What makes Xingyi’s Bengquan different to a normal straight punch?

 

human fist

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I got into a discussion about Bengquan, one of the 5 fists of Xingyiquan, a Chinese martial art I’ve written about before, recently, which prompted me to consider what really made a Bengquan different to a regular straight punch that you’d find in any number of other martial arts. I thought I’d just jot down a few of my ideas about it, because that forces me to organise my thoughts, but it has turned into quite a long post. So, apologies for that, but I’m going to post it anyway 😉

Xingyi is the oldest of the 3 big internal martial arts of China. Because it is so old and has gone through the hands of so many different practitioners and been secreted into several different secretive families, who often don’t teach outsiders, there are various different ways of doing Xingyi/Xinyi these days. They all employ different exercises and can look pretty different to each other, so it’s hard to talk generally about XingYi without somebody disagreeing with you. Still, all the different branches of the art remain one family, and you can talk about the art in general to some extent while still making sense. Which is what I’m going to attempt to do.

One thing to note is that historically Xingyi was developed as a barehand adaptation of military spear fighting methods. Ji Jike, (died 1662) also known as Ji Long Feng “God of spear”, was the oldest historically record practitioner. He was a soldier for the Ming Dynasty who found himself on the losing side and had to hand over his weapons and adapt to civilian life. He kept practicing his spear skill but adapted it for barehand work.

These days Xingyiquan is famous for having 5 fists. Each of these is a different kind of strike. Bengquan, “Crushing fist”, is one of the most famous of these fists. It’s representative of the Wood element, and consists of a very direct, forward strike, usually kept low, to the solar plexus or abdomen.

Xingyiquan has been featured in a few movies recently, and it’s its Bengquan that always gets the glory so you can consider it a kind of representative technique for the whole art.

In this scene from The Grandmaster a Xingyi master runs through the 5 fists, ending with Bengquan, then proceeds to fight Wing Chun master Yip Man, who is quite impressed with the Bengquan fist.

 

In the clip he then goes on to fight a second master who is doing a Shaolin art (my guess would be that it’s meant to represent Hung Gar) – it’s interesting to contrast the two styles (something I will be doing below).

What I would consider a good example of Bengquan outside of movies is this XingYi performer Yang Hai, originally from China, but now living and teaching in Canada:

I think most people I know who do XingYi, regardless of their particular style, would regard this performance “good”.

So, the question I want to answer here is what makes what he’s doing a Bengquan as opposed to a regular straight punch? In short, if you were just to punch forward in a straight line, with your body weight behind it, would it be a Bengquan?

Unsurprisingly, my answer is “no”, so let me explain.

Starting at the top of the body and working down, the first thing to look at is the arm movements. One arm is retracting in Bengquan as the other punches – that action utilises the whole body in a very relaxed way because it makes the spine rotate. Nothing is stiff. The arms are working together in harmony, the spine is rotating and the hips are also moving around it.

One hand coming back to the hip as the other strikes is also a feature of the Reverse Punch in Karate. So how is this different? Notice that in Bengquan the two fists cross over the top of each other, rather than being unconnected, and on different sides of the body. (Does the similarity point to a common ancestor? Possibly, back in the mists of time… it’s hard to say).

On a deeper level, the whole action of Bengquan is formed by the opening and closing of the body to move the arms. The section where the hands end up just in front of the body (meeting in the middle) is the ‘close’ part, the section where one hand punches out and the other retracts to the hip is the ‘open’ part. (A half-step Bengquan is where you punch on the close section as well).

The concept of opening and closing goes a bit outside the scope of this article, and involves the dantien usage and back bow, amongst other things, but I’ve talked about it before. You find this opening and closing action in Taijiquan, Baugazhang and other Chinese martial arts.

