Xingyiquan

Xingyiquan

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Xingyiquan (Chinese: 形意拳) is one of the major “internal” Chinese martial arts. Xingyiquan translates approximately to “Form/Intention Boxing”, or “Shape/Will Boxing”, and is characterised by aggressive, seemingly linear movements and explosive power. Its origins are traceable to the 18th century. There is no single organisational body governing the teaching of the art, and several variant styles exist.

A Xingyiquan fighter uses efficient coordinated movements to generate bursts of power intended to overwhelm the opponent, simultaneously attacking and defending. Forms vary from school to school, but include barehanded sequences and versions of the same sequences with a variety of weapons.

These sequences are based upon the movements and fighting behaviour of a variety of animals. The training methods allow the student to progress through increasing difficulty in form sequences, timing and fighting strategy.

Although the exact origin of Xingyiquan is uncertain, the earliest written records of Xingyiquan can be traced to the 18th century to Ma Xueli of Henan Province and Dai Longbang of Shanxi Province. Legend, however, credits the invention of Xingyiquan to the renowned Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD) general Yue Fei.

Throughout the Jin, Yuan and Ming Dynasties few had his art, one of them being Ji Gong [Ji Longfeng]. After Yue Fei’s death, the art was lost for half a millennium. Then, during the Ming and Qing Dynasties in Shaanxi Province’s Zhongnan Mountains, Yue Fei’s boxing manual was discovered by Ji Longfeng (also known as Ji Jike) of neighbouring Shanxi Province.

Dr. Yang Jwing-Ming argues that aspects of Xingyiquan (particularly the animal styles) are identifiable as far back as the Liang Dynasty at the Shaolin Temple. Yue Fei, therefore, did not strictly invent Xingyiquan, but synthesised and perfected existing Shaolin principles into his own style of gongfu which he popularized during his military service.

Nonetheless, according to Yang, Yue Fei is usually identified as the creator because of his considerable understanding of the art (as shown in the work The Ten Theses of Xingyiquan, credited to Yue) and his cultural status as a Chinese war hero.

At Tai Gu town of Shan Xi Province, famous masters of Xing Yi Quan, Guo Yun Shen, Che Yi Zhai

Other martial artists and historians of Chinese martial arts, such as Miller, Cartmell, and Kennedy, hold that this story is largely legendary; while xingyiquan may well have evolved from military spear techniques, there is no period evidence to support that Yue Fei was involved or that the art dates to the Song dynasty. These authors point out that the works describing Yue Fei’s role or attributed to him long postdate his life (some being as recent as the Republican era), and that it was common practice in China to attribute new works to a famous or legendary personage, rather than take credit for one’s self.

One source claims that the author of the “preface” is unknown, since no name is written on the manuscript. Most practitioners just assume it was written by Dai Longbang. Some martial researchers believe that it was actually written in Shanxi during the final years of the 19th century. In addition, historical memoirs and scholarly research papers only mention Zhou Tong teaching Yue archery and not spear play. Yue historically learned spear play from Chen Guang (陈广), who was hired by the boy’s paternal grandfather, Yao Daweng (姚大翁).

With the late Ming-era and Ji Longfeng, evidence for the art’s history grows firmer. Ji Longfeng’s contributions to the art are described in the Ji Clan Chronicles (姬氏族谱; pinyin: Ji Shi Jiapu). Like the Preface, the Chronicles describes Xingyiquan as a martial art based on the combat principles of the spear. The Chronicles, however, attributes this stylistic influence to Ji himself, who was known as the “Divine Spear” (神槍; pinyin: Shén Qiāng) for his extraordinary skill with the weapon.

The master who taught Xingyiquan to Ma Xueli is conventionally identified as Ji Longfeng himself. However, the traditions of the Ma family itself say only that Xueli learned from a wandering master whose name is unknown. Ji Longfeng referred to his art as Liu He, The Six Harmonies.

The Preface identifies Cao Ji Wu as a student of Ji Longfeng and the master who taught Xingyiquan to Dai Longbang. However, other sources identify Dai’s teacher variously as Li Zheng or Niu Xixian.

Xingyiquan remained fairly obscure until Li Luoneng (also known as Li Nengran) learned the art from the Dai family in the 19th century. It was Li Luoneng and his successors—which include Guo Yunshen, Li Cunyi, Zhang Zhaodong, Sun Lutang, and Shang Yunxiang—who would popularise Xingyiquan across Northern China. Sun Lutang exchanged knowledge with Fu Chen Sung, who subsequently took this branch of h’sing yi ch’uan to southern China.

