San Ti Shi: An Overview of Xingyi Quan Principles and Practices From Famous Practitioners Part 1


In this series of posts I will be posting the various teachings of Xingyi’s teachers and authors who wrote books during the Republican period where Xingyiquan saw some of it’s greatest growth, and probably should be considered it’s golden age since it was often taught at many of the institutes, used in many of the fighting competitions held around that time, and even taught to various soldiers prior to WWII.

Much of what we know about Xingyiquan comes from these various writers.  This is obviously not an exhaustive compendium on Xingyiquan, which is probably impossible considering that there are a great deal of practitioners worldwide who practice the art from various of lineages. However, it gives us an “as close to the source” of Farmer Li as we can get in this day and age, especially since most of this material was either handed down orally or through special texts passed down to those who were considered the lineage-bearers of the arts.  It’s highly likely that a great deal of those texts were lost to time, war, family members selling them, or just overall destruction.  Much of these books can be considered the Xingyiquan “Classics” which is a bit different when we talk about that regarding the Taijiquan Classics but can be important for our own future study. 

The most important aspect to remember, however, is that no text can make up for actual instruction and practice. It’s the action of practice that makes the movements work, that trains the body to understand how to move, and more importantly the knowledge of how to use it.  The founders and developers of Xingyiquan were not as enthralled with various philosophies and concepts unless it had something to offer in improving their ability to fight.  As firearms became more prominent, the necessity to focus the majority of development on fighting became less so.  Therefore, when you read the following texts keep in mind that much of the references to Chinese philosophy and traditional medicine were either added by the authors themselves, their teachers, or their associates/friends.

A huge thanks should be made to Paul Brennan of Brennan Translations since this is where I’ve decided to take these texts from.  The links to the full texts are provided in order for you to read yourself should you choose to.  Keep in mind that a couple of these texts – especially Sun Lutang’s works – have been translated by many and can be found for sale at places where you can buy books.

San Ti Shi or Three Bodied Posture: An Introduction

It is the foundational position that appears to be taught amongst all of Xingyiquan’s branches with some variations.  Every branch coming from Li Laoneng (Nengran) practices the posture. When it comes to Dai Style Xinyiquan, their focus is first on the Squatting Monkey Posture and Movement, however.

Santishi can be best translated as Three Bodied Posture, or sometimes it can be referred to as Sancai Shi which translates as Three Powers Postures referring to the “powers” of heaven, earth, and man.  The focus on the number three, a common theme in Chinese culture, is mainly on the three points of various points of positioning the body to maintain good structure and posture.  

It is not a fighting stance perse.  The idea is that you use the principles taught while holding the position in the various movements of the 5 Elements, the 12 Animals, and the linking sets. The various ideas of how to stand and it’s meanings will be displayed below. I will refrain from sharing my understanding and instruction on the matter for now since that’s not the direction I wanted to go with this series of posts.

Sun Lu Tang

Sun Lu Tang’s book Xing Yi Quan Xue 形意拳學 (A Study of Xing Yi Boxing) is probably one of the more well-known books from the early Republican era.  It is, as far as I know, the first published work on the art.  It contains some excellent pieces of information regarding Xingyi but it does contain references to Traditional Chinese Medicine that were intentionally added by Sun as a way to legitimize the martial arts in China to start the Physical Culture movement that gained strength in the Republican period as a way to strengthen the Chinese population.  It was also a means dissociating it with the people who commonly practiced the art, such as bodyguards, gangsters, and the like.  It was meant to make it look more like an art and less like a method of combat.

第四節 形意三體學

The “three substances” are the representations of the three materials of sky, ground, and mankind. Within the boxing art, they are the head, hands, and feet. The three substances also each separate into three sections. The waist is a root section (outwardly the waist, inwardly the elixir field). The spine is a middle section (outwardly the spine, inwardly the chest). The head is a twig section (outwardly the head, inwardly the Ni Wan area). The shoulder is a root section. The elbow is a middle section. The hand is a twig section. The hip is a root section. The knee is a middle section. The foot is a twig section. Each of the three sections has three sections within it. This principle thus merges with the Luo River Document’s count of nine.
     The Elixir Book says: “The Way: from emptiness arises a single energy, then from the single energy is generated the passive and active aspects, the passive and active then combine to make the three substances, and then from the three substances are all things born and raised.” This is the idea. And so it is said that nothingness and oneness are the root of sky and ground, the ancestor of the passive and active, the progenitor of all things, the “golden elixir”. It is also the internal power within Xingyi Boxing.
     Most people do not know what this internal power is and tend to look to the body’s shape or appearance to get some idea, or that it might be a case of an effort in the mind or a movement in the belly, and they go on like this in countless ways, but it is all just tossing out a brick in response to a call for a tile, confusing the false with what is true. Therefore one who practices the boxing is like a cow hair [very common] while one who has succeeded in the method is like a unicorn horn [extremely rare]. You must examine this deeply. Then when going through your practice, the myriad techniques all come out of the three-substance posture. This posture is the gateway to the method, the main tool in Xingyi Boxing.

