Wake-up call in the Chinese Jianghu

Several friends who have studied CMA in China have commented on the lack of a spirit of open sharing and exchange in the CMA world, particularly in China. Teachers from separate branches of the same style or even kungfu brothers (shixiong) who studied under the same teacher will openly bad-mouth each other to their students. There is also very little friendly exchange between schools, even of the same style. An all-too common scenario would be for a student to study style A (could be say Chen style taiji or tongbei or anything really) in one city, then to go to another city and try to find a teacher of the same style, only to be told he is doing it completely wrong and have to start from scratch.

Another common story amongst students of CMA, particularly the internals, is of getting into what appear to be friendly push hands / sparring contests which very quickly turn vicious, with the stranger trying at all costs to ‘win’, often by using techniques completely at odds with the stated format (e.g. using elbow strikes or head-butts in a push hands encounter).

The reasoning and thinking behind this mentality was brought home to me by a recent encounter with a teacher in the city where I am living. I have long been interested in Shuai Jiao (Chinese wrestling) and had been looking for a teacher ever since I moved to Shanghai a few years ago. Unfortunately, Shuai Jiao seems to be completely out of fashion in such a westernised city as Shanghai – what little wrestling there is is mostly judo. I had almost given up when I heard from a friend that there was a teacher (let’s call him Teacher N) still teaching Shuai Jiao at a park way out in the south-western suburbs of Shanghai. Intrigued, I made the one-hour plus journey one weekend to see for myself.

Upon arriving at the park, I immediately spotted Teacher N’s practice area located in a quiet corner of the park near a lake and was welcomed by one of his students who I had contacted previously. As that morning had been punctuated by intermittent rainstorms, the group of 6-7 students was practicing under the eaves of one of the pavilions that dotted the park. Teacher N himself was a heavy-set Shanghainese man in his late fifties – most unusually for men of his generation in China, he didn’t smoke. The students were a mix of adults in their late 20s and early 30s who seemed to have been studying for a while and some young boys who were just starting to learn the basics. Despite the group practicing in the park, there was an impressive assortment of supplementary training equipment on the benches besides the pavilion, including makeshift resistance bands, ropes, kettlebells and free weights.

The student who I had contacted (let’s call him Chen) introduced Teacher N as having been a champion wrestler in his youth and also apparently head coach of the Shanghai judo squad in the late 70s, which I was suitably impressed by. In addition to Shuai Jiao, he had also studied taijiquan and xingyiquan with some very reputable teachers. I then introduced myself, saying that I was very interested in learning shuai jiao and asked if it was OK just to watch the first time, to which Teacher N assented.

Over the next hour and a half we watched as his students ran through shuai jiao auxiliary training exercises (single movements designed to mimic various types of throws, footwork drills) as well as some 2-man work, including one which involved one side (Partner A) trying to shove the opponent (Partner B) backwards, while Partner B tried his best to make this difficult for Partner A through sinking of weight and body rotation. I was particularly impressed by two of the teacher’s long-time students, who although not very tall by Western standards exhibited the extremely ‘blocky’ physique which seems to be typical of long-time wrestlers.

During the whole time, I was of course asking some questions of the teacher. Perhaps I had not been respectful enough in my questioning, or Teacher N felt that I was doubting some of his explanations, or perhaps simply from learning that I practiced xingyiquan – for whatever reason, Teacher N must have decided that he needed to ‘teach me a lesson’. So he very politely invited me to ‘push hands’ with two of his more senior students. Having never seen anything beyond the gentle fixed push hands patterns in the parks, I was utterly unprepared for what came next, which was essentially me being roughly thrown from pillar to post around the pavilion at will by his students. My arms still bear the evidence of his students’ tender ministrations several days later. Saying my thanks to Teacher N and his students, I took my leave shortly afterwards.

The point of this story is not really that I got my ass handed to me by a couple of wrestlers – receiving some knocks is part and parcel of learning any martial art, especially something with such a focus on actual practice against resisting opponents as Shuai Jiao. What really opened my eyes to the ‘base state’ of CMA in China was what happened afterwards.

One thing any foreigner needs to realise if they are intending on learning kungfu in China is that the Traditional CMA community is actually very small. It seems like all of the TCMA teachers in a certain city talk to each other, and news travels fast. Within a few days of me visiting Teacher N, I received a phone call from my xingyiquan teacher (who teaches xingyi in a completely different part of Shanghai and as far as I know has no connections to Teacher N). Obviously, he had heard about my encounter with Teacher N from another teacher and was none too happy about it.

Shifu: “What were you thinking, going and challenging Teacher N? You’ve never even practiced push hands or shuai jiao!”

Me: “Shifu, I was not trying to challenge the teacher, I was honestly just there to observe and maybe learn something”

Shifu: “Young Xie [my Chinese name], if you are going to keep living here you need to learn not to be so naïve. That’s not how it appeared to Teacher N – he obviously thought you were a student from another school come to challenge them and do a sneak attack (tou xi). The whole thing with the invitation to push hands was just a set-up to teach you a lesson. In future if anyone asks you to ‘have a friendly exchange’, you must be merciless and not accept unless you are sure that you can win, otherwise it will reflect badly on our school.”

Me: “But [doing my best ‘why can’t we all just get along’ voice], why would he assume that? Why can’t there just be friendly exchanges between people from different schools?”

Shifu: “Young Xie, you still don’t understand. If you get badly injured in a contest with another school, I as your Shifu have to do something about it. This is not about you as an individual, this is about the face of our style!”

It was a real wake-up call for me and explains a lot about the typical behavior you see in Traditional CMA circles here in China: teachers guard the reputations of their schools jealously, and in their minds a single defeat can mean the loss of all of their students. As a result, teachers are very wary of accepting even friendly invitations to ‘cross hands’ or to show applications, and will generally go for the ‘nuclear option’ if there is the slightest suspicion the stranger / visitor has underhand intentions. Several friends who also study TCMA here have concurred with what my teacher said – this kind of thinking appears to be pretty common here in China.

Would love to hear from readers of this blog – has anyone had similar experiences?

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Beijing MA Trip – Liang style bagua of Zhang Xue’an

One of the pleasures if doing IMA is meeting other fellow enthusiasts who often have travelled hundreds or thousands of miles to study the arts at their source. On my previous visits to Tiantan I had noticed that the TCMA people seemed to be concentrated on the Western edge of the park, where there is a large area with both a concrete exercise area and also a large area of trees behind with the characteristic circles of bare earth around the trees which indicates a large group of baguazhang pracitioners train there.

I was hanging around this section of the park one weekend (I had actually come looking for people practicing Chen taiji) when I noticed 2 foreigners who looked to be practicing baguazhang / San Huang Pao Chui nearby. As it was very rare to see any foreigners practicing with them, I waited until they had finished training and then went over and introduced myself. It turned out the two guys were American, called Fritz and Joe. Joe’s main art was Capoeira but had practiced baguazhang for several years in the US before deciding to come to Beijing to learn from the source. Fritz’s main art was Chen taiji which he had studied from a disciple of one of the main Chen family standard bearers based in Seattle.

