PART I : Foundational Training Methods
The art of traditional Chinese Wushu (martial arts) appears to becoming rapidly delegated to the archives of China past. As Qigong (energy work) and contemporary wushu gain footing in the literally global collective fantasies of video games, movies, and comics, the identity of traditional wushu is often blurred to the point of extinction. Therefore, preservation of the traditional art is of dire necessity for its long term viability and survival. One possible strategy for preserving and strengthening the identity of traditional wushu is to make public its foundational training methods.
In this article, the bajiquan/piguazhang northern Chinese system from the Li Shuwen and Liu Yunqiao lineage is made public. This system was employed extensively in the training of the bodyguards of Chiang Kai-shek, Mao Zedong and the last emperor, Pu Yi.
Part I of this two-part series illustrates how basic horse stance training is elaborated into power development and fighting techniques. The importance of structural development is further highlighted. Contrary to popular belief, basic training is not simply holding a horse stance for lengthy periods of time. Variations and movements of this simple posture can develop conditioning, fighting techniques and power in a relatively short time.
THE CURRENT LANDSCAPE OF NORTHERN CHINESE MARTIAL ARTS
During a recent banquet marking the closing ceremony of a major northern Chinese wushu tournament, the host city's mayor declared that one of China's oldest and most precious gifts, wushu, was now significantly contributing to the growth and economic development of the region. This feat had been accomplished by incorporating and extensively marketing the art as part of the province's tourism package. And indeed, the tournament's schedule of events reflected this. Opening night presented a stage show which was broadcast on Spanish television and included an elaborate array of beautiful young Chinese women dressed in eloquent long-slitted silk dresses, a "grade A" stage band playing Western and Eastern pop hits, a multitude of wushu performances done to the beat of Spanish rock music, and superb solo song performances including the hit song from the movie Titanic. All of this was enveloped in an elaborate stage and light show, something never observed in the tournaments of North America. Chinese wushu was now being successfully modernized, commercialized, and exported to the world-at-large.
For a group of attending foreign traditional Chinese martial arts practitioners from the United States, this reinforced a deep growing concern that traditional wushu and its fundamental training was rapidly being relegated to the historical archives of China's past.
The modernizing trend was further witnessed during a visit to one of China's Shaolin Temples. Bus loads of tourists (primarily non-martial artists) applauded and squealed with outrageous delight as the twenty-year-old Shaolin "monks" performed typical qigong parlor tricks and gymnastic-like, overly exaggerated forms to the beat of contemporary Western rock music. To the uninitiated, this was a reaffirmation of the "authentic gongfu" they saw in Chinese martial arts films exported to the West.¹
An additional foreboding trend facing traditional wushu practitioners is the health emphasis placed on the art by those Westerners who see its natural path evolving from applied fighting principles toward a health generating and mystical way of life. In its most extreme form, "New Age" practitioners emphatically proclaim that this fighting orientation has outlived its historical usefulness and can therefore be safely discarded. Their interpretation of the traditional art is then often imbued with Daoist mysticism, Buddhism, and fabled mythology of Shaolin Temples.
Given these trends, traditional wushu appears to be losing its core identity, and serious questions with regard to its long-term viability must be addressed within the community of its practitioners. Traditional martial arts routines have been married to extensive gymnastic and acrobatic floor movements. There is no question that contemporary wushu players are highly skilled, but highly skilled in traditional training methods and power they are not. In fairness to the public, to the untrained eye, the traditional wushu demonstration often appears outright boring. It is like watching the difference between a bulldozer operating at a construction site and a Nascar race. While the Nascar race is exciting, it simply goes in circles. The bulldozer creates the foundation upon which many types of buildings may be constructed. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that traditional wushu will ever gain mass appeal in the population-at-large.