Self portrait of Sun Lutang, demonstrating Xingyi Quan for one of his five books.

第五節 形意演習之要義

The essentials of practice in Xingyi Boxing: 1. Sink your waist. 2. Shrink your shoulders. 3. Hollow your chest. 4. Press. 5. Lift. 6. Horizontal and vertical should be clearly understood. 7. Lifting, drilling, dropping, and overturning should be clearly distinguished.
     “Sink your waist” means your tailbone lifting up and the active energy rising, which is the principle of the Du meridian [the “supervising” meridian].
     “Shrink your shoulders” means your shoulders have an energy of drawing in [same as the idea in Taiji of “sink your shoulders”].
     “Hollow your chest” means opening your chest [inwardly] to smooth the energy and the passive energy descending, which is the principle of the Ren meridian [the “serving” meridian].
     “Press” means your headtop pressing up, your tongue pressing up, and your hands pressing up.
     “Lift” means lifting your rectum inward.
     To move horizontally goes with lifting and to move vertically goes with dropping. Lifting goes with drilling and dropping goes with overturning. Lifting is drilling and dropping is overturning. Lifting is horizontal and dropping is vertical. Lifting is the beginning of the horizontal movement, then drilling is the finish of the horizontal movement. Dropping is the beginning of the vertical movement, then overturning is the finish of the vertical movement.
     Your head presses up during drilling, then shrinks back during overturning. Your hands lift during drilling, then drop during overturning. Your foot lifts during drilling, then drops during overturning. Your waist lifts during drilling, then drops during overturning. [from the Xingyi Boxing Classics:] “In lifting there is a horizontal aspect, but it is invisible [because it appears to be only upward]. In dropping there is a vertical aspect, but it is invisible [because it appears to be only forward].”
     Lifting is going out and dropping is striking, but when lifting is also striking, dropping is still striking. Strike with lifting and dropping, like the overturning waves of water, which are lifting and dropping. Regardless of lifting and dropping, drilling and overturning, going and coming, it should always be that your elbow does not leave your ribs and your hand does not veer off from your centerline.
     These are considered to be the essentials in Xingyi Boxing. Knowing these, the right path in the art will be obtained.

Li Cun Yi

Next to Sun Lu Tang, Li Cun Yi is probably one of the more well-known names in Xingyiquan. Many practitioners can trace their lineages to Li Cun Yi in some way since he was a renowned teacher and well-respected for his fighting ability.  The book this material comes from A Combined Volume: Five Elements Manual/Continuous Boxing Manual 五行連環拳譜合璧 which was written by a student who had the material dictated to him by Li, himself who was probably illiterate; Li was a student of Liu Qilan, and Li’s Xingyi is considered the quintessential of the Hebei methods.

第一章 總論

第一節 五行解
Section One: Explanation of the Five Elements

The five elements are metal, wood, water, fire, and earth. Internally there are five major organs and externally there are five senses. All of these things are paired with the five elements. The heart corresponds with fire. The spleen corresponds with earth. The liver corresponds with wood. The lungs corresponds with metal. The kidneys corresponds with water. This is the five elements hidden within. The eyes are connected to the liver, the nose is connected to the lungs, the tongue is connected to the heart, the ears are connected to the kidneys, and the Renzhong acupoint [between nose and upper lip] is connected to the spleen. This is the five elements functioning externally.
  The five elements have a method of generating each other: metal gives rise to water, water gives rise to wood, wood gives rise to fire, fire gives rise to earth, and earth gives rise to metal. There is also the method of how they control each other: metal overcomes wood, wood overcomes earth, earth overcomes water, water overcomes fire, and fire overcomes metal.
  The five elements concept first appeared in the Hong Fan [“flood model”] document [Book of Documents, document 32], which was then used by Han Dynasty scholars as a way to interpret the world. Later generations mocked the theory because they no longer understood it, however, but the principle of the elements generating and overcoming each other is never unworthy of study. The five elements are after all where these boxing techniques get their name. Make use of them to be solid internally and in good order externally. The method of them generating each other has to do with the solo practice. The concept of them controlling each other helps make sense of the partner practice. It is not necessary here to go more deeply into the ancient explanations.