After the introductions, Fritz and Joe mentioned that they were studying Liang style baguazhang under a grand-student of Li Ziming in the same park later that morning, and offered to introduce me. Always interested to see quality orthodox IMA, I immediately agreed.

Fritz, Joe and me

Fritz, Joe and me

Shortly after arriving at their bagua training ground (a clearing under several trees at the back of the park – Tiantan is huge), their teacher M Zhang Xue’an arrived and gave us all a warm welcome. While Fritz and Joe were set to work on warm-ups and basic circle walking, M Zhang gave me a brief introduction to Liang style and how he came to learn the style. He had learnt Liang style baguazhang from Zhang Junmin (a disciple of Li Ziming) in the 1980s, and by that point had been practicing bagua for close to 30 years. He said that in his view, if you wanted to use bagua for fighting, the most important thing after the basic circle walking (Ding Shi Ba Zhang or fixed 8 palms) was to master and really learn how to use Liang style’s 64 hands (直趟64手, zhi tang 64 shou) set.

This 64 hands set has been written about extensively by both Tom Bisio (here: Tom Bisio’s write-up ) and Nigel Sutton in English in his book “The 64 Hands of Baguazhang” (64 Hands of Baguazhang). Suffice it to say that this linear set appears to have been created by the famous IMA master Liu Dekuan (who was not only a master of bagua, xingyi and taiji but also had a very strong foundation in Yue style Sanshou, aka Ba Fan Shou). The 64 hands appears to have mainly been based on his experience in Ba Fan Shou, but of course incorporating many bagua movements and techniques.

M Zhang demonstrating a 64 hands movement to Fritz

M Zhang demonstrating a 64 hands movement to Fritz

After Joe and Fritz had finished revising their 8 Old Palms and the portions of the 64 hands which they had learned, M Zhang began to teach and demonstrate the usage of one or two particular sets within the 64 hands (the 64 hands is actually split up into 8 ‘sets’ or small routines). I was immediately impressed by the practicality of the applications, as well as the power and speed demonstrated by M Zhang, who must have been in his mid-50s at least. The applications were full of extremely simple, practical strikes and locks on the opponent (I understand that Liang style also has separate sets training kicks and footwork, which are eventually incorporated into free fighting). Every action by Joe produced an instant counter from M Zhang, so that even if he tried to escape from the original lock / throw, he ended up in a disadvantageous position and had to ‘accept’ the lock or be hit with an elbow / fist / palmstrike.

M Zhang and Joe going over a 64 hands application

M Zhang and Joe going over a 64 hands application

M Zhang explained that once the 8 sets were learned in detail, one could practice them in pairs, break them out into individual move practiced (dan cao) and introduce changes and variations into the way they are practiced. All in all, it seemed like a very good ‘textbook’ for teaching students how to fight in a Liang style manner and a good bridge between forms practice and free fighting.

Unfortunately authentic Liang style does not seem to be very widespread even in China, with most of the good masters concentrated in Beijing and it is certainly very difficult to find internationally. If any readers have an opportunity to study this style or this set, I would heartily encourage them to jump at the chance!

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Beijing MA Trip – Dachengquan of M Deng Fuli

During my trip to Beijing over the Chinese National Holiday, I made several visits to Tiantan park, which is one of the hotspots of CMA activity in Beijing. In addition to the taijiquan groups which can be found in any park in China, there are teachers of xingyiquan, baguazhang Tongbei, San Huang Paochui as well. On my way out of the park after one of these visits, I noticed a short, heavyset man practicing what I recognized to be Yiquan / Dachengquan postures in a corner of the park. As seeing people practicing Dachengquan in parks* is very rare, even in China, I went across and struck up a conversation with him. Following a brief conversation about his background and how he had come to learn Dachengquan. It turned out his name was Deng Fuli, that he had been practicing Dachengquan for more than 20 years, and that he had originally studied from Wang Xuanjie’s student He Zhenwei, then later changed to study with Zhang Jinhe, who had studied with several teachers but whose main material came from Zhao Daoxin. (This is according to Deng himself – I have not been able to find from public sources exactly who Zhang Jinhe studied from).

After this brief conversation, he offered to show me some of the basic whole body power (zheng jin) that Dachengquan can produce. He took up a basic Cheng Bao Zhuang (lit. “expanding and embracing pose”) and invited me to try and move his arms. Try as I might, I could not move his arms an inch in any direction, whether pressing from above, or pulling from below. For the sake of full disclosure, I am not a strong or heavy guy by any means (75kg, skinny build by Western standards). What impressed me more than the feat itself was his relaxation throughout – it really did not feel like he was using local muscle to resist, it was very clearly the structural power of the whole body. When he was certain I had had enough of pushing and pulling him, he said “Let me launch you” (wo fa ni yi xia) and with very little effort threw me into the air a couple of metres away.

Convinced that here was someone who could certainly teach me a thing or two about Dachengquan, I spent my remaining mornings in Beijing practicing basic Dachengquan postures and exercises under Deng laoshi’s watchful eye.

Deng Fuli demonstrating Fuhu Zhuang (crouching tiger pose)

Deng Fuli demonstrating Fuhu Zhuang (crouching tiger pose)

Because of my limited time in Beijing, we only really worked on 3 things, namely Cheng Bao Zhuang (lit. expanding hugging pose), Kai He Shi Li (Opening and Closing Force Testing) and Mo Ca Bu (Dachengquan footwork). Although I had learnt several basic Dachengquan poses several years previously, I only learnt the very basics (basic posture and very basic instructions on the forces going on inside) and had practiced only infrequently since (maybe a couple of times a week). So it was unsurprising that Deng laoshi, after testing my Cheng Bao Zhuang (by ‘hanging’ his whole body weight on to my outstretched arms), said that I had developed no gongfu from my standing. In correcting my Cheng Bao Zhuang, he emphasized the feeling of force going to the fingertips (li tou shaojie), and that in Cheng Bao Zhuang there should not only be an outward expansive force (cheng) but also also an inward contracting force. The expansive force is relatively easy for beginners to recreate, but most have trouble producing good inward hugging force at the same time. Deng laoshi’s advice was to focus on the ‘wrapping / hugging’ (Dou Guo) feeling of the entire back and chest.

Deng Fuli demonstrating Xiang Long Zhuang (subduing dragon pose)

Deng Fuli demonstrating Xiang Long Zhuang (subduing dragon pose)

For the Kai He Shi Li, like a couple of other Yiquan teachers I had come into contact with, he emphasized that one needs to seek the slight feeling of resistance both on the opening and on the closing, that it shouldn’t open so wide that your elbows go behind the back. For beginners, it is often easier to find the correct feeling with the eyes closed.

M Yao Chengguang demonstrating Kai He Shi Li

M Yao Chengguang demonstrating Kai He Shi Li

Just from a few days of practice, I could feel the postures helping to dissolve the tightness of the shoulders, which is a consistent problem I have had in transmitting power from the lower body to my arms and have been criticized for many times by my teacher.

