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My Apprenticeship with Li Gui Chang by Mao Ming Chun

Originally posted online in Chinese, this is an English translation of an essay by Mao Ming Chun, one the disciples of Xing Yi Master Li Gui Chang. In this excerpt, Mao talks about his apprenticeship with Master Li, training in Xing Yi Quan, the importance of San Ti Shi and the nature of internal training. A rare treat!
Translated by Huang Guo-Qi
To read the original article in Chinese:


I studied with Master Li for ten years in total, beginning in 1989, but I knew my master long before. In 1973, when I studied martial arts with Master Yin Lian Zhi at the sports school of Northern Suburbs District, Taiyuan, as one of the top students, I met Master Li at a tournament. At that time, with his short and tidy black beard, in his black Chinese tunic suit, and wearing old-fashioned round glasses, he sat in the middle of referee seats, working as a head referee. Master Li was always serious in his demeanor, conveying a unique feeling. I was told his skill was quite outstanding.

In one tournament, because the spear I used was big and long, I did not get high scores. After the competition, Master Li asked me: “Who taught you? Why did you use such as heavy spear?” I told him that Master Ying taught me and that this was the spear I normally trained with. Master Li looked at the spear, deep in thought, saying: “It is not easy to learn the spear, just with strength. Look, your spear is so heavy. You are quite young, but powerful! In training the spear, you have to know how to borrow the strength from the spear shaft. Hey! You do not understand, even I when tell you.” He shook his head and walked away.

At that time, I did not know what it meant to “borrow the strength from the spear” – how does one borrow strength? This puzzle stayed in my mind until I studied with Master Li. When the examinations for university admission were restored in 1977, I was enrolled into the sports school of Shanxi University because of my outstanding scores. I systematically studied the theory of Chinese martial arts, Tai Ji Quan, Shaolin Quan, Ba Gua Zhang, Whip Stick, and life preservation skill with Prof. Chen Sheng Fu. In 1982, I was enrolled as a postgraduate candidate of Prof. Chen Sheng Fu through examinations. During my post-graduate programs, I met with Master Li quite often. Prof. Chen encouraged us to meet and study with the famous masters of Chinese martial arts in Shanxi province. The first martial artist I studied with was Master Li. At that time, Master Li lived in the dormitory of Taiyuan Sports Committee in Xinglin district, not a big room. Because I carried the banner of Prof. Chen Sheng Fu, he treated me very warmly. His wife offered me a cup of sugar water. At that time I did not understand proper etiquette and sat down asking him directly about his master’s instruction and his disciples. Master Li dealt with me in an off-hand manner: “I have not taught students for a long time. Now, I am not healthy. You see I have to lie down to rest, just saying these words. You should go back, I do not have anything for you.”

I mentioned this to Prof. Chen, after I returned to the school. Prof. Chen said: “You do not understand these martial artists folk. Many of them are strange in their temperament. If you want to understand them, you must have a modest attitude to learn from them, really a modest attitude.” Afterwards, again I went to ask Master Li modestly for advice about the issues on Xing Yi Quan and Tai Ji Quan. He gradually started to explain and enlighten me. Seeing that I had a foundation and an inquiring mind, he asked me: “If I teach you, will Prof. Chen oppose?” I said: “Prof. Chen is very open-minded, telling us to search out teachers and make friends everywhere. If I study with you, Prof. Chen will be surely happy.” Master Li said: “That is good. I will mention it to Prof. Chen, when I meet him.”

