to Ma Dian. When we got to the back of the police academy we turned round and started punching our way back to Tucheng. It was a long way between the two places. As Guangzi got tired, his guard fist started dropping downwards. M Yao scolded him twice, telling him to pay attention to his guard. Guangzi started quibbling with M Yao, saying it was because he was tired. All I saw was M Yao raise his leg, he didn’t move much at all, M Yao had kicked Guangzi so hard he almost somersaulted before he hit the ground.

A: It must have been tough, training in the countryside.
C: It was. One time, I saw Guangzi eat something white before starting hitting the punchbag. I asked Guangzi what he was eating. Guangzi said it was lard. I asked him why he was eating it. Guangzi said, “Dad said that we need to replenish the salt and fats in our bodies lost through all the punchbag training we do. Because we can’t get any meat here, the next best thing is to eat lard. ” At mealtimes, I always used to eat with M Yao, whilst M Yao’s wife as well as Yao Chengrong and Yao Chengguang used to eat outside. Every time I visited M Yao I would buy him 5 kg of gua mian (a kind of noodles) and, knowing that M Yao liked to drink, two bottles of er guo tou (a famous brand of chinese liquor). As well as teaching me Yiquan, M Yao taught me how to be a decent person; for this I can never repay him. I felt that these small things weren’t even enough to repay M Yao for letting me stay at his house for 3 days! After I saw Guangzi eating that lard, I made a point of buying some fatty pork for them too.”

Note that all of the photos of M Yao on this translation have come from Yao Chengguang’s website at, a great resource for Yiquan enthusiasts.

About yosaku

Xingyiquan enthusiast
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