Legend has it that Xing Yi Quan was originally created by Yue Fei, whom many consider to have been China’s best general. It is often conjectured in China that, if China’s emperor had not become jealous of Yue Fei’s military prowess and popularity, and ordered him to commit suicide, Yue Fei would have stopped the Mongol invasion dead in its tracks. The story is that Yue Fei invented two martial arts for his troops to use in battle. For his enlisted men, he created Eagel Kung Fu, and for his officers he invented the more powerful Xing Yi Quan, based upon spear technique, which accounts for the linear appearance of Xing Yi Quan movements.
There are many accounts concerning the history of Xing Yi Quan that are important to prospective students of the art in that they record the numerous Xing Yi Quan lineages. The closer the Xing Yi Quan teachings are to the original lineage material, the better they are for the student. Unlike practitioners of tai chi chuan and, to a lesser extent ba gua zhang, the stronger HXing Yi Quan people did not and still do not attempt to teach their methods purely for health. Unlike ba gua zhang, Xing Yi Quan is not beautiful to watch. Given Xing Yi Quan’s lack of aesthetics, its poor public relations concerning health benefits, and its strong no-frills martial orientation, it tends to attract a smaller number of adherents than other martial arts. No more than a skeletal history is provided here, one that focuses on the value of the art for practitioners going into the twenty-first century—that is, the value for health and healing, stress reduction, self-defense, and general balance in a breathless technological society.
After Yue Fei, the lineage moves through a variety of people. Usually one finds protracted stories about how the next heir is forced by the previous lineage holder to cultivate tremendous patience and resolve by undergoing severe hardships and tests of moral character. Only after the prospective lineage heir endured these tests would the current lineage holder agree to first give small parcels of knowledge and, eventually, the full teachings, allowing the heir to acquire the whole system of knowledge, and thereby the capacity to pass it on.
Modern Xing Yi Quan emerged from northwestern China in the nineteenth century. It began with an individual called Li Luo Neng (also known as Li Neng Ran), who successfully learned Xing Yi Quan not as a youth, but in middle age. Ultimately, Li persuaded his teacher Dai Long Bang to fully impart his knowledge by having Dai’s mother plead his case. Many of the earlier Xing Yi Quan martial artists were illiterate people whose whole education was in how to acquire internal power normally beyond the reach of the most educated class. Hsing-i people often ran convoy agencies, which, in the era before firearms, provided protection from assassination as well as physical security against bandits out to steal shipments of valuable goods.
Li Luo Neng is a mythic source figure with many students. From this source, three clear schools of practicing Xing Yi Quan evolved over time, the Shanxi Xing Yi Quan School, the Heibei Xing Yi Quan school, and the Yi Quan school.
The first being Shanxi Xing Yi Quan (orthodox) method from that same province. Although more rare, this method contains the most technique richness of the three. The Five Element Hsings have nuances that are not found in the other two families, and the Twelve Animal Hsings contain a great deal more movement and complexity.
The second family, Hebei Xing Yi Quann (modified), is by far the most wide spread of the three. The story commonly told of its origins are that a practitioner of the Shanxi Xing Yi Quan Method whom migrated to the capital city, then in HeBei province, and began to teach many people. The Five Element Hsings are more simplistic, as are the animals, lacking the nuance of the Shanxi Xing Yi Quan Method.
The third is the Henan Xing Yi Quan (synthetic) Method, developed and practiced almost exclusively by the Chinese Muslim community in China. This method is devoid of the Five Element Hsings entirely, and the Animal Hsings have been synthesized to simple one and two step patterns.
Regardless of the differences, Xing Yi Quan has enjoyed a reputation of a superior fighting discipline for more than 800 years.
Wu Hsing – The Five Elements of Xing Yi Quan
Wu Hsing can be called the Heart and Soul of Xing Yi Quan practice. These five seemingly simple actions are loaded with subtleties and require years of practice to perform them with total Mind/Body integration. Over the course of time they will teach the practitioner many things and can be directly related to many aspects of Five Element cosmology of traditional Chinese medicine. Pi Chuan (Metal) teaches the force of Splitting. Its power association is the axe. It corresponds to the Lung and Large Intestine meridians. Tsuan Chuan (Water) teaches the force of Drilling. Its power association is electricity. It corresponds to the Kidney and Urinary Bladder meridians. Peng Chuan (Wood) teaches the force of crushing. Its power association is the arrow. It corresponds to the Liver and Gall Bladder meridians. Pao Chuan (Fire) teaches the force of Pounding. Its power association is the cannon. It corresponds to the Heart, Small Intestine, Pericardium and San Jiao (triple warmer) meridians. Heng Chuan (Earth) teaches the force of Crossing. Its power association is the Bullet. It corresponds to the Spleen and Stomach meridians.
These are not just idle associations. They are meant as keys to unlock the doors of Xing Yi Quanpractice. For example, to understand how to practice Heng Chuan (Earth) properly; for technique, look to its force “Crossing”. This means to cross your opponents centre forcing him to open it so that you may enter.
For the method of practice, look first at its power association. What does a bullet do when it leaves a rifle barrel? What is its motion? It projects in a spiralling manner, does it not? So should your whole body and fist when you perform Heng Chuan. Look second at its element, Earth. What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the ground, earth? Words like solid, firm, consistent, come to mind. Could we not say as a general quality the at the “Earth’ is consistently solid? So should the general quality of Heng Chuan be when you perform it. Each element of the Wu Hsing is unique and different in this respect. Hence the attitude of practice is also different in each action.
Many people will ask why the meridian structures are associated with the Wu Hsing postures, and is this association simply a convenient tie-in to medicinal five-element theory? The answer is a definitive no! The postures themselves, if practiced correctly, harmoniously align the body’s meridian structures so that energy may flow uninhibited through the corresponding channels. There is also another deeper reason for this correspondence.
Just as massage can stimulate energy flow, so can motion. The firing of the muscle/nerve structures that are inherent in each postural change combined with precise mental focus unite to course the body energy through the associated meridians.
To be successful with this approach, one must realize that there are three stages to Xing Yi Quan practice. First, the Mind teaches the Body. This is the stage of learning new movements (Hsing). Your teacher shows you what to do, and your mind tries to grasp the concepts and relays commands to the Body to form the postures. Then, later, comes the second stage; you must completely relax all unnecessary “parts” of the Mind and Body and feel. In this way you will begin to slowly realize subtleties that your Mind missed during stage one. The Body is now teaching the mind. Patient, persevering and sensitive effort in stage two will eventually lead to stage three, a True Harmony of Mind and Body.