Wang Xiangzhai (1886-1963), also known as Nibao, Zhenghe or Yuseng (Monk of Universe) was one of the best students of Guo Yunshen (Kuo Yun Shen), famous master of xingyiquan (hsing i chuan). Probably only Wang Xiangzhai learned all the secrets of Guo Yunshen’s zhan zhuang exercises, which exercises became later the most characteristic element of Yi Quan.
In 1907 Wang left home, and looking after job, finally joined the army. At the beginning he was just a helper in th ekitchen. But when one of officers discovered how skilled he was in combat, he was appointed as a martial arts instructor. In 1913 he became famous for defeating Li Ruidong, founder of Li style taijiquan, who was instructor of the president’s guards. In the same year Wang became chief of Department of Unarmed Combat of Land Forces. He appointed as other instructors such famous masters from xingyi/bagua circle as: Sun Lutang (master of xingyiquan and Ba Gua Zhang, founder of Sun style Tai Chi Chuan), Shang Yunxiang (founder of Shanxi xingyiquan), Liu Wenhua (son of Liu Qilan, who together with Guo Yunshen was student of Li Luoneng).
In 1915 Wang defeated Zhou Ziyan, master of the praying mantis kung style, who then became Wang’s student.
In 1918, because of political changes, Department of Unarmed Combat of Land Army suspended working. Wang went to the South to search after greatest masters of martial arts. First he went to Shaolin Temple, where he learned xinyiba (a system related to xingyiquan) from monk Henglin (also known as Changlin or Xianglin – later Doshin So, founder of Shorinji Kempo, learned from the same monk). In Hubei province Wang learned from excentric master Jie Tiefu. In Fujian province he was again appointed as martial art instructor in this province’s army. At that time he met masters of southern white crane style – Fang Qiazhuang and Jin Shaofeng. Coming back north he met famous master of xinyi – Huang Muqiao, from whom he learned “health dance”. In Xian he met, famous for his quick kicks master Liu Peixian. He learned also baguazhang from Liu Fengchun and met taijiquan masters Yang Shaohou and Yang Chengfu. Those are only some of the masters from whom Wang learned or with whom he exchanged experiences.
About 1925, while teaching xingyiquan, Wang noticed that his students were putting too much attention to outer form, determined set of techniques, and too little to mental aspect. So he started using more widely zhan zhuang exercises and other training methods similiar to those presently used in Yi Quan / dachengquan, and less stress putting on practice of forms. He changed name of the system to yiquan, discarding the element xing (form). History of the new system started from this point. First student of Yi Quan in Beijing was Qi Zhidu. In Tianjin joined: Zhao Enqing (Zhao Daoxin – winner of free fighting tournament at Third All China Sports Competition; also famous for defeating Norway boxer Andersen, having uncomfortable slippers on his feet; founder of xinhuizhang version, based greatly on baguazhang), Gu Xiaochi, Ma Qichang, Deng Zhisong, Miao Chunyu, Zhang Zonghui, Zhang Entong (later, in 1950s he defeated Chinese heavy weight wrestling champion Zhang Kuiyuan, who after this started studying Yi Quan), Qiu Zhihe, Zhao Fengyao, Zhao Zuoyao.
In 1928, together with his student Zhao Enqing and xingyiquan master from Tianjin – Zhang Zhankui Wang went to Hangzhou, where he was referee at free fighting tournament at Third All China Sports Competition and also demonstrated training methods of Yi Quan. His student Zhao Enqing (later known as Zhao Daoxin) won the tournament. Then Wang was invited to Shanghai, where he founded Yi Quan Society. After Wang’s fight with boxing world champion, Hungarian Inge (later relation of this fight was published in London “Times”) Yi Quan became quite well known. Those who became Wang’s students in this period were: You Pengxi (founder of kong jin version; at older age emigrated to USA, where he taught in California and died in 1983), Gao Zhendong, Zhu Guolu, Zhu Guozhen, Bu Enfu (Chinese champion of boxing and shuai-jiao wrestling), Zhang Changxin (winner of boxing tournament in Shanghai), Zhang Changyi, brothers Han Xingqiao and Han Xingyuan, Wang Shuhe, Ma Jianzhao, Ning Dachun.