I will continue to practice Dachengquan and will hopefully have another chance to study with Deng laoshi early next year.

*Whether one uses the terms Yiquan / Dachengquan for the art of Wang Xiangzhai is a political decision in China. Yiquan tends to be used by the Yao family and other early students of Wang, while the later students and in particular Wang Xuanjie’s group prefer Dachengquan. As the teacher discussed in this article calls the art he practices Dachengquan, I shall use this throughout.

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Beijing MA Trip – Xingyiquan of Wang Deli / Wang Jiwu

Readers who have been following the internal martial arts (IMA) for a while and in particular xingyi enthusiasts will have heard of the book Xingyi Neigong by Tim Cartmell and Dan Miller (originally published way back in 1998). The book describes the 16 health exercises practiced as part of the xingyi school of Wang Jiwu, a famed teacher of the mixed Hebei – Shanxi xingyiquan coming down from Wang Fuyuan, who I have written about elsewhere in this blog.

Xingyi Neigong book cover

Xingyi Neigong book cover

Although Wang Jiwu passed away in 1992, his teachings are being carried on by a stalwart band of disciples and grand-disciples in the Beijing area, in particular Wang Jiwu’s disciple Pan Zhiyuan and his students, including Yin Jin and Wang Deli. I have always admired this line of xingyiquan as it seems to have retained a lot of the different ways of training that have been lost or neglected in other more popular styles.

And so, with the help of Paul Frost, who himself is a Czech grandstudent of Wang Jiwu through his teacher Du Fukun, on a sunny Monday morning I made my way down to teacher Wang Deli’s usual practice ground next to a canal in eastern central Beijing. As I had previously met Wang laoshi a couple of years previously, he greeted me warmly and was happy to give me a more thorough introduction to the style and its contents.

As Wang laoshi explained (and has been detailed elsewhere in this blog), although Wang Fuyuan learnt his xingyiquan from Liu Qilan (and therefore would be classified as Hebei xingyi), in his middle age he fled to Shanxi to evade being arrested as he had killed a local gang boss in his hometown. Wang Fuyuan chose to take shelter with his shishu (kungfu uncle) Che Yizhai in Taigu, and actually lived in Che Yizhai’s house for an extended period, before Che recommended him for a bodyguarding job in Yuci (a town further north in Shanxi province which is famous for producing many xingyi masters). In Yuci, Wang met and exchanged skills with many other masters from the 1st and 2nd generations of xingyi, including Song Shirong, Li Taihe, Li Guangheng, He Yunheng, etc, who were all working there as guards for the mansions of rich merchants.

What this means practically for this branch is that, firstly, they have an extremely rich repertoire of taolu which can often be practiced in several different ways. The single person routines practiced by this branch (apart from the standard 5 elements and 12 animals) also includes Za Shi Chui (Miscellaneous Hammers), Chu Dong Ru Dong (In & Out of Cave), Long Xing Ba Shi (8 dragon shapes), Ji Xing Si Ba (4 Chicken Seizes). In terms of paired routines, commonly practiced ones include Wu Xing Xiang Sheng Xiang Ke (5 elements mutually destroying), An Shen Pao (Safe body cannon), Wu Hua Pao (5 flower cannons) and Jiu Tao Huan (9 rings).

Wang Deli and Paul Frost practicing Jiu Tao Huan

Wang Deli and Paul Frost practicing Jiu Tao Huan

I had the dubious pleasure of running through Wu Hua Pao with Paul, and can certainly testify that he has gained xingyi’s ability to ‘cut’ (cuo) into the bones, as I had bruises on my forearms for a couple of days afterwards!

Of course, sheer number of routines does not equate to better martial skill or gongfu. What is probably more interesting was the different ways that they have of practicing the elements. Wang laoshi illustrated this with Tiger (Hu Xing), showing how it should initially be trained large but later much smaller (without taking the fists back to the waist), and how Tiger practiced properly combines both an upward and downward element that should first break the opponent’s root and then send him flying away.

Back to the starting position!

Back to the starting position!

Another prominent feature of this branch is the very strong Che style influence on the way they practice the various fists and elements. This manifests itself in the stances (very compact and small compared to say Shang style or Zhang Zhaodong xingyi), the use of double fists (as opposed to palms) in Piquan, and the turning method (very characteristic “trailing leg” turning method).

Wang laoshi very generously corrected my Santi and showed me the traditional ‘jumping’ way of practicing Dragon (Tiao Yue Long Xing), which was incredibly tough on the thighs!

Any readers who are interested in Xingyi and happen to be in Beijing could do worse than pay a visit to Paul and Wang laoshi, they are both living repositories of Wang Jiwu’s xingyiquan.

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Becoming a Disciple – The Baishi Ceremony

In traditional CMA, there is a saying “the teacher observes the student for 3 years, the student also observes the teacher for 3 years” (shifu kaocha tudi san nian, tudi kaocha shifu san nian). Obviously, this doesn’t mean that in the past you always had to wait for 3 years to become a tudi (disciple) of a teacher – but it does mean that generally there is a period where the student is effectively ‘on probation’ while the teacher decides if his various qualities (behaviour, diligence, aptitude for MA, etc) warrant him being accepted as a disciple. The length of this probation period varies tremendously – I personally have heard of people being required baishi just to learn anything from a teacher, to people waiting 3-4 years for baishi, to people who can have studied with a teacher for 20 years but never baishi.

To give a bit of context to this post, I have now been training with my current xingyi teacher (Dai Xueqi) for just over 3 years. In that time, we have talked about me becoming his disciple (baishi ceremony) a few times but had agreed that it would have to wait until the next time that his teacher (Song Guanghua) was in town. As Song shiye was in Nantong for the wushu tournament I had blogged about previously, it seemed like too good an opportunity for us Shanghai students to pass up. After some behind the scenes phone calls from my shifu to shiye and the other students, it was arranged that the Shanghai students were to baishi the day after next. Due to shiye’s tight schedule, the whole thing was very rushed – I got a phone call from my sifu on a Wednesday night and the ceremony itself was held two days later.

Although I had witnessed a baishi ceremony once before a few years back, understandably the whole thing was very foreign to me as a Westerner – many of the elements of the traditional baishi ceremony, such as burning incense to the founder of the art or kowtowing (full kneel with head touching the floor – see the photo below), were outside of my experience and required several whispered conversations with my shixiong to make sure I was doing the right thing.