The question of why the arm retreats all the way to the hip in bengquan is also a good one. It doesn’t initially seem like something that particularly practical to do in a barehand combat situation. (Note different styles of Xingyi retract the arm to different degrees, too). However, I believe it’s there for a couple of reasons. Firstly, considering the spear origins of the art, the hip it’s a natural place to hold the butt of the spear, and where it naturally ends up when you retract after a spear thrust. Secondly, bringing the hand all the way back (an exaggerated movement) helps with the feeling of opening and closing. If you can do it big, then you can (over time) learn to do it small.

Note that if you are doing a Bengquan with a spear in your hands then your other hand cannot retract to the hip while thrusting with the spear (since you are holding the spear with two hands), but apart from this the action is identical to the barehand method. But after the thrust, you’d retract the spear back, so the hand was back at the hip again. So, doing Bengquan with a spear (correctly called Beng Qiang) is repeating the action on one side of the body over and over (until you swap sides), while doing it barehand, you are alternating sides of the body with each punch. Like this:

giphy

The next thing I’d look at is the footwork. in Bengquan you step as you punch. You don’t land your feet, then punch, or punch without stepping. The step is an integral part of the movement. It’s part of the opening and closing of the body and part of the technique. In Xingyi your feet should always be moving.

giphy1

Notice that his back foot stays connected to the floor for a comparatively long time for a stepping-in punch. He’s keeping that ground connection for a long, long time. His body and head are generally kept quite upright – he’s not lunging forward. All this is down to the type of footwork that XingYi uses, where the feet are kept under the body on a comparatively small base, as opposed to a wider stand where you have a longer base.

I believe that part of the purpose of this footwork is to aid a key feature that makes a Bengquan different to a regular straight punch – that is its ability to penetrate deeply into the target.

If you track the path of the fist in this example, it is on a slightly upward but mainly forward trajectory, like an arrow being shot from a bow. It goes right through the target in a straight line. It should be doing damage to anything it contacts on its trajectory, just like an arrow would, not aimed to land at a particular spot.

This feature marks Bengquan out as being different to a lot of punching methods that aim to land in one particular place in time and space. If you look at the path of a typical punch that is ‘swung’ at a target it is mainly swinging in an arc. So you’re timing it to land on the target as you drop your weight forward onto your front leg. That produces power, sure, but I wouldn’t call that a Bengquan as it’s not going through the target like you see in the Bengquan example above. Even if the force then goes through the pad or target, the punch itself doesn’t. To me a typical punch is about “landing on the target with your weight”, like a sledgehammer hitting something. Yes, that hurts and it’s effective, but it’s not what you should be doing in Bengquan. Done correctly it should displace a pad holder significantly. This is much easier to train on a person than a pad holder to be fair, as the contact of the fist on a pad is not the same as the contact of a fist on a body – the body is softer and crumples more as you impact, making it easier to get the right feel.

A key to look for in Xingyiquan, when its applied under pressure, is that the footwork doesn’t devolve into other methods, like say, falling into a long riding horse stance to help make up ground.

Xingyi is a collection of particular body methods (Shenfa)- once you start to lose one of them, the whole thing unravels, and you have… something else.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Trust me, I’m a Doctor

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The most recent episode of Trust Me, I’m a Doctor featured Tai Chi!

“Michael Mosley finds out whether t’ai chi can offer the same health benefits as vigorous exercise – without all the huffing and puffing. ”

They compare the same time spent doing Tai Chi to the time spent doing Zumba, which is far more vigorous. Is he really “doing Tai Chi”? Well, that’s up for debate, but the results are surprising.

If you get iPlayer then you can watch it at the link below:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b0bnbjlc/trust-me-im-a-doctor-series-8-episode-6

 

Natural structures in Tai Chi

I spent my lunch hour practicing Tai Chi with the leaves falling around me, which made me realise that Autumn is definitely here. Practicing under the trees also made me think about the strong parallel between the postures of Tai Chi and the structures of nature.

Take trees for example – the branches grow upwards and outwards:

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

If you look at the postures of a Tai Chi form you can see the same ‘outwards and upwards’ structures:

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Animals have the same quality too. The horns on a deer are a good example:

nature animal grass meadow

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

But the alert, ready posture of most animals (when they’re not sleeping) also mirrors this:

cat outdoors

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The spine is always extended, the eyes engaged and the posture directed upwards and outwards.