When Master Li organized a training course for Xing Yi Quan at the swimming pool of Shanxi University in 1989, I had more opportunities to meet with him. I went to the swimming pool and saw lots of people standing in San Ti. Previously I had also trained San Ti and did not truly feel and understand it. Upon seeing I was standing in San Ti incorrectly , Master Li stood up and showed me his San Ti posture, which was outstanding. Skinny as he was, Master Li suddenly transformed into a different person: His head was slightly guided upward, with the body trunk straightened, like a upright old pine tree, but with the whole body as soft and gentle as water and a particularly bright and shining expression in his eyes. I was really shocked. A school brother standing aside said to me: “Master Li thinks highly of you. He never shows his San Ti like this to anybody.” I was deeply moved, and expressed my intention to learn Xing Yi Quan systematically. Master Li then said: “Come and train if you have time,” and presented me with his photo, his name and signature on its back. This showed he was willing to accept me. From then on, I went to Master Li’s home to study, when I had time.

In 1992, at his 80th birthday party, lots of martial artists and enthusiasts came from various cities of the province cerebrating his birthday. Master Li himself arranged for Prof. Chen and me to sit with him in the same table. At the table, Master Li asked Prof. Chen: “Can I continue to train your disciple?” Prof. Chen was very glad to hear this, saying: “It is our duty to build up his talent. You are a martial artist. I am very relieved, if you train him.” Then, Prof. Chen said to me: “Look! Mao Ming Chun. You are really lucky now. The master is looking for a disciple. You must painstakingly learn, and make your talents known in the field of sports. You must not let Master Li become disappointed.” At that moment, I immediately poured glasses of liquor for the two masters, in order to pay my respect to them. Master Li said immediately to everyone at the table: “From now on, he is my disciple, and I ask all of you to offer you help to him.” Then, I took a photo together with Master Li and his wife.

In 1993, Mr. Li Rong Chun from Shanxi University suggested that we organize the Taiyuan Tui Shou (Pushing Hands) Association. Master Li agreed with his suggestion and told me to contact a large number of Tui Shou enthusiasts in Taiyuan. Within the year, Taiyuan Taiji Tui Shou Association was formally organized. Master Li was elected to be the president, and some of my school brothers and myself were appointed by Master Li to be deputy presidents. After the Tui Shou association was organized, I went to Master Li’s home almost every day, managing some business of the association, learning and studying techniques and discussing teaching materials. Then, we received a letter from the North American Tang Shou Tao Association, saying that some 30 coaches from the Tang Shou Tao Association would come to study Xing Yi Quan and Tui Shou with Master Li. In April of 1994, our group of six to seven people traveled to Beijing and stayed in Beijing Exhibition Hotel. I was in charge of compiling the teaching plan, liaison and simple translation. We trained 28 coaches of Tang Shou Tao Association for ten days and obtained satisfactory results.

After coming back from Beijing, Master Li said to me: “Your foundation is not bad, but you do not understand my style. You can only be my disciple and understand our method, after you train proficiently. My expertise is in Southern Shaolin Soft Arts, Xing Yi and the whip stick. When Xing Yi, Tai Ji and Ba Gua are combined, that is real Tai Ji. Otherwise, Tai Ji is empty. In my view, you are basically skillful in those aspects. You only need to process internal regulation, and clearly understand the essence (kernel) of Southern Shaolin and Xing Yi Quan.” He repeated: “You do not need to learn forms, because the forms are made up, while the essence that cannot be made up, is the internal instinct. The key is in how to initiate and control it. At this time, it is first necessary understand San Ti.”

Studying San Ti with Master Li

Thousands of methods in Xing Yi Quan emanate from San Ti. The following is my understanding in training San Ti with Master Li.

Master Li said: “San Ti, was also called San Cai in the ancient times. San Ti refers to the heaven, earth and human beings. In Xing Yi Quan, it refers to the upper, middle and lower Dantian areas, and refers to the head, hand and foot externally. Before, many people training Xing Yi Quan injured their legs. This is a fact. The reason is that they did not stand in San Ti correctly. There are basically two reasons: In practicing San Ti, one must practice standing for a long time – from 6 months to three years. Many people stood in San Ti without inquiring about its principle, just standing there with strength. The second reason is that most people stand in thirty percent and seventy percent weighting. People do not understand that the thirty percent and seventy percent weighting is a single weighting method, a method for practical application of the attacking and defending techniques. It should not be adopted in the beginning of training. In the beginning, it is necessary to stand in a balanced position with a slightly bigger step, namely, equal strength in both legs and the same sensation in both soles. The purpose of this is to train the balance of the body and the balance of internal qi and blood. Without balance of qi and blood, there will be no health. If there is no balance in the body, how could it be possible to change. Therefore, it is necessary to seek balance before looking for changes. Balance is necessary for there to be single weighting. Then success will be possible with single weighting.”

