Learning applications vs training for real skill

By Dr.Kenneth Fish.


          Dr. Kenneth Fish is from U.S.A., he had lived in Taiwan for about 15 years. In Taiwan, he had studied Chinese martial arts under a few famous masters include Zhang Junfeng. He has a deep understanding and practices of Chinese internal and external styles. With his permission, here is his article.


            In the 40 or so years that I have been doing CMA, I have seen many approaches to teaching and learning traditional Chinese martial arts. The more I see, the more I appreciate the very traditional manner in which I was taught.  Every highly skilled teacher I have had has taught the same way - and i believe with good reason.  My first teacher, Henry Leung, taught me his family style of proto Wing Chun.  I learned from him every night in the basement of his restaurant. The first month consisited of nothing but stance work and very basic hand movements.  Sifu Leung would correct me regularly throughout the night, but mostly it was solitary work to get stance strength w/ quality of strength (springy yet strong), alignment, and mechanics (song kua, center in the area below the groin, relaxed shoulders, hip and akle joints etc). Sifu Leung would only add a movement or a concept if he felt I demonstrated sufficient grasp of what he taught me up to that point. Progress was slow, methodical, and painful. Sometimes other new students would come, and soon be doing applications. I felt like I was missing out, and asked Sifu about it. He told me "never mind them. Don't pay it any attention. You do your work".  That was not terribly satisfying, but I did as he said. Later I realized that although the other students had learned lots of techniques, their skills existed from the shoulders on out - they did not have the foundation skills. Why did Sifu Leung teach them this way? Basically, he was giving them what they wanted (demanded in a sense). He, like most teachers, separated students (in his mind and teaching) into students and customers. The customers would come and go, and would not have either the intellectual capability or patience to do the real work. They would leave happy with what they got (basically a bag of tricks) and were not even aware that there was another world of depth and skill to be learned - the real art, the real kung fu.

            This process was repeated with most of my teachers. When I learned from Master Zhang Jun Feng and his wife Xu Baomei, it was the same. Master and Mrs. Zhang would have me training skill (liangong) while others were working on applications. Again, I would ask, and be told (generally in somewhat hushed tones) "just work on what you are doing. You can learn that any time. This is more important now".

            Others followed - Mrs. Zhu Suyi, taught me Tongbei, Xingyi and Bagua in the same way. My Shaolin teacher was equally strict and even more severe with his training methods. After the foundation work was in place with each teacher, I slowly learned the sensitivity, speed, footwork, body placement, and application work with each teacher.  Traditional instruction was rational, methodical, and progressive in nature.

            Today I see a lot of students and teachers who emphasize learning to fight from the start. I cannot count the number I have seen who have spent a year or two with a list of teachers, amassing forms and techniques, with very little in the way of real kung fu body mechanics and movements.  What is distressing to me is that this seems to have become the standard, and these teachers and students do not know what it is that they do not know.

           The problem is two fold - teachers with only a low level of understanding giving students what they ask for (essentially Kungfu flavored kickboxing) and students thinking that this is what it is about and demanding the same from their teachers. And so even really skilled teachers do as Sifu Leung and my other teachers did - give the students what they ask for (instead of what they need), and dividing the instruction up between students and "customers".

            Teaching kung fu is hard. It is not easy to find good students with the physical and mental attributes it takes to learn these complex, demanding skills, yet modern egalitarian culture tells us that anybody can become good at anything.  While I believe that although anyone can attain a degree of skill at any endeavor, there are some limiting factors - innate talent, the amount of work invested, and competent instruction.

            Contrast learning traditional Chinese martial arts with learning, say, ballet or piano. If a student were to complain, after a month or two of instruction, that they can't yet leap like Nureyev or improvise like Coltrane, they would be thought of as delusional. If the student slacked in practice, and complained that they were getting nowhere, there would be no question as to where the fault lay. Yet weekend martial arts students, or students who invest perhaps an hour a day in martial arts practice expect to reach levels of skill comparable to the teachers of generations past.  It simply cannot happen.

            I now, more than ever, teach like my teachers taught me. I concentrate on the important details of foundation skill with them, and we train them endlessly. Applications are shown as a way of letting the student know what the importance and applications of the skills they are working on are. Real fighting skill? After about 3 years of foundation work ( given the constraints of modern training time).  Time in practice is a determining factor - I put in about 5 hours a day when I lived in Taiwan (5:30 to 8:30 AM on most days, then some more in the afternoon, and at least an hour at night). If this seems unreasonable, how many hours a day do you think a ballet dancer or classical guitarist trains and practices?