Alternatively, one possible strategy for the preservation and transmission of traditional wushu is to more clearly delineate its identity and separate its practice from that of contemporary wushu and the projected collective fantasies of pop culture. This will require that the most knowledgeable instructors of traditional wushu lay bare, in public, their "hidden secrets", in particular their basic training methods upon which their particular system is built. To continue to cloak basic training methods permits contemporary wushu to assert a claim of traditional authenticity - for there is no clear benchmark upon which a significant contrast can be made. It is therefore the purpose of this article to contribute to the survival and long-term viability of traditional wushu by illustrating and making public the "secret" and systematic fundamental training of the bajiquan/piguazhang system derived from the Li Shuwen and Liu Yunqiao linage.²
A BRIEF SKETCH OF THE LI SHUWEN & LIU YUNQIAO LINEAGE
The public dissemination of the bajiquan/piguazhang system has come about largely through the efforts of the late General Liu Yunqiao (b. February 8, 1909; d. January 21, 1992) of Taiwan and his formal students. During the 1970's, he founded the Wu Tang Martial Arts Development Center of Taiwan, and over three thousand students were instructed in many styles of traditional northern Chinese wushu. However, complete training in the bajiquan/piguazhang system was taught only to a limited number of disciples.
The written records of bajiquan's historical roots traces its founding back to about the 1600's, although oral traditions suggest that it may go back as far as the 1200's.³ The style, like most other systems, has its own base of fact and mythology. One of the bajiquan verses says that "to combine the fist and punching power of bajiquan with the palm and whipping power of piguazhang will create invincible heros whom the ghosts will fear". Finally, the style was incorporated in the training of the bodyguards of the last emperor, Pu Yi, Mao Zedong, and the presidential bodyguards of Chiang Kai-shek, the latter being taught by General Liu Yunqiao himself. Although there are many accounts of Liu's pre-revolution exploits as a secret service agent in the Chiang Kai-shek Government, it was his master, Li Shuwen, from whom the style took on its mythological proportions.
Li Shuwen (1864 - 1934) was also known as the "God of the Spear" and had a substantial number of formal students who also served as military leaders mainly in Shandong Province. Li was a notorious fighter and known primarily for his ruthless matches. According to oral tradition, almost everyone who challenged him ended up dead. His reputation was built upon his extreme striking power and his practice of telling opponents exactly what technique would be employed to bring about their demise. One of his favorite techniques was to use a collapsing palm on top of the acupuncture point of the head (baihui), resulting in the crushing and collapse of the opponent's spine and neck. To develop such power, "God of the Spear" Li is said to have intensely practiced one-arm thrusts with a large spear roughly twelve to sixteen feet long. Overall, he was a man to be feared. As a youth, even Liu feared the severity of Li's training methods.
Unfortunately, these exploits eventually brought about Li Shuwen's own downfall. At the request of others, one of his students murdered him by serving him poisoned tea. Luckily, Liu had a much friendlier disposition, although his training methods could be just as severe to neophyte martial artists.
BAJIQUAN : EIGHT EXTREMES BOXING
The meaning of bajiquan can be interpreted at a number of different levels. The most literal translation suggests the fist going in eight infinite directions. But the flavor of the system is best conveyed as the use of the whole body exploding from inside out, radiating power in all directions. The "Baji Sixteen Word Verse" describes its range of power and techniques as: entangling, pulling, poking, kneading, crushing, pressing, bursting, shaking, leaning, striking, etc. Modern categorizations often cite bajiquan as an "external" system or, in more generous moments, as an "external/internal" system. In both public and private instruction, Liu seldom, if ever, broke down the training of the system into such categories.