第二節 五拳解
Section Two: Explanations for the Five Techniques

The five techniques are: crashing, drilling, chopping, blasting, and crossing. Crashing is like an arrow, and so it is associated with wood. Blasting is like a cannon, and so it is associated with fire. Crossing is like a springiness, and so it is associated with earth. Chopping is like an ax, and so it is associated with metal. Drilling is like an electric shock, and so it is associated with water.
  They generate each other in this way: crossing can generate chopping, chopping can generate drilling, drilling can generate crashing, crashing can generate blasting, and blasting can generate crossing, All things are born of the earth, therefore crossing can also generate all the other techniques. They overcome each other in this way: chopping can overcome crashing, crashing can overcome crossing, crossing can overcome drilling, drilling can overcome blasting, and blasting can overcome chopping.

第三節 四梢說
Section Three: Explanation of the Four Antennas

The body has blood, muscles, sinews, and bones. The endpoints of these tissues are called “antennas”. The antenna of the blood is the hair, the antenna of the muscles is the tongue, the antenna of the sinews is the nails, and the antenna of the bones is the teeth. When the four antennas express power, they can transform you into something unearthly, transmitting to the opponent that he should fear you.

一 血梢:
1. The Blood’s Antenna

Filled with a rage,
your hairs will stand on end.
With your blood clearly quickened,
the opponent will tremble in fear.
Even though hairs are so small,
they have no trouble in wrecking the opponent’s morale.

二 肉梢:
2. The Antenna of the Muscles

Curl your tongue upward and energy will descend,
and then even mountains will be shaken to pieces before you.
Your muscles will be hard as iron
and your spirit will be filled with courage.
With a single powerful action of your tongue [completing a potent energy circuit],
the opponent will lose heart and be scared to death.

三 筋梢:
3. The Antenna of the Sinews

With the might of a tiger and the fierceness of an eagle,
treat your nails as sharp weapons.
Your hands seize and your feet trample,
both with an energy of boldness.
No matter where you put your claws,
you will win.

四 骨梢:
4. The Antenna of the Bones

Courage lies in the bones
and expresses in the teeth.
The opponent’s flesh looks yummy,
says your glaring eyes.
Baring your teeth
will make him quite unnerved.

第四節 八字訣
Section Four: The Eight Terms

Beyond the four antennas, there are also the eight terms. Once you have settled into the boxing postures, you are ready for the eight terms. They are all a means of storing power and nurturing energy, keeping one who would fight against you from having a way to get started. They are special qualities of the Five Elements techniques. The eight terms are: 1. pressing, 2. covering, 3. roundness, 4. cruelty, 5. wrapping, 6. lowering, 7. bending, 8. straightening. Each of the eight is divided into three parts. All twenty-four of these items are explained individually below:

一 三頂
1. Three Pressings

[i] Your head presses upward with the brashness to pierce the sky.
[ii] Your hands press outward with the ability to push over a mountain.
[iii] Your tongue presses upward and thereby you have the power of a lion roaring as if to gulp down an elephant.

二 三扣
2. Three Coverings

[i] Your shoulders cover, and thus power reaches your elbows.
[ii] Your palms cover, and thus power reaches your hands.
[iii] Your fingers and toes cover, and thus power will fill your whole body.

三 三圓
3. Three Roundnesses

[i] With your spine rounded, power will urge your body.
[ii] With your chest rounded, your forearms will be filled with power.
[iii] With the tiger’s mouths rounded, bold fierceness will be outwardly shown.

四 三毒
4. Three Cruelties

[i] Your mind is cruel, like an angry fox seizing a rat.
[ii] Your eyes are cruel, like a hungry hawk spotting a rabbit.
[iii] Your hands are cruel, like a hungry tiger catching a sheep.

五 三抱
5. Three Wrappings

[i] Your elixir field wraps your energy so that it does not scatter away.
[ii] Courage wraps your body so that you will face changes in a situation unfazed.
[iii] Your elbows wrap your ribs so that you may attack and withdraw without falling into disorder.

六 三垂
6. Three Lowerings

[i] Energy lowers, thereby descending to the elixir field.
[ii] Your shoulders lower and thereby urge your elbows forward.
[iii] Your elbows lower and thereby give a natural roundness to your arms.

七 三曲
7. Three Bendings

[i] Your arms should be bent. Then power will be abundant.
[ii] Your legs should be bent. Then power will be collected.
[iii] Your wrists should be bent. Then power will be full.

八 三挺
8. Three Straightenings

[i] When your neck straightens, energy will course through to your headtop.
[ii] When your torso straightens, power will arrive at the four antennas.
[iii] When your knees straighten, your energy will be calm and your mind will be focused.

第二章 分論

第一節 開勢

The Five Elements techniques are to be performed with great precision. The body, shoulders, forearms, hands, fingers, thighs, feet, tongue, and tailbone are all involved. Each of these parts is described below:

一 身:
i. Body

If you lean forward or back,
the posture will have no power.
To lean to either side
is an error for the whole body.
Be upright but seem to be at an angle,
and be angled but seem to be upright.

二 肩:
ii. Shoulders

Your head wants to press upward,
but your shoulders have to hang down.
Your left shoulder twists in
and your right shoulder naturally goes along with it.
When the strength of your body reaches your hands,
your shoulders are where it is transmitted from.

三 肱:
iii. Forearms

Your left forearm is extended forward
and your right forearm is at your ribs.
[Your front arm] seems bent but not bent,
straight but not straight.
If too bent, it has no reach,
and if too straight, it has little power.

四 手:
iv. Hands

Your right hand is at your ribs
and your left hand is at solar plexus level.
Your rear hand slightly presses in
and your front hand strongly reaches out.
Both hands turn over to be facing downward,
and should do so with much power [equal force].

五 指:
v. Fingers

The fingers are all spread apart
and the shape is like a hook.
The tiger’s mouth is rounded and open,
and there seems to be hardness and yet softness.
Power has to reach the fingers,
but must not be forced to be there.

六 股:
vi. Thighs

Your left thigh is forward
and your right thigh supports behind.
[Your front leg] seems straight but not straight,
bent but not bent.
With one leg supporting while the other sticks out,
it always looks like a chicken.

七 足:
vii. Feet

Your left foot goes out pointing straight,
it being an error to have it turned out to the side.
Your right foot is pointing diagonally,
the front heel aligned with the rear ankle.
There is a distance of two feet between your feet,
and the toes are firmly covering.

八 舌:
viii. Tongue

The tongue is the antenna of the muscles
and is curled upward for energy to descend.
Your eyes will widen, your hairs will stand,
and your elixir field will be boosted.
Your muscles will be like iron
and your internal organs will be strengthened.

九 肛:
ix. Tailbone

Tuck in your tailbone
and then energy will course through to the four antennas.
Your legs will be rounded
and your buttocks will squeeze together.
If your tailbone is sticking out, the posture will be in disarray,
therefore it should be slightly tucked in.

Performing the techniques is not just a matter of the five techniques. The beginning posture is used with each of them and its functions are many. You should memorize these nine poems and then the practice will be natural.

Liu Wen Hua (Dian Chen)

Liu was the son of the famous Liu Qi Lan, teacher to Li Cun Yi, Zhang Zhao Dong, and Geng Ji Shan to name a few.  He is well-known for being extraordinary at Xingyi, and famous especially in the beginning where he practiced just Santishi for several years before moving onto the Five Elements.  In his book, Selected Subtleties of the Xingyi Boxing Art 形意拳術抉微, Liu Dian Chen (A.K.A Liu Wen Hua) describes very briefly the necessary requirements for maintaining Santishi.  There is a great deal more information prior to that section that should be read, but it is beyond the scope of this blog post.

第七章 樁法

The eyes look forward.
The torso is at a forty-five degree angle.
The front arm is at about a hundred and seventy degree angle [forearm in relation to upper arm].
The rear arm is at about a hundred and ten degree angle [forearm in relation to upper arm].
The legs are at about a hundred and fifty degree angle. [lower leg in relation to upper leg].
The front foot is straight.
The back foot is at a forty-five degree angle.
The front hand is at chest level.
The back hand is at navel level.
The shoulders are level.

Requirements During Standing:
The head presses up.
The neck is straight.
The shoulders hang.
Wrap the hips.
The forearms bind the elbows.
Lift the knees.
Tuck in the anus.
The centers of the hands are shrunk in.