The following is a Yang Tai Chi form video. Notice that his body structure is always opening outwards and upwards:

So why do we do this in Tai Chi? Well, natural structures are inherently strong structures. Nature has been working on trees, plants and animals for millions of years, and they have evolved into strong shapes that can take a battering from the elements and survive. In terms of postural considerations of Tai Chi we are aiming to mimic natural structures to take advantage of their inherent strength. For example, with the arms, the elbow is usually kept below the wrist in Tai Chi, when the hand is going up and outwards, this enables your arm to create the same sort of shape as a tree branch that grows outwards and upwards.

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If you collapse the structure of your arms – say, close your joints like the elbows and shoulders too much, you don’t get this effect of mimicking natural structures. Instead, the structure needs to be supported by more muscle usage if it is going to withstand pressure.

Think also of stretching the ‘body suit’ of skin, fascia, tendons. If you bend the joints too sharply you lose the stretch from feet to toes. If you look at a picture of a fower, plant or tree, it looks kind of ‘stretched out’, doesn’t it?

selective focus photo of cherry blossom

Photo by Tim Gouw on Pexels.com

There’s a lot to learn from nature.

 

We all use Jin already, all the time

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Chang Man-Ching using the power of the ground to uproot an opponent.

I’ve talked a lot about the idea of Jin on this blog, usually in reference to using the power of the ground in martial technique. However, talking about Jin only in this context starts to create the impression that it’s a special skill that you may, or may never acquire.  A hidden secret, almost. It might be more grounding (no pun intended) to consider that we all already use some aspects of Jin in every day life.

Take a look at the following photos of people carrying things/other people:

two boys walking beside the grass

Photo by Dazzle Jam on Pexels.com

man in black overcoat and blue denim jeans kissing while carrying a woman in pink overcoat and knit cap on shore at daytime

Photo by Daria Shevtsova on Pexels.com

 

two women wearing traditional dress carrying basins

Photo by Jose Aragones on Pexels.com

 

beach careless carry clouds

Photo by Artem Bali on Pexels.com

 

The photos of people carrying weights on top of their heads provide perhaps the clearest example of what I’m talking about, but I wanted to include the other photos too, because the same principles apply.

In all cases, the human body has the ability to manage the extra weight applied to it in a constantly shifting environment of movement, without you toppling over. The weight being carried is being sent to the ground in all cases. If you hold a heavy weight out in front of you it is much more difficult, because you have to use your arm muscles in isolation, but if you can simply add the weight to your own body and let the force pass through your body to the ground then it’s a lot easier to carry, especially over long distances. Your body/mind will automatically manage these forces as you move using your subconscious. If it wasn’t doing it then you’d simply fall over as you moved because you wouldn’t be adapting to the subtle shifts of weight.

The point about the subconscious doing it is important because it means your conscious mind is free to do other things. For example, you can carry out a conversation while carrying a weight on your head and walking, rather than having to concentrate on it with 100% of your mental effort.

This ability of the subconscious mind to manage these forces is what we call Jin in Chinese Martial Arts. So, when somebody pushes on me, say in Taijiquan Push Hands, and I send that push to the ground I am using some sort of conscious control over a normally subconscious-mind ability.

That’s the skill you need to train. These Jin skills can range from the simple to the complex, but it’s all based on using an ability we already possess and use naturally, without even thinking about it.

The whole Chen Tai Chi curriculum, in video form

Well, this page is interesting. It’s from Chen Bing, a Chen family member who is based in Los Angeles, USA, and from the looks of things, and it looks like a video reference for the whole Chen style Taijiquan curriculum!

https://chenbing.org/videos

​Chen Bing Taiji Academy (陳炳太極院) was established by Master Chen Bing who is a 20th generation representative of Chen Family Taijiquan.   Its headquarter is located in Chenjiagou, Wenxian County, Henan Province, China. – the birth place of Taijiquan.  Master Chen Bing is a direct descendant of Chen Wangting (陳王廷), the creator of Taijiquan.

