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Grasping the “intangible” – Understanding Xing Yi Quan

Grasping the “intangible” – Understanding Xing Yi Quan

By IAI Xing Yi Instructor Matt Tomkiel

“Xingyi merges body and function.” – Liu Qi Lan (1819 – 1889)*

Xingyiquan trains the body to spontaneously respond to intention in direct, powerful movements, and cultivates relaxed whole-body power—like we see in the instinctual movement of animals. We also see it in the reflexes of very young children despite their lack of fine motor skills. Natural whole-body power fades with the development of self-awareness. The conscious mind gives primacy to the voluntary muscle groups that are easiest to control, and as a result they become isolated from the whole-body coordination.

Actually, the theory of xingyi is simple. It aims to divest what we acquire after birth and return to the origin.”– Liu Xiaolan (1819-1909). *

All physical activities rely on the development of relaxed whole-body power to achieve high levels of proficiency. This is how an older athlete defeats a younger, stronger one; and how he continues his career beyond his physical prime.

“Generally, when one thing moves, everything moves and when there is one harmony, everything is harmonized. This takes place everywhere in the body.”– Li Jian Qiu (c.1919)§

As an internal martial art (nei jia), xingyiquan methodically re-establishes the coordination that produces relaxed whole-body power, which students train to use in a skilled manner via the Six Harmonies (Liu He). The upper body, lower body, and thorax are coordinated to move in optimal alignment for delivering whole-body power. Extensive standing practice and internal exercises train the parasympathetic nervous system, which calms the heart rate, contracts the pupils, and tempers the tension caused by the fight or flight response. This internal/external coordination also compensates for the natural decline that comes with age and injury, which makes xingyiquan an effective longevity practice.

Intention is trained to “simply react” without thought or emotion, and flinches are trained out. Whole-body power is amplified by key internal alignments that maximize the output of force and reconcile the conflict between antagonistic muscle groups. In traditional xingyi terms: heart-mind (xin) must harmonize with intention; intention (xin-yi) must harmonize with qi, and qi must harmonize with physical power (li).

The heart and the intention should be in harmony. Otherwise, the commander is powerless, and the hand and foot will not obey any order, and the ears and eyes are unable to function… In advancing, quickly retreating, and dodging actions, it is said that they are commanded by the heart-intention (Xin-Yi) and implemented by qi. Qi manifests as power and power is expressed through the four limbs.”– Liu-Wen Hua (c. 1921)**

With proper intention and focus, the xingyi student develops relaxed power to a degree that he or she would otherwise be unable to achieve without a high risk of injury or burnout. All martial arts are paths up the same mountain. Many martial arts begin with boxing techniques and then forge them into the body to make them powerful and effective. Xingyi begins with the cultivation of relaxed power, and then martial ability is developed. Each style has its advantages and disadvantages depending on the student’s long-term goals.

“If a person who looks strong inside and out during a fight uses strength on his enemy, he is not strong. He follows the rules rigidly but does not know the mutuality of the postures that make his actions forceful and effective.” -Li Kui-Yuan aka Li Cunyi (1847-1921) *

Relaxed whole-body power is applied martially through the structural alignments of the five fists (wu xing). It takes time for the xingyi student to develop sufficient whole-body coordination. Simply memorizing forms will not transform a student’s martial skill any more than owning a cookbook will transform him into a skilled chef. A student new to xingyiquan, no matter how skilled in boxing from other styles, must begin the method with standing practice (san ti shi),†† and internal coordination/breathing practices (tu na si ba)§§, to obtain the necessary foundation for xingyiquan to be effective. A student with previous training in other martial arts may be required to divest certain techniques that have been burned into the muscle memory. This can be very difficult. Getting rid of old habits is much harder than making new ones.

In calligraphy, holding the brush is obvious. The concealed aspect is when you write the characters… The posture is obvious; when you use it, it is concealed….”– Li Kui-Yuan (1847-1921).*

The initial applications of relaxed power by a xingyi student are called “obvious energy” because the whole-body movements used to issue force are easy to observe. As the student progresses, the application of relaxed power requires less external movement, making it harder to discern and giving the appearance of less effort, similar to the way a talented athlete “makes it look easy.” It is described as “hidden” or “concealed energy.”

In xingyi we never move in a fixed way; we act flexibly. There are no rigid rules to beat an enemy” — Che Yi-Zhai (1833-1915) *

The xingyi postures train body configurations that transform and interweave. Each of the five fists acts as a matrix from which movement and power can generated in all six directions simultaneously. Despite the obvious martial applications that can be derived from the postures, they are not fixed references to striking techniques like shadowboxing routines.

“All the xingyi postures are very simple; in use they may be changed and combined differently. Thus, a limited number of postures becomes numberless.”– Song Shi Rong (1876-1927) *

Xingyiquan’s rules about alignments and movements are uncomplicated, but not easy, especially in the beginning. Training requires proper intention and the guidance of a teacher. It takes a lot of practice between lessons for the student to internalize a simple correction. A good student is one who practices often and is willing to “eat bitter.”¶¶

The benefits of training do not require a description. So avoid conceptualization and just practice. “Ne te quaesiveris extra” (Do not seek for things outside of yourself)–R.W. Emerson. A description, no matter how eloquent, cannot convey skill.

Xingyi is uncomplicated because it is natural…Carry on like a normal person doing ordinary actions, and with perseverance progress will come.” –Guo Yun Shen (1829-1898) *


* As quoted in R. Smith, Hsing-I: Chinese Mind Body Boxing.

See T. Bisio, Xing Yi Quan; Art of Inner Transformation.




§ See Song/Bisio Xing Yi Quan Tu Na Si Ba: The Four Breathing Forms of Master Li Gui Chang