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Dong Xiu Sheng on Methods of Training and Nourishing the Body During the Four Seasons

From Essentials of Xing Yi Quan by Wang Li with Li Gui Chang and Chen Cheng Fu

Translated by Huang Guo-Qi and edited by Tom Bisio

Dong Xiu Sheng (1882-1939), also known as Dong Jun, was born in Taigu, Shanxi province. As a boy, Dong learned martial arts and Chinese medicine from his father. Later he learned Five Elements Soft Method of Shaolin (Shaolin Wuxing Roushu) from Li Shi Ying. [1] Dong also learned  Xing Yi from Liu Wen Hua, the son of Lu Qi Lan, as well as Geng Ji Shan (a student 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 Cheng Ting Hua. 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 an well-known and influential practitioner of Xing Yi, and authored several books on the subject. One of his top students was Li Gui Chang who passed away in 2000 at the age of 86.

As a practitioner of Chinese medicine Dong read the medical classics and was familiar with the Huang Di Nei Jing, (the Yellow Emperors Classic of Internal Medicine) Most of his discussion on training and nourishing the body in harmony with seasonal change is either a paraphrasing or extrapolation of the ideas contained in Chapter Two of the Su Wen: Preserving Health in Accordance with the Four Seasons. What is interesting about Dong’s viewpoint is that he specifically discusses how to adapt one’s training in Xing Yi Quan (Form-Intention Boxing) and martial arts training in general, to conform with the energies of the four seasons. The implication is that by adjusting one’s training program with the seasonal variations, one will not only preserve one’s health and prevent disease, but will also receive the maximum benefit from the training.

To practice [martial] skills and to nourish the body during the four seasons [one must] conform to the doctrine of development in spring, growth in summer, harvest in autumn and storage in winter. The Inner Cannon [the Huang Di Nei Jing] said: The three months of spring are said to be generative. Both heaven and earth produce and all things start to flourish. One should sleep at night and rise early to stroll through open courtyards. At this moment, liver-wood is complete and dynamic and the yang qi of the body circulates to the vertex [DU 20 – Bai Hui] to regulate smooth qi in the liver. Therefore it is advisable to get up early and practice active, moving skills as much as possible, because motion will promote the production of yang to conform to the generative qi of  the spring and nourish wood in the body. [2]

In the winter our  Qi (vital energy) is retained deep in the body. In the spring Qi moves to the surface, and flows easily through the muscles, tendons and joints. Stretching and flexibility exercises are not only easier to do, they also produce greater results in the spring. One of the most important spring activities is to take long walks in nature surrounded by living things. In this way our body becomes tuned to the resurgence of life happening around us. The body can be strengthened, the brain invigorated and the spirit calmed by taking leisurely walks in nature. By directly experiencing the forces of creation and birth that are taking place in the natural world, we can stimulate our own vital force and our own creativity. Hence the Huang Di Nei Jing , which Dong Xiu Sheng is quoting at times, says:

In the morning he should breathe the fresh air while walking in open courtyards to exercise his tendons and bones and loosen his hair to make the whole body comfortable along with the generating energy of spring. [3]

In traditional Chinese medicine, disharmony of the emotions and psycho-spiritual faculties is considered to be one of the major causes of disease. The movements of the mind and the emotions are essentially movements of the Qi. Anger is equivalent to the Qi rising upward and frustration, an expression of Qi being blocked. Therefore to harmonize our Qi with the seasonal Qi, the Nei Jing tells us that we must also align our mental state with the seasonal Qi – the configuration of the Qi of heaven and earth at that time of the year.

