A happy coincidence led to this note. A few weeks back, when chatting after class with my xingyi teacher, he mentioned that if one wanted to fight with xingyi, reaction drills were very important. I was curious, as so far as I know no book in English (and very few if any of those in Chinese) has even referred to this part of the xingyi curriculum. I asked him exactly what he meant by reaction drills. He said that once the empty hand forms are up to scratch, the student should focus on practicing drill patterns in which student A punches/kicks the other while student B reacts. Obviously, as time goes by, this would be combined with footwork, counter-attacks, etc. The aim is to ingrain the reactions into the student’s body so that it becomes unconscious, only then can it be relied on in the “adrenaline dump”, stressful situation of a real fight.
Perhaps a couple of weeks after that, I came across a long article written by the Chen style master Jiang Jiajun, a student of Chen Zhaopei who later went on to study under Hong Junsheng and Chen Yuxia, Chen Fake’s daughter. It is too long for me to translate here, covering as it does a time frame of about 20 years. However, one portion that struck a chord with me was his description of learning Chen style sanshou under Hong Junsheng:
‘Teacher Hong said “Back when I was learning, in training sanshou, Master Chen [Fake] would start off with ‘hitting hand mitts’ (da shou bazi), combined with advancing and retreating footwork. A pair of students would start from the ‘hidden thrust punch’ (yan shou hong chui) posture with left hand leading, right hand over the heart and with the left foot forward. Stance width was about one and a half shoulder-widths, which allowed for agile movement and easy advancing and retreating. The correct distance between the two students should be such that left hands just touch. Student A hits Student B’s left palm with a punch or palm strike, at which Student B should retreat whilst keeping a fixed distance (bu diu bu ding), repeating on alternative sides back and forth. Speed can be fast or slow. This is a basic training method of taijiquan sanshou , but it is also one of the most effective. Once the students are familiar with the ‘yan shou hong chui’ version, they can practice myriad other variations:
high attack – low response, (gao lai di da)
low attack – high response (di lai gao da)
left attack – right response (zuo lai you da)
right attack – left response (you lai zuo da)
empty attack – substantial response (xu lai shi da)
substantial attack – empty response (shi lai xu da)
Straight attack – horizontal response (zhi lai heng bo)
Horizontal attack – vertical response (heng lai peng ya)
Repeated long-term practice of these combat drills is required if one is to reach the advanced level of sanshou gongfu, which is ‘the hand launches but is not seen, once the hand lands it cannot be evaded’ (chu shou bu jian shou, shou dao bu neng zou). And all of this is built on the foundation of hitting hand mitts, the better your foundation in this, the faster one’s progress will be.
M Hong and my kungfu brother(shixiong) Li Zongqing demonstrated the basic steps of the hand-mitt striking. It was fairly obvious that Zongqing’s footwork was not very coordinated, so that every time M Hong punched his hand he either resisted (ding) or lost contact (diu); M Hong, on the other hand, was as if there was a fixed track, every time he would be in exactly the right place and receive at just the right speed. After a little while of this, Zongqing’s footwork was more and more all over the place and he was getting out of breath, while M Hong was not showing any signs of effort, as if he had plenty in reserve.
Seeing this, I offered to replace Zongqing in the drill. M Hong joked ‘What? You want to play a tag match with the old man?’ Everyone watching laughed at M Hong’s joke. M Hong may have been laughing and joking, but his hands and footwork showed no signs of slackening, I launched a series of palm and fist strikes, but only touched the skin of his palm, it felt empty. When it was M Hong’s turn to attack, however, his fists were like drills, drilling into my palms, dead on target every time. I tried to evade and neutralize, but couldn’t, and was thrown more than one zhang (3m) away.”
So it seems like reaction drill training is a crucial part of the traditional training syllabus for both xingyiquan and Chen style taiji, especially if you want to be able to use it in a fight. Have any readers had experience with this kind of practice?