I recently came across an excellent book on xingyiquan called “Departed Warriors” (called ‘Shiqu de Wulin’ in chinese). The book contains the recollections of one man, Li Zhongxuan (now deceased), who had the good fortune to study under three disciples of Li Cunyi: Shang Yunxiang, Xue Dian and Tang Weilu. The book, organised by Xu Haofeng, contains Li’s recollections of studying under his three masters as well as his thoughts on the practice of xingyiquan. I have translated below a part of one chapter from his book:
五台雨雪恨难消 (part 1)
‘Tang-chuan’ xingyiquan refers to the xingyi passed down by Tang Weilu. He was known as ‘Tang xiao hou’ (little monkey Tang) echoing the nickname of Sun Lutang, who was also nicknamed ‘Sun the monkey’ – in both cases, the nicknames refer to their ability to scale walls. Amongst xingyi boxers the two men were known as the ‘two lus’, derived from the ‘lu’ part of their names, but also homophonous with the chinese for ‘2 deer’, referencing both men’s ability to walk three or four hundred li (1 li = 500m) in a night.
Whenever M Tang visited Beijing, so as to not attract unwanted attention, he did so at night. He would sleep in Ninghe (near Tianjin) during the day, set off at 7pm, and by daybreak the next day would have reached Beijing, having had to slip past several tax office checkpoints along the way. Li Cunyi gave Tang Weilu the ‘xingyi name’ of Tang Jianxun – the meaning of the name was to commemorate Tang’s exploits. Li Cunyi appreciated Tang’s fighting ability – it wasn’t just because of his speed that Tang was mentioned in the same breath as Sun Lutang. Everyone back then knew M Tang’s fighting skills were a cut above.
M Tang always gave the impression of being languid – he would always be carrying a teapot, if left to his own devices he could easily spend a whole day sauntering around town, his teapot in hand. But he was very resolute in that he would willingly accept any challenges that came his way. He once defeated a famed master who had founded his own style, yet would not allow us to tell anyone – this was M Tang’s Wu De (martial morality). It’s exactly because M Tang was satisfied with the quiet life that his xingyi preserves more of the ‘flavour’ of Li Cunyi. Readers interested in the xingyi taught by Li Cunyi at the Tianjin Guo Shu Guan can use M Tang’s xingyi as a reference point.
M Li Cunyi’s book on xingyi begins with the phrases “Only xingyi is most skilled at defeating the enemy and obtaining victory.” Later, in an interview with a journalist, he stated “A practitioner of wushu strengthens his body; a practitioner of guoshu defends his home and country; xingyiquan can be called guoshu”. These two statements led to a misunderstanding, as other martial artists thought that M Li was trying to position xingyiquan as the ‘national art’ (guoshu). And so many people came to challenge him, saying “M Li, is my art wushu or guoshu?” M Li knew that explanations were useless and simply accepted all the challenges. The wulin (martial arts community) in the old days was like that, the slightest slip of the tongue could land you in big trouble.
M Li Cunyi was a man of noble-character who became embroiled in senseless disputes in his old age. It was lucky that he maintained his reputation intact in that he was not defeated. But still, for a man of his years to have to meet challenges every day must have vexed him sorely.
So what exactly did M Li mean by “only xingyi is skilled”? The answer can be found in old xingyi manuals: “The martial artists of the world need to be able to see to accomplish anything; thus, by day they can just about attain victory. But how can they cope at night if they are confronted by the enemy? Only xingyiquan can deal with attacks at night, by relying on ‘feel’ and reacting to the slightest touch.”
The essence of xingyi is not practicing your vision or hearing, but rather this physical response.
My shixiong under Shang Yunxiang, Shan Guangqin, told me that you could talk or walk around M Shang while he was sleeping, no problem. But the moment you focused your attention on him, he would wake up. It sounds far-fetched, but this kind of awareness is a necessary product of extended training in xingyi.
The ‘xing'[form] in xingyi refers to everything external, whilst the ‘yi’ [intent] refers to everything internal, thus xingyiquan can be understood as ‘training everything’. The ‘Xingyi 5 Element Classic’ also echoes M Shang’s approach, it’s about sensitivity. In addition, xingyi’s ‘reacting to the slightest touch’ is unconscious, automatic.
One time, M Tang had gotten lost in thought whilst teaching his disciples. One of them, wanting to test out M Tang’s gongfu, suddenly launched a punch at him. M Tang managed to press the student to the ground, all the while still in a bit of a daze. This student was very happy when he pulled himself off the ground, for he thought that he had found out M Tang’s real gongfu.
M Tang, on the other hand, from then on stopped teaching that disciple, saying “So-and-so has already surpassed me.” Actually, this was his way of ‘disowning’ that disciple. There needs to be sincerity between teacher and student. The kind of person who still has an attitude of ‘stealing the art’ whilst studying under you is not to be taught. Even if such a person learns martial arts, they will only bring harm upon themselves and others.
Even after M Tang had passed away, this person still called themselves M Tang’s disciple. Times are different now, the younger generation cannot be held responsible for the actions of their elders. In order to avoid embarrassing this person’s students, I have deliberately omitted his name.