            Excessive concentration on learning to fight in the formative stages of learning will, in my opinion, impede the acquisition of real skills. The student will only learn/reinforce what they already know or what comes most easily, and will eventually leave with nothing but techniques.

Explanation of Zhang Zhankui's Lineage

            Zhang Zhankui, another name is Zhang Zhaodong, was the founder of Xing Yi-Ba Gua Palm, which was very popular in Tianjin, even in Northern China also. He was born in 1858 and died on July, 1938(Chinese Lunar Calander). Xing Yi-Ba Gua Palm is a combination of Xing Yi and Ba Gua. It took the advantage of two styles. Many people think that Zhang Zhankui learned Ba Gua from Dong Haichuan, the founder of the Ba Gua. Actually, that is wrong.

            My grandfather was one of Zhang's students. When my grandfather was alive, he told me that Zhang just met Dong Haichuan in Beijing a few times, Dong did not teach him. His Ba Gua knowledge was from Cheng Tinghua, the founder of Cheng style Ba Gua. I was told this answer by many old masters when I was in China.

            The history is: Zhang Zhankui was born in 1865 in the county of Tianjin. He met Li Cunyi, one of the best Xing Yi masters, when he went to Tianjin to find a job at the age of 13. And Li Cunyi took him as a sworn brother and introduced him to his own teacher, Liu Qilan, the representative figure of Xing Yi school at that time. So from that time, Liu and Li helped Zhang Zhankui to master Xing Yi system.

            When he was 16 years old, he met Cheng Tinghua in Beijing. Cheng introduced him to Dong Haichuan. However, Dong was very old at that time, he could not teach anymore. And Zhang asked Cheng to teach him, Cheng refused him also. Dong died in one year after Cheng met him. Later on, a chance for Zhang Zhankui came. He helped Cheng Tinghua to get some property through court. So Cheng Tinghua began to teach him after that to return the favor.

            In China, there was a tradition. It was that a senior student could take students for his dead teacher if the students were qualified. So Cheng Tinghua took Zhang Zhankui as a student of Dong Haichuan, his teacher. And this is why Zhang Zhankui is one of the eight disciples of Dong Haichuan. But the history is, Dong Haichuan never taught anything to Zhang Zhankui.

            Cheng died in 1900, killed by German soldiers when eight countries invaded China. From that time, Zhang Zhankui began to develop his own style, the combination of Xing Yi and Ba Gua. This is how this style came to be.

            People take him as a student of Dong Haichuan, that is martial art tradition. But to the issue of lineage of knowledge, I still prefer to put him under the name of Cheng Tinghua, instead of Dong Haichuan.

            I would like to publish this part of history here. Because I worry that people will not know this part in the future. Some things are written in books do not have to be real, and some things are not written in books do not have to be wrong...

Fundamental practices of Cheng style Baguazhang

By James Coons.

            James Coons is from Guelph, Ontario, Canada. He has been practicing internal martial art from Mr.Hai Yang for years. For recent years, he focuses more on Cheng style Ba Gua and Hebei Xing Yi.


            Baguazhang (or Bagua) is an extremely wide area of study. It encompasses many different styles and substyles, while incorporating tastes from many different styles of Chinese Martial Arts.


            The origins of Bagua are lost in time, but the first person recorded as teaching the style publicly was Dong Haiquan. Dong was a travelling martial artist who is said to have met a wandering Daoist in the remote mountains of China (needs an exact mountain reference). It is also thought that Dong may have learned a Daoist "circle walking" meditation and incorporated other styles of Chinese Gong Fu into his practice, to create an art that contained practical applications, but also esoteric skill accumulation practices such as unique force expression and mental practice.


            The main practice of Bagua is to constantly walk in circles while changing directions and moving through the various shapes (palms) of the system. Bagua also contains other basic skills, linear routines, forms, application practice, and push hands.

            The first skills that are learned in Bagua are single movement drills which teach how to express the body's inner strength externally. These drills consist of basic palm strikes and kicks, which can also be used in practical self defense situations.


            These skills are very important in building "internal strength" and these skills remain important to practice even after mastery of the art.

            The palm strikes within the single movement drills teach many different skills such as (but not limited to) vertical and horizontal chopping force (up, down, and side to side), wrapping techniques (to close and open the body), and skills to coordinate the upper and lower body (giving the practitioner a special kind of whole body force).


            Simultaneously with learning basic palm strikes, kicking and walking in a straight line are introduced.