In spring, one should help survival not killing, assist instead of taking away and praise instead of punishing, so as to correspond to the property of spring energy and fit in the way of preserving one’s health. If this principle is violated by man, his liver will be hurt, as liver is associated with wood and wood is prosperous in the spring. If he fails to adapt to the property of spring energy which is generation and thus hurts his liver, he will contract cold syndrome in the summer. [4]

The three months of summer are said to be flourishing. The qi of heaven and earth harmonizes and all things flourish and bear fruit. One should sleep with night and rise early. At this time the heart fire should circulate with the yang qi in the exterior of the body and the yin qi is hidden in the interior. Therefore it is advisable to rise early and practice moving skills because motion will nourish yang, conform to the qi of growth in summer, and nourish fire in the body. [5]

The Huang Di Nei Jing expands on Dong’s abbreviated discussion and again elucidates the optimal psycho-emotional state that should be cultivated in the summer:

On the Summer Solstice, yang energy reaches its zenith and yin energy begins to emerge. Thus the intercourse of yin and yang energies occurs at this time. As yang energy forms the vital energy of living things and yin energy gives things shape, the combination of these two energies causes all living things on earth to blossom and yield fruit. In summer it is desirable to sleep at night and get up early in the morning, to have no dislike of sunlight, possess no will of anger, so that things will be blooming beautifully and so that energy will move outward through perspiration as if in love with the outside world. In this way heat does not stagnate and one corresponds to the energy of growth that promotes the growing of flowers and fruits. If these principles are violated, one’s heart will be injured as the heart associates with fire and fire is vigorous in summer. If one fails to adapt to the property of the summer energy, he will contract malaria [febrile diseases in which there are both fever and chills] in the autumn. [6]

In order to fully understand Dong Xiu Sheng’s discussions of the seasons we must look at the Chinese calendar. Unlike the Western solar calendar, the Chinese calendar is partly based on the lunar cycle.  Therefore the days on which important holidays and seasonal markers occur can vary from year to year. However, the Chinese also divide their calendar into 24 “Solar Nodes”, which reflect climactic changes occurring as the earth rotates around the sun. The 24 Solar Nodes can easily be converted to the Western solar calendar as they occur at roughly the same time each year. However, as China is in the Northern Hemisphere, the dates must be reversed for people living in the southern hemisphere. Eight of these nodes mark the beginning of each season, the spring and autumn equinoxes and the winter and summer solstices.

Eight Nodes

Looking at these eight nodes you may be surprised to see that the Beginning of Spring in the Northern Hemisphere occurs on February 4/5.  In the West, we usually think of spring as beginning on the Vernal Equinox (March 20th or 21st). In the Chinese lunar calendar, the beginning of a season comes somewhat before that season appears on the Western solar calendar. This is because the start of a new season is actually begins when the energies of that season begin to develop. The first “stirring” of the new season’s energy happens several weeks before those energies actually manifest in an obvious way. For example, the “Beginning of Spring” is in early February on the Chinese calendar. This time period corresponds with the first stirring of rebirth and growth associated with the energies of spring. Often at this time a warm spring breeze will be felt for a day before cold returns. It is at this time that sap begins to rise in trees, and similarly within us we feel the sap rise within us. These dates are reversed for those living in the southern hemisphere.

When Dong Xiu Sheng talks about yin and yang in the context of seasonal activity he is referring to the cyclical transformation of yin and yang energies in the world that are a reflection of the climactic changes that occur in relation to the yang energy of the sun:

  • Beginning of Spring: Yang Qi begins to dispel the cold. Plants and creatures begin to grow.
  • Vernal Equinox: Day and night are equal in length; Yin and Yang are equal. The days become warmer.
  • Beginning of Summer: Yang continues to grow and living things flourish.
  • Summer Solstice: Longest day of the year. Yang peaks and yin begins to grow.
  • Beginning of Autumn: Yin grows ascendancy. Early fruits are harvested.
  • Autumn Equinox: Yin and Yang are again equal. Another time of balance for people to harmonize Yin and Yang and collect vitality back to the center to strengthen their health for winter.
  • Beginning of Winter: Yin gains ascendancy and plants and flowers wither.
  • Winter Solstice: Shortest day of the year. Yin peaks and Yang is generated.