Bajiquan conceptually incorporates wuxing (five elements) and also employs energies (jing, or internal strengths) similar to those found in Chen taijiquan's older forms. In fact, baji, like Chen taiji, utilizes similar breathing and "standing post" exercises. Interestingly, Liu and the great taijiquan master, Chen Fake, were introduced to each other during their public demonstrations in 1928 at a Beijing military academy. Both were so impressed by the similar power of their respective systems that they met privately the following day and exchanged material and techniques. No one is certain as to the details of this exchange during the day, but Liu always held Chen taiji in very high esteem. When Liu opened his Wu Tang Martial Arts Development Center in Taiwan, he created routines on three levels which were abstracted from the original Chen style. His concern was that mainland China and Taiwan would never be united and few people, other than formal students would be willing to learn and practice the long forms. Thus, the abstracted versions were seen as a way of preserving the essentials of the style while simultaneously providing a means by which the general public could learn it. He considered Chen style taiji to be one of the most effective fighting arts and sent many of his disciples directly to master Du Yuze for instruction in the longer, more traditional forms.(4) Master Du had learned his system of Chen taiji from Chen Fake's father, Chen Yenxi, and was held in high respect by Liu.
PIGUAZHANG : SPLITTING / HANGING PALM
Bodily power development in some traditional wushu systems is often said to be derived from observing various animals in their natural habitat. In bajiquan, the bear and tiger are imitated. In piguazhang, the eagle and monkey are imitated. Mystical states aside, the primary purpose of the animal imitation is to acquire the same type of body movements so that the fighting techniques utilize the entire power of the body in a similar manner. For example, when a bear attacks and strikes with its paws, the waist and shoulders generate the power expressed in the outer extremities. From observing such body movements, the wushu practitioner attempts to distill training techniques which can be employed to similarly generate such power with their own body.
Basic training in the bajiquan system is very systematic and builds the practitioner from the ground up, emphasizing proper structure and postures. Training focuses on developing effective punching power through the involvement of the entire body using structural alignments centered on the head, shoulders, elbows, hands, tailbone, kua(5), knees, and feet (the "baji essentials"). The cornerstone of this process begins with the infamous ma bu, or horse stance training.
HORSE STANCE TRAINING : THE FOUNDATION
Almost every major traditional wushu system starts with horse stance training and most students grit and grimace as they try to hold the stance low and for hours on end. Many practitioners consider such training as "external". However, horse stance training in the baji/pigua system is much more complex. Many traditional martial arts practitioners in the past did not clearly differentiate training into external and internal and when properly explained, the baji horse stance training could be interpreted as "internal" as much as it is "external".(6)
It is critically important that horse stance training be carefully done, since it is representative of many of the structural postures found throughout the initial training phases of the system. Contrary to popular belief that northern systems employ wide, deep stances, baji employs a relatively deep horse stance but only about a fist beyond shoulder width. And also contrary to popular belief, the depth of the stance is not "as deep as you can go". The proper depth varies from individual to individual, and is primarily determined by body structure in the following manner (see figures 1-A and 1-B):
1) Start in upright position, very relaxed, with proper foot alignment, and the legs a little beyond shoulder width apart.
2) Sink, bending the knees to where the thigh/kua area, knee to ankle area, and the length of the space extending from the back hip area to the ground behind the heels, form an equilateral triangle.
3) Simultaneously raise and extend your arms up and outward to the point where the elbows are pointed towards the ground and a light hollowed fist is held in front (this should resemble the grip on a car's steering wheel without using force). You must be relaxed!
4) The feet point straight forward with the knees tilting slightly inward so that the kua area is rounded, and
5) The back is relatively straight.
Figures 1-A and 1-B
Should you be unable to sink to the proper depth, then you must practice slowly, and stay relaxed, until it becomes possible. This could take as little as one month or as long as two years: bodies and training schedules vary! It is also critical that the upper body remain relaxed while breathing is slow, deep, and continuous. Note that a hollow, relaxed, rounded fist is maintained. Rather than timimg yourself by a clock, it is much more effective to count and focus on deep breathing. Again contrary to popular opinion, if done properly, you seldom hold this posture beyond ten minutes and indeed, a properly held baji horse stance would be celebrated at the two minute mark.
The myth that one must hold this posture for months on end until one has earned the right of passage into the system is quite exaggerated. In the baji system one can almost immediately begin to work on a variation of movements employing this basic horse stance. This would also include some of the most basic fighting applications of the system.
