Master Li Gui Chang, was born in 1914 in Shanxi Province. He died in at the age of 86. Master Li began his study of martial arts at a young age learning Chang Quan, Yue Style Eight Overturning Hands and weapons. When he was 13, he started to study Xing Yi Quan and thee Shaolin Five Elements Soft Art with Dong Xiu Sheng.
Dong Xiu Sheng was a practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine and spent most of his life traveling in Northern China studying martial arts and treating patients. He was a Xing Yi student of Liu Wen Hua, the son of Liu Qi Lan. Liu Qi Lan was one of the most famous disciples of Li Neng Ran, the creator of Xing Yi Quan. Dong also studied Ba Gua with Sun Lu Tang and Geng Ji Shan, who were themselves students of Chen Ting Hua. Dong Xiu Sheng was an well-known and influential practitioner of Xing Yi and authored several books on the subject.
Li Gui Chang characterized his teacher’s expression of Xing Yi Quan as, overcoming firmness with gentleness, rather then relying on firm strength. Master Li felt that Xing Yi could have different expressions, firmness within softness or softness within firmness, and that these stylistic differences were based on an individual’s previous martial arts background, temperament and physical build. Because Li Gui Chang and Dong Xiu Sheng were both small men, they learned to apply their art with less firmness and more gentleness and subtlety.
Master Li studied Xing Yi and Ba Gua with Dong from 1927 until 1936. Dong Xiu Sheng died in 1938 at the age of 58. Later Li also studied Yang style Tai Ji Quan with Liu Dong Han. During his lifetime, Master Li held the position of vice president of the Shan Xi Xing Yi Quan Association and president of the Tai Ji Push Hands Association. Master Li also felt that Tai Ji and Xing Yi share many of the same principles and advocated training in both arts.
His mastery of pushing hands (tui shou) was profound. One of his students described his ability in tui shou as follows:
In pushing hands he seldom issued power. He utilized the whole body skills of sticking, adhering, connecting, and following. When Mr. Li pushed hands with people, he seized the opponent’s power path. He would stick as the enemy retreated; expanding and contracting, coming and going. He followed everywhere. Sometimes sticking, sometimes walking, sometimes hard sometimes soft, he was never stuck nor obstructed. Sticking and yielding whenever appropriate, one could not see the actions of his hands. 1
My own experience in seeing Master Li push hands, was that it looked like magic. The slightest movement of his hands would send the opponent bouncing backward, usually laughing because thy could not tell how he did it.
When my long-term friend and training partner Martin LaPlatney and I began to train with Master Li in Taiyuan in 1995, he was already advanced in years. He had us learn from his disciples, but oversaw our training and came by several times to make comments and suggestions. I was always impressed by Master Li’s open and honest manner and his ready smile. When he demonstrated, his form was perfect, the lines clean and the expression of power subtle, yet palpable. In the words of one of his students: He trained in Xing Yi Quan until he was peerless. His internal power was simple and clean. 2
Ultimately Master Li told us to study with his disciple Song Zhi Yong, as he felt Song most clearly represented his expression of Xing Yi. After Master Li’s passing, Song graciously hosted us several times in Taiyuan and took on the responsibility of teaching us.
Before meeting with Li Gui Chang, Song Zhi Yong had studied Xing Yi with several different teachers. He had only seen expressions of Xing Yi that were firm and powerful. Mr. Song told us that because Li Gui Chang was advanced in age, he thought he be able to push him easily, but instead was himself thrown down quite effortlessly by Master Li. Song said Li was soft and relaxed, able to throw him down without seeming to do anything. Although he was young and strong, when he pushed hands with Li Gui Chang, he could not find a point against which to his strength. Mr. Song’s early training with Li Gui Chang consisted of practicing san ti shi (the trinity posture) and pi quan (splitting fist) for three years while he looked inside for the jin (energy; strength).
Today Song Zhi Yong manifests a profound skill in Xing Yi Quan and push hands. His movements are soft yet powerful. His body seems to melt away from attacks and then without warning he is inside your defenses. In training, Song’s emphasizes connecting with the internal strength (jin) through the practice of San Ti Shi and Tu Na Si Ba Nei Gong (Four Method Breathing Internal Exercise). He is a generous, but exacting teacher. Recently I practiced with his students in Taiyuan’s riverside park for two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon. The emphasis of those four hours was on holding san ti shi and pi quan. His many students, young and old, train seriously and are warm and generous.
In July 2009, Song Zhi Yong accepted an invitation to be a Senior Advisor of Xing Yi Quan to New York Internal Arts (NYIA). We hope to offer events with Mr. Song in the future and to help him spread Li Gui Chang’s expression of Xing Yi Quan.
1. The Teachings of Li Guichang. From Xingyi Quan Jiaocheng, by Shen Huazhang, translated by Joseph Crandall. Pinole, CA: Smiling Tiger Martial Arts 2006. Li Guichang
2. The Teachings of Li Guichang. From Xingyi Quan Jiaocheng, by Shen Huazhang, translated by Joseph Crandall.