Training with Master Song Zhi Yong changed my whole approach to martial arts in general, and more specifically, Internal Martial Arts. Song Zhi Yong is a senior disciple of legendary Shanxi Xing Yi Master Li Gui Chang. Master Song is rare and unique teacher. I hope this article, which summarizes my studies with him over more than 20 years, gives the reader a sense of the man and his art.
I first met Master Song Zhi Yong in 1994 when North American Tang Shou Tao (NATST) sponsored a trip to Beijing to study Xing Yi Quan with Master Li Gui Chang and his disciples, and to study Ba Gua Zhang with Master Zhang Hua Sen. At that time I did not even know if Master Song studied Xing Yi. The other disciples taught us forms and methods under the watchful eye of Master Li, while Song concerned himself with taking care of Master Li.
Most of us vaguely and erroneously referred to Song as Master Li’s “nurse.” Several years later I traveled to Taiyuan in Shanxi Province with my good friends and training partners Martin LaPlatney and Thomas Clifford to train with Master Li. The first night we had a banquet with Master Li and some of his disciples. It was a very pleasurable reunion and Master Li seemed happy to see us. Song Zhi Yong was present and he was the consummate host, making sure that everyone was served food and drink at the proper moment It was a pleasure to see Master Li again. During dinner he very seriously spoke with us and several of his disciples about our training over the next 7 days.
We began early the next morning at 6 am behind the Bing Zhou hotel in downtown Taiyuan. Three of Li Gui Chang’s disciples put us through the paces of the Five Fists, correcting the most minute details. While we appreciated the diligence of his disciples, it was a very frustrating experience as one disciple would push my hips back, another would pull me forward, while a third would make yet another contradictory correction. After two days of this, Master Li returned to watch us train and told our friend and translator Huang Guo Qi that we had made no progress at all. I carefully and very tactfully spoke to him about perhaps having only a single person teach us. He smiled back at me and laughed, immediately understanding the problem and said, “Staring tomorrow Song Zhi Yong will teach you. He is the standard.” He stressed this phrase indicating clearly that Song represented the highest standard of the art.
The next morning everything changed. The previously joking and jovial Song became the exacting teacher. He corrected each of the Five Fists in detail and began teaching us Tu Na Si Ba, while also showing us many applications of the Five Fists and some of the Xing Yi animals. Sometimes this involved effortlessly launching me 10 feet, something Song referred to as “throwing a person out” (Fa Ren).
Even the smallest errors were meticulously corrected over and over again. Moving one’s rear foot the slightest bit when it should be still, pulling the rear hand back when practicing Pi Quan, the timing of the hands being disconnected. Even when I swore I had not pulled my hand back, Song would tap my arm and shake his head, and damn, he was always right. Every day after Song left we would film whatever corrections and applications we could remember. I was really glad that I was accompanied by seasoned martial artists like Thomas and Martin, because between the three of us we could generally remember most of the new information and some of the nuances.
Three days of this practice and Li Gui Chang returned to watch us again. This time he nodded his approval and said we had made progress. He then proceeded to make his own corrections and even let us film him demonstrating them. We trained another day or two and then returned to the United States.
This first experience with Song Zhi Yong gave us a firm grounding in Li Gui Chang’s method of Xing Yi Quan, which Song sometimes referred to as the “body method,” meaning that the training method was completely about changing the internal body rather than the external techniques and forms. Master Li’s Xing Yi focused on relaxed elastic power and defeating strength with suppleness. Song constantly astounded us with his supple softness, within which one could feel firm power. If I touched his chest the flesh around my finger would melt away from my touch. When he entered he seemed to disappear and then reappear with his face an inch from mine as my feet left the ground.
The biggest difficulty was letting go of my previous conceptions of strength and power. Although I had developed power and many effective techniques in my previous Xing Yi training, these things were useless against Master Song, who simply gave me nowhere to apply power or calculated techniques. Also difficult was realizing I had many deficiencies in my movements that I had hidden quite well, but Song would constantly point out that I was off-balance at critical movements in my step, or that I overextended my arm, or moved my foot independent of moving the whole body. These small “cheats” all had to be laboriously unlearned, a very frustrating process that I admit was very difficult to embrace.
During one of our next trips to Shanxi, Martin, Thomas and I met Master Cheng Quan Gong, Master Li’s senior disciple who is very skilled in Tai Qi Quan. During our first meeting with him we learned some of the Nan Shaolin Five Element Soft Style exercises that closely resemble the Tian Gan exercises from Gao Yi Sheng Ba Gua Zhang. Master Cheng also demonstrated his Tai Ji skills by bouncing us off a cement wall for several minutes. During this visit, Song Zhi Yong continued his detailed instruction of the Five Fists (Five Elements), and added Wu Xing Lian Huan, Xing Yi’s linking form.
When practicing the Five Elements everything had to be precise, with no emphasis on visible power. Bu Li (no force, no muscular strength) and Fang Song (relax) was a constant refrain. However, in Lian Huan Song wanted us to visibly Fa Li (issue force) at certain moments in the form. We had trouble issuing power correctly, but Song explained that this would come in time if we perfected Pi Quan (and therefore by extension, the Five Fists).
I always liked the Xing Yi animals and the many applications that come out of their practice. Song disparaged the animal forms as not important. He constantly stressed that mastering Pi Quan (Splitting Fist) was the key to mastering Xing Yi. Then he would demonstrate how with a small body shift Pi Quan became Dragon, Tiger, Monkey, Horse etc. His applications of the Five Fists however would every now and then suddenly become one of the animals – when I commented on this, he shrugged and laughed. He did however take the time to make detailed corrections of animal forms and had Master Cheng Quan Gong correct the comprehensive Xing Yi spear form I had learned from Master Li’s disciples in 1994 in Beijing.
In between one of our Shanxi trips Master Li passed away. On our next visit Song took us to Master Li’s grave. There we saw the memorial stone with the names of all the disciples carved there. At the bottom, I saw my name and Martin LaPlatney’s name. We kowtowed to our Master at his graveside. It was a very moving moment, the beginning of my realization that I now had a responsibility as Master Li’s disciple to properly learn and eventually pass on his art.