 In the three months of autumn [yin and yang] are said to be equal. The qi of heaven is vigorous and hurried and the earthly qi becomes clear and bright. It is advisable to  go to bed early and rise with the crowing of the cock. At this time lung-metal is orderly and harmonious. Yang decreases and yin-cold increases daily. At this time, practice slightly later in the morning and evening [and practice] so that motion and tranquility are equal. This conforms to the qi of the harvest in the autumn and nourishes metal in the body. [7]

In autumn, as the weather becomes colder, Dong Xiu Sheng, tells us that it is necessary to begin to rein in our more yang active practice and begin to match it with yin quiescent practice. This means to add more quiescent neigong and meditation, to begin to balance the gradual ascendancy of yin energy in the outside world. As the days shorten, we should retire early and rise slightly later when the sun comes up, so that our activity and rest coincide with the seasonal changes.

The Nei Jing adds:

Keep the spirit tranquil and stable to separate oneself from the killing energy of autumn by means of restraining the spirit and energy internally and guarding the mind against anxiety and impetuosity. In this way one’s tranquility can still be maintained even in the punishing autumn atmosphere and the breath of the lung can be kept even as well. If these principles are violated, the lung will be hurt as the lung associates with metal and metal prospers in autumn. If one fails to adapt to the property of the autumn energy which is harvesting, one will be apt to contract diarrhea with watery stool and undigested food in winter. [8]

The three months of winter are said to store. Winter becomes icy and the earth splits, without the influence of yang. It is advisable to go to bed early and to get up late in order to wait for the sunlight. Yang is hidden in the interior and yin is seen in the exterior. At this time it is advisable to practice later and to focus on practicing tranquility [skills] as much as possible, because stillness can promote the production of yin. This conforms with storing qi  in the winter and nourishes water in the body. [9]

In winter, yang is submerged within and yin circulates at the surface. Hence one must be careful not to sweat or to over use medicinal herbs that drive out pathogens through diaphoresis as this will deplete the yin and yang energies of the body at a time when these energies should be stored and nourished. Hence Dong Xiu Sheng advises practicing tranquil quiescent skills rather than active movements which might cause one to sweat thereby depleting the body. Similarly, men are advised to curtail sexual activity in order to preserve jing-essence in this time of stillness and storage.

Dong Xiu Sheng: “In the three months of winter, all grasses and most of the trees are withered, and the insects are in hibernation. The water ices up and the ground is frozen with gaps. Things are shut up or go into hiding to guard against the cold. It is called the season of “shutting and storing.”[10]

Even one’s thoughts and desires should be contained so as to gather one’s energies for the spring to come.

The will remains dormant as if hiding or pretending, not unlike someone with private intentions, not unlike someone with all his desires already fulfilled. Since the weather is cold in winter, one should avoid cold and move toward warmness, prevent the skin from too much perspiring to guard against the consumption or exhaustion of Yang energy. These are the ways of preserving health in winter. If these principles are violated, the kidney will be injured, as the kidney associates with water and water is prosperous in winter. If one fails to adapt to the property of winter energy which is storing, one will be apt to contract muscular flaccidity and coldness in the spring.[11]

Judging from this, there nothing in this doctrine that fails to conform with the natural movements of heaven and earth. Only when practitioners of Xing Yi Quan are adaptable to [the changes of] yin and yang harmonious in their skills and correct and natural in their diet and habits, without any vain exertion, can form and spirit co-exist, techniques improve progressively and the spirit be strengthened. Then it is possible to be free of disease and have a long life. [12]

In this final passage, Dong Xiu Sheng refers to diet, but gives us no specifics of what “natural in diet” refers to. Dong may have taken for granted that the reader would know what he was referring to, because the principles of natural and harmonious eating are an intrinsic part of the traditional Chinese diet. In Chinese dietary therapy foods are classified according to their tastes, or flavors. These flavors indicate not only what something tastes like on your tongue, they also refer to the inherent qualities of foods, which have certain traits and produce certain effects. In addition, each flavor “homes”, or is drawn to, one of the viscera. This idea of the five tastes, or five natures of foods, is based on Five Element theory, which also forms the bases of the Five Fists in Xing Yi Quan.

In spring, one should eat more mildly sweet food and less sour food. Because sour is associated with liver-wood qi, which is more active and flourishing  in the spring, the liver does not need to be stimulated. Instead it is necessary to eat foods that nourish the spleen and stomach, which aid in the building of blood and qi. The nourishing quality of these foods helps one adjust to the harsh changeable climate of early spring.

