Pi Quan: An Overview of Xingyi Quan Principles and Practices From Famous Practitioners Part 2

In this series of posts (Part 1), 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.

Pi Quan or Splitting Fist: An Introduction

This single movement pattern is probably the most important in all of Xingyiquan.  If you do not or cannot do Pi Quan, you cannot say that you do Xingyi.  It really is that essential.  

It is typically demonstrated as an open hand or palm strike to the untrained eye.  It is much more than that, however.  It is important to understand that none of the five “elements” (forces is probably a better term, or shapes which is what the Xing 形 in Wu Xing  means) are meant as direct applications or techniques.  Like the other labelled Internal Martial Arts of Taijiquan (Tai Chi Chuan) and Baguazhang, Xingyi is considered a principle and concept based martial art.  This means that the movements are meant to teach the principles of motion, posture (santishi), natural inherent strength (often referred to by Sun Lu Tang as “pre-birth”), intent, and overall body method.


When it comes to Pi Quan, the first movement I learned from Tim Cartmell (not the one pictured above) was a takedown or knockdown (kao die) technique.  It’s a sudden, fast, and aggressive movement that essentially you use to replace the space where your opponent’s body is with your own.  Tim Cartmell told me that this is the first same technique showed to him by Xu Hong Ji in 1984 before he passed.


Photo Courtesy of Pa Kua Chang Journal Volume 5, Number 4

As in the first part of this series, the point of this article is not to go in depth on my thoughts and understandings of what Pi Quan is, but to allow the practitioners who spent time really developing Xingyi during China’s Republican period.  This is how we can understand the arts on a deeper level, yet not be bogged down silly spiritualism or overly obsessed beliefs in certain philosophical concepts.  It is a martial art after all, and while there is definitely a great philosophy infused by the authors, they saw them as methods of fighting.

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.

第一章 形意勢拳學

The chopping technique (which corresponds to the element of metal) has an energy of lifting and dropping. In Section 4 above, the three substances generated all things. The three substances are always the union of the passive and active aspects, which are always up and down, inside and out, merging to be a single energy, and are therefore represented by the grand polarity. When the three substances are merged into one, its energy is that of stillness, but when the energy moves, it gives rise to things. That is called “crossing”, which corresponds to the element of earth, and earth gives rise to all things, for it embraces the four virtues [i.e. the other four elements]. When the five elements circulate, it is earth that gives rise to metal. Therefore begin by practicing the chopping technique. The chopping technique is a movement with an energy of lifting and dropping, up and down, and with an intention of chopping something. Therefore within the five elements, it corresponds to metal. Its shape is like a hatchet. Within the body, it corresponds to the lungs. Within the boxing art, it is the chopping technique. If it is practiced smoothly, your lung energy will be harmonious. If it is done in an exaggerated way, your lung energy will be contrary. A person uses energy for living. If the energy is harmonious, your body will be strong. If the energy is contrary, your body will be weak. If your body is weak, sickness will inevitably be generated, and your boxing skill will inevitably be hindered. Therefore you must work at this technique first of all.

第一節 劈拳
Section 1

To begin [from the three-substance posture], first your left hand goes straight down to the area of your “elixir field” or “energy sea” (more commonly thought of as the lower abdomen), then from your navel drills upward until by your mouth, as though to prop up your chin, then in unison with your left foot it goes forward, lifting and drilling. Grasped into a fist, with the center of the fist facing upward, it drills forward in unison with your left foot, going no higher than eye level and no lower than mouth level. While your left foot takes a small step forward, the distance depending on your height, it should only move your body forward in such a way that there is no extra effort, and thus it will be right. When it comes down, your left toes twist outward for the foot to be at a ninety degree angle with your rear foot, as in the photo. At this time, your crotch should open inwardly. Your right hand pulls [as a fist] along your right side to your right ribs, the center of the fist facing upward, staying close.

《形意拳學》 孫祿堂 (1915) - photo 6

《形意拳學》 孫祿堂 (1915) - photo 7

第二節 劈拳
Section 2

Then your right hand goes out in unison with your right foot, continuously turning over. Upon reaching your front hand, your right palm is facing downward, your right middle finger going out over the root knuckle of your left forefinger. Your hands slowly pull apart, your right hand pushing forward, left hand pulling back, hand and foot dropping in unison. It is again the same as the posture of three substances merged into one, spreading evenly through your front and rear limbs. Then advance, same as on the other side. In its lefts and rights, advancing and retreating, lifting and dropping, the posture moves along like an inchworm walking. In lifting, there is an intention of hoisting a heavy weight. Turn around after you have covered as much ground as space will allow.

《形意拳學》 孫祿堂 (1915) - photo 8

第三節 劈拳
Section 3

Regardless of the distance, turn around only after performing the posture on the left side.

