On a recent Saturday afternoon, I was on a nice walk with my wife and daughter enjoying my time with family especially since my wife was not feeling well the day before. My daughter, she’s two, has an explorative sense since she’s seen so little of anything. She wants to see trees, dirt, leaves, bugs, trash, etc. Kids are naturally curious and remind us what a beginner’s mind is like when we understand what that means. Their natural tendency though is too learn quickly what proves useful for them and what wastes time. My insight from this is to keep things as simple as possible. Something I have often had as a lesson since, my tendency is to resort accumulating, something I’m constantly reminded of.
Forms training is the same way. It’s so easy to want to learn as many forms as possible. Just like anything else, we spend so much time trying to accumulate, telling ourselves that if we have just one more we’ll be happy. If I have one more form, I’ll have the ultimate secret to defeating every human on earth. It doesn’t work that way though, and when we examine historical figures in Chinese martial arts who have verifiable fight records to some degree, their training was simple, a few forms and a focus on fighting.
Looking at arts like xingyiquan and baguazhang, at their foundations they are simple to train, and if fighting is especially your goal it’s important to work a few forms and then apply the principles they teach to fighting application. The five elements from xingyiquan presents an excellent frame work to understand foundational striking and takedowns that can be arranged in an endless fashion and drilled until you can no longer move. The same is the case with baguazhang, where the founder (Dong Hai Chuan) would emphasize the circle walking, and then teach mostly two to three palm changes, that is single palm change, double palm change, and smooth palm change. Afterwards, it was reported, that Dong would just work on fighting techniques based on his experience and drawing on that of the student since he only taught experienced martial artists, for the most part.
When we understand that it is the simplicity of training gross movements that develops the best functional ability, we are able to focus our training the most on what actually works. I like to think of it in terms of jar with rocks where you take your big rocks like foundation striking, kicking, throws, and submissions that are high percentage practiced solo and with a partner. Then you have your medium sized rocks like conditioning drills, strength training, and power exercises; and then, you follow up with your cool forms that maybe tend to give your system the more stylistic aspect to it which would be your small rocks. If you fill your jar with small rocks first, or spend all the time to train on those cool forms, you lose out on the effective practices that are going to matter when the shit hits the fan.
Sun Lu Tang was a famous internal martial arts teacher in Northern China during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, he began training in several styles with a man surnamed Wu, largelys training Tan Tui, Hong Quan, and Ba Ji Quan. He also received training in combat techniques and Qing Gong or light body skills. From there he met Li Kui Yuan (李奎垣) training in Xingyiquan, and then the famous Guo Yun Shen (李奎垣) who was Li’s teacher. After that he studied Baguazhang for three years with Cheng Ting Hua (程延華) and then spent some time traveling. It wasn’t until the early Republic era, that he happened to meet Taijiquan master Hao Wei Zhen (郝為眞) while Hao was visiting Beijing and became ill. Sun hearing that he was a famous martial artist, although it was reported at the time he didn’t know it was taijiquan that Hao was a master of, took him into his home and nursed him back to health. In order to repay Sun’s hospitality, Hao taught him his taiji within a three month period before leaving Beijing.
According to Sun Jian Yun, Sun’s only daughter who spent her life teaching her father’s arts and passed away in 2003, states that her father would often train with Liu Bin’s group in Beijing. Liu was a fellow student, elder, of Cheng Ting Hua. Liu Xing Han told my teacher, Tim Cartmell, back in the early 1990’s of several stories of training with Liu Bin, and Sun coming around.
There is a common theme with Sun’s training and the amount of time he spent with each teacher. Cheng told Sun he no longer needed to train with him in the manner that he was after three years, of course people like to interpret that he was some superhuman martial arts genius, but I think since he spent a lot time studying xingyiquan, and other arts, he had strong understanding of how to use what he knew and no longer needed to consider himself as a beginner. However, you want to take this, it’s most likely Cheng felt that Sun had really learned all he truly needed to learn from him and it was no longer necessary to continue directly studying with him at the time. There are probably other details and events whether personal or on a grander scale that may have been at play, we’ll probably never know at this point. We know that Sun at some point synthesized what he learned into his ten forms, his Bagua Jian (sword), and a spear that was supposed to be a book that was stolen and lost.
When Sun studied taijiquan with Hao Weizhen, he did not spend long learning the material. It is most likely that as he spent time practicing the Hao style, his decades of previous training, especially xingyiquan, started to come through and at some point decided to continue modifying the form with more xingyi aspects such as a more lively follow step then seen in traditional Hao style taijiquan, as well movements drawn from xingyi’s animals. From baguazhang, the hook and swing steps tend to be clearly more defined in Sun’s form, and in Repulse the Monkey there is a clear aspect of the Single Palm Change within the movement that is not seen in any of the other five major styles.
