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Dong Xiu Sheng and Southern Shaolin Five-Element Soft Style

Dong Xiu Sheng was the teacher of Master Li Gui Chang. Dong is a unique figure in the internal arts who studied with many renowned masters of the internal styles, He also studied Southern Shaolin Five-Element Soft Style which permeates and blends with Xing Yi methods in Shanxi provence.

This article was translated by Huang Guo Qi.

Brief Biography

Dong-XiuShengDong Jun, also literally named Xiu Sheng, born in 1882, was a native of Dong village, in Taigu county, Shanxi province. His forefathers were assistant ministers. Chinese medicine was taught in his family. His father, Dong Fang Lun (?-1926), practiced medicine, and at the same time traded antiques. Dong Fang Lun also liked to train in the  martial arts and traveled to Beijing, Tianjin, Liaoning and other towns in order to practice medicine and engage in trade. Later he settled down in Beijing and was then nicknamed “Shanxi Dong.”

Master Dong Xiu Sheng was clever and smart. He learned poetry and literature from childhood. As a child, he, together with his brother Dong Jie (literally named Zi Ying), studied martial arts from his father. His father silently adored him, because of his nimble, vigorous and stable skill. At the age of twenty, he made progress both in the martial arts and in literary ability and began to travel with his father. After his father died, Dong Xiu Sheng traveled to Beijing, Tianjin and Liaoning with his school brother, Shi Rui Ting to practice medicine, and also to visit friends, train in martial arts and learn from various masters.

In 1918, Dong returned to his hometown and was invited to be a Chinese medical doctor at a hospital in Shanxi. Later he was invited by the Shanxi Mass Education School and Shanxi Martial Arts Promotion Association to work as a teacher of the martial arts. After Japan invaded China, because of the unstable political situation, loss of his work and livelihood and an addiction to opium, he died in poverty in 1939.

Dong Xiu Sheng’s  Teachers and Martial Arts Training

Master Dong studied various styles of the martial arts and was both thoroughly acquainted with martial theories and very skillful in martial techniques. In his childhood, he studied with his father and many other martial artists in his hometown, Taigu, where he learned the local traditional boxing skills, weapons and Xing Yi Quan. After he grew up, he traveled to learn with many masters in many places, developing subtle and profound skills so that increasingly his name became well-known.

In summer of 1925, Mr. Dong compiled a book, Shaolin Five-Element Soft Style Manuscript, saying in his foreword: “In 1901, while traveling to Yanjin (the old name for Beijing), I met with Mr. Li Zhi Ying and started to learn the five-element gentle arts. In investigating the origin [of Shaolin Five-Element Soft Style], it seems it was learned by a Shaolin Buddhist Master Miao Dan. He kept this art secret for three years and never taught it to anyone. Therefore, not many people learned it. In the study of the original theory of this art, it is the as same as explanations of yin and yang and the five elements. Although it is called “Shaolin Gentle Arts,” it starts and ends with qigong as its fundamental principle.”

Mr. Chang Zan Chun, a native of Yuci county and a famous calligrapher of our province, and Mr. Li Jin Wen (literally named Li Xun, 1891-1959), disciple of Mr. Dong, also wrote a foreword to this book. Li’s foreword states: “In the reign of Emperor Qian Long of the Qing Dynasty, when the Shaolin temple in Fujian was destroyed, Buddhist Master Miao Dan collected alms everywhere in a hope to restore the temple to its original status. He traveled into Tongzhou, a county where there are many martial artists. Mr. Li En Yuan, who was especially fond of attacking and defending techniques (ie: martial arts), figured out that Master Maio Dan had a magic art and invited him to stay at home in order to learn the art. After studying for several years, he learned all the marvelous skills. The master knew had obtained them and went away. But, the Shaolin temple was not restored and afterward Master Miao Dan could not be found.”

The master [Li En Yuan], passed down the art to his third generation, his grandson, Mr. Li Zhi Ying, literally named Li Jie Chen, and nicknamed Jia Jia Li. He opened an escort (bodyguard) agency and was well-known inside and outside the Sanhaiguan region. Mr. Li Jie Chen passed down this art to Monk Li Yuan, Liu Song Qiao and Wang San from Tong county, and Mr. Dong Jun (Dong Xiu Sheng) from Taigu county. Master Dong Xiu Sheng, also studied Xing Yi Quan with Mr. Geng Ji Shan for over twenty years and profoundly understood the mysteries of the boxing art. Master Dong was also skillful in medicine and worked in  a hospital in Shanxi.