Characteristics and Principles: Xingyiquan features aggressive shocking attacks and direct footwork. The linear nature of Xingyiquan hints at both the military origins and the influence of spear technique alluded to in its mythology. Despite its hard, angular appearance, cultivating “soft” internal strength or qi is essential to achieving power in Xingyiquan.

The goal of the Xingyiquan fighter is to reach the opponent quickly and drive powerfully through them in a single burst — the analogy with spear fighting is useful here. This is achieved by coordinating one’s body as a single unit and the intense focusing of one’s qi.

Efficiency and economy of movement are the qualities of a Xingyiquan fighter and its direct fighting philosophy advocates simultaneous attack and defence. There are few kicks except for extremely low foot kicks (which avoids the hazards of balance involved with higher kicks) and some mid-level kicks, and techniques are prized for their deadliness rather than aesthetic value. Xingyiquan favours a high stance called Sāntǐshì (三體式), literally “three bodies power,” referring to how the stance holds the head, torso and feet along the same vertical plane.

A common saying of Xingyiquan is that “the hands do not leave the heart and the elbows do not leave the ribs.” Another characteristic common to many styles of XingYi is a stance called “Dragon Body”. This is a forward stance similar to a bow stance with a straight line from the head to the heel of the back foot and the front foot perpendicular to the ground. This is not so much a separate stance or technique in itself as a principle of movement to provide power to techniques.

The use of the Santishi as the main stance and training method originated from Li Luoneng’s branch of Xingyi. Early branches such as Dai family style do not use Santi as the primary stance nor as a training method.

Five Element Forms: Xingyiquan uses the five classical Chinese elements to metaphorically represent five different states of combat. Also called the “Five Fists” or “Five Phases,” the Five Elements are related to Taoist cosmology although the names do not literally correspond to the cosmological terms.

Xingyiquan Master

Xingyiquan practitioners use the Five Elements as an interpretative framework for reacting and responding to attacks. This follows the Five Element theory, a general combat formula which assumes at least three outcomes of a fight; the constructive, the neutral, and the destructive. Xingyiquan students train to react to and execute specific techniques in such a way that a desirable cycle will form based on the constructive, neutral and destructive interactions of Five Element theory. Where to aim, where to hit and with what technique—and how those motions should work defensively—is determined by what point of which cycle they see themselves in.

Each of the elements has variant applications that allow it to be used to defend against all of the elements (including itself), so any set sequences are entirely arbitrary, though the destructive cycle is often taught to beginners as it is easier to visualise and consists of easier applications. Some schools will teach the Five Elements before the Ten Animals because they are easier and shorter to learn.

It is perhaps unfortunate that the names used for the elements are used as fundamental names for applications of energy or jìn (勁), since it can be confusing to describe the “heng jin contained within pi quan”. The jìn referred to by the five element names are not the only ones, there are many others.

Animal Forms: Xingyiquan is based on twelve distinct animal forms (å½¢; pinyin: xíng). Present in all regional and family styles, these emulate the techniques and tactics of the corresponding animal rather than just their physical movements. Many schools of Xingyiquan have only small number of movements for each animal, though some teach extended sequences of movements. Once the individual animal forms are taught, a student is often taught an animal linking form (shi’er xing lianhuan) which connects all the taught animals together in a sequence. Some styles have longer, or multiple forms for individual animals, such Eight Tiger Forms Huxing bashi.

Branches:
Xingyiquan has three main developmental branches:

  • Shanxi
  • Hebei
  • Henan

However, the identification of three separate branches is tenuous because of the extensive cross-training that occurred across their lineages. This suggests that the branches did not evolve in isolation, thus diluting any major differences between them.

Schools of the Shanxi branch have a narrower stance, lighter footwork and tend to be more evasive. Schools of the Hebei branch emphasise powerful fist and palm strikes, with slightly different evasive footwork. Schools of the Henan branch are typically the most aggressive of the three.

The Henan branch is known as the Muslim branch because it was handed down within the Muslim community in Luoyang to which its founder, Ma Xueli, belonged. Henan branch is sometimes referred to by practitioners as Xinyi LiuHe Quan instead of simply Xingyiquan This may be attributed to the fact that the Muslim community of China was historically a very closed culture in order to protect themselves as a minority, thus retaining the older addition to the name of Xingyi. LiuHe means “Six Harmonies” and refers to the six harmonies of the body (hips, feet, knees, elbows etc.) that contribute to correct posture. This is not be confused with the separate internal art Liuhe Bafa.

Both the Shanxi and Hebei branches use a Twelve Animal system with Five Elements while the Henan branch uses Ten Animals. Depending on the lineage, it may or may not use Five Elements. Due to the historical complexity and vagueness of the lineages, it is uncertain which branch would constitute the “authentic” Xingyiquan.