Han Xingqiao, Zhao Daoxin, Zhang Changxin and Gao Zhendong became famous in Shanghai as “four diamond warriors”. Wang wrote first Yi Quan treatise: “Correct path of Yi Quan”. At that time Wang Xiangzhai’s Yi Quan was already quite different from what was taught by other xingyiquan masters. Wang in his work criticizes some concepts popular in xingyiquan circles, but many of his ideas were still based on traditional concepts, which he gave up in later years. In some xingyiquan sources term “natural school” of xingyiquan is used regarding Wang’s teachings of Shanghai period.
One of Shanghai’s bankers proposed that Wang organized a team which would go for a world tournee to demonstrate power of chinese martial art. But soon political perturbances caused some problems and the banker gave up this idea. During stay in Shanghai Wang met Wu Yihui – master of liuhebafa, whom he described as one of the three greatest masters he met during his travels all over China (two other were Jie Tiefu and Fang Qiazhuang, mentioned already above).
In 1935 Wang Xiangzhai, together with his students Bu Enfu, Zhang Entong, Zhang Changxin and Han Xingqiao moved to Wang’s home prefecture Shen. There they concentrated on training and studies on martial art theory. Most training methods used presently in Yi Quan were developed and perfected at that time. It was proved that with these methods students were making much faster progress.
In 1937 Wang moved to Beijing. He taught Yi Quan and worked further on theory of the system. Hong Lianshun, master of xingyiquan and tantui was quite famous in Beijing at that time. When Hong heard about Wang’s incredible skill he came to challenge him. After being defeated Hong became Wang’s student and also his students he passed to Wang. Among them was Yao Zongxun (1917-1985), who later became Wang’s successor. Other Wang’s students from Beijing period were: Dou Shiming (who once with one punch defeated Gao Yanwang, general Fu Shuangying’s bodyguard), Dou Shicheng, Li Yongzong, Yang Demao, Zhang Zhong, Zhang Fu, Wang Binkui, Yang Shaoqing, Li Wentao, Li Jianyu, Wang Shichuan, Jiao Jingang, Ao Shuopeng, Ao Shuohong, Tong Guocao.
In 1939 Wang published in “Shibao” paper a text in which he invited all masters of martial arts to exchange experiences and ideas. The comers usually wanted to compare their skills with Wang. Wang had chosen four students who fought instead of him: Han Xingqiao, Hong Lianshun, Yao Zongxun and Zhou Ziyan. Only after defeating one of them the comer would fight with Wang, but no-one succeeded.
In 1940 in Tokio took place a big festival of martial arts in which also Chinese team participated. Some Chinese masters collaborating with Japanese went there. The chief of the team tried to persuade Wang Xiangzhai, whom he regarded as greatest master, to participate. Wang refused. But because during the festival, the Chinese talked a lot about Wang Xiangzhai, soon many Japanese started coming to Beijing to visit Wang. Many of them challenged Wang, and all were defeated. Many of them wanted become Wang’s students, but only one was accepted – it was Kenichi Sawai, who later created his version of Yi Quan, known in Japan as taiki-ken (Sawai was one of most famous masters of martial arts in Japan, he was consultant of Masutatsu Oyama, founder of kyokushin karate). Though Sawai was Wang’s student, usually he learned from Yao Zongxun.
In 1941 Wang presented his six best students with honorary names, in this way expressing his high opinion about their skills and abilities. Zhao Enqing received name Daoxin, Han Xingqiao – Daokuan, Bu Enfu – Daokui, Zhang Entong – Daode, Zhao Fengyao – Daohong. Yao Zongxun, though younger and learning Yi Quan for shorter time than other, showed incredible learning abilities and received name Jixiang, meaning that he was Wang Xiangzhai’s successor (ji – to continue, xiang – part of Wang Xiangzhai’s name). Wang also presented Yao a fan with calligraphy which is clear evidence that Yao was designed as Wang’s main successor.
