Thursday, September 27, 2012

What is the truth?

What is the Truth?

Like many people know, I get a deep, perverse pleasure in asking the question "Why?" In that one word is the stumbling block for most belief systems and methods of practice.  I know it's not mature of me, but sometimes I can't help myself when someone starts to talk about something that is outlandish or not based in reality.  I also understand that my love of that question can make me come across very poorly to some people, especially those who I question.  I come across very brash and judgemental, but most of the time I just don't care enough to explain what I mean on a deep level (I know that sounds terrible)  But maybe I can shed some light on my personal views and the reasons for them here.
I would like to start by sharing a little about my martial journey that I haven't shared before.  Several years ago I felt totally lost and had no idea where to go as far as the direction of my training.  I have been lucky enough to meet and train with several amazing masters of Xingyi, but not one of them shared the same beliefs on training or what Xingyi was actually for.  Each master held a different origin story to be true, each one believed that the art evolved differently, and each saw a different goal for high level practitioners.  So while I was lucky to train with them, this left me deeply confused at the same time.  Where did Xingyi come from?  What was its original purpose? What is high level?  So after a lot of soul searching and coming very close to quitting due to frustration, I decided to use the tools at my disposal and proven methods to see what I could learn about my favorite martial art.  Since I'm not the most learned person I was left with simple yet irrefutable techniques.  I decided to base my research off of the scientific method of hypothosis, experimentation and conclusion, the technique of "Occams' Razor" as well as a method from our legal system, namely "Its not what you know, its what you can prove" Now obviously that is a quote from a movie, but its sums up very well how we as Westerners fuction and understand things.  And that is the only way I will ever understand things, no one can honestly say that they completely think and understand another culture without having lived in it for many years, so I would have to make do.
So having said this, nothing I say in this article is meant to insult or degrade anyone's personal beliefs, but I am simply putting out the plain facts about Xingyi that can be proven easily.  I will speak in general terms, but please don't take that as an attack, its not meant to be.  But really, if  writing about my research bothers people, they are forgetting a great quote from Aristotle "The mark of a great mind is being able to entertain an idea without accepting it"  So I hope that I get the chance to share this with many great minds in the hopes of starting a positive discussion.
Now that the disclaimer is out of the way, lets speak honestly and bluntly.  Xingyi is an amazing art with a world full of potential, but it's dying.  There is no sugar coating it, it's simply true.  I believe the reason for this is that Xingyi teachers are so far scattered and when we meet most of the time we can't agree on simple practices. How can we ever work as a whole to propegate our art?  We can't.  There must be a core of common knowledge and understanding for Xingyi practitioners so we can present a united front to the world.  We all must work together in the future, the old method of the wandering teacher doesn't work on a global scale.  Often times in the past it was only effective in a single province, not even across the whole of China, so how can it work across the world?
Where to start?  For me, that was easy.  I wanted to learn the most logical and provable origins of Xingyi.  Common myth is that General Yue Fei created Xingyi for his troops as well as creating Eagle Claw.  This is a fun and romantic idea, but that is all that it is.  There is sufficient proof that Yue Fei was a great general, but there is no written proof that he had anything to do with Xingyi.  Remember, we are using a proof based system of understanding here, if its not recorded, we can't use it.  I already know the arguements of some, that oral traditional is just as valid.  No its not.  We often play a childrens game in America that a group of children will sit in a line and the first child will whisper a story to the second, the second repeats it to the third, and so on.  The fun part is when the last child stands up and repeats the story, it is drastically different than the original story told by the first!  The same concept is true for adults, they are just able to hold onto a story for longer before it starts to change.  So writing has to be the way to go, that way a group can read the same words at the same time.
The first recorded Xingyi master was Ji Ji Ke, the spelling may differ from group to group, but we all know who I'm talking about.  He was a famous spear master apparently and based his empty hand techniques off of the spear movements.  This is very effective, since the practitioner would only have to learn one set of movements, not two.  It also cuts down on the training time for proficiency, since half the number of techniques are learned.  Many people claim that Xingyi was a battlefield art, but this isn't supported by historical records.  I feel that the Chinese were amazing record keepers, and we still have many of their writings from ancient times, especially concerning wars and martial tactics.  I personally believe that it wasn't begun as a battlefield art, but as a personal combat art.  I very rarely see people acknowledge that personal combat and duels at that time were usually armed fights.  Professional fighters roamed with their weapon of choice.  This same practice was very common in Japan at the time, why is it so hard to believe Chinese martial artists would do the same?  I see that Ji Ji Ke simplified spear techniques to their purest form which is the reason for the direct and linear nature of Xingyi, no wasted movement.
The next question is "What was considered good Xingyi 200 years ago?"  Often in the modern age, a person's speed or fancy movements are what elevate their skill in the public eye.  Is that the same criteria that was used during the peak of Xingyi?  Not at all.  Xingyi skill level was determind by fighting or competing, a concept that is lost on most modern masters of Xingyi.  They claim that their art is too deadly to spar with.  Really?  Navy Seals spar with their combat. Marine Force Recon uses training drills with live ammo.  Army Rangers practice sentry elimination techniques on live opponents.  Is your Pi Chuan really more deadly than anything the Seals, Force Recon or Rangers have?  I doubt it.  Usually this is the claim of a teacher who deep down knows that they aren't ready to fight or isn't used to the stress of combat, so they give reasons to avoid conflict.  They are usually the first to start throwing personal insults in many situations.  Sadly they continue to talk about their 'traditional' methods after they have declined a fight.  This is completely the opposite of what was true in the golden age of CMA.  You fought to win, to keep your school open, or the challenger chased you out of town.  I am not advocating death matches or illegal fighting, but if we wish to tell people that we are masters of a fighting art, how can we run away from a fight?  There are even ways to show skill without fighting such as sparring or application drills.  Its easy to see if a teacher has a fighting heart through these.
The hallmark of good Xingyi used to be effectiveness.  We used simple techniques, few forms and very little of the "Qi Gong" work that is so prevalent today.  I like the expression that Xingyi is "ugly but it works."  Xingyi fighters were bodyguards and convoy escorts after only a couple years of training.  For some reason today we think that Xingyi must be trained for 20 years to yield an effective fighter but this is a recent turn of beliefs, not supported by history.  Where today many new students are taught in their first lesson about "Qi" and circulating it and how to refine their power, the older generations learned how to build strong legs and raw power.    After all, how can you refine power without first having raw power to refine?
Many teachers point back to Sun Lu Tang and his fantastic books on Xingyi and Tai Chi as the reason for the focus on energy work.  But I would counter that those books were meant to be reference material for people who already knew a martial art or practiced Xingyi.  While in his book he talks about lots of energy work, if you read the written accounts about Sun Lu Tang from his daughter, he personally practiced and taught his students much differently in the beginning.  In one story she talks about how her father would go to visit his friends Bagua school and would constantly yell  "Lower!  Faster!"  at the students who were walking the circle.  This is completely counter to his books, so we have to logically assume that he taught hard work in the beginning then energy work later.  I also know that some of you will question my using her words as proof, but written first hand accounts that are backed up with references of other people there at the time are allowed in our courtrooms, so they are allowed here.
I feel that so many teachers have tried to skip the hard physical work of martial arts and move straight into energy work, that it has almost become taboo to talk about building a strong Kung Fu body in IMA circles.  This is not a judgement of those teachers, like most humans they want the good stuff up front, the dessert before dinner.  But if we keep that analogy, in Kung Fu if you don't eat dinner first you don't have the ability to taste or digest dessert after.  Understand?  If you don't have a strong, flexible body there is no way that you can really feel the energy flowing through it and learn how to control that energy.  Think about the myth of the origins of Shaolin Kung Fu for another example of this idea.  Monks who didn't have strong bodies were constantly sick and weak, including their meditation and energy work.  If you ask most of the masters of the internal arts from China, they will tell you that their youth was spent training until they collapsed everyday, about how hard they trained.  Do they ever brag about never breaking a sweat while training?  Even masters from Chen village?  No, they don't.  So we can see that historically the Internal Arts were built off a solid foundation of hard work and training until the early part of the 20th century.  If you aren't sure, look at the writings from before then.  "Qi" and energy is mentioned, but not at the same rate or the same intensity as today.  There is a clear difference.
As for the 3rd question "What is High Level?", I really don't know the answer yet.  I haven't reached that level, but I am smart enough and educated enough to know what isn't part of high level.  Mystical words or ethereal topics weren't ever part of the study during the Golden Age of Xingyi, and they should be reserved for very high level practice now.  My Bagua teacher has a great saying that I think should apply to Xingyi as well, "My Bagua isn't a key to get to heaven"  I think that is totally true. If we try to take a combat art and devote it totally to spiritual development, we are losing sight of the original reason for the fighting art, and also at the same time not progressing down the spiritual path since Xingyi wasn't ever designed to help further that type of training.  I think that high level might just be the ability to know our own bodies and having the skill to help others do the same, I'll let you know for sure when I get to that level.  While I believe in the existence of "Qi" we won't address it here since it is an unproven topic.  Each master has a different belief on what "Qi" is and how to train it, I think that means that we should not try to base our understanding and common ground on energy, but we should use the simple, basic training to find common ground.
What I put here is just a light treatment of my past few years of study and practice.  It is looking at what can be proven and shown, not based off student memories of their teachers.  Any good student will say wonderful things about their teacher and how great their skill was, so we can't rely on that to further our understanding.  I have looked at all the historical references that I can, talked to educated people and most importantly I have crossed hands with many people trying to learn.  I have kept an open mind to being proven wrong since I knew I was lacking knowledge when I started looking.  If I am wrong in any historical reference, please point me to the record that proves me wrong so I can retract my incorrect statement.