Kowtowing during Baishi ceremony

Kowtowing during Baishi ceremony

For the benefit of those readers who may one day end up undergoing baishi, a quick description of the sequence of events is probably in order. First the pictures of the founder / earlier generations of the art are hung on the wall, as well as a banner saying “XXX discipleship ceremony”. Then, a small table is set up underneath the photos with various offerings of fruit as well as a rice bowl (for placing incense). Generally, the baishi ceremony will have ‘observers’ – these are generally also martial artists who are friends of your teacher, not necessarily from the same art. In the case of my ceremony, these were my teacher’s shixiong, who between them practice Fanzi quan, Xinyi Liuhe quan and Sun style taiji. Generally for the ceremony itself only your teacher and shiye will be seated (i.e. observers and MC will remain standing). The first step of the ceremony officially is to offer incense to the founder of the art. Then, you kowtow to both your shiye and your teacher – in my case a full kowtow 3 times (forehead touching the ground). Whilst still on the ground, you will normally also have to offer tea to shiye and your teacher. Once this is over you may stand up. The third section of the ceremony involves reading out the rules (men gui) of your particular style – these vary between styles but generally exhort the disciple to train hard, refrain from using their skills to bully and intimidate others, spread the art, etc.

Probably the most interesting part for me was the final part of the ceremony, where the shiye and shifu can give a short speech. Song Guanghua gave quite a long speech (5-10 minutes) to us new disciples, which is the longest I have ever heard him speak (he is normally pretty monosyllabic, at least to us grand-students). He emphasised that, as disciples, we not only had a responsibility to train, understand and master Song style and its various requirements, but also to spread and improve the art. Obviously, as the only foreigner in the group, there were pointed glances at me at this point. Other Western students of traditional CMA will testify that teachers here often hope that their Western students will help them spread their art, and so often will receive ‘special attention’. Of course, it should be noted that this special attention is no guarantee that you will learn the complete system or that ‘secret’ teachings will be passed on to you.

New disciples (tudi) with Song Guanghua and my teacher Dai Xueqi

New disciples (tudi) with Song Guanghua and my teacher Dai Xueqi

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2015 Nantong Traditional CMA Tournament

Wow, cannot believe it has been over a year since my last post. The long gap was due to a combination of work and also a feeling that I didn’t have any new insights to share from my practice – apologies to any fans of this blog!

Anyway, recently one of my shixiong announced that he was organizing a traditional CMA festival in a town called Nantong, a couple of hours outside Shanghai. As my shiye Song Guanghua was attending, my attendance was pretty much obligatory. As Song Guanghua is 86 this year, visits from him to the Shanghai area are pretty rare, so of course his grandstudents would be expected to turn out. I went along to the festival with a couple of my shidi who had never met shiye before, so it would definitely be a precious experience for them regardless of what happened at the actual tournament. I was actually supposed to perform a xingyi routine at the tournament but eventually didn’t get a chance to, for reasons I’ll get into later.

After a fairly comfortable coach ride to Nantong (am a big fan of the coach system in China, they are comfortable, cheap and frequent) we installed ourselves at the nearest hotel and got a good night’s sleep. Early the next morning, we arrived at Nantong Sports Stadium (where it was being held) to find dozens of people already there dressed in Chinese kungfu uniforms of all different types and colours. Especially eye-catching were a group of young guys (who I think were from Cangzhou) who were practicing exercises with stone locks (shi suo) right outside the sports stadium. The stone locks were slightly smaller than those used for shuai jiao training, but still very impressive to see them being handled and thrown in the air with such ease.

We were especially impressed by the number of different styles competing at the tournament: not only were there were representatives of the various styles of the three main internals (Taijiquan, Baguazhang, Xingyiquan) as well as other northern arts like Xinyi Liuhe (Lu Songgao branch) and Bajiquan. The Bajiquan team was from Shanghai, which I found very surprising as my impression was that Shanghai doesn’t have that much in the way of traditional northern styles like tongbei, pigua, baji, etc. I later found out that the Shanghai Baji association was transmitted to Shanghai by a student of the famous Wu Xiufeng. As someone who doesn’t practice Baji, I wasn’t in a position to judge, but was impressed by the Shanghai Baji team, their performances looked crisp and powerful.

Another unusual sight was the very large contingent of Hulei Jia (‘Thunder’ frame) taiji, which is a branch of Zhaobao taiji. This style, which is still in the early stages of being known outside China, is famous for it’s sudden fali throughout the form – to my journeyman eyes the general sequence and postures of the form look similar to the Zhaobao small frame practiced in Xi’an.

Unfortunately, there was no Leitai or sparring segment of the tournament. Whether this was because there was no demand or because of concerns about insurance etc, I’m not sure. We had to satisfy ourselves with watching the freestyle tuishou competition, which was held in another venue halfway across town. Typical Chinese tournament organization! After a madcap drive across town we managed to get to the freestyle tuishou competition. From what we saw it was a pretty scrappy affair, pretty similar to the tournaments I have seen from Chen village. Would have to say that I couldn’t see any particularly “taiji” skills on display, but still admire the competitors for getting out there and actually trying something on a resisting opponent.

The evening of the first day was followed by the usual banquet for the visiting masters held in a nearby restaurant – as I’m sure other Western students of traditional CMA in China can testify, these are practically mandatory and usually involve copious amounts of baijiu (50% alcohol!!) before everyone stumbles back to their hotel blind drunk. Thankfully, as Song Guanghua does not drink, it was a comparatively staid affair and the assembled teachers were merely slightly inebriated by the end of the proceedings.

The next day, if anything there were even more competitors queuing up outside the stadium. The morning passed in a blur of weapons performances (including several rare weapons such as the whip dart, or the Daoist duster (fu chen) form performed a lady from Wuxi dressed in a ‘Wudang’ outfit). And then suddenly at lunchtime, as suddenly as they arrived, having performed and received their various medals, 90% of the competitors left, leaving behind the organisers, the judging panel and a few stragglers such as ourselves. It was at this point that I managed to perform my xingyi Jintui Lianhuan routine for shiye Song Guanghua and get some corrections from him on the form. Even at 86, he is fast, relaxed and nimble, living proof of the health benefits of xingyiquan!

With the ‘health maintenance methods’ (yangsheng gongfa) discussion slated for the afternoon cancelled, our group had no choice but start on their trip back to Shanghai.

All in all, it was a learning experience just to see so many styles, but I was disappointed that there wasn’t more combative content such as a Lei Tai or Shuai Jiao competition, think this is something that traditional CMA in China would very much benefit from.

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The Martial Spirit of Tianjin – An Interview with Nitzan Oren By Jonathan Bluestein.