That’s very generous of him to share these videos. It’s fascinating. Things I’ve noticed so far:

  1. The advanced stepping and silk reeling he shows shares a lot of similarities with Bagua (the tea cups-style exercises of Bagua Zhang are obviously silk reeling exercises, so this should be no surprise, but it’s the first time I’ve seen a Chen guy walking a circle, like they do in Bagua).

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j8JBxWQz3bg

  2. The advanced push hands videos look a lot like ‘wrestling without being allowed to grab the legs’. Looks like good basic training in stand-up grappling:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gjiw-JAl9YI

  3. The ‘primary explosive power’ video combines all the basic ‘fa jing’ moves you find in the Chen ‘old frame’ form into a nice little sequence:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LqcFfZaYPYA

  4. There’s a Yoga sequence at the end! Obviously he finds that a useful addition to Tai Chi. More weight to the idea that the primary origins of the ideas of body movement in Tai Chi and Yoga originate from the same source (or at least are compatible).

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FXT67_vgncw

Interview series with Jarek Szymanski

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Jarek Szymanski’s website, China from Inside was one of the first and best resources on the web for the history and practice of Chinese Martial Arts, written by a European living and working inside China. It was particularly good for finding out how internal martial arts, like XinYi, XingYi, Bagua and Taijiquan were actually practiced in their native environement.

I remember reading his website back in the 1990s, and it’s still there!

Nick at Masters of the IMA has been working together with Jarek over the last few months on recording some of his experiences in China back in the 90s – how he came to end up living in China, his experiences investigating the history of various CMA, etc.

He’s posted the first parts of the interviews on his website, and it’s well worth a read. You can find out all about his experiences on Mount Wudang and Beijing, and get his opinions on how modern Chinese martial arts related to the older traditions, and how they differ. I really liked his insights into places like the Shaolin temple and Mount Wudang (see part 5) and how they’ve changed over the years compared to his visits there in the 90s.

It’s well worth a read.

Jarek Szymansk interview part 1

Jarek Szymansk interview part 2

Jarek Szymansk interview part 3

Jarek Szymansk interview part 4

Jarek Szymansk interview part 5

Jarek Szymansk interview part 6

Fun quote:

“When we got there, we saw some Shaolin monks (wuseng) giving performances not in a stadium, but just in an open space outside the temple. As far as I can tell they were demonstrating some forms and hard qigong, iron shirt (tie bu shan), etc. My Polish friend and I had great fun ‘testing out’ the iron shirt guy – when he invited members of the audience out to test his iron shirt, I don’t think he was expecting to be punched full force in the stomach by two 6-foot Polish guys (laughter). It was at that point that I realised so-called iron shirt is not that special, most demonstrations of iron shirt are just a combination of timed breathing and muscle contraction, similar to what I had practiced in my early karate years.”

Jin, by definition, requires intent

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My post called Don’t put power into the form, let it naturally arise from the form got a few nice reactions, so I wanted to write a follow up because as always in Tai Chi, today’s epiphany is tomorrow’s half truth.

In the last post I was talking about how, if you let the power of the movements naturally arise, it just works, as opposed to trying too hard to put power in them, which always leads to you screwing it up. But that doesn’t mean that if you just sink your weight and relax that your Tai Chi will become naturally powerful all on it’s own. If you want to send force outwards using Jin you need to be consciously aware you’re doing it.

I was reminded of this recently by a post by Robert Van Valkenburgh:

Jin, by definition, requires intent. If you don’t know you’re doing it, how can you be doing it?

As I explained in the last post, using Jin (ground-based force) as opposed to Li (muscle-based force) requires a relaxed body with the ability to sink the weight down to the ground, so it can rebound into the hands.

What I neglected to mention was that if you just sink the weight downwards, then that’s the direction it will go. It’s not going to magically just appear in the hands. So how do you get it there? The answer is, using the Yi.