“The key points in Zhan Zhuang (Ed: post standing, or in this context, holding San Ti Shi) are based upon the rules and experience of the ancient people: the most important thing is to focus on the mutual response in the five body parts – vertex, palms and soles – the weighting, and the center. The vertex should be uplifted. The combination of the five body parts is the essential in Zhan Zhuang.”

My understanding: I trained San Ti for long time, but I did not have any special sensation other than feeling very tired in the legs. After I trained San Ti again under Master Li’s instruction, a series of reactions took place inside my body. First, I could train in relaxation. Master Li asked me to stretch out my head, hands and feet in relaxation in standing. Stand with the head uplifted in relaxation in order to pull apart every section of the spinal column, so that qi and blood can flow smoothly in the Governor Vessel. Stand with the palms and soles stretched out, in order to dredge qi and blood in the four limbs to build up internal energy. After training this way for a period of time, I felt warm in the four limbs, and sweating in the hands. I felt clear in the ears and bright in the eyes, and I felt more powerful. After having these positive sensations, I became even more deeply engaged in the study of San Ti. Master Li used to say training is primarily supposed to develop the instinct and potential of the human body. So I studied the relationship between San Ti and instinct, and how to develop the instinct.

First, in standing San Ti, the legs started to vibrate after standing for several minutes. At the same time, there was a distending, heating, numb, painful and aching sensation. In that moment, one issue took place. When standing in the posture, with thirty percent and seventy percent weighting, the vibration came quickly, but lasted for a short time. In standing in the balanced Zhan Zhuang position (balanced San Ti), the vibration came slowly, but lasted for a longer time. By carefully sensing, I found that periodic change took place in the balanced standing; also periodic change, synchronous to vibration. I became extremely excited about it, because I could not find any relevant experiments and explanations in the various texts on sports physiology. At that moment, I sensed that this phenomenon must be very important and a significant physiological reaction and training method. Because vibration is periodical, I termed this type of standing as “Taiji Post” of San Ti, indicating the rising and falling changes in energy, metabolism and body sense. Later, the tests showed that frequency of this muscular vibration in this “Taiji Post” of San Ti was about 7 – 10 times per second, which is close to the natural muscular vibration of 10 times per second, and also close to the meridians wave of 7 – 13 times per second.

Therefore, an idea appeared in my mind: could the muscular vibration in standing be used to train the springing and shooting energy, the strength-releasing speed of the leg muscles, and the speed of the fist? The vibration in standing is natural and instinctive and is a kind of the physiological reaction of the human body to the motor stimulation. If the main intention and movements are added into the natural vibration, what could happen? By training and experiments, good effects could be produced in the combination of those two, and reaction ability could be greatly elevated, and the strength could be obviously increased, and the coordination of body movement could also be improved. Further, if training becomes internal, the five internal organs could be stimulated. After I told Master Li about these sensations, he was slightly shocked: “You have had these sensations and experiences? I tell you: the spontaneous vibration of the muscle is supposed to train the pre-heaven energy, and that initiated by the mind is post-heaven energy. During the vibration of the muscles in Zhan Zhuang, if initiated by the mind, it is the joint training of the pre-heaven and post-heaven energy. You have found it, but cannot control it. Only when the pre-heaven energy is trained to react instantly, can it be possible to attack without being sensed. In the training, it is necessary to pay more attention to the sensation and reaction of the Dantian, sole and palm.”

As for the development of the instinct and potential of the human body in Xing Yi Quan, and the theory of “practicing the fist skill like walking” – walking is an instinctive movement of the human body. Let us study what walking means. By studying the walking and standing method of the chicken, we can understand that what we learn from the ‘chicken leg’ in Xing Yi Quan is the stability of the chicken, in stepping energy, stamping energy and standing on one leg. By studying the relationships between the walking, running and pouncing movements of animals that walk on four legs and the movements of Xing Yi Quan, we can discover that San Ti is like the standing posture of the tiger and leopard, and Pi Quan is like the walking process of the tiger and leopard. When we stand in San Ti and bend the body forward, it looks like the posture of animals walking with four limbs on the ground.

Human beings evolved from the ape, and the ape evolved from the animals that walk on all fours. The baby’s crawling is very similar to the walking of a small cat or dog. The changes in San Ti – Pi Quan are very similar to walking of the tiger and leopard. The release of force in Pi Quan can be viewed as the forward pouncing of the tiger and leopard. In the twelve animals of Xing Yi Quan, the special techniques of animals walking with four limbs – like tiger, monkey, horse and bear – were adopted, and with San Ti (the essentials of Chinese martial arts) were summarized and refined through long-term practice. The importance of this is that the movements and postures are very close to the natural, instinctive movements of animals and humans beings. There is a famous saying in Xing Yi Quan: “to strike a person is like walking.” When it is said that one should to return to the state of infancy, it means that one should crawl naively like baby. In standing, feel like you are crawling. Because the four limbs touch the ground in crawling, every step is real and firm. Therefore, it is said “the fist does not go out in vain and come back in vain.”

In Six Harmony Boxing Methods, there is a saying: “a baby’s striking and playing methods must develop naturally.” In walking, animals with four limbs always touch the ground at three points. In order to maintain balance, the lower back and tail turn naturally. When human beings stand and walk, the center of gravity is high. Although the two hands do not touch the ground, the arms still wave forward and backward, like the movements of the two forelimbs in the walking of animals. When animals walk, the rear foot of the same side always replaces the front foot of the same side, and the front foot extends forward, to walk alternately on the left and right sides. When the tiger and leopard run quickly, or pounce on their prey, after the two rear feet land on the ground simultaneously, the front two feet land on the ground simultaneously. The four limbs land on the ground in turn in normal running and walking. In Xing Yi Quan, there is a saying: “only when the hand and foot arrive at the same time, is there real skill.” The hand and foot arrive in separation, in walking, running and gathering force. The hand and foot arrive together, in galloping, pouncing and releasing the force. The basic original form of San Ti is smooth step and twisted step. The smooth step is suitable for straight force, like Beng Quan, and the twisted step suitable for curved force, like Heng Quan.

San Ti is the foundation of the attacking skills and the movements of Xing Yi Quan, and all the movements in Xing Yi Quan come from this basic posture, so it is said that “all methods come from San Ti”. San Ti includes the basic principles of the stepping forms, body forms and hand forms in Xing Yi Quan. San Ti is not only a posture for both attack and defense, it also can powerfully strengthen the body, expel illness and prolong life. By standing in San Ti, it is possible to regulate the balance between qi and blood, and regulate the coordination of the nine major sections of the whole body. Therefore, it is the basic method for training internal and external “six harmonies”.

The intensity of the movements is maximal in standing San Ti with weighting of front thirty and rear seventy, and less in standing with weighting of front forty and rear sixty, and even less with weighting of front fifty and rear fifty. There is also a form with the  front bow step. There are different demands and functions in each standing posture. All of them need to be trained.

There are four phenomena in Xing Yi Quan: chicken leg, dragon body, bear shoulder and tiger holding the head. Therefore, in standing San Ti and practicing Pi Quan, it is necessary to sense their respective and interesting implications.

Written in memory of Master Li.