I’m happy to be able to host an article from guest author Jonathan Bluestein recording one long interview he did with his teacher, Nitzan Oren. For anyone with an interest in xingyi or other northern martial arts, it’s well worth a read. 
Nitzan holding a Zhan Zhuang posture
Nitzan holding a Zhan Zhuang posture
Tell us a bit about your background in the martial arts, past and present, and how you got to study with your current teacher.
I started training martial arts in 1992, when I was 17. That was my ‘official’ beginning. I really wanted to start much earlier, but my mother didn’t want her child “to turn violent” – a typical Jewish mother response. So at 15 I already had Karate and Judo books about which I was very enthusiastic, and from which I tried learning the best I could… Though obviously, this wasn’t serious. Then at 17 I started looking for ‘Kung Fu’, some Chinese arts. At the time in Israel there weren’t too many places teaching Chinese arts. The closest thing I could find was Goju-ryu Karate, and since my Sensei said it had originated from China, I chose that.
My teacher, Eliyahu Ovadia, was a student of one Yaron Binyamini – a famous Israeli teacher who still runs a large organization (Binyamini himself was a student of Kong Mienho, Ma Hong 马虹, Wu Bin  吴彬, Xie Bahua and other well-known Chinese teachers of various styles). Since Binyamini had studied and taught Chinese styles in conjunction with his Goju-ryu in his organization (though not much at the time), we also practiced some Chinese systems to a lesser degree; primarily, modern forms of Chang Quan and Nan Quan, and also some modern and simplified Chen and Yang styles (nowadays, Binyamini mostly teaches Chen style, and some Bagua). I enlisted for my obligatory military service about 1.5 years into my training, and kept training when I could from time to time (Nitzan was an army officer). I kept training at the dojo following my service as well.
In 1999, my teacher Eliyahu converted his secular way of life into Ultra-Orthodox Judaism, and as a result chose to stop practicing and teaching martial arts altogether (a common choice among such people who convert). Technically, I was supposed to start attending classes under Eliyahu’s teacher, Yaron, but his dojo was too far. This forced me to look for another path in martial arts.
I looked around and wanted to experience something different. I then pursued Abadá Capoeira under one Mestre Isaac for a year, which I greatly enjoyed. I was already about 24 years old, and discovered I could still be taught some very fine acrobatic and flexibility maneuvers, which greatly enhanced some of my overall physical abilities. Throughout that time I kept training what I previously learned, also practicing with some former friends from the Dojo. I still had the dream of seriously pursuing the study of Chinese arts, and began to examine the option of studying in China. I went on short trips to Shaolin, Wudang and Emei, but was not impressed with what I had seen in terms of the martial value that the arts publicly practiced there seemed to contain.
In 2000 I moved to China, to study Chinese Medicine in Tianjin TCM University (Nitzan studied there for 5 years, and then interned at a local hospital for an additional 2 years). I moved to Tianjin (a big, central city) of all places because that’s the only place I found which would have enabled me to begin my studies without prior knowledge of the Chinese language.
I started looking for a martial arts teacher the day after I had arrived in China. I had no connections whatsoever and didn’t really know where to look. I did do some research prior though, and had known that I was interested in the ‘Internal Arts’. In particular, I was keen on studying Bagua Zhang. A friend of mine from another class at the university told me that one of her professors, a distinguished man who specialized in Chinese Chiropractic,  did martial arts, and that one of his students was a very skilled martial arts teacher. That teacher turned out to be my future Shifu, master Zhou Jingxuan (pronounced:  Jo Jing-Shwen), under whom I still study today. I studied with him for 7 years in China, usually every day, and have also studied with him for some periods of time in the years following my return to Israel.
Celebrating Nitzan's birthday in 2010
Celebrating Nitzan’s birthday in 2010
What did you study under Zhou shifu?
I studied the following:  Xing Yi Quan and its entire curriculum (including Xing Yi spear), from several branches (different Hebei and Song family branches).  Two Baji Quan forms, number 3 and 4, and Baji partner drills. The 12 basic hands of Pigua, its Jibengong, and four of that style’s weapons – Feng Mo Gun (Crazy Demon Staff), Dao (curved sword), Miao Dao (Sprout Sword) and Hei Hu Bian (Black Tiger Whip). During my last two years with Zhou shifu I also studied Shaolin Jingang Bashi (Jibengong, basic hands, 64 soft hands and the Jian – straight sword). Under Zhou I also learned the use of additional weapons which do not specifically belong to any art – Pair of Iron Clubs (Shuang Jian), Pair of Tiger-Head Hooks (Hu Tou Gou; a Shaolin weapon) and the use of the Meteor Hammer.
What was it like studying under Zhou shifu in the beginning?
The first time I met shifu he asked me what I wanted to learn. He followed by telling me about the martial arts he was teaching. He wrote their names on a note, which I keep to this day. I heard all these weird names… “Pigua Zhang, Baji Quan, Fanzi Quan, Shaolin Jingang Bashi…”. I never heard about any of these martial arts before. But then lastly he said “Xing Yi”, and I chose that, because that was the only name I was familiar with… which is quite funny in retrospective, since I made a fateful choice as such so arbitrarily. Xing Yi wasn’t the Bagua I wanted, but I knew it was an ‘Internal’ art, and chose to follow my luck and see this as an opportunity. Years later shifu would also tell me, that in accordance to his own traditional Chinese view and beliefs, he felt it was a matter of fate that a student and teacher find each other like that.
Studying with shifu was quite difficult at first. We had a complex relationship. To begin with, I could barely speak any Chinese, and even with that, I had a hard time understanding anything shifu was saying, because he carried a heavy Tianjinese accent. During the first 6 months I could make little sense of his speech. Luckily, he was good enough at providing physical cues and examples for me to still be able to learn and advance. It also helped that I was being taught as a beginner, so there wasn’t too much need for overly complex explanations. At times, as is the case now, there were Chinese students of shifu around who knew some English, and could translate for me.
I was taught privately by Shifu. He’d come to teach me at the University, and I was usually the only one there (apart from when other Israeli students were studying with me). The few other Chinese students he had studied elsewhere, in Xigu Park. It took him 45 minutes by bike in each direction to reach me, but he was a dedicated teacher, willing to go the distance for his students.
At the time I began studying with Shifu, he had some bitter experience with foreigners. Many came before, but did not take his martial arts too seriously. Quite a few simply wanted to study for a very short period of time, and learn as much as possible within that time frame. That is not how the teaching of Chinese traditional arts works, and Zhou was not fond of that approach and attitude. Also, these students weren’t respectful towards him as a teacher, and did not understand Chinese culture and local customs. Then when I came, he was assuming I was just like all of these other foreigners. So while he taught me seriously, as he is very professional about his teaching and arts, he did not pretend he liked me too much or anything like that. Back in the day when I just started, shifu would sometimes bring me before his friends to demonstrate. I would then hear him comment: “Look at those foreigners, they don’t understand anything… They just don’t get it”. That was the sort of attitude he had towards me, and foreigners in general, at that time.
We would meet every day for two hours. First thing I learned was Pi Quan. I would only do that and Zhan Zhuang for the first few months. Later I learned Zuan Quan and did that with the rest for another month, and then each month another fist was added until I learned all of Xing Yi’s Five Elements. I studied these basics for a very long period of time, given countless corrections and emphasis. I had also trained them all with different stepping methods. It was only after that long period of setting the foundations that Shifu taught me the rest of the material.
I was lucky to have already had some foundation in the martial arts beforehand. Because of this, the external postures and coordination were relatively easier for me to study. Otherwise, that ‘foundation period’ might have been longer. I was also lucky to have insisted to learn in that way. As I told you before, Zhou thought of teaching me more casually, like he was used to teaching all the other foreigners up to that point. But during my first classes I made it clear to him, through some friends who could translate, that I wanted to study Xing Yi in the traditional manner – like he had studied it. That is why and how I ‘earned’ this right of ‘eating bitter’ during my first year. It surely paid off later. The main point about that period was helping me develop my Yi (Intention). That was the focal point of my early training. Most of my movements, I trained at a very slow speed. Later I started learning the use of the Spear, beginning with the Five Elements done with the spear, to further develop the 5 forces contained in the empty handed Five Elements. The 12 Animals came later, with all the rest.
In the beginning I was just another regular student; not an indoor student (Tudi). I was more like a customer who hired a professional teacher. With time, our relationship became better. A gongfu brother of mine who was an English-speaking Chinese joined us. He was very friendly, and helped me and shifu become closer. As my Chinese significantly upgraded, and I had a chance to prove my dedication and persistence, the way Zhou treated me changed accordingly. I remember for instance that in earlier times, he’d really hurt me sometimes when demonstrating joint-locks. Later, when we had a closer Shifu-Tudi relationship, he no longer did that sort of thing. Once he used to speak of me like I wasn’t there, and referring to me as a representative of “all those foreigners who don’t take things seriously”. Later, he began to do the opposite, setting me as a positive example, and saying good things about me in front of his friends and gongfu family. Sometimes, he would even talk of me as a model for a good student, as compared to some other Chinese students who weren’t so dedicated. I remember that one of the greatest compliments I had ever received was when people started telling me that my gongfu looked like it came from Zhou shifu. First time that happened was a few years into my training, when one of shifu’s gongfu brothers came to visit and told me that.
Zhou stretching
Zhou stretching
How was Zhou different compared to other teachers you studied with?
Zhou was skilled in teaching and explaining without the use of words. He would do this by giving emphasis on sight and touch. His teaching as such was extremely accurate, down to the smallest details. He was very physical. When teaching, he would press and pull on different parts of my body to align me correctly – mold me into form like a sculptor. He was the first teacher that asked me to touch every part of his body whilst he did things so I could understand how he moved. He knew how to enlarge small and tight movements so they would make sense, and for the student to be able to grasp what they should feel like. He had an excellent ability to explain how to make the mechanics of something work, and wherein something did not work, he always knew what had been the small fault or the very specific movement which got things stuck. Following a lot of physicality, he could then also explain verbally quite well where, how and why things went wrong. Across the years, even though I kept practicing some exercises and movements which he taught me during my first month or two, he always had a lot of depth and breadth to add to them. He’d sometimes say that “I had already studied this or that”, but then find a deeper aspect of the same thing to teach me. His teaching as such was very structured. Whenever I got better, there was a higher level to the same practices. Additionally, each student was fitted with a curriculum and approach that best suited his personality and abilities.
Shifu also has a very distinct style of martial self-expression, which is uniquely his own. Though he teaches martial arts very methodically and in the traditional manner, his personal take on them is distinctive. He has an exceptional ability to enliven whatever martial movement or form he teaches or performs. For instance, when wielding a sword, he would appear like he was really cutting someone down. His mental state and expressions are often like those of a person doing real battle, sometimes complete with sound effects. He would ‘get into character’, so to speak… like an actor.
Zhou relaxing

