Teacher Profile – Yu Chunhai

The next stop on my Song style fact-finding trip was to another teacher in Tianjin called Yu Chunhai. Although both Che Qiang laoshi and Yu Chunhai laoshi are both from Tianjin, they come from slightly different branches of Song style, as Yu Chunhai’s xingyi comes from Li Xuzhou, another disciple of Song Huchen who was previously profiled in this blog.
Yu laoshi comes from an area of Tianjin (Liu Kuai Zhuang) which was a hotbed of martial arts, and xingyiquan in particular, in the early 20th century. Famous xingyi masters such as Li Cunyi, Xue Dian and Shang Yunxiang all lived and taught for varying periods of time in Liu Kuai Zhuang. Growing up in this kind of area, and the fact that Yu laoshi has practiced both Hebei and Shanxi styles of xingyiquan gives him a unique perspective on how martial arts were taught and practiced in that era.

M Yu Chunhai in a combined bear-eagle posture (xiong ying he lian)

Yu laoshi was more than happy to share the history of Liu Kuai Zhuang and how he came to learn xingyiquan. As he tells it, the reason that martial arts were popular in Liu Kuai Zhuang was because it was a port on the Grand Canal running from Hangzhou in the south all the way to Beijing in the north. Many of the men in Liu Kuai Zhuang worked as stevedores at the port, and fistfights were commonplace as people fought for the right to unload the boats. Originally the main martial art was Hong Quan (a branch of northern Shaolin). Xingyiquan only started to become known in Liu Kuai Zhuang when one of Li Cunyi’s grandstudents defeated one of the better martial artists in Liu Kuai Zhuang. A year or so later Li Cunyi himself, having heard of the reputation Liu Kuai Zhuang had for martial arts, came to Liu Kuai Zhuang and soundly defeated one of the main local masters, sending him flying over a table with She Xing (snake). After that, more and more of the locals started to learn Hebei xingyiquan under Li Cunyi, and Liu Kuai Zhuang produced several noted masters, such as Yu Liancai and Liu Yunji. It was Liu Yunji who first taught Yu’s teacher, Zhang Guiliang.

Precious old pictures of M Yu’s teacher Zhang Guiliang

Through his teacher Liu Yunji and his own father, Yu Chunhai was able to contribute many stories about the early days of how xingyiquan went from being an outsider’s art to the predominant art practiced in Liu Kuai Zhuang, as well as anecdotes about the characters who stayed there, including Li Cunyi, Xue Dian and Shang Yunxiang. One of Yu’s favourite stories is of how Shang Yunxiang came to study with Li Cunyi. According to Yu, Shang Yunxiang martial arts potential was first noticed by Guo Yunshen. Knowing that Li Cunyi was looking for talented students to pass on his system to, Guo brought Shang to see Li, who was at that time living in Tianjin. However, Li was distinctly unimpressed (Shang was short, only 1.6m tall, and quite skinny too) with Shang and at that time refused to accept him as a student. Guo, irritated that Li couldn’t see Shang’s potential, taught him xingyi’s Santi and Beng Quan (crushing fist). Some time later (some accounts say 1 year, some say three), Guo again brought Shang to Li. This time, impressed by the power of Shang’s Beng Quan, Li agreed to accept him as his disciple.
Given the controversy within Chinese xingyi circles in recent years over who, if anyone, learned Xue Dian’s full system, I asked Yu about this issue. Yu thought that the people with the best claim to this would either be Xue’s son Xue Zhiyi, or the Xin family (Xin Shiyin, Xin Shirong), who learnt both Xue’s xingyiquan and the Xiang Xing Quan which Xue formulated based on his experiences and knowledge.
Xue Zhiyi

Xue Zhiyi explaining a move from Xiang Xing Quan to a student [Source: internet]

Of course, quite apart from his deep knowledge of the MA history of the area Yu laoshi is well known for his ability to use his xingyi – he has fought in Leitai competitions 4 times in his life, the fourth time when he was 47 years old, soundly beating opponents who were often 20 years his junior. His special technique is a move called “raising the horse whip” (Ju Ma Bian 拘马鞭), a technique in which the wrist/forearm ‘crashes’ down on the opponent’s guard, which he has trained to be extremely heavy and penetrating. Having been on the receiving end of his Ju Ma Bian, I can attest that the pain and numbness from just one or two strikes was enough to discourage any further attacks on my part. He also demonstrated freely his ability to take strikes to the upper body and head, at one point picking up a small wooden bench and smacking his head with it, making a large ‘thwock’ sound which made all of us onlookers wince – not bad for a 60 year old!

M Yu teaching xingyi to local children

At the end of my visit, Yu laoshi said that it is his greatest wish that more young people both in China and abroad would start studying xingyiquan. Yu laoshi is doing his bit by teaching local teenagers for free. If any readers are interested in how to really use xingyiquan, they could do worse than to pay a visit to Yu Chunhai laoshi.
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Teacher Profile – Che Qiang

 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.

Che Runtian – Beng quan

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.

Yu Yanhua teaching a student

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.

Song Huchen

Song Tielin showing Pao Quan

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.

Che Qiang demonstrating xingyi’s dragon shape

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.
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