  1. Hi Jesse lost the FB post that brought me here - so this is where I'll comment.

    Don't disagree with anything, and enjoy your emphasis.

    I will add one point and a request.

    Xingyi is fairly old - somethings you do not get to prove over a few years. There may be pieces that we do not understand that are what Nicolas Taleb calls opaque heuristics - rules of thumb that work, even though noone can say why.

    The request - paragraphs make it easier to read! I know WP can be tricky sometimes though.

  2. When my teacher taught xingyi at the Central Military Academy at Nanjing in the late 1920's and early 1930's, xingyi was taught as a fighting art and officers sparred both unarmed and armed. If you look at film footage from the early 1940's after the Academy had been moved they were still fighting with two handed wooden swords; wooden rifle and bayonets against single and multiple opponents and unarmed, of course. The fact they had padding did not prevent injuries and a broken arm or other damage was not uncommon. xingyi we see today is primarily a product of the New China (CCP) and is presented as exercise. As well, most teachers I have seen over the past 45 years do not know the fighting applications - since real fighting was frowned upon (remember Mao outlawed western boxing from 1959 to 1989 because it was deemed too violent) There is a political/power motive attached to this but that is an entirely different issue. As well, I think Sun Lu Tang added the philosophy was to bolster as part of the nationalism movement to remove the country from western influenced physical exercise back to a 'Chinese' system of tiyu (physical culture) - others were doing the same thing at the time; which ended up hurting the martial arts as fighting arts. FYI my teacher never discussed Yueh Fei as the founder of xingyi - he tended to avoid unfounded speculation.


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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.