The reason I bring Sun Lu Tang into this picture is to illustrate a frustration I have with the Chinese martial arts community, and one that I have had a discussion with other practitioners expressing similar frustrations, and that is the myth that there must be some secret form or family style that is the one true secret style, and they of course are the ones that have it and everyone else has the “public” version. I have heard this nonsense more often than I can count. It is so often repeated that I can see how some people would find it hard to believe that there isn’t some secret family form or whatever such nonsense. This comes about in a couple of ways, first everyone wants to be special, and all of us wants to be unique. The second aspect is that when it comes to Sun Lu Tang and comparing other branches of Baguazhang and Taijiquan specifically, it looks too simple. People cannot believe there are only ten forms on the circle, or one version of his taiji form. People think maybe there’s a super-secret sixty-four post-heaven form that is really going to transform my bagua into magic!
This really isn’t a secret, but the “secret” to learning a martial art and how to apply it, is to practice applying it. When people speak of secret forms, private forms, or family forms it makes me wonder if they’ve seen too many Shaw Brother’s movies. The secret family style is a great plot device in a martial art movie but makes little sense, especially nowadays. In fact, from what we know, the people who had to use the martial arts for their lives or livelihood were far more interested in training what worked and what worked quickly. This is why arts like xingyi, baji, chang quan, etc. tended to be taught to soldiers, guards, and even with fighters since you can learn how to use it in a relatively short period. There wasn’t as much thought to being a part of a certain sect or what not (although I will venture to say that I’m largely referring to the Northern part of China, especially Beijing, and definitely not referring to the Boxer Uprising). Secret forms, and private family styles were useless for these types of professionals. Now was there a difference between a public class and a closed door class? Probably, and there was undoubtedly a practical purpose to that back in the 19th and early 20th century, however, it’s not 1888 anymore. In this day and age, secret forms and private family styles are more useless now than they ever were, and at this point there’s no need to have such secrets if they do not even prove useful.
When going back to the example of Sun Lu Tang and his material, I can’t help but state that in no certain terms do I see any evidence that he had a private form versus public form. Sun, in his later years, didn’t think these arts were as useful for fighting in any case and felt it was better in the age of firearms to just get a gun to protect yourself. Initially, in the early Republic period, he spent time writing about the internal martial arts from more of a scholastic point of view incorporating Traditional Chinese Medicine and Philosophy into the Chinese martial arts (it just happened to be xingyiquan, baguazhang, and eventually taijiquan since those just happened to be the ones he mostly practiced). He did this to change the attitudes of both the literary class and strengthen the Chinese people against the rise of foreign imperialism. Many people have written about these huge historical events ad nauseum.
On a personal level I have often seen from many individuals that have interacted on the internet, especially Facebook, have stated that I only do the public forms, that I don’t know the true internal secrets, blah blah blah yadda yadda yadda. I have heard before, and this may not change your mind but I know one thing whether I practice the public version or the modified one, I can use what I know to varying levels of applicability and at that point it doesn’t matter whether you know the secrets or not because the secrets to me are usage, nothing more, nothing less. I’d like to leave with a quote from Chan (Zen) Master Yun Men admonishing monks to focus more on their practice and less on their accumulation of stuff:
“Having entered the Dharma Hall, the Master said:
“Even if a word, the very instant it is brought up, puts the thousand differences into a single groove and includes the minutest particles, it is still but an expression of salvational teaching. What then is a patch-robed monk supposed to say? If he discusses in here what the patriarchs and the Buddha meant, the Sixth Patriarch’s unique way will be leveled. But is there anyone who can put it right? If there is, come forward!”
At that time a monk asked, “Sesame flatcake.”
The monk went on: “What’s the connection?”
The Master said, “Exactly! What’s the connection?!”
The Master thereupon said, “Without having understood a thing, you ask about statements that transcend the buddhas and patriarchs the moment you hear people talk about the intent of the patriarchal teachers. What are you calling ‘buddha’ and what are you calling ‘patriarch’ when you speak about statements that transcend the buddhas and go beyond the patriarchs? And when you ask about the escape from the three realms (of sensuous desire, form, and formlessness): bring me these three realms! Is there [a perceptive faculty such as] seeing, hearing, feeling, or knowing to stop you? And what object of perception is agreeable to you? Do you come to terms with some [teaching] vessel?
“What can the sages do when you puff yourselves up [and say]: ‘My whole body is nothing but truth,’ and ‘All things exhibit the essence’? This is out of your reach. And when I say to you ‘Right now, is anything the matter?’ I have already buried you. If you really don’t have a clue, then for a time go into yourself and investigate thoroughly on your own: What, besides wearing a robe, eating, moving bowels and urinating, is the matter? What’s the use of giving rise to so many kinds of delusive thoughts without any reason?
“Again, there’s a bunch of people who casually gather in groups, manage to quote some sayings of the ancients, try to memorize them, evaluate them with their delusive thoughts, and say: ‘I have understood the Buddhist teaching!’ They busy themselves with nothing but discussions and while away their days following their whims. Then they come to feel that this does not suit their fancy; they travel through thousands of villages and myriads of hamlets and turn their backs on their parents as well as their teachers. You’re acting in just this way, you bunch of rowdies. What is this frantic pilgrimage you’re engaged in?”
And the Master chased them out with his staff.”