One of the first variations in the horse stance training involves the development of full-body punching power from a relatively static posture, shifting from a horse to a bow stance. The practitioner starts in the horse stance described above, with only one arm extended forward while the other is placed at the side of the body. The elbow points downward and a relaxed hollow fist is held. At first, movement starts with the feet, which rotate into a bow stance while simultaneously the fist held at the side comes forward and the front hand is pulled back to the side. Then you return to a horse stance with the punching hand extended outward. The same movement is then done with the opposite side of the bow stance. The body from the feet to the waist twists, literally rolling the punching hand from the waist while the extended hand pulls back - the arm movements resemble a system of pulleys (see 2-A through 2-E). These movements are much more complex in effect than they look and are often misinterpreted as simple punching.
First, the "silk-reeling energy" (chan si jing) is developed through the feet, up through the waist and out through the arm. The arm punching forward is thrown by the twisting motion of the waist, feet, and legs. But, equally important is the withdrawing arm, pulling back with as much power as the one thrusting forward.
The entire body is held in a relaxed state until the punch is fully extended and the body set in a bow stance. At that time, for one split second, everything is tightened, as the fist makes contact with its imagined target, then relaxation immediately occurs.
Initially, this exercise is done slowly. Often the punch is held in the bow stance to check for correct alignment and can be held for a number of relaxed breathing counts. As the practitioner's foundation is further developed, the punches are speeded up, going from horse to right bow stance, right bow stance to horse stance, and horse to left bow stance.
Attaining the proper structural alignment in this relatively simple looking exercise is extremely critical, for it is incorporated within almost every moving posture and fighting application of the system. As part of his daily drills with Chiang Kai-shek's bodyguards, Grandmaster Liu insisted that they execute at least one-hundred of these punches in sets of two, one to each side. Liu continued this regimen on a daily basis well into his late seventies. However, these postures are only the beginning. The next step in the developmental process calls for more dynamic movement and more complex technique.
DEVELOPING DYNAMIC MOVEMENT
The first series, the moving one-punch, although simple in appearance, is relatively complex in terms of body mechanics. Initial training and development require that continuous movements be punctuated with transitional static postures. Transitional static postures require the practitioner to hold the one-punch posture with relaxed breathing and then move into the next one-punch posture, releasing the power in a split second. The practitioner must remain at the same height and acquire a relaxed flexibility while delivering the power.
A the first level, the aforementioned details are seldom taught; the student is simply told to practice and move in a relatively relaxed state. The body must initially expand and be kept loose as the student often tenses before delivering the power if he thinks about the static transitional posture. Movement starts in the horse stance with the upper body facing north with a relaxed extended left fist (3-A). The left foot is picked up and rotated to face west then the right foot is moved forward, almost brushing the right ankle (3-B). As the right foot moves forward, the right fist moves with it. The left fist is pulled back while the right simultaneously goes forward, much like a pulley system. When the right fist is thrust out, at the point of imagined impact, everything is tightened for one split second, then immediately relaxed and the posture ends in a horse stance with the right fist now forward (3-C). This repeats with the opposite side (3-D through 3-E).
The one-punch should have moved or slid about three to four feet. The movement resembles the side-to-side step of a crab. Done properly, the movements display a predominately relaxed, but powerful chan si jing expression. Traditionally, the student is asked to do about one hundred of these punches per day. They can be broken into sets of ten or twenty, but the last posture requires the horse stance to be held for a couple of relaxed breaths.
This training is carried over the practitioner's whole lifetime. As the student becomes more comfortable in the movements, further corrections in structural alignment are made. The eventual outcome is for the student to move continuously while keeping the relaxd structural alignment. If done properly, punching power is greatly increased because it now involves full body usage.
Another addition to this movement is the employment of stomping (duo bu) while keeping the height of the moving posture fixed but low. Bobbing up and down between punches simply dissipates power. Stomping helps teach the student to drop the weight of the body from the kua area. With deep relaxation, this stomp is done with the entire lower body and not simply the leg. Without relaxation, it is possible to severely damage the knee and/or hip area, especially if training on concrete floors. Beginning practitioners often force the stomp rather than letting the entire body control the force. Although a loud sound can be made, it lacks a deep resonance and often has a shallow, slapping-like tone to it.