            There are eight basic kicking skills in Cheng style Bagua. The most important kicking skill is to kick forward at the groin or the throat level while pointing the toes of the foot. The other auxiliary kicking skills are mainly for stretching and gaining speed in the legs (as well as training specific techniques). It should be noted at this point that Bagua's leg skills are not limited to kicking. Another important leg skill is learning how to walk adroitly. First, the Bagua student will learn how to mud walk ("tang ni bu", or mud wading steps) on a straight line. Mud walking is a method of footwork that slides the front foot across the ground, while keeping 100% of the weight on the back foot. The steps interchange and if done correctly, the mud walking steps makes the practitioner appear as if they are skating on ice. Mud walking is the most important basic skill to achieve in Bagua, as it creates alignments in the body and flexibility in the legs which drive every technique.


            After learning to mudwalk on the straight line, the student will start the signature circle walking of Bagua. The practice is more subtle and refined than the name reveals. To successfully walk the circle, the practitioner must constantly be paying attention to the position of every part of his body.


            The legs must be bowed and brush each other during each step, the buttocks must be sitting down as if in a chair, the spine must be vertical and rounded, the head must reach up to the sky and the hips must be turned to the maximum into the center of the circle. There are many other requirements to circle walking, but those are the most basic ones.


            After learning the basic method of walking in a circle, some simple postures are added.

            These are known as the eight basic palms. They are the core of the early development phase in a Bagua player's practice and must be practiced even after the player has reached a good level of proficiency.


            The idea behind the basic postures is to train structure in the body and unified movement with an aim to starting to develop the whole body unified force of Bagua.

            The eight basic palms are listed as follows:

Fierce tiger descends from the mountain.
Big Roc spreads its wings
Lion opens its mouth
White Ape presents the fruit
Hold the moon to the bossom
Black bear stretches its arms
Point to the heavens and drill to the earth
Green dragon stretches its claws.


            Each different palm serves to teach a different vector of force and self defense application. In a future article I will talk about the different energies and applications of these postures.

            Each of the postures is trained like Zhan Zhuang (static postures increase connection in the body and mind), except that they are moving around the circle and changing directions. The holding of the postures increases strength, sensitivity, body awareness, and flexibility, among other things.


            Once these basic postures have been mastered the student can go on to learn the Eight Big Palms.


            These are a set of small combinations of movements that make up a larger routine.

            The eight big palms of Cheng style are:

Single palm change
Double palm change
Smooth body palm
Back body palm
Returning body palm
Rubbing body palm
Turning over body palm
Turning around body palm


            The eight big palms are the core practice of Cheng style Bagua. They teach not only a set of martial arts applications, but also a way of moving the body so that it becomes very fast and smooth. Each of the palms has many subtleties that need to be constantly drilled to be mastered. Each of the palms represents a different way of moving and issuing power.


            After sufficient mastery of the eight big palms, Bagua students can move on to the linking form. The linking form takes the movements of the eight big palms and puts them all together into one continuous, flowing routine. It is extremely beautiful to watch and contains many valuable tools for increasing proficiency in movement as well as martial ability.


            Other routines in Cheng style Baguazhang include the Swimming body palm routine, weapons (spear, deer horn knives, long sword, broad sword, judge pens and others), linear routine, and the sixty four palms.


            The sixty four palms are particularly important and represent the advanced training methods of Bagua. Each of the eight big palms is practiced, with seven additional palms for each one. All together this forms sixty four movements. The sixty four is a very powerful routine that focuses on clear expression of force (which is different than the eight big palms expression of soft force). This routine is the brainchild of Cheng Youxin, the son of the founder of Cheng style Bagua. It is an extremely important routine and is usually learned over a long period of time.


            While the student learns the various routines of Baguazhang, he will also be exposed to martial arts applications. There are applications for every movement contained in Bagua and students should learn different applications for every movement. The applications should include, striking, kicking, locking, and wrestling. Generally striking and kicking methods are introduced first and locking and wrestling methods are introduced later.


            Cheng style is extremely famous in bagua circles (no pun intended) for its wrestling methods. The wrestling uses Chinese wrestling as its base and adds the quality of smoothness that is achieved through proper bagua practice. Combined, these two skills can make for very good wrestling abilities.


      Cheng style Baguazhang has many wonderful benefits. It can improve combat abilities, while also making the body strong and flexible. Frequent practice can lead to feeling relaxed and confident in movements and actions. I believe that Bagua practice improves one's sense of general well being.


            Baguazhang of any style is a great exercise to put effort into and its benefits are myriad.


            Happy circle walking to you!