Zhou relaxing

What was shifu like, as a person?
Well, he sure got a sense of humour! Zhou is mischievous and loves pranks and physical humour. Though one has to become acquainted with it… sort of an acquired taste. For instance – he won’t shy away from using something like a Wedgie as a martial technique, and incorporate it into a takedown of sorts.
At first glance, especially watching him train and teach from the side, he might appear stern and overly serious. But as a matter of fact, he is quite nice and likable. He likes to joke and fool around. He loves the company of other people, and is at his best when together with more than one person. Once you get to know him on the more personal level, things become easier overall.
He has a very practical approach to anything related to martial arts or otherwise. He likes to test things, see if they work. I once bought him a fine custom-made sword, as a gift for teaching me the use of that type of sword. He felt compelled to check out if the sword could cut through the nearby tree and wooden bench… had to be practical. Excessive motions and beautiful movements for the sake of beauty do not appeal to him. In fighting, he believes and advocates that one should be cruel.
Some aspects of his personality stayed very consistent since I’ve known him. For instance, he has always been a patriot – very passionate about the Chinese as a people and culture (though not politically inclined). However, throughout the years he also changed a lot of his other views and inclinations. His approach toward foreigners had changed dramatically. When I had first known him, he wasn’t much inclined to use modern technologies (having grown up in a poor environment, following the Cultural Revolution). Nowadays he’s always with his smart phone, and runs an online blog and video channel in Chinese. His nationalistic agendas, I suppose are due not in small part to the invasion of foreign armies to China, and Tianjin in particular, over the last 200 years. This is what had originally made him suspicious of foreigners. On the other hand, I had the advantage in this regard, because I came from Israel, and oftentimes the Chinese consider the Jews and Israelis to be ‘the wise and successful underdogs who fight bravely for their existence’ – something which they can identify with (in general, Jews tend to have a good reputation in China – somewhat of a reverse Anti-Semitism). Over time, as I brought more foreigners to learn from him, his attitude changed for the better. He simply did not originally live in an environment in which he had a chance to get a positive exposure to foreigners. His former biases are now long gone, and he has students from all over the world – Israel, Canada, France, the U.S., Latvia, Poland, etc.
Nitzan with Zhou and gongfu brothers