A more subtle principle embodied in the movement is the development of two important energies: xujing and fajing. Xujing literally means "to store or save money". This requires that the stomach area (dantian) fold inward at a slant, with knees bent. Almost like a crouching tiger, the movement unfolds and expands into a short burst of power. Although basic to almost all baji movements, it is very difficult to master and requires consistent, supervised practice.
The moving one-punch (side-to-side) serves as a basic movement for many of the early training postures. Additional single moving postures are further incorporated in training, moving toward an eventual set of transitional linkages and basic forms. These basic forms include such postures as variations of the horse stance, white crane, etc. (4-A through 4-E, with "1" and "2" showing the postures from two different angles or sides).
THE GUARDIAN WARRIOR'S EIGHT POSTURES
Examples showing movements based on the body mechanics utilized in the one-punch are illustrated by the "Guardian Warrior's Eight Postures" (jin gang ba shi) (see links below). Technically, these eight sequences are not really thought of as a form, but are singularly executed and practiced in a linear fashion similar to xingyi's five elements. Each sequence is done for ten to fifteen movements before continuously moving onto the next sequence. These sequences can take anywhere from twenty to thirty minutes to perform, but close attention must be paid to the structural alignments. Too often beginning students race through these lines as quickly as possible and defeat the entire purpose of relaxed, focused training.
Jingang Ba Shi #1 #2 #3 #4
Jingang Ba Shi #5 #6 #7 #8
Additionally, each movement has a counter movement, so two-person fighting techniques are incorporated early in the training. Often, these methods have been used to train soldiers, however, this phase of baji and pigua training is only the start.
Eventually these postures and movements are linked together into a form referred to as Xiao Bajiquan Jia (small bajiquan routine). In the xiao baji form, structural training begins - low postures are held, while slow, deep relaxed breathing is executed. Furthermore, as the jings develop and the kua relaxes, the horse stance postures should naturally evolve into a half bow and half horse stance. This begins the initial descent into the depths of the bajiquan/piguazhang system. Other training aspects, such as the big spear (da qiang), piguazhang palm striking techniques, baji neigong-like training (harmonic methods), can be further intensified and may take on a different feel and bodily experience. If done properly, the student begins to taste and experience the power of baji/pigua system and progress can be made. However, the development is far from complete and the system's full flavor will not come to fruition until other conditioning and training methods have been incorporated. This usually takes many more years.
CONCLUSION OF PART I
The horse stance training is the first step of power generation in the baji/pigua system and usually takes nine to twelve months to implement and a lifetime to master. This initial training phase tends to emphasize external, expansive, loosening movements. However, it would be a misnomer to label this simply "external training". Internal jings are always being readied for development and expression. These training phases of "external" and "internal" can be understood in terms of the taiji symbol. At one phase, the external (yang) may predominate but not at the complete exclusion of the internal (yin). They are complementary and mutually dependent. Furthermore, up to this stage, there has been no direct focus on piguazhang training movements. In Part II, the training and conditioning further develop jings for effective delivery of power, with the boxer's desired goal being the ability to kill with one blow. This requires not only training in breathing and holding the static postures of xiao baji (about a three-year study), but also piguazhang's highly effective jing training.
In addition to the physical training, there is also a very simple dietary requirement employed in the baji/pigua system: consumption of meat, especially beef tendon! Why? Because fat found in meat, according to Liu, provides the "necessary oil to lubricate the joints and organs of the body". When Liu trained at this intense level, he consumed modest to small portions of pork and pork fat almost daily. One of his favorite dishes was pig's feet simmered in soy sauce, garlic, and green onions. This traditional martial arts system is not designed for the vegetarian "Shaolin monk" - without this dietary adaptation, the practitioner will never reach the higher levels of the system. They will lack the necessary strength and, in the extreme, damage their body.(7)
In concluding Part I, a clarification must be put forth. For those who measure progress in a system by the number of routines acquired, this initial phase is indeed very frustrating and at times maddening, for at this stage, it can be said that no routine has yet been taught. Nonetheless, the training and conditioning, the fighting techniques, and health generating properties of the system are well in place and provide the first of many treasures to be gained from the practice of bajiquan and piguazhang.