            James Coons

Hard force and soft force in Xing Yi

By Hai Yang


            Xing Yi is one of the most practical martial arts in China. It has been in a dominating position in the Chinese martial arts community for more than a century. Especially since the beginning of last century, Xing Yi was well-developed and tested in real combat. As a style, Xing Yi was even taught to military soldiers when Japan invaded China. For a period of time, other styles were called Martial Arts, but Xing Yi was called the 'National Art' since Xing Yi is very practical in combat.


            For many years, the traditional Xing Yi practice has not been well demonstrated in martial arts communities around the world, especially out of China. Since Xing Yi is one of the internal martial arts, many people believe that Xing Yi practice should be very soft, and without force. This is totally wrong. How could Xing Yi be a famous fighting style if the movements are so soft? Has anyone seen any soldier who can kill his enemy with soft movements?


            From studying martial art history, since Xing Yi was a style used in the army and bodyguards, it should not be very soft at all. Any martial art needs power to be effective whether it's an internal style or external style. Any misunderstanding or wrong concept has a certain reason behind it. So what is the reason for people thinking that Xing Yi' s practice should be soft?


            Before answering this question, we should know the relation between Xing Yi and Daoism.

            Xing Yi belongs to Daoist practice, so Daoist theory should be the guidance of this style. In Daoism, being soft is considered as higher level, it is the common belief to many people. However, what kind of softness is the right one?

            Actually, Daoism focuses more on balance between softness and hardness, rather than only softness. Please look at the Yin-Yang logo, it's all about balance. Just as softness and hardness should be kept in balance, so should martial art practitioners maintain the balance between softness and hardness. Emphasizing only softness at the expense of hardness is not the way of Daoism. Furthermore, in Daoism, real softness derives from hardness, and real hardness from softness. This implies that in order to have the soft force, hard force should be practiced first. The soft force that comes from the hard force practice will be the real soft force.


             The normal progression of Xing Yi practice is that students should practice with relaxed body manner and structure. In this way, the hard force will be developed over time. At this stage, there is no soft or hard force involved at all - it is just a beginning stage. The beginning stage will only develop the basic skills of a certain style, especially by removing bad habits which are against the principles of the style. It usually takes at least a year to finish this step.


            After students get the basic skills of Xing Yi movements, at the same time, their body will adapt in accordance with Xing Yi principles. Then, the next stage will begin from here: developing the hard force as much as possible. This is the crucial stage of the whole Xing Yi practice. Many Xing Yi practitioners stop their progression at this point or jump to the next stage too quickly. This is why eventually most Xing Yi practitioners are unable to develop force, or only get fake soft force, which may give them some false sense of security but which is useless in combat.


            Traditionally, there have been so many masters that emphasized this stage of practice that some masters such as Shang Yuxiang, even said that he would practice hard force 30 years more if he could live longer.


            Normally, this stage of developing true hard force takes about 5 to 10 years.


            The next stage is the proper time to develop the soft force. It will be a really soft force. However, please remember that the "soft" force is not soft at all - it is a kind of force that looks soft but is very powerful in application. It will take a much longer time to develop this stage. Many people confuse soft movements with soft force. They think that their movements are soft so their force must be soft force. It is simply wrong, because force is different from movement. Movement is only the vehicle of force.


            After the stage of developing soft force comes the time to develop refined soft force.


            From the experience of many masters in history, we can say that the second stage, which is the stage to develop the hard force, is the most important stage. Unfortunately, it is the stage most people ignore, failing to put enough time and effort into it.


            So what is the external appearance of the hard force? It should be powerful, crisp and strong. In Xing Yi, some people use "Thunder Sound" to describe the power.


            How to get this kind of force, or how to make our practice correct in the second stage?


            The foundation of the first stage is important, since the body should be ready to develop the force for the next step. Students should practice each single movement very carefully with concentration. Students should focus on not only the main movements, but also the coordination among other movements too. This is the most difficult part of practice, so the instructor should pay more attention to correct each mistake the students may make. Otherwise, many bad habits will happen from here, and they will be hard to correct in the future.


            Many people have not spent enough effort in this stage, because the concept of soft force is very appealing to many practitioners. In order to get the soft force, they stop practicing hard force too early. This is why they can never get soft force at all in the rest of the practice. Because we have known already that the real softness is from the real hardness, before achieving the real hardness, people should not seek any softness.


            In order to practice Xing Yi well, you have to know your stage of practice first, then think of where and how to make progress from this point.


            There is a very famous poem in Daoism: the dragon is from the fire and the tiger is from the water.

            Therefore, practice hard force as much as possible before you practice any soft force, then the real tiger will come out from the water.