Yao Zongxun proved his skill in many fights, often fighting instead of Wang Xiangzhai when someone challenged him. In 1940s he also many times fought with street gangs, numerous at that time in Beijing. In this way he got much experience in real combat.
Yi Quan was already a system completely separate from xingyiquan. Wang’s students suggested a new name: dachengquan (boxing of great fullness). Wang opposed, because the name suggested that it was perfect system, and he maintained that there was no limit for perfecting martial art. But because his resistance wasn’t strong enough, the name was used for a few years and by some is used till now. But most of Wang’s students after some time started using the name of yiquan again.
Wang wrote second work about his system’s theory: “Central axis of the way of fist”, which is also known as “Theory of dachengquan”. It was to some extent based on first book: “Correct path of Yi Quan”. But Wang gave up completely many traditional ideas. Training methods were based on different concepts. New methods enabled achieving the same or better results easier and in shorter time.
Wang at that time taught personally only his old students, directing all newcomers to Yao Zongxun. In middle 1940s Wang started putting more attention to health aspect of Yi Quan exercises. He taught personally the “health” group. Some of students of this group were: Chen Haiting, Qin Zhongsan, Yu Yongnian, Bu Yukun, Mi Jingke, Sun Wenqing, Zhang Yuheng, Qi Zhenglin and Wang Xiangzhai’s daughter – Wang Yufang. In 1947 this group, which practiced in Ancestors Temple (which presently is Working People’s Palace of Culture) had about 100 members. Many of them were able to cure some illnessess that couldn’t be cured in other way. Therapeutical efficiency and lack of side-effects of these exercises was later proved scientifically.
After 1949 the situation was not favourable for practicing Yi Quan as a combat art. Though in 1950 Wang was appointed as vice-president of wushu section of All-China Physical Culture Comittee, he soon gave it up. In next years he taught almost entirely the “health” version. The “health” group moved to Sun Yatsen’s Park and could practice freely. Yu Yongnian presented to authorities a report about therapeutical values of zhan zhuang exercises, which resulted in introducing this method in many hospitals all over China. Also Wang Xiangzhai was asked to teach in hospitals. In 1958 he was appointed in Beijing Chinese Medicine Research Institute. In 1961 he moved to Chinese Medicine Hospital in Baoding, Hebei province. Wang turned the “health” group to Yao Zongxun, who also taught “combat” version to some chosen students. In 1962 Wang participated in qigong conference, where he performed some exercises, which were met with great interest. He died on 12th July 1963 in Tianjin.
While the “health” version could be practiced freely, development of the “combat” system met many obstacles. It was practiced only in very small circles. The period of Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) was particularly difficult. Yao Zongxun with family was sent to work in the country. Even in this extremely unfavorable period he continued practicing and teaching his sons – twin brothers Yao Chengguang and Yao Chengrong. In late 1970s Yao came back to Beijing and in more favourable atmosphere started to propagate Yi Quan extensively. He also worked with scientists on adapting Yi Quan training methods for various sport disciplines. In 1984 he created Beijing Yi Quan Research Association, and became it’s first president.
Presently Yi Quan can freely develop in China and is gradually becoming one of most popular of chinese martial arts. Yao Zongxun’s sons – Yao Chengguang (president of Yiquan Association, taught in Hong Kong and Japan, has students in Poland) and Yao Chengrong (vice-president and vice-secretary of Yi Quan Association, together with brother taught in Hong Kong and Japan) are continuing work of developing and popularizing Yi Quan. In Beijing also other Yao Zongxun’s students are active: Bo Jiacong (head of board of control of Yi Quan Association, has students in Japan), Cui Ruibin (vice-president of Yiquan Association, taught in England and Sweden), Liu Pulei (member of board of Chinese Wushu Association, vice-president of Yiquan Association, has students in Malaysia).
Yi Quan is taught as an art of real combat, but competitions in tui shou (pushing hands) and san shou (free fighting) are being organized too. Apart from full system of Yi Quan, the “health” version is also very popular. Some of most famous experts of this version are: Yu Yongnian, Wang Yufang (Wang Xiangzhai’s daughter) and Sun Changyou (Yao Zongxun’s student).