Master Li Gui Chang, disciple of Master Dong Xiu Sheng, said that Shaolin Five-Element Soft Style is essentially the same as Xing Yi Quan in its theory and techniques.

In the basic skills of Shaolin Five-Element Soft Style there are:

Five Palms(Wu Zhang) 五掌  

  1. Uphold (Tuo) 托
  2. Push (Tui) 推
  3. Cloud (Yun) 云
  4. Expel (Nian) 撵
  5. Rub (Mo) 摩

Five Fists (Wu Quan) 五拳

  1. Dragon
  2. Tiger
  3. Leopard
  4. Snake
  5. Crane 

Five Skills (Wu Gong) 五功:

  1. Lying Bull Skill
  2. Linen Whip Skill
  3. Wood Ball skill
  4. Wood Block Skill
  5. Hanging Bag Skill

Forty-Two Basic Movements:

  1. Bull-Lifting Posture
  2. Bull-Seizing Posture
  3. Moon-Watching Posture
  4. etc,

Five lines of hand-attaching techniques

Thirty-six point-pressing Qin Na techniques

Seventy two blocking legs

Seventy two techniques for separating the tendons and dislocating bones.

In training, Buddhism and boxing skill are merged into one entity and the interior and exterior are cultivated simultaneously in a specific manner.

In learning and studying Xing Yi Quan, Master Dong established his own style by researching boxing theories and methods and absorbing the advantages of various schools. After leaving Shanxi, he first studied with Geng Ji Shang (literally named Cheng Xin), a disciple of Liu Qi Lan. He then went to the “China Martial Artists Association” of Tianjin in 1914 and studied with Li Cun Yi, the dean of the association. In that period of time, he went back and forth between Beijing, Tianjin and Cangzhou of Shen county and of course learnt from a number of seniors masters: Mr. Liu Qi Lan, Mr. Zhang Zhan Kui, and Mr. Qian Yan Tang, etc. In discussions with Mr. Jiang Rong Jiao, he was particularly appreciated by Mr. Jiang Rong Jiao.

In 1918, he returned to his hometown, and studied with Mr. Song Hu Chen, son of Mr. Song Shi Rong (1849-1927), and was also instructed by Song Shi Rong, achieving great development in his internal development. In June of 1924, Mr. Sun Lu Tang (literally named Fuquan, 1861-1932) came to Shanxi to visit his  senior Song Shi Rong (then Song worked as a teacher of Chinese martial arts in Infantry Regiment Two in Jiexiu). When Sun passed through the provincial capital, he often stayed in Mr. Dong’s house, for several months. In addition to Xing Yi Quan, Mr. Dong learned other arts and techniques from Mr. Sun, namely Ba Gua Zhang, and Sun style Tai Ji Quan. Gradually they became good friends. Before his departure, Mr. Sun Lu Tang gladly used his writing brush to inscribe “Temperament Cultivation Pavilion” for Mr. Dong’s house.

In Chapter Nine of Shaolin Five-Element Soft Style Manual on the eight extraordinary meridians and internal energy qigong, it is said: “those who really understood Daoism were my school grandmaster, Mr. Song Yue Zai, my master, Mr. Song Hu Chen, and my friend, Mr. Sun Lu Tang.” It is clear that Master Dong was respectful and familiar with  Mr. Sun’s art. Mr. Li Gui Chang and Mr. Wang Fu Ren have many group photos showing that Mr. Dong welcomed Mr. Sun Lu Tang  when he visited Shanxi province. Mr. Dong also met Mr. Song Hu Chen when he returned to Taigu.

Later, Mr. Liu Wen Hua (literally named Dian Chen), the second son of Mr. Liu Qi Lan, was invited by the Taiyuan National Normal School to teach, following Mr. Li Bin Tang (son of Li Cun Yi) and Mr. Wang Jun Chen (who defeated a Russian boxer in Beijing). Profound and skillful in the art through family instruction, Liu Wen Hua served as instructor of Chinese martial arts for Tsinghua University, and head coach for “China Martial Artists Association” of Tianjin and “Martial Arts Association” of Beijing. In their meetings, Mr. Dong humbly, in the manner of a disciple, asked him for advice and thereby made his arts even more skillful. It is clear that Mr. Dong was especially fond of the martial arts, modestly learnt from various schools and strictly avoided acting with a one-track mind. He compiled Detained Explanation of Five Elements and Twelve Forms of Yue Style Xing Yi Quan.