The Yi is one of those hard-to-define Chinese terms we so often come across in Tai Chi. The most general ‘catch all’ translation you find is “intent”. But you can also think of it as “the mind directed to do something” or “the mind directed in a direction”.

So how do you get the force of the ground into the hands? By using the mind to direct it there. In fact, you want to direct it outwards and past your hands and into your opponent. I like to think of directing it from my foot (the part of me that is nearest to the ground) all the way to the horizon, through my hands, when I do an outward expressive movement, and down and in towards my foot when I do an inwards movement.

Don’t think of the path of power ( a Jin path) as going up the leg, through the torso and then down the arm and out – trapping the mind inside your body like that will not help the energy go outside it, which is what you want.

So, don’t worry about the path it takes, just ‘think’ in a straight line from your foot to your hand and out. The Jin path you create with your mind usually goes from your foot, through the air (at some point) and to your hands and in a straight line, since that’s the quickest route.

In the picture of Yang Cheng Fu below you can imagine that the Jin path goes from his back foot to this hand like this:

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Jin path

So when you run through the form, your mind needs to be creating these jin paths as you practice. As well as you doing everything I said in the last post – relaxing, sinking the chi and coordinating the body so all the separate parts arrive together. That’s the Tai Chi form in action.

Of course, that’s a tall order, and I’d suggest that beginners who are interested in this type of training pick a favourite move (a simple Push movement is a good one) and just practice it over and over, paying particular attention to mentally directing the path of forces in the body.

Without a teacher who can show you what it feels like it will be a bit like fumbling for something in the dark when you don’t know what it is or looks like. So get out there, try and get ‘hands on’ with a good teacher and you’ll get a better idea of what it feels like. If you find somebody who can do this then you can recognise it. It doesn’t feel like normal strength.

Ken Gullette, whose book I recently reviewed, has a good video that I hadn’t seen before which I think can give you a sense of what you’re looking for – the feeling of the ball under the water. That’s the main thing to focus on in this video.

Once you understand this concept then some of the lines in the Tai Chi classics will start to make more sense. Like, for example:

“The jin should be 
rooted in the feet, 
generated from the legs, 
controlled by the waist, and 
manifested through the fingers.”

“All movements are motivated by Yi, 
not external form.”

“6.) Use the mind instead of force. The T’ai Chi Ch’uan Classics say, “all of this means use yi and not li.” In practicing T’ai Chi Ch’uan the whole body relaxes. Don’t let one ounce of force remain in the blood vessels, bones, and ligaments to tie yourself up. Then you can be agile and able to change. You will be able to turn freely and easily. Doubting this, how can you increase your power?”

“The yi and ch’i must interchange agilely, 
then there is an excellence of roundness and smoothness.
This is called “the interplay of insubstantial and substantial.”

 

Don’t put power into the form, let it naturally arise from the form

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I don’t know if this is a famous quote from a master of old, or if it’s just something that Wayne Hansen thought of himself, but he uses it in his signature, and I was musing on this phase recently:

Don’t put power into the form let it naturally arise from the form

It’s such a great quote, because it’s absolutely true!

I was reviewing somebody’s form recently and the big thing I noticed was that they were trying to put power into the movements, rather than just accepting that the movements on their own are powerful, and don’t need anything extra to make them work. In fact, when you try and make Tai Chi movements powerful, it just messes them up, because you inevitably revert to tense, isolated muscle use, instead of a smooth flow of connected power, like a river.

(I think I should mention here that I’m not talking about the explosive bursts of power you typically see in Chen style forms. These are different. Instead, I’m talking about the general movements found in Tai Chi, typified by Yang style and it’s variations, which opt for a smooth form with an even pace throughout).

What that quote doesn’t do however is explain how it’s done. Tai Chi is full of these mysterious sayings, with very little explanation, so let’s break this one down and see where we get.

Fang song

Firstly, in Tai Chi we are frequently admonished to Fang Song or “relax” as we would say in English. We all instinctively know that a relaxed body can be a powerful body.  Think of how heavy a small child can make themselves if they don’t want to be picked up by going all floppy. Similarly, a baby’s grip is surprisingly powerful, but not tense.

Being too tense results in a kind of rigid and brittle strength. It’s strong, but it’s not deep. It tends to lie on the surface, like ice on a lake, but break through the surface and it’s nothing but water underneath. Relaxation can be more like thick sea ice all the way down.

But to be powerful a relaxed body needs to be a coordinated body. On a purely mechanical level that means moving so that the coordinated power of the body arrives at the right place at the right time. There’s no point punching with just the arm, but if you can coordinate your body so the legs, hips, torso, and arm are all working – arriving – together it creates a kind whole body power that doesn’t rely much on tension at all. But that’s still not the whole story.

That sinking feeling

This sort of whole body power on its own is not enough. The next stage is to get used to sinking into the movements. This sinking – dropping the weight of the body down into the ground through relaxing – paradoxically, enables power from the ground to come up into the hands. It generally moves in an upward and outwards manner, which is the Peng Jin that Tai Chi is famous for. All the movements of Tai Chi need to contain this Peng Jin.

I often read people who critique this method, thinking that “pushing from the legs” will just be too slow, but frankly, they just don’t know what they’re talking about 🙂

True, the legs are very much involved, but when you effectively sink – drop the weight down – it’s not a physical movement. It’s an internal movement. And the power of the ground arrives in your hands instantaneously, so there’s no delay. It’s not too slow to use.

Once you get used to doing this sinking you can feel it. It requires practice, probably daily practice to get it. But that’s why you do the form every day. Every day you are practicing movements where you drop the weight and put the power of the ground in your hands.

Remember, the movements themselves are powerful – you don’t need to add power in. Instead you need to learn to relax, coordinate and sink your ‘energy’.

Just look at that picture of Yang Cheng Fu above.

He’s got it.

 

 

 

Early morning class

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Photo by Spencer Selover on Pexels.com

There’s always that moment after we bow out.  After we shake hands. After the sparring where we’ve played at killing each other until one of us taps. After we’ve collapsed exhausted at the merciful interjection of the buzzer. When we’re letting the body catch up with itself. Stream rising and puddles of sweat appearing.  Hard stares into the blue vinyl, waiting for the breath to return.

I look around the emptying mats, still glistening with sweat. I see the people getting changed, leaving, ready to get on with their day.

But some remain. Now the work is done the defences can come down. The body relaxes and we can reflect. People get philosophical and start asking the big questions. Questions like, ‘Why do you do this?’

“I see it as a form of self defence,” says Mike. “I don’t want to miss a single class because I might miss that one technique that saves me in a real fight”. He goes on to talk about all the ways that self defence is important to him and how it could save his life. Or maybe the life of his wife and child. How it could be the most important thing he ever learns.

Mike looks at me, wordlessly, expecting me to contribute my own details and honorable reasons for studying the noble art for so long. For so many years. Pushing myself. Accumulating techniques and polishing them until they work under the worst sort of pressure. Finally earning a black belt, yet not stopping there. Still continuing.

I stand up and head to the changing room.

“I just like to fight”.

The ultimate guide to the guillotine choke

guillotine-choke

Just look at those two guys and tell me they aren’t having fun! Nothing says “macho martial artist” quite like standing on one leg and having a guys head wrapped under your armpit in a guillotine choke while he’s pulling your leg into his groin.

But seriously, I think every martial artist should know how to do a guillotine choke, not just grapplers. The power of the guillotine is that it’s a very versatile choke. You can do it standing, on the ground and in all the positions in between. It looks like a deceptively simple technique – you just wrap your arm around their neck and squeeze – but as you’ll discover, there’s a whole load of subtle variations, tricks and positional requirements you need to know about to make your guillotine effective.

Rob Biernacki has produced a series of video clips that form a great free online instructional on Grapplearts about how to perform this simple choke. Trust me, it’ll be a great use of 30 minutes of your life and it’s good enough for them to have charged for it, but they’ve kindly provided it for free.