Nitzan with Zhou and gongfu brothers

Tell me a little bit about other students of shifu at the time you studied with him
Well, a few of Zhou’s students have been very dedicated, and stayed for many months or years at a time, training hard and really putting their minds and hearts into it. Most students weren’t as devoted and serious though.
There was one guy from Spain, who came over for two weeks, and immediately stated he was planning to do the following within the confines of his short trip:  Learn a sword form, learn Traditional Chinese Medicine, and achieve enlightenment and understanding of the Dao. Modest goals indeed. He came with a translator, since he couldn’t speak Chinese. He didn’t quite get the movements and principle Zhou was teaching him. Shifu did his best to explain things to him through the translator, but the Spanish guy insisted that it was the translator who didn’t get it, and that he was doing things correctly. By the time he ‘finished’ learning the sword form, it was quite a mess. He later took that little knowledge he got back to Spain, and apparently began teaching it to his students.
There were also Chinese fellows who came to train with crazy ideas in mind. In China, there are many TV shows based on Wuxia 武侠 novels (stories and legends of Chinese knights and martial heroes, and their fantastic adventures). Many Chinese are touched and influenced by these, especially as such stories are often interwoven with real pieces of Chinese history. One such guy came to train with shifu, and asked if we had a ‘secret book containing the special methods for learning the arts quicker and better’. He was quite delusional. Another time when this student was injured (not from training), shifu gave him a herb formula to put in his bath. He was super-excited about this. Thinking he got some ‘secret formula’, he went to several different herb stores, to buy in each of them only some of the ingredients – so “no one store could copy the entire recipe”. In retrospect, since I am a TCM doctor, I can tell you that this had been a really basic formula, which is quite commonly used.
I noticed that in the summertime often came groups of high-school youngsters, who had really put in an effort for 2 months, and asked to be taught basic self-defense and practical fighting. They used to spar and lot with gloves and work with heavy bags. It was later found out that they came to study so they could gain a reputation as ‘notorious school bullies’, to ensure people won’t pick fights with them. Street fighting is very common in Tianjin, or at least was at the time, for all age groups. I had seen people there fighting over the most arbitrary and ridiculous things all the time.
Zhou shifu with his baji teachers Shen Jiarui (R), Sun Zhenyao (L)
Zhou shifu with his baji teachers Shen Jiarui (R), Sun Zhenyao (L)
I know you have met some of Zhou shifu’s teachers. Please tell us about them.
Shifu had studied with over 13 teachers in his lifetime, and is indoor student of about 7 of them. Zhou’s main teacher overall was Shen Jiarui, who taught him Baji Quan and Shaolin Jingang Bashi. Shen is a very interesting person, whose skill in the arts is only equaled by his modesty and kindness. In traditional Chinese society, it is the custom that students pay for the teacher in restaurants, and put food on the teacher’s plate. That is a show of respect. But Shen wouldn’t have any of that. He’d go and pay for meals in advance, so people won’t be able to pay for him. Since Chinese martial families are like real families, Shen figures it is his duty as a ‘father’ to pay. Once we went with him to Cangzhou it was very cold, so I voluntarily gave Shen one of my hats to wear (he was already in his mid-60s at the time). He seemed moved by what I did. Later when we sat down to eat dinner, he suddenly put food on my plate by surprise. This was in front of many other martial artists. That sort of show of respect from a teacher to his gongfu grand-student is unheard of in traditional China.          When Shen practiced and demonstrated, he was like a fierce tiger, but with his normal gait he appeared much more like one would expect from the older gentleman he is. One could never guess he is such a skilled master.
Li Guoliang teaching Nitzan
Li Guoliang teaching Nitzan
Zhou’s next most prominent teacher is Xing Yi and Bagua master Li Guoliang (not to be confused with Li Guoliang from Taigu, who is also a Xing Yi teacher). He was in his late 70s when I met him, and the first thing he asked me to do is show him my Zhan Zhuang. He didn’t even say for how long he expected me to hold the stance he asked for, which is psychologically troubling, because I knew he could have kept me in that posture for an hour or more. He only bothered to start correcting me after over 40 minutes of doing this. But following that, he earnestly said he was convinced I was taught correctly. He only came over that day, it turned out, to meet me, since Zhou had told him I had been a serious student of Xing Yi Quan (unfortunately, Zhou did not have any other such serious students for that art). His skill was of such high level that I couldn’t really imitate anything he did – only follow his instructions and corrections. He was drawing tiny circles across his entire body as he was moving, and even though he allowed me to feel him up as he was doing it, I still couldn’t quite figure out how he had done such things. His minute and subtle internal movements created a lot of power. Months and years later, his insistence that I feel his body going through the motions paid off, as I was slowly and gradually able to recapture the essence of some of these skills, based on having known what they should feel like.
M Gong Kuifeng teaching Nitzan
M Gong Kuifeng teaching Nitzan
Another Xing Yi teacher of Zhou that came to the park to meet me one time was Gong Kuifeng, who practiced Hebei style from Liu Qilan’s lineage (unlike Li Guoliang, who is from the Shanxi branch, Song family lineage). Gong was in his mid-80s at the time. He gave me a lot of corrections and good advices. Due to his life’s circumstances and the place he lived in, he used to climb an endless amount of stairs every day, covering hundreds of storeys altogether. He was convinced that climbing that many stairs contributed a lot to his gongfu, and suggested that I follow his example and do the same.
During my later years of training I traveled with two gongfu brothers of mine to meet Pang Zhiqi – Zhou’s Pigua teacher, in order to learn an ancient version of the Pigua Miao Dao form. It was slower, and had many more steps, compared to the modern one I know. It focused more on large, expansive and flowing motion, in contrast with the more compact structure of the modern Pigua Miao Dao form, which has lots of explosive movements. It was also less ‘whipping’. This experience showed us that after the assimilation of Miao Dao into Pigua in the early 20th century, it had been influenced a lot by the body mechanics of that style. Pang was 70+ years of age when we studied with him, and had still been very active and enthusiastic. A while prior to our visit he started learning Baji Quan from another teacher, and was excited to demonstrate to us what he had learned.
Nitzan and gongfu brothers with Pang Zhiqi
Nitzan and gongfu brothers with Pang Zhiqi
Why did you go and study other martial arts in China besides Xing Yi Quan? And who were your other teachers?
The little bit of Baji I learnt was to improve some aspects of my Xing Yi (more on that later). I started studying Pigua because I really liked its weapons, which eventually lead me to study some of the empty handed material as well. I focused on Xing Yi for 5 years, and then started learning Jingang in depth, since I have already covered most of the Xing Yi curriculum.
Zhou always wanted me to study Jingang Bashi. I think that’s the art he likes and appreciates the most. He settled for teaching me Xing Yi because that’s what I wanted, but I think he’d rather have taught me Jingang. The traditional Chinese view dictates that the student should learn what the teacher tells him to, but he made compromise since I was a stubborn Westerner. By the time I had 5 years’ experience, I became open minded enough to listen to his advice on that front.
Shifu had studied with many teachers, and within a few years’ time began encouraging me to eventually do the same, especially with Xing Yi, to get a broader perspective of the art. By the time I was with him for 5 years, he was keen on me finding another Xing Yi teacher to expand my knowledge. I eventually found Wu Bingwen, who belonged to our extended Xing Yi gongfu lineage (from the Song family line), and also practiced Yin style Bagua Zhang. With Wu shifu I studied the basics of their Song style – their specific Zhan Zhuang and Five Elements, on visits to Wu’s place on the outskirts of Tianjin (Liu Kuai Zhuang village) over the span of my last 2 years in China. I’ve had many long conversations with Wu shifu about the arts, and these helped me tremendously in understanding the similarities and differences between different lineages of Xing Yi Quan. Wu shifu never agreed to take a penny from me. My enthusiasm and willingness to train was enough motivation for him to teach me. He even gave me a hard time gifting him with fruits I brought over to his place on occasion.
At one point I became interested in Shuai Jiao. Compared to other grappling and throwing arts like Judo, I felt that Shuai Jiao had a far more ‘Internal’ quality to it, at least in some respects, and that had drawn me to this art. It had lots of low stances and practices that resembled Zhan Zhuang, and I liked that. A friend from Beijing told me of a famous Shuai Jiao teacher he knew from his extended gongfu family, Gao Futong, whose line came from Tianjin. When I first arrived to study with Gao shifu, and first thing they did was to accept me as a tudi within their line; which is unusual, as such a ceremony rarely takes place upon first acquaintance and with people the teacher doesn’t know well). It was even more strange given that Gao shifu was already in his 70s, and I was 30 years old. Under such circumstances, a person would normally be listed as a grand-student of a teacher, and not as his direct student. That is to avoid a scenario when one’s “gongfu brothers” are decades older than oneself, and even a situation wherein, students of one’s gongfu brothers are older than oneself (Chinese martial society is strongly influenced by Confucianism and its familial hierarchy, which abhors that sort of disorder). But for this particular gongfu family, it had been their first opportunity to accept a foreigner to their ranks, who might perhaps help spread their tradition overseas, so they made an exception. My time training Shuai Jiao tremendously improved my understanding of standing grappling, throws and takedowns. Gao shifu lived very close to me in Tianjin. We trained at the shelter beneath his apartment building (or was it a club of sorts? Nitzan isn’t sure what the heck that space was supposed to be). He would invite me to eat at his home, as I was like family to him. He was an extremely nice individual, and I spent a lot of time with him and his family.
During my last year in China, I’d travel to Beijing once a week to work at airport security for an Israeli airline company.  I figured that since I was there and my teachers weren’t around, I should find some nice new martial activity to pursue. I then spent that year doing Kendo once a week. I liked it because it was fighting oriented, and had lots of contact involved. I found it excellent for working on one’s fighting intent. Another reason I chose Kendo was because I figured that while it was something different, it did not conflict with my other martial studies.
I was able to locate a great dojo there, run by a 3rd dan. There was a large Japanese business community in Beijing, and the Kendo teacher was constantly bringing high-ranking Kendoka to train with us. I even trained with several 6-7th dans, and one 8th dan.
How did the practice of additional martial arts help your Xing Yi Quan practice?
Each martial art gave me a different perspective on fighting. Xing Yi was very much focused on moving the whole body as a single unit, moving all at once. Training the Yi and fullness of the body were the focal points in training. It was very direct, like a train. Baji, while also being direct, was more wide and expansive in its movements. There was a lot more sideways action. Rooting was more strongly emphasized, while Xing Yi puts more emphasis on constantly striving forward. Jingang Bashi has a totally different flavour and character to the previous two. The feet are very light and agile, and one constantly changes directions. Evasion is encouraged. Its body mechanics are more flexible and pliable. Speed is key, and the power and feel of this art are more ‘External’. The hands make large movements, while Xing Yi likes minimalism and working from up close. Jingang is more akin in its strategies and tactics to Western Boxing than other Chinese arts. Pigua gave me a lot of flexibility, and the ability to whip with the entire body. It was great for helping me develop Heavy Hands skills, used with large motions. Pigua is big on striking from odd directions and angles, which is also useful to learn and train in.
Zhou always thought of Jingang as ‘a martial art for martial artists’. Reasons being:  1. That Jingang includes so many techniques of so many kinds, that there is hardly any standing technique which does not appear in its vast curriculum.   2. Jingang works out its fighting with a ‘problem-solving’ attitude, providing a definite ‘answer’ for any ‘questions’. Each offense is given a ‘solution’, and then there’s a solution for that solution, and so forth. These are usually trained with elaborate movement combinations, of 4-5 movements. My main style, Xing Yi, is focused on principles. It helped a lot, then, to study a style like Jingang, so focused instead on applications.  Another unique aspect of Jingang is that one trains charging the opponent with short sprints, throwing many combinations one after the other. It is a type of practiced I have not encountered in other arts.
At one point I was studying Tuo Xing, one of the Xing Yi animals. The end segment of this movement requires the issuing of strong fa jin sideways, which is uncommon in Xing Yi. I had trouble with developing that sort of power, and then Zhou suggested that I practice Baji Quan for a while, to work on my sideways power. Xing Yi is very much focused on the center, moving into and issuing power to the front. Baji contains a lot of sideways manipulations and power issuing. Before I started to learn Baji, Shifu asked me to stop working on my Xing Yi. I then studied our third Baji form (Xiao Jia). I wasn’t too keen on giving up my Xing Yi, because Baji “wasn’t the art I came for”. But since I had by that time learned to abide by the more traditional Chinese mindset, I decided to listen to Shifu and do as he asked of me, completely abstaining from any Xing Yi training for about a month (besides the Zhan Zhuang). This turned out to have helped me tremendously, and my Xing Yi was much better when I came back to doing it.  A few years later, I also learned our fourth Baji form, together with my gongfu brother Ben.
Kendo was beneficial in that I was constantly getting hit. I used this sort of learning environment to teach myself how to keep focus under pressure. Maintain a flowing and unbroken fighting intent.
Shuai Jiao helped a lot with my ability to keep stable while being grabbed. It also has a lot of fighting-intent training, and had helped me hone my psychological edge in combat.
What would you recommend to people who are interested in moving to China to study martial arts?
Find a teacher who is a ‘folk teacher’ – of the people (called Mínjiān 民间 in Chinese).  Not someone with a large school or from a monastery. A person with an authentic lineage which can be traced a few generations back, who teaches out of the love for the arts and not strictly for money (if at all). In choosing a teacher, one is better to follow personal recommendations from direct students of a teacher, rather than rely on advertisements or hearsay advice. In taking advice, try to do so from a person whom you can safely assume have had serious training.
Since many teachers in China require recommendations for students to be accepted into class, it might prove important to get such recommendations in advance (simply approaching a teacher in a park would not always work). Wherein one lacks social connections for this, it is possible to ask for advice and recommendations on various online forums. Otherwise, one can sometimes make contact with students of a certain teacher by sending messages to people running online video channels with videos of teachers one is interested in. Try asking some of your new Chinese friends while in China – there’s always someone around who knows something about a good teacher.
Listen to the teacher of your choice – he probably knows better. You should trust him. Do not rush to learn, take measured steps in your learning curve. Forms and weapons can wait. Don’t be too eager to get to them as a beginner.
Having knowledge of the Chinese language would certainly help. That being said, a good teacher can give a lot to a beginner even without them speaking the same language (though it is eventually important to learn decent Chinese). Knowing Chinese is more important for those without prior background in the martial arts.
Master Zhou’s official website can be found at:   http://swz.weebly.com
More about training experiences with Zhou shifu may be read here:
The man who conducted this interview, Shifu Jonathan Bluestein (Nitzan’s top disciple and also a student of Zhou shifu) is the head of the Tianjin Martial Arts Academy, and teaches Xing Yi Quan and Pigua Zhang in Israel. He is also a martial arts author and researcher. His list of published articles, most available for free reading with links (and on this blog), can be found at the following link:
If you liked this article, please ‘like’ the page of shifu Bluestein’s school on Facebook:
All rights of this article are and the pictures within it are reserved to Jonathan Bluestein ©. No part of this article may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission, in writing, from Jonathan Bluestein. Jonathan may be contacted directly via email:  jonathan.bluestein@gmail.com .
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