Dong Xiu Sheng as a Teacher

Master Dong was capable in both the literary and martial affairs, In Shanxi Martial Arts and Sports Triple Weekly, edited and printed by Shanxi Martial Arts Promotion Association from 1933 to 1936, Mr. Dong’s articles could be found in every volume. In addition to the boxing theory and boxing methods of Xing Yi Quan and Shaolin Quan, he also introduced the movements and techniques of Gong Li Quan (Public Boxing, 公立拳),  Luo Han Quan (Arhat Boxing, 罗汉拳), Shi Jue Jian (Ten-Formula Sword, 十诀剑), Ba Fang Dao (Eight-Direction Knife, 八方刀), Duan Wen Dao (Door-Broken Knife, 断门刀), Wu Tang Bai Yuan Gun (Five-Line White Ape Stick, 五趟白猿棍), Liu He Qiang (Six-Harmony Spear, 六合枪), and Hu Tou Gou (Tiger-Head Hook, 虎头钩), etc.

Master Dong’s skill was correct and true in the postures, complete in the techniques, strict and rigorous in energy and strength (Jin-Li), efficient in body experience and application and especially proficient in attacking techniques. Master Li Gui Chang often said that “five gong” of Mr. Dong were trained without interruption daily, meticulously and were marvelous and incomparable. His technique in testing the hand and attacking the opponent was extraordinarily mysterious, done by method rather  than strength. His most handy techniques were “snake entangling the hand”, “iron broom, pasting the latch”, “blocking upward and hanging downward”, moving the two hands in chains, intending the sticking and wrapping techniques with the elbow and knee, and looking for the energy marvelously upward, downward, leftward and rightward. When the master was over sixty, and tested hands with young and strong adults, it was like playing with a roly-poly daruma doll causing [the students] to exclaim with admiration.

His disciple, Li Li Xun (Jin Wen), originally a formally-accepted disciple of Master Qi Zi Xian (literally named Zhen Lin, studied with Master Wang Fu Yuan), studied Xing Yi Quan for years and was especially skillful in the use of the giant pole, so that he was nicknamed “Giant Pole Li”. In 1923, when Li met with Master Dong for the first time, he was unconvinced by Master Dong’s skills. At that time Master Dong was almost fifty, and in seeing him smart in mind and solid in the foundation, Li tried to make Mr. Dong his disciple by testing with him. His wife was sitting at the edge of the brick bed, wadding cotton and sewing a quilt. Dong uplifted him with a “soft Pi Quan” over his wife’s head, falling down to the brick bed. He was still not convinced, and was thrown again two more times. The basin and tea things were all smashed. Afterwards, Li was completely convinced and was accepted to study the skill, and made great progress in the techniques.

Master Dong engaged in medical services as his public affairs and also engaged in the martial arts and writing. He had lots of martial arts students, but only a few were formally-accepted disciples. After Mr. Li Jin Wen was accepted as a disciple by formal ceremony in 1924. Mr. Zhang An Tai (disciple of Mr. Mu Xiuyi), introduced Li Gui Chang, Liu Yi, ShenBing Lian, Miao Yu Lin and Wang Nai Yi, to be formally accepted as disciples.

Nature and Basic Principles of the Southern Shaolin Five-Element Soft Style

Five Elements refers to metal, wood, water, fire and earth, connecting to the lung, liver, kidney, heart and spleen, skin, tendon, bone, blood and flesh in the human body. Gentle Arts refers to methods of nourishing qi and training qi. The goal of nourishing qi is to return to the Dao. The respiration is the platform for training qi. Therefore, it is termed Five-Element Gentle Art. Because this art originated in the Shaolin temple in Jujian province, it is termed South Shaolin Five-Element Soft Style.

Shaolin Five-Element Soft Style is explained by the theory of heaven, earth, yin, yang and five elements. In terms of the human body, the human body is divided into the interior and exterior, the interior being yin, the exterior being yang, blood being yin, qi being yang, the abdomen being yin, the back being yang, the foot being yin, and the head being yang. Yin exists everywhere in the body, from the bones to the skin and hair. The changes of Taiji are processed by yang and yin.