Another way to think of this is in relation to the Nei Jing’s advice, that in spring we should let down our hair and take long walks in nature. Dong Xiu Sheng advises that one also engage in more active practice of moving skills, particularly as the days become warmer. The sour nature of foods like vinegar tones the viscera, muscles and sinews, because the sour flavor tends to astringe the tissues. In excess, the astringent aspect of sour flavor can cause muscles and sinews to tighten and cramp, causing pain and restriction. The spring is a time when the sap is rising, plants and trees begin to grow again. The world is stretching and extending outward. As human beings we are also stretching and extending, our qi is reaching outward in harmony as we exercise and move more after winter’s retraction and withdrawal. The astringent nature of sour foods, if consumed to excess, interferes with this outward movement.

In summer, one should eat more pungent/spicy foods and less bitter foods. Eating spicy foods that heat us up in hot weather may seem counter-intuitive at first. Pungent foods home to the lung. They tend to warm the body, thereby accelerating the movement of qi and blood (the circulation). Therefore, pungent, spicy foods tend to disperse stagnant moisture. Pungent foods  also promote sweating, which helps to release excess heat from the body.  This is perhaps why a common feature of traditional diets of people who live in warm, damp climates includes spicy foods with hot peppers. However, if eaten in excess, pungent foods can exhaust the qi, overheat the body, and dry the tissues.

In summer the fire element and the heart energy peak. Bitter foods home to the heart. Bitter foods stimulate the heart. They help the body eliminate heat and can disperse stagnant moisture and qi. However in excess Bitter food can be drying, or can over-stimulate the heart, whose energy is abundant at this time. It is natural to consume more cooling, yin foods – fruits, juices, cooling drinks – in the summer. However, too many cooling foods put out the digestive fires and damage the spleen and stomach, leading to bloating, diarrhea and other digestive problems. Therefore, one must balance cooling foods with some warming and pungent foods.

In autumn the qi of metal-lung flourishes. Therefore one should eat less pungent/spicy food and more sour food. This prevents metal-lung from interfering with the liver: The acrid [pungent] taste acts on the lung. If the acrid taste is taken excessively, lung-metal will restrict liver-wood. As the liver determines the condition of the tendons, when the liver is restricted the tendons will become loose. Because the acrid taste also has the function of dispersing, the excessive taking of the acrid taste will consume spirit as well. [13] In this season, when yin grows and yang recedes, qi and blood must be conserved and restrained from being pushed outward excessively. Exercise must be moderated (Dong advises balancing quiescent and active training) and sweating contained, so that yang qi is retained and blood is not dispersed. In this way the liver and  tendons will be nourished and the spirit will nurtured. The sour taste through its astringing action helps to restrain this outward movement of qi and blood.

In winter kidney-water flourishes. Salty foods are said to  home to the kidneys. Salt has a powerful effect on the fluids of the body Because the kidneys are the primary filter of body fluids, salty foods tend to concentrate qi, blood and fluids and move them downward toward the lower body, aiding the kidney function. In excess salty foods can cause  stagnation and retention of fluids. The salty taste can soften hardness and is superior to the blood, so when the salty taste is taken too much, it will damage bone and muscle. [14] If the kidneys are over-stimulated, disharmony of the heart and spirit can also result. Therefore one should eat less salty food in winter, and more bitter food, which homes to the heart. This, in conjunction with more quiescent training and keeping the spirit calm and the mind without desire, protects and nourishes heart qi. Although in winter it is natural to crave and consume more warming, stronger tasting and richer food, one must be careful to balance their consumption with yin moistening and cooling foods. Otherwise, it is possible to accumulate too much inner heat, which will overheat the heart and upset the spirit.

Gao Lian, a poet and medical scholar from the 16th century, adds several interesting seasonal considerations that expand on the above discussion. His treatise on Promoting Health During the Four Seasons is well worth reading.

In relation to winter’s cold, Gao gives the following advice:

Wear padded winter clothes during the coldest time, but add them gradually and not all at once; stop increasing the layers just when you have added enough to not feel cold anymore. Do not warm yourself in front of a roaring fire, since this winter habit may bring about particularly harmful consequences.  The hands and feet, namely, have an affinity to the heart network, and should therefore never be toasted over a fire.  The fire may otherwise be enticed into the heart and create symptoms of restlessness.  For the same reasons, avoid grilling food over an open fire. [15]

In the summer Gao warns us against seeking relief from the heat in drafty shady places, because “noxious winds” can invade the body. Seek out the tranquility of a clean and spacious room, or the pure yin nature of an open water kiosk, to achieve a natural state of coolness. [16]  It is common for people in China to sleep outside during warm summer weather, even in cities like Beijing. Gao tells the reader to be cautious about doing this particularly if one had eaten cold food, is sweating, and sleeps in a drafty place. [17] A common summer illness is wind disease due to sleeping outside on a hot night and being exposed to the pre-dawn cold. In modern times, this situation can be created by sleeping with a fan or air-conditioner blowing on you when you are sweating.

The advice of Dong Xiu Sheng, the Nei Jing and Gao Lian should not be lightly ignored. We all perceive the changes of the seasons, and yet many of us are unaware – or simply ignore the fact – that these same cycles take place within our own bodies, and can have profound ramifications upon our health and longevity. Modern technology often lets us feel that we have outwitted Mother Nature. Central heating and airline flights to warmer climes allow us to feel the warmth of summer in the dead of winter. Summer’s fruits and fall’s harvest bounty are available all year round. And yet, even with these advances, our bodies are still attuned to the rhythms of the seasons. Rather than fooling nature, these modern miracles often confuse the body’s natural wisdom, sowing the seeds for illness in the future.

Dong Xiu Sheng’s ideas are particularly interesting not only because they reiterate basic principles of Chinese medicine on preserving health and preventing disease, but because he relates them to the practice of Xing Yi Quan, which is itself based on Five Element theory. The implication of Dong’s words is that harmonizing yin and yang through the practice of internal boxing cannot be separated from connecting and conforming to the seasonal changes in the world around us. By aligning ourselves with these movements of heaven and earth, we not only protect our health but improve our skills (in internal martial arts), integrate form with spirit, and progressively improve. Training in internal martial arts is not just the physical performance of the Five Fists, Eight Palms or the Tai Qi form, and the other aspects of physical training.  Training in the internal arts is a deep and profound engagement with all aspects of life.

[1] China From the Inside

[2] Essentials of Xing Yi Quan by Wang Li with Li Gui Chang and Chen Cheng Fu. Translated by Huang Guo-Qi and edited by Tom Bisio

[3] The Yellow Emperor’s Classic Of Internal Medicine And The Difficult Classic, (Su Wen – Chapter 2) Henry Lu – Trans. Vancouver, B.C.: Academy Of Oriental Heritage, 1978. and Yellow Emperor’s Canon of Internal Medicine, Bing Wang, translated by Nelson Liansheng Wu and Andrew Qi Wu. China Science and Technology Press.

[4] Ibid

[5] Essentials of Xing Yi Quan.

[6] see footnote 3

[7] Essentials of Xing Yi Quan.

[8] Yellow Emperor’s Canon of Internal Medicine, Bing Wang, translated by Nelson Liansheng Wu and Andrew Qi Wu. China Science and Technology Press.

[9] Essentials of Xing Yi Quan.

[10] see footnote 3

[11] see footnote 3

[12] Essentials of Xing Yi Quan

[13] Yellow Emperor’s Canon of Internal Medicine, Bing Wang, translated by Nelson Liansheng Wu and Andrew Qi Wu. China Science and Technology Press, p. 24..

[14] Ibid, p.

[15] Promoting Health During the Four Seasons, translated and introduced by Heiner Fruehauf, Ph.D., L.Ac., Institute for Traditional Medicine, Portland, OR. Introduction edited and amended  by Subhuti Dharmananda, Ph.D., Institute for Traditional Medicine, Portland, OR. Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.