Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Decline of the Internal Arts

Sun Lu Tang was a giant in the martial arts world, respected by the government, fellow martial artists, and people in general.  He contributed many great ideas and practices to the Internal martial arts, like the Sun style Tai Chi and Sun Bagua.  He was one of the first teachers able to write and explain high level ideas and practices, leaving his mark forever in the Chinese martial art community.  Sadly though, Sun Lu Tang was almost the death of the Internal martial arts of Xingyi, Tai Chi, and Bagua.

 Got your attention??

 Not through any fault of his own, but by the gross misunderstanding of the generations to follow and the human need to advance as fast as possible, his words were taken out of context, and novice students adopted his practices for their own without the foundational training needed to excell in Kung Fu.  They felt that if Laoshi Sun had written about it, then they had to immediately do it.  And the generations of poorly trained students became poorly trained teachers, passing on the fragmented knowledge they had recieved to their students and so on.  His daughter also taught many students, but by her own admission, she didn't know how to fight with her fathers arts, she knew the purely internal side focused on building health and longevity.  Now please don't take any of this as a condemnation of Sun Lu Tang, his legacy, or his daughter, I hold them in the highest regard.  But the point still stands that many of his martial descendants haven't followed in his footsteops.  They have taken the advanced practices of a great master, and thought that they could imitate him with the same success he had.  They don't realize that when Master Sun wrote his books, he wrote what he was focused on, which was the highest level of training, not the nuts and bolts of a fighting art.

This misunderstanding has lead to a rapid decline of the fighting abilities of the Internal arts over the past 70 years, and taken a once fearsome group of fighting styles, and stolen their fangs and claws.  This is not to say that there aren't still good teachers out there, but we are in the vast minority, and our ideas and practices are largely ignored, since they aren't the common methods practiced by the Kung Fu dilettantes, who claim superior knowledge because of who their grandmaster was, rather than their abilities to fight with their art.  They hide behind lineage and close their minds to ideas that have long been practiced by great masters of Kung Fu and are proven to create powerful and strong fighters.  The reason why they do this is because the best methods aren't easy, they require dedication and hard work.

What is to be done?  Is there anything that can change this downhill slide?  I believe there is a sure path back to a martial reputation that would make our ancestors proud and back to the skills recently lost.  But the hard question is how to do this?  First, we must understand the arts we practice and what their history is, then we can discover what they were truely meant to be.

Let's use the art of Xingyiquan for an example.  Xingyi has a long and proud history, and was the art of choice for bodyguards and convoy escorts, since it could turn a guard into a great fighter relatively quickly compared to some other arts.  The techniques were simple but were very versatile and contained a deep understanding of natural movement, increasing the striking power of fighters who spent time learning and practicing.  Xingyi fighters were very feared during the height of its popularity.  Master Guo Yu Shen is known to have killed a man with one strike during a match.  He was sentenced to prison, but through the unbreakable willpower developed through training, he improvised and continued to grow as a fighter, even while in shackles.  Wong Jack Man, the fighter who reportedly beat Bruce Lee in a challenge match, was an adept in Xingyi as well.  Wang Shu Jin, the late, great Internal master was a well known champion, and he used a lot of Xingyi in his practices.  So clearly Xingyi was a fighting art for most of its history.
But the situation today is very different in most martial arts schools in America and China.  Xingyi is taught as a small, incomplete art and many masters only have a remedial level of understanding of the practices, and have never pressure tested their art, to see if they are training correctly.  They see the 5 elements as singular techniques, and feel that standing practices are where a Xingyi fighter becomes great.  They don't apply their art to punching bags, much less an un-cooperative opponent in practice.  They don't see the value in strength and power development, thinking that they can punch through walls with pure "Qi" power.  This is absurb when put to paper, but if you take a look around, that is exactly what most Internal schools do these days.  They view Xingyi as an easy black belt to obtain which is a terrible insult to the practitioners who dedicate their time to perfecting this art.

So how should Xingyi be trained?  The answer is simple, the same as it was trained before by the great masters.  They started with footwork and body strengthening exercises.  The footwork was very important because that is where all martial ability starts and where all power comes from.  The ability to move and change direction is what separates an average fighter from a great one.  And the body must grow strong to be able to deliver the full power available in Xingyi.  A strong body is also a healthy body and can help students overcome health issues  and lead better lives.  Then after the student has learned to become agile and strong, then the elements, animals and other forms are taught.  They teach the student raw power, and require years of training to perfect.  But they are just movements and ideas, they teach how to deliver power along the 5 basic angles of attack and are not limited to any one strike.  A good Xingyi fighter can take any one of the elements, and replace the hand with an elbow or even a shoulder, and still deliver a solid strike.  As soon as the student has learned the correct form with the various techniques, and has no more difficulty remembering the correct details, they should be placed in front of a punching bag and practice how to land those strikes against more than just air.  The stage after that is applications and light sparring with the techniques, then on to full contact and an opponent who resists.  Only after a high level of fighting skill is developed should the student worry about internal development and practices since these are used to refine and perfect fighting skills, not supplant them.

This is only a cursory view of training, and only represents my opinions and practices as an imperfect student and teacher, but I know they are well grounded in logic and application, and that this method of training creates a traditional fighter with skills to compete against any other style.  I hope that others share my views, and want to work together to restore the pride and power to our chosen arts.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Xingyiquan, History and Theory


 Xingyiquan is one of the three main pillars of the internal styles of Chinese kung fu, the other two being Tai Chi Chuan and Ba Gua Chang .   Internal kung fu relies more on sinew and tendon strength than muscular power and also develops chi or invisible energy.  In Western culture chi is difficult to explain, but it is the basis for Chinese medicinal theory.  Life is not only looked at from a physical point of view, but the energy that creates movement is also studied.  
    What sets Xingyi apart from the other internal styles and from many forms of martial arts in general is its extremely aggressive mentality and its simple, but very effective movements.  One good analogy is the phrase “My will be done”.  Another would be “The best defense is an unexpected and unstoppable offense”.  When faced with an unavoidable confrontation, a Xingyi fighter will appear relaxed and non-threatening until they are with-in striking distance, and then will explode into the adversary without warning and not stop attacking until there is no more threat.  They have the ability to disarm and subdue their opponents without harming them, but generally will use maximum force, feeling that the safest course of action is to disable an attacker as quickly as possible.  Xingyi is also one of the only martial arts that will strike first when they must fight, instead of waiting for an opponents attack.  The mentality and theories behind this thinking will be discussed in later chapters. 
    Practitioners live the motto ’Never retreat’ and this is evident in their lives as well as in the training hall.  They prefer to face problems head on and find the most direct and simple solutions the best.  Unfortunately this attitude has lead to many Xingyi boxers being labeled as arrogant and macho.  This is not helped by the fact that many of the greatest masters were proud of their fighting skills and would employ them regularly to prove their superiority.       
    This martial art is not only good for fighting, but is excellent for maintaining health and for helping people live long and energetic lives.  Being an internal style, Xingyi focuses on healing and strengthening the students body, before combat applications are trained.  Many masters feel that it is good for anyone to learn Xingyi, regardless of age or physical condition, the vigorous activity being good for the health of younger people, and the stable, deliberate movements helping older persons to exercise and regain flexibility lost over time.   
    Xingyiquan means “Mind Shape Fist” or  “Form Intention Fist”.  While these titles are cryptic, the basic premise is that when the body is trained long enough and all of its actions are done with perfect intent,  the body will naturally perform the best movement in order to fit any idea the mind has.  Simply put, during a fight, the mind will envision the desired outcome and the body will perform whatever is necessary to achieve that goal.  That is one of the reasons why Xingyi is simple in its movements, allowing the actions to be trained over and over until they are reflex instead of conscious thought. 
    Xingyi students in the Stone Tiger Xingyi school will start their practice with basic footwork, strengthening exercises and the 5 elements.  After they have achieved a good level of skill, they will then progress into the 5 elements combined set, then the 12 animals, internal development, more footwork and the 5 elements for the staff and a basic staff form.  This level is studied for at least a year to up to two years depending on how much work is invested by the student.  The third level is broadsword, spear, fighting techniques, more qi gong, chin na (joint locks), and simple throws.  This level is also where the student is introduced to two man sets and is taught how to fight using Xingyi, being that the first two levels are to build a strong foundation before combat is considered.  After this, there comes the combined elements and animals forms and several more advanced forms as well.  The Xingyi system taught at this school is comprised of the traditional Hebei Xingyiquan with additional training that imparts more complicated stepping than is normally found in Xingyi, as well as many Xingyi forms not usually seen.  Previous masters also traveled very extensively and learned many of the main styles of Xingyi and also numerous lesser known methods as well, and added their unique parts to the Stone Tiger system.  When students begin to teach, they are encouraged to travel and see different styles of Xingyi, and this is what led the author to the Wudang Mountains in China.  The theory behind this exposure to new ideas is that the more knowledge and experience that a teacher possesses, the more they can contribute to the growth of their family style.    
    The purpose of this book is not to raise one style above another, but to show the uncomplicated beauty of Xingyiquan to practitioners of all styles.  This book only represents the authors opinion, and is not meant to supplant any other teachers knowledge or teachings. Also I hope it will serve to give those who are interested a basis of knowledge, that they can start practicing and feel for themselves the power and confidence that come from practicing this ancient form of self defense.


    The origins of Xingyi are vague, but many historians and teachers agree that it evolved from the Shaolin art named Xin Yi Chuan (Heart Intention Fist), which was developed around 500 AD.  Many martial artists believe that all kung fu came from the Shaolin Temple, but that is not supported by history.  Martial arts in China have existed for approximately 5,000 years, but were not organized and were mostly based on pure combat, instead of fighting and research which gave birth to the very advanced forms of fighting which we know today.  
    The Shaolin Temple originally was a temple devoted exclusively to meditation and spiritual development.  An Indian monk named Boddidharma arrived and found the monks were physically weak and often fell ill.  Boddidharma was schooled in Yoga, an Indian art form of body development, and devised several methods for the monks to regain their health.  The new exercises worked so well, that the Shaolin monks kept learning new ways to build their bodies, and eventually these calisthenics evolved into a basic form of martial arts.  Over the years the monks, who did nothing but religious practices and martial arts, came to be some of the best fighters in China, which is ironic, since Buddhism is a strictly pacifist religion.  Many generals and masters came to the Shaolin Temple to learn how to increase their abilities and the monks wisely recorded and learned the styles that they came across.  From what we know, Xin Yi was a very small, simple martial art that was relatively unknown outside of the temple.  
    The next person that was instrumental in the development of Xingyi was General Yue Fei, sometime near 1100 AD. I must add that this is popular history, not totally supported by fact, but by oral tradition.  We don't know in fact that Yue Fei changed Xingyi, but the older masters believed it, so we address it here.  Yue Fei rose from poverty to become one of the most famous military leaders in all of Chinese history.  When he was a young boy, his home and most of his family were wiped out by a flood that swept through his region.  His mother took charge of raising him, and taught him all she knew in the ways of reading and writing, since they were too poor for him to go to a proper school.  Through diligent studying Yue was able to surpass all of the other children in his village.  He met a martial arts teacher who taught him all forms of military skills, including archery, horsemanship, empty hand, sword and spear fighting.  When he was old enough, Yue Fei joined the army and quickly advanced, due to his hard work and combat prowess.  Within a few years he attained the rank of general, which allowed him to travel and further his martial arts training.  Often times when men joined the army, they were given a weapon, then thrown into battle without any proper training.  This resulted in massive casualty rates in the army and caused the Chinese Empire great trouble when it came to recruitment and defense of the nation.  Yue Fei was the first to create training programs and institute intense training for his troops.  He sought to build an organized method, where all soldiers were trained equally and could function as one coherent unit.  He began to sample many different styles of kung fu and started to travel in order to advance his knowledge. Apparently he made the trip to the Shaolin Temple and learned Xin Yi.  He found it to be superbly fit for battlefield tactics and quickly adapted it to suit the spear tactics of his officers, then renamed it Xingyiquan.
    There were no internal components to Xingyi at first, being created as a method to quickly train soldiers.  Several clues to this can be seen in the 5 elements.  They are straight forward, and have no spinning or wide open moves that expose the center.  This lends credibility to a military background because all fighting was done with troops lined up shoulder to shoulder and the main threat was from the front.  
    Yue Fei had huge success with this new training and was given so much honor for his skill that the emperor became jealous of him and had him imprisoned then poisoned.   That was the end of any growth in Xingyi for some time, and it is not until much later that the art expands.  
   The next great figure was Ji Lung Feng, who is a verifiable influence in Xingyi, he lived around 1640 AD  and reportedly found a book written by Yue Fei, detailing his art of Xingyi.  Ji Lung Feng was skilled in the art of Lui He Chuan (Six Harmony Fist), and was able to combine the two.  He then began to moved through China searching for ways to improve his new art.  He passed through the Wudang Mountains and stopped at the famous martial temple.  The Wudang monastery was renowned for its internal training and straight sword skills.  Ji Lung Feng absorbed what internal training he could and fused his art with this new knowledge to form the base of Xingyi as we know it today.  For many practitioners, Ji Lung Feng is thought of as the creator of modern Xingyi, but others still honor Yue Fei as the founder for his believed part.
    Xingyiquan in its infant form, passed from generation to generation, and there were many notable masters who greatly influenced its evolution.  Guo Yun Shen is one of the most colorful and famous masters in the history of internal martial arts.  He was hot-tempered and exceedingly skilled and for a major part of his study would only practice the 5 elemental fists.  He was unbeaten, and felt that learning new material would only take away from his practice of the elements.  Guo’s most famous technique was Beng Chuan, or the Crushing Fist, and in a challenge match actually killed his opponent with it.  He was sentenced to prison for this, which is a light sentence considering that execution was the standard punishment.  During his imprisonment, he was shackled due to his fighting skill, but still continued to practice his Beng Chuan, modifying it so that he was not hampered by his chains.  He attained such a high skill, that when he got out of jail, other martial artists said that his new “half-step crushing fist could beat all under heaven”.  He then proceeded to demonstrate his skill in more challenge matches, but during these fights he would put his left hand on the opponents body before he struck, to absorb some of the force.  He had so much success with his new punch, that he developed an arrogant attitude, so much so that his teacher, Li Neng Ran, stepped in to mediate.  Li told Guo that even though he had great ability, he still was not as good as his classmate Che Yi Zhai.  When Guo heard this, he went to Che Yi Zhai’s home and challenged him to a fight.  During the ensuing battle, Gou was soundly defeated, and returned to his teacher, ready to learn the rest of the Xingyi system.  Once he had completed his training, he went to fight the founder of Ba Gua, Tung Hai Chuan.  He stayed with a student of Tung’s, and was unable to beat him so he gave up the idea of challenging Tung himself.  For years the myth existed that Guo and Tung fought for days, but recent research has shown that to be false.  Guo taught his art to many students, including another great master, Sun Lu Tang.  
    Sun Lu Tang was a great man who was a skilled scholar and an amazing martial artist.  He was the first to take the esoteric, often hidden meanings of the Taoist internal methods and translate them so that every student could understand and apply them.  He also started one of the first martial arts courses for women.  Traditionally, women were not taught martial arts in the large schools, and had to learn from family or masters who they were close to.  Sun was a master of all three internal styles and learned from some of the greatest masters of his time, then combining their teachings into one system which was named in his honor.  He wrote several books and was renowned for his mysterious skills such as qing gong, or lightness skill, which allowed him to leap large distances and to lighten his body to move quickly and silently as he wished.
    This history is not all inclusive and is only meant to be a light treatment of the Xingyi lineage.  The purpose is to give new students background information on some of the most famous figures in Xingyi history.  One last piece of important information is that every Xingyi teacher who wrote down advice for his descendents stated that there is no secret or forbidden teachings, all knowledge comes to those who train hard.  Steady, constant practice is the only way to unlock the potential of Xingyiquan.

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This is a blog devoted to the Chinese Internal martial arts. Our school is located in Vancouver, WA and currently accepting students for group classes, and limited private sessions.