When Taiji moves, it produces yang, and when Taiji is tranquil, it produces yin. The motion brings about division. The tranquility leads to combination. The internal and external real qi of the human body is then in conformity with the natural reason of yin and yang. Qigong is regarded as an ultimate goal in Shaolin Soft Style. There are two implications in the theory of qigong: to nourish qi, and to train qi. Qi does not move, after qi is nourished. If qi does not move, the spirit will be clear. When the spirit is clear, it is appropriate to advance and retreat. The applications of the gentle art can be used to conquer the enemy. So, qi must be nourished immediately. Therefore, the way to nourish qi is really critical and important. To train qi and to nourish qi come from the same resource of qi, but are between void (emptiness; non-existence) and reality, between motion and tranquility, and between visible form and invisible form.

To return to the Dao is the goal of nourishing the qi. The respiration is  the platform for training qi. The external five elements are characterized by motion, and the internal five elements are characterized by tranquility. Each of the external five elements is tranquil. The tranquility is the thing-in-itself, and the motion means the functions. The theory of the five elements should be mastered and the authentic aspects of the five elements should be trained. The real qi of pre-heaven should be transported, and the awkward force of post-heaven should be transformed. It can be said that when the  resources are dredged, the flow will be surely long, and it is a natural reason that when the root is irrigated, surely the branches will flourish.

This art is characterized by firmness deriving from gentleness in predominance, and by gentleness from firmness in excellence. It is gentle in encountering the firmness. It is firm in encountering the gentleness. It is gentle in the left when the right is gentle. When the gentleness retreats, the firmness advances. Therefore, in encountering the enemy, it is necessary to act according to the actual situation, through mutual support of firmness and gentleness and advancing with both void and reality.

Training Methods of the Southern Shaolin Five-Element Soft Style

1.  Standing Posture, Training Exercises  练功方法桩功

  • Horse Standing Posture (Ma Zhuang) 马桩
  • One-Character Standing Posture (Yi Zi Zhuang) 一字桩
  • Meridian Standing Posture (Zi Wu Zhuang) 吨
  • Three River Standing Posture (San Chuan Zhuang) 三川桩
  • Dragon Standing Posture (Long Xing Zhuang) 龙形桩
  • Virgin Standing Posture (Tong Zi Zhuang) 童子桩

2. Linen Whip Skill (Ma Bian Gong) 麻辫功

Use half a kilo of good linen and proper amount of soda-added flour and put them in a pot and cook the linen well, and take off its hard peel after it cools. Then twist it into a rope in length of about 33 cm, big in the top and small in the tail like a pigtail. In training various types of standing postures, pull the rope with the two hands in alternation, for training the finger force and wrist joint.

3. Wood Block Skill (Mu Ban Gong) 木板功

Put a piece of elm board 150 or 180 cm in length, 15 or 18 cm in width and about 1.5 cm in thickness against the wall, vibrate the wood board with the palm, for training the shaking power. After training a long time, a thicker wood board can be used.

4. Wood Ball Skill (Mu Qiu Gong) 木球功

Put a wooden ball in diameter of 33 cm on the table, press the wooden ball with the palm and roll the ball freely. Do not let it slip out of the hand. Then, hold the ball against the wall and roll it with the arm, in order to train sticking power.

5. Five Palms (Wu Zhang) 五掌

In the basic skills of Shaolin Shaolin Five-Element Soft Style, there are five palms The five palms are the basic techniques  and can be interwoven with Xing Yi Quan and Ba Gua Zhang. Shaolin Five-Element Soft Style was brought  into Sun-Style Ba Gua Zhang. In the second generation of Sun family, only Mr. Sun Cun Zhou inherited Shaolin Five-Element Gentle Art.

6) Five Fists (Wu Quan) 五拳

This refers to Shaolin five fists (Dragon, Tiger, Leopard, Snake, Crane). In Southern Shaolin Five Fists, these are in fact five kinds of internal training. Please refer to Illustrated Explanation of Shaolin Authentic Techniques written by Mr. Chen Tie Sheng,  where the shadow of South Shaolin five fists can be seen.

This article was translated by Huang Guo Qi and is excerpted from an article posted online in Chinese at: