One of the benefits of having quit my job is that I can travel and visit masters in other parts of China. One of the teachers I had been wanting to visit for a long time is Che Qiang (车强), who is the grandson of Che Runtian (车润田), one of the first people to bring authentic Song style xingyi to Tianjin. What originally sparked my interest was that many in-depth articles about Song style xingyi on the internet were actually originally written or uploaded by him, and my impression was that he and his grandfather are an encyclopedia of knowledge about how Song style is/was practiced in Shanxi.
Having found his contact details online, I called M Che and he graciously invited me to come and watch their regular weekly practice, which is held in Tanggu, a suburb about a 45 minute railway ride from downtown Tianjin. After a short train ride, I found myself walking towards an unprepossessing 70s style dusty concrete compound, with nothing to distinguish it from millions of others in China. However, I knew I had come to the right place when I saw a 3.5m waxwood spear resting against the railings of the main courtyard of the compound. Sure enough, a group of middle aged men were supervising a small group of youngish guys as they practised the 5 elements. Recognising M Che from his pictures, I walked over and introduced myself. Besides him, there were also several other teachers, such as Liu Baojie and Yu Yanhua, all long-time disciples of Che Runtian’s senior student, Zhou Jinzhu.
As a member of the Song kungfu family, after the usual pleasantries it was not long before M Che began filling me in on the background of this branch. His grandfather, Che Runtian, was originally from Shandong but moved to Taigu in Shanxi to escape the droughts and famines which were afflicting Shandong at that time (late Qing dynasty). Also at that time Taigu was one of the richest financial centres in the north of China. Before long, Che found himself an apprenticeship as a dentist in Taigu, and later on went to open his own clinic. At the same time, Che was on the lookout for a martial arts teacher – in his youth he had practiced San Huang Pao Chui (3 emperors cannon fist), and still retained a deep fascination with the martial arts. Through a mutual friend, he was introduced to Song Huchen – the eldest son of Song Shirong, the founder of Song style, who at the time was a martial arts instructor for a local militia. After being convincingly defeated by Song, Che started his studies of xingyiquan with Song, which would last all the way until Song’s death in 1947. After Song’s passing and looking to improve further, Che became a disciple of Song’s cousin, Song Tielin.
By this time, Che was already a middle aged man, and moved back to his hometown in Shandong shortly afterwards, as his business had been handed over to the Communists as part of the nationalisation and collectivisation movement that accompanied the founding of the PRC. It was only after his retirement that Che moved to Tianjin, which is how Che Qiang came to be born there. Judging from both the articles published by Che Qiang and the book self-published after Che Runtian’s death in 1993, Che was a living encyclopedia of Song style (empty hand routines, paired practice, weapons, pangen stepping, neigong, etc).
I was very impressed by M Che’s extremely relaxed, sharp fa jing, demonstrating the characteristic shaking power (dou jue jing) for which Song style is famous – from the demonstrations he gave I am sure such a strike to the chest or belly would stop an opponent in their tracks, or certainly give them pause for thought. He also very kindly gave me some training tips, particularly in terms of small exercises to help open up and relax the shoulders and arms, which is an area which is heavily stressed in Song style – both M Che and my teacher stress that the fists should feel like a meteor hammer (liu xing chui) – an ancient weapon with a spiked ball on the end of a metal chain.
Another point he stressed was that people learning TCMA often try to copy pictures of the postures of masters from when they were in their old age (common examples would be his own grandfather, or the famous taijiquan master Ma Yueliang), when in fact these masters practiced very differently in their youth, with much lower, straighter, more strenuous postures. He explained that as one’s practice improves, such postures are no longer necessary, the postures can be become more curved and the circles can become smaller – so for beginners it is definitely a case of ‘do what your teacher says, not what he does now’.
All in all it was a very enlightening trip and I would encourage anyone interested in this style who has a chance to travel to Tianjin to seek out M Che.