《形意拳學》 孫祿堂 (1915) - photo 9

The idea in the turning is that of the sky rotating to the left. [If you watch Polaris for a while, you will observe the sky rotating counterclockwise, or “leftward”.] (Your body turns around to the right because the chopping technique corresponds to metal [fitting within this scheme of things: advancing = fire, retreating = water, going to the left = wood, going to the right = metal, staying in the center = earth], therefore the idea is of the sky rotating to the left.) [Turning to the right produces the effect of your surroundings orbiting around you to the left.]

第四節 劈拳
Section 4

When turning, your left hand and left foot twist inward together until your left foot becomes the rear foot, as in the photo, your left hand pulling back close to your left ribs beside your solar plexus. Your right fist and right foot turn around to the rear with your body, then the same as in the posture of the three substances merged into one, your left hand with your left foot lifts, drills, and overturns, going out the same as before. Practice the technique back and forth, your hands going out, lifting and dropping, the same on both sides. How many times you go back and forth in the exercise must be up to you, and has no limit. If there are many people, tens, hundreds, or even more, how many times they go back and forth in the exercise is always prepared with commands, so that the instruction can determine movements and haltings.

《形意拳學》 孫祿堂 (1915) - photo 10

第五節 劈拳
Section 5

To finish, return to the place you started, turn around, again rise into the starting position of the three-substance posture, except that your right foot should now do a follow step forward, though must not be too close to your front foot. Your mind settles and becomes stable. Lift your headtop and close your mouth, breathing through your nose, as before. Stay there for a moment, and then when you feel like it, rest. When you rest, keep your headtop lifted.

《形意拳學》 孫祿堂 (1915) - photo 11

An early master said: “When resting, your gaze must not lower nor your head look down. Instead you should slightly raise your head to be looking upward.” This is only because your gaze going upward reverses the passive aspect while your gaze going downward reverses the active aspect. Your gaze going upward will dispel the passive fire, and your head and eyes will be clear. Your gaze going downward reverses the active aspect, the passive fire will be crashed into, and consequently your eyes will grow red and your head will be dizzy. This is the meaning. It is also said that to touch your tongue to your upper palate will cause saliva to be generated, which should then be swallowed down to your belly, and this will keep your throat from becoming dry. Conscientiously remember to do it in this way from this point on.

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.

第二節 劈拳
Section Two: CHOPPING

一 路線
1. Footwork

What makes Xingyi different from other boxing arts is that when the front foot advances, the rear foot will follow. When performing a technique, your front foot should quickly advance. You will thus be so nimble and agile that you will always be able to win. When advancing, your rear foot should fiercely follow. Thereby energy will urge your body on and nothing will be able to stand against you, and this is not only true for the chopping technique. The footwork of chopping is to make three steps with each performance of the technique: 1. your front foot advances, 2. your rear foot advances, 3. the foot that first advanced now follows. See the diagram:

開勢 beginning posture
一組 1st time 二組 2nd time 三組 3rd time
一 1st step 二 2nd step 三 3rd step

二 起勢
2. Starting

Your hands grasp tightly into fists,
both with the center of the fist facing upward.
Your fists go out from by your mouth,
rotated so that the little finger is upward.
[Your left fist] goes no higher than shoulder level,
the strength in your left shoulder.
Your rear fist goes out following [your front fist],
the elbow placed in front of your chest.
Your gaze is level, your tongue curled upward,
and energy sinks to your elixir field.

三 落勢
3. Finishing

Your front foot steps out first
and your rear foot advances a large step.
Your feet and hands finish in unison,
one hand pushing out, the other pulling in, both moving quickly.
Your rear foot is at an angle,
but your front is again straight.
[Your front hand] is at solar plexus level, fingers spread,
and your rear hand is near your ribs.
Your feet, hands, and nose
are arranged into a vertical alignment.

四 回身勢
4. Turning Around

From your right hand being forward, turn around to the left. (If your left hand was in front, you would turn around to the right.) Your front foot becomes the rear foot and your rear foot becomes the front foot. Then process is as before: 1. the front foot advances, 2. the rear foot advances, 3. the new rear foot follows. See the diagram:

Li Jian Qiu

Li was a student of Li Cun Yi, as well as his father Li Yun Shan. Li Yun Shan was a student of Li Kui Yuan (Sun Lu Tang’s original Xingyi teacher) and Li Cun Yi. The author, in his book The Art of Xingyi Boxing, writes in his preface:

The Xingyi boxing art in Hebei began with Li, and when he died, its transmission continued. Beyond Liu Qilan of Boling, it was taught by Guo Yushen, Che Yonghong [Yizhai], Song Shirong, Bai Xiyuan, etc, all who obtained the essentials of Xingyi. Liu Qilan taught all of his sons – Jintang, Dianchen, and Rongtang – as well as Li Cunyi, Zhou Mingtai, Zhang Zhankui, Zhao Zhenbiao, and Geng Jishan [Chengxin]. Guo Yunshen taught Liu Yongqi and Li Kuiyuan. Li Cunyi taught Shang Yunxiang and Hao Enguang, as well as his own son, Lintang. Zhang Zhankui taught Han Muxia, Wang Junchen, Liu Jinqing, Liu Chaohai, and Li Cunfu, as well as his own son, Yuanzhai. Li Kuiyuan taught Sun Lutang, my granduncle, Li Wenbao, and my father, Li Yunshan, both of whom also learned from Li Cunyi and Zhou Mingtai. I received it because it was handed down in my family.
Recalling my youth, I was very ill, and both Chinese and foreign doctors had no method of curing me, so I focused on practicing the Xingyi boxing art. Not only did I recover from my illness, I became quite robust. That Xingyi is therefore of great use is without doubt, and I am preoccupied with sharing it with everyone.
In 1912, Liu Dianchen, Li Cunyi, Zhang Zhankui, Han Muxia, and Wang Junchen launched the Warriors’ Association in Tianjin and then the Esteeming-the-Martial Society in Beijing. Later, Sun Lutang wrote A Study of Xingyi Boxing [1915]. It still seems to me that the spread of this art is confined to the north, and that Sun Lutang’s writings have not yet spread very far, and so I, despite my ignorance and shallow level of ability, have endeavored to make this book.

第一節 劈拳

The technique known as “chopping” goes downward with the palm like the chopping of an axe.
     When practicing it, your eyes look level or to your front hand, your head presses up, your chest opens, your lower abdomen rouses its energy, your buttocks tuck in, your knees slightly bend, and your thighs squeeze toward each other. Your foot advances along with the urging forward of your hand, advancing like an arrow, straight and fast, and when it touches down, it is like an arrow hitting a target. The toes clamp down over the ground solidly and are not easily pulled up. The size of the step depends on your height.
     Although your front leg has an intention of advancing, it maintains an intention of covering the rear. Although your rear leg does not stand in front, it has a strong intention of hastening forward. Forward and rear squeeze toward each other to be that much more stable. As for the other parts of your body, they constantly exert forward as described.
     When the hand withdraws, it exerts to bend into a fist, the fingers seeming to be pulling something heavy, and gathers in until reaching your solar plexus, the palm now changed to a fist. It then lingers a moment before issuing from your solar plexus. When the hand pulls back, changing from palm to fist, it contains a downward pushing strength, and when your fist extends forward, it contains an upward propping strength. The reason for this is that when the palm is forward, its position is slightly higher than your solar plexus.
     When you advance a large step, your rear foot comes forward a small step, causing the distance between the feet to remain consistent, preventing feelings of instability. During the chopping technique, when the step comes out along with the hand, it always involves a small step. The hands and feet go along with each other, moving in unison. For the remaining four, this is left undescribed.

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.


The chopping technique corresponds to the element of metal. Its intention is to have a sharp edge. Its energy is expressed from the lungs. When your sinews put forth effort, your lungs will then be made comfortable. Therefore the chopping technique can nurture the lungs. Practice method:
      [1] Your right hand becomes a fist, center of the fist facing upward, and goes from in front of your solar plexus, drilling out upward to nose level, arm bent to an angle of a hundred and ten degrees. Your left hand drills out from over your right hand, then releases into a palm and comes down with the arm bent to an angle of a hundred and seventy degrees while your left foot advances, your right hand withdrawing to be below your ribs at navel level but not going behind your hip. Your front hand is at solar plexus level.

[2] Your left hand then drills upward and your right hand performs as your left hand has done [in the previous photo].

Your head presses up and your lower jaw disappears [pulls back as a result of the head pressing up]. With a forward exertion, your feet grab the ground and your hands seem to be grabbing something. Your four limbs use strength evenly, making a “four-level” posture. The tiger’s mouths of your hands make semicircles. Your four limbs slightly inflate [meaning they seem to spread out by way of bending in every joint]. Your hands come and go in front of your solar plexus area and their movement goes through the area to keep it protected. Your elbows protect your ribs. Your eyes look straight ahead. Your mouth must be slightly closed and your tongue touches the upper palate, keeping your primordial energy from dissipating and your mouth from drying. Your teeth are closed together. Your shoulders hang and so the energy goes down. Your torso does not lean forward or back, or lean to either side. Go straight out and straight in. When your hands move, your feet follow. The movement cycles endlessly. In this boxing technique, within hardness there is softness and within softness there is hardness. If you work at it for a long time, you will be successful, but it will not be easy.

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