1 The primary author's experience of a recent visit to a Shaolin Temple was similar to that expressed in Henning's article (1998).
2 The idea of revealing fundamental training methods as a means of contrasting traditional wushu and contemporary wushu was significantly stimulated by an article by Adam Wallace (1998). In the article, the author began an extensive revelation of the fundamental training methods of Chen style taijiquan.
3 For the most complete and well-documented history of the bajiquan/piguazhang system, see Allen Chen's website JiFeng Martial Arts Club. Mr. James Guo, Allen Chen's teacher, is a former disciple of the late Grandmaster Liu Yunqiao and past secretary for the Wu Tang Martial Arts Association. He is also one of the most knowledgeable scholars regarding Chen style taijiquan.
4 From childhood on, Liu was well-versed in the art of Taizuquan (Emperor's Long Fist) which is said to be one of the forms from which Chen taiji is derived. While in Tianjin during the early 1940's, Liu had a very close relationship with Wang Shushen, a Zhaobao style taiji master. However, the details regarding what exchanged between the two were never revealed by Liu.
5 Kua refers to the inner/outer pelvic area of the hips. When doing the horse stance from the baji system, although the feet are parallel and pointed straight ahead, the knees are ever so slightly pushed inward and forward. This rounds the upper pelvic area and perhaps forces the mingmen (energy meridian at the back area) area to open from the tailbone up the spine. When this is done properly, the folds of the thigh and pelvic areas sink as a unit and you get a relaxed descension of the pelvic tailbone area. This folding is a necessary structural condition in order for power to effectively be generated from the feet and transferred to the waist and upper area.
6 See Henning (1997) for an elaboration of what the primary author considers a definitive assessment of "external" versus "internal".
7 Although this sounds rather extreme and contradicts the images of vegetarian Shaolin monks, it is nonetheless essential. One must keep in mind that the Chinese idea of a serving portion is much smaller than what is served in the West. Many martial artists have followed similar dietary prescriptions and maintained superior health. Liu himself, lived into his eighties and continued practicing well into his late seventies. The late Jou Tsung Hwa, founder of the Taiji Farm, interviewed the Wu style master, Wu Tunan, and was surprised to find that Wu consumed very little rice and vegetables and preferred meat. Wu Tunan lived to be 105-years-old. Of course, modifications can be made relative to the intensity of one's training and/or religious beliefs.
Chen, A. website JiFeng Martial Arts Club.
Henning, S. (1998). Reflections on a visit to the Shaolin Monastery. Journal of Asian Martial Arts, 7(1), 90-101.
Henning, S. (1997). Chinese Boxing: The internal versus external schools in the light of history and theory. Journal of Asian Martial Arts, 6(3), 10-19.
Wallace, A. (1998). Internal training: The foundation for Chen's taijiquan's fighting skills and health promotion. Journal of Asian Martial Arts, 7(1), 58-89.
Wong, J. (1992). A brief description of Chen style master Du Yuze. Journal of Asian Martial Arts, 1(1), 26-33.
Photographs taken by Mr. Andy Lianto of Indonesia. His comments and translations were very helpful in this article.
The primary author of this article wishes to sincerely thank Mr. James Guo for his guidance with regard to stimulating changes in the author's overall perspective on traditional northern Chinese wushu. However, Mr. Guo is not responsible for any of the interpretations, discussions and/or potential mistakes which may be present in this article. These are solely the responsibility of the primary author. The primary author also wishes to thank Mr. James Finley for his help in developing a deeper understanding of the power found in the bajiquan/piguazhang system and Dr. Ken Dunning for various discussions and layout suggestions.
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