Weapons: Traditionally, Xingyiquan is an armed art. Students would train initially with the spear, progressing to shorter weapons and eventually empty-handed fighting. Xingyiquan emphasises a close relationship between the movements of armed/unarmed techniques. This technical overlap produces greater learning efficiency.

Common weapons:

  • Spear
  • Straight sword
  • Sabre
  • Large Sabre (used by infantry against mounted opponents)
  • Long Staff
  • Short Staff (at maximum length you could hold between the palms of your hands at each end – techniques with this weapon may have been used with a spear that had been broken)
  • Needles (much like a double ended rondel gripped in the centre – on the battlefield this would mostly have been used like its western equivalent to finish a fallen opponent through weak points in the armour)
  • Fuyue (halberds of various types)
  • Chicken-Sabre Sickle. This weapon was supposedly created by Ji Longfeng and became the special weapon of the style. Its alternate name is “Binding Flower Waist Carry”.

Weapon diversity is great, the idea being that an experienced Xingyi fighter would be able to pick up almost any weapon irrespective of its exact length, weight and shape.

Important Texts: A variety of texts have survived throughout the years, often called “Classics”, “Songs” or “Theories”.

  • Classic of Unification
  • Classic of Fighting
  • Classic of Stepping
  • Classic of Six Harmonies

Recent History: A simplified version of Xingyiquan was taught to Chinese infantry during the Second Sino-Japanese War for close quarters combat. This included armed techniques such as bayonet and sabre drills alongside unarmed techniques.[11]

Xingyiquan forms have been adapted to fit the needs of modern practitioners of the competitive sport of Wushu. The style is relatively rare in competitions because all wushu practitioners must compete in several mandatory events, which make Xingyi a secondary priority in wushu circles.

Disputed history: Ancient Chinese texts, the source of Xingyiquan knowledge, often contain characters whose meanings are obscure or have disappeared completely from the language. Specialised terms which describe historically-specific concepts (names of ancient weapons for example) are commonly interpreted with regards for their closest, modern linguistic equivalent. The results can be problematic, producing translations which are linguistically correct but inconsistent within a fighting or martial context.

Jargon from other martial arts seems to have entered the Xingyiquan vocabulary through cross-training. For example, some schools refer to a training method of “Xingyi Push Hands” – a term more commonly in use in training Taijiquan – which may be called by other schools “Five Elements Fighting”

The recognised founder of Baguazhang, Dong Hai Chuan, was reputed to have fought Guo Yunshen with neither able to defeat the other – though it is possible that they were training together. It would have been controversial at the time for Dong Hai Chuan to have studied under Guo Yunshen, since Dong Hai Chuan was the older of the two. The most neutral viewpoint would be to say that they trained together, which may explain the stylistic similarities between Baguazhang and the Xingyiquan Monkey.

Frantzis argues that this encounter never took place and that Guo and Dong had little contact with each other. Frantzis argues that a Xingyiquan-Baguazhang exchange was more likely to have occurred in Tianjin c. 1900 where Xingyi masters Li Cunyi and Zhang Zhaodong, Bagua master Cheng Tinghua, and four other Xingyi and Bagua teachers lived together (Frantzis, 1998, p. 179). It is stated in Sun Lutang’s autobiography that the legendary fight between Guo Yunshen and Dong Hai Chuan never happened. The book states that the truth of the matter is that Guo Yunshen actually fought one of his older Xingyi brothers and lost.

Sun Lutang was a student of both Guo Yunshen and Cheng Tinghua so this stance on the subject seems to be one of the most accurate. On another note there are claims that the fight did happen from very credible masters that have knowledge of specific, original forms both empty handed and weapons that were invented by Dong Hai Chuan himself. They claim that the two masters agreed to a draw, realizing that both arts were equally on par with each other and always had mutual respect for the other. They claim that the friendship developed two new arts BaguaXingyi and Xingyibagua. Both arts were a fusion of the two with more emphasis on the art that is stated first in the name. A person had to decide which art he had more interest in and resonated in them more. Xingyibagua for the student more interested in Xingyi and BaguaXingyi for the student more interested in Pa Kua (Bagua).

Treating the story of Dong Hai Chuan and Guo Yunshen as allegory, however, reveals a common training protocol among xingyiquan and baguazhang practitioners. Often, because baguazhang requires significantly more time for a practitioner’s skill to mature, it is acceptable to learn xingyiquan first or simultaneously. Such a practitioner develops a tactical vocabulary that is more readily apparent than the core baguazhang movements.

The founder of Yiquan, Wang Xiangzhai studied under Guo Yunshen, and similarities in techniques between these arts can be seen. The primary standing postures of Yiquan trains separately what xingyiquan santishi (三體式) trains simultaneously.

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