Xingyiquan (Form and intention boxing) is also known as Xingyiquan (moving intention boxing). The grandmaster of our branch was Liu Qilan, who was known for his shenfa (body method), was praised as ‘Long Xing Sou Gu’ (dragon shape searching for bones). The later generations from this branch, Li Cunyi, Shang Yunxiang and Tang Weilu were all known for their gongfu in the legs (tuigong) and shenfa. To retreat whilst fighting Li Cunyi was a big mistake; as soon as you tried to retreat he would be upon you and knock you down.
Gongfu in the legs comes from zhan zhuang and [xingyi] walking. Tang Weilu specially emphasised walking to his disciples. In the morning we would walk 5 km with our hands clasped behind our backs, either loosening up our backbones or with a bit of martial intent. Sometimes we would omit the ‘yi’ of xingyiquan and say that we were learning ‘xing quan’ [moving boxing] with M Tang.
M Tang’s trademark weapons were the judge’s pens (pan guan bi). In xingyi, judge’s pens are basically double spears, initially arms-length with rounded tips. After the practitioner has become familiar with their use, the pens used become shorter, about the length of a forearm. I had a pair of bronze pens specially made; at that kind of weight, there’s no need to hit vital points, wherever you hit the opponent he will go down.
The double spears require more finesse than the double broadsword; because of the vivid descriptions in pingshu [traditional chinese storytelling], I was very enthusiastic in training the double spear.
One time, when M Tang was visiting Beijing, he saw me practicing the judge’s pens and lost his temper, saying “You were supposed to learn sword from M Shang! If you learn boxing but not sword from M Shang, you will have come to Beijing for nothing!” M Tang also said, anyone can pick up a staff and fight people with it, but most people would be at a loss to know what to do with a straight sword.
My name in Shang Yunxiang’s school was Li Yixia, which was chosen according to the ‘codex of names’ left behind by Liu Qilan; the generation after me all had the character ‘zhi’ [志, ambition] in their xingyi names. In the Shang tradition, learning the jian was a ceremonious affair. Every morning we would have to kow tow to the sword, as the hilt of the sword represents one’s teacher, hence the saying “To have the sword there is like having one’s teacher there”.
In gripping the sword, the little finger must be slightly hooked, out of respect for one’s teacher. In actual fact there is a reason to this hooking of little finger, namely that [in TCM] the little finger is connected to the eyes, if the little finger is continually hooked it can damage your eyesight. Some people experience loss of acuity after practicing xingyi, this is caused by ‘hooking’ the little finger too tightly. This kind of thing is what led to the saying ‘practicing xingyi invites bad luck [zhao xie]”; this saying is actually nonsense, the problems experienced by people after practicing xingyi are because they have not been taught in detail, and go against their own physiology.
The Tang school of xingyi traditionally had good relations with the Yanqing school [Yanqing quan being another name for Mizong, or ‘lost-track’ boxing], a relationship which had started with Li Cunyi. There was an old Yanqing master, a good friend of Li Cunyi, who was good at ‘tie dang gong’ [iron crotch skill] and liked to demonstrate this skill at the local public baths. Unfortunately, this master attracted the attention of a group of young men who started harassing him with slingshots. Having no disciples of his own to assist him, he passed a message onto M Tang asking for help.
In order to further my training, M Tang sent me to deal with it. Because I knew I was going up against slingshots, I packed a pair of judge’s pens into me knapsack. On the way to the bathhouse, I was waylaid by 3 muggers. I said “My bag is full of gold ingots, let’s go into this copse, and I’ll give you a share.”
They were shocked, but still followed me into the copse. The moment I took out the judge’s pens, they turned tail and fled. Maybe they thought I intended to kill them – all of this stuff was just youthful hijinks. In those days, M Tang’s reputation was a strong deterrent. I invited these guys to talk it out. At first, seeing that I was young, tried to browbeat me and just talked endlessly. Frustrated, I slapped the table (breaking a teapot in the process), at which they immediately promised that they wouldn’t harass Li cunyi’s friend any more. The truth is, they were afraid of M Tang.
Before I went out there, M Tang had said to me, “Don’t fight, try to reason with them.” I thought, if they were reasonable they wouldn’t have harassed an old man, that kind of person is not at home to reason.
That night, I stayed over at this Yanqing master’s house. He was very chatty, and we eventually got to talking about Xue Dian.
He said that Xue Dian was one of Li Cunyi’s later disciples who Li was proud of, but who unexpectedly lost to his shixiong, Fu Changrong. The two of them suddenly crossed hands on the upper floor of a restaurant. With a ‘returning body palm’ [hui shen zhang], Xue Dian was knocked down the stairs. After he reached the bottom, Xue quickly stood up and, without a word, walked off. No-one knew where he had gone.
When Li Cunyi passed away, his friends came to pay their respects. Those who had come from afar would stay for 3-5 days. At the request of the Guo Shu Guan students, they would often perform their gongfu after dinner. One of them in particular, an extremely tall man, stunned the audience with his phenomenal speed. He announced himself as one of M Li’s disciples, causing one of the Guo Shu Guan students to say “Our shifu never taught this”, to which he said: “I am Xue Dian.” Immediately subsequent to this, he issued a public challenge to Fu Changrong.