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Xing Yi Quan Legend – Master Li Gui Chang

Li Gui Chang – Xing Yi Quan Legend

by Tom Bisio

Master Li Gui Chang was born February 1, 1914 in Hao Village, Shanxi Province, China. Master Li began his study of martial arts at a young age, learning Chang Quan (Long Fist), Yue Style Eight Overturning Hands, and weapons. When he was 13, Li started to study Xing Yi Quan and the Shaolin Five Elements Soft Art with Dong Xiu Sheng.

     Dong Xiu Sheng

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. Dong was a Xing Yi student of Liu Wen Hua, the son 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 Zhang with Sun Lu Tang and Geng Ji Shan, who were themselves students of Cheng Ting Hua. Dong Xiu Sheng was an well-known and influential practitioner of Xing Yi Quan, and authored several books on the subject. While studying Xing Yi, Dong also learned another little-known martial art that is closely related to Xing Yi Quan: Southern Shaolin Five-Element Soft Style (Nan Shaolin Wu Xing Rou Shou).

Xing Yi Quan Lineage – Internal Arts International

Li Gui Chang characterized his teacher Dong’s expression of Xing