In this series of posts (Part 1, Part 2) 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.
Beng Quan or Crushing Fist: An Introduction
The quintessential punch of Xingyiquan. Often translated as crushing, or smashing fist, it is the main punch of the system, and many have become famous for developing this to near divine-like levels. The mechanics are in line with excellent straight punching much as in the way that was seen in old school bare-knuckle boxing. The punch is often associated with the drawing of a bow and the launch of an arrow, or like an avalanche. I like to think of it like a battering ram meant to smash or crush anything in it’s path.
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.
CHAPTER TWO: CRASHING
The crashing technique (which corresponds to the element of wood) is a simultaneous extending and contracting, a principle of the fists coming and going, the posture like a continuous barrage of arrows. Within the body, it corresponds to the liver. Within the boxing art, it is the crashing technique. Thus it is said that crashing is like an arrow and corresponds to wood. If it is practiced smoothly, it makes your liver energy comfortable. If it is practiced with excessiveness, it wounds your liver energy. When the liver energy is wounded, the spleen and stomach are not in harmony. If this energy is not comfortable, the crossing technique will lose its harmoniousness. When this technique is done right, it can balance your energy and clear your liver, develop your spirit, invigorate your body, and strengthen your brain. Therefore you should make a careful study of it.
To begin, your hands in unison tightly grasp into fists with a screwing action. With your [left] forearm extended, your left elbow has a hidden energy of hanging down, your right elbow having an energy of pulling to the rear as well as an energy of hanging down. Your shoulders loosen. Your gaze goes forward to the middle knuckle of your left forefinger. Your left foot advances as far as it can as your right fist goes forward along your ribs like an arrow, going straight out about an inch over your left fist, which at the same time pulls back to be tight to your left ribs beside your solar plexus. Your right foot at the same time does a tight follow step to be about four or five inches behind your front foot. As they lift and drop into place, your fists work in unison. Regardless of which fist is in front, the height should be at solar plexus level.
To repeat the technique, your left foot again advances as far as it can. Your left foot is still forward and your right foot is still behind, closely following to be about four or five inches away. It is the same as the posture on the other side. Your left fist lifts and extends forward the same as your right fist did, your right fist drawing back the same as your left fist did, arriving at your right ribs beside your solar plexus. This posture has the intention of opposite sides criss-crossing [i.e. opposite hand and foot forward]. How many times you perform the technique depends on how far your environment will allow you to travel. But regardless of the distance, you should always finish with your right fist in front in order to turn around.
To turn, hook your left foot inward ninety degrees, as in the photo. First turn your right fist so the center of the fist is facing inward, then drill upward from your navel toward your mouth, again in the manner of propping up below your chin. In turning your body, your right leg lifts at the same time as your right fist so that the knee is about two inches away from the elbow, the tip of the foot putting its energy into lifting up pointing diagonally outward. Do not stretch the top of the foot. Your right hand at this moment performs as in the chopping technique, drilling out and coming to a halt. Your right foot advances as far as it can, coming down at a ninety-degree angle, your left hand lifting and dropping into place in unison with your right foot, your right hand at the same time drawing back to be level with your solar plexus, with both hands now open. It is again like the ripping intention in the chopping technique. Your left foot at the same time does a follow step, toes pointing toward the outside of your right ankle, heel raised about an inch. Your legs seem to have a scissors posture at the thighs. Your gaze again goes toward your forward hand, along the root of the thumb and the tip of the forefinger. This posture is called LEOPARD CLIMBS BACK DOWN THE TREE.
Then to go back the way you came, your right foot first takes a small step, same as in the chopping technique, your hands again grasp into fists, and your right foot advances at the same time as your left foot, same as before. Then you will again turn around the same as before. (See the photo for Section 1.)
To finish, get back to the place you started, again turn around with posture of LEOPARD CLIMBS BACK DOWN THE TREE. Then your right fist and left foot go out as before. Come to a halt. To then finish, first your right foot withdraws, not so far that withdrawing your left foot would require extra effort, the foot coming down still at a ninety-degree angle, then your left foot also withdraws to again make the scissored-thighs posture. With your hands both as fists, your left fist extends forward as your left foot steps back, your right hand pulling back until close to your solar plexus. Whenever there is a scissors shape to your thighs, your left knee is close against the inside bend of your right leg. There must be no gap between your thighs. They are firmly braced together, but this must be neither too forceful nor too slack. Your gaze is again to the middle knuckle of your forward forefinger, which is still extended at solar plexus level. Your shoulders and hips have an energy of drawing in, as before. Continue to “press” and “lift” as before. Sink and be stable in the posture for a moment, then rest.
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.
Section Four: CRASHING
The crashing technique is so simple that it cannot be divided into postures of starting and finishing, but its turning around is more complex than for the other techniques, and so its postures are divided into the actions of sending out and turning around. Its practice method involves the left leg being in front and the right foot following forward, hence it is also called LEFT-LEG CRASHING. See the diagram:
2. Sending Out
Your left foot first goes out,
then your right foot advances.
The ankle is next to your left heel,
and though your legs are bent, the posture stands proudly.
Your palms become fists
and your rear fist goes straight forward, the center of the fist facing to the left.
Your left fist forcefully pulls straight back
as your right fist goes vigorously forward.
Your hands switch places with ease
and your footwork is not in disorder.
3. Turning Around
Your left foot turns sideways to the right,
going along with the [rightward] turning of your body.
Your right foot lifts, turning sideways,
your right fist reaching out with the center of the fist facing upward.
Your left fist is wrapping in,
then your hands push and pull with equal force.
Your foot and hands finish in unison,
your palms turning to be facing downward.
Your rear palm is at your left ribs
and your front palm is at solar plexus level.
Footwork for turning around:
囬身 turning around 一組 1st time [along new line]
4. Closing Posture
The other techniques are concluded simply, but with the crashing technique, after the second time you turn around and strike out, your left hand then goes forward. Your right leg diagonally retreats a step, the foot coming down sideways, then your left leg retreats a large step. When your right foot comes, your hands stay as they are. When your left foot comes down, your right hand fiercely withdraws and your left hand forcefully goes out. This movement is called RETREAT, CROSSING [movement 3 of the Continuous Boxing set]. See the footwork 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 . 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.
The idea of “crashing” is of a mountain collapsing [as in a landslide or avalanche], a very fearsome dynamic which the personality of this technique resembles – hence the name. Points for attention:
Your right elbow must end up wrapped inward, same as in the chopping technique, so that the hollow of the elbow is almost facing upward. By manifesting a slight downward bend, all of your limbs will be kept from feeling stiff, a wonderful characteristic which is obtained through long practice. (See Chapter Six.)
The toes [of your front foot] aim straight forward. Your right foot may touch your left heel due to the vigor of the technique.
At the same time, your body must be erect. Your head is to be pressing upward and must not hang down. Your legs must be slightly bent. Use a shorter step than before.
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 crashing technique corresponds to the element of wood. But metal overcomes wood [as in an axe chopping], therefore the chopping technique defeats the crashing technique. The crashing technique is like an arrow, for it is direct and fast. Its energy is expressed from the liver. When your joints put forth effort, your liver will then be made comfortable. Therefore the crashing technique can nurture the liver. Practice method:
Use the chopping technique as the beginning posture.  Then both hands grasp into fists in unison. Your right hand goes straight forward with a level strike, tiger’s mouth facing up, and your left foot advances along with it. At the same time, your left fist goes along with [the action of] your hips and withdraws below your ribs, the center of the hand facing upward.
 Then make your left hand strike out as your right fist goes along with [the action of] your hips and withdraws. While both fists come and go, your left foot is always forward.
If you do it in this way, your shoulders and hips will be united with each other. There is no limit [as to how many repetitions] to practice, but do it continuously without pausing, advancing unceasingly. When you want to turn around, then regardless of which fist is forward, turn around to the right and make the dragon posture [explained at the beginning of the twelve animals section]. Because your left leg is in front, turning to the left is not convenient. This technique values directness and speed. It should be sudden and not slow in your hands and feet. It is like the Manual says: “When exiting and entering the cave [i.e. alternating punches – as right goes out (exits), left comes back (enters), and vice versa], tightly coordinate with the torso. The hands do not leave the torso [i.e. move independently of]. Hands and feet go out fast as wind. To the urgency is added more urgency. Knock him down, bewaring of being too slow.” Therefore it clearly values directness and speed. If it works superbly in application, then you have trained it for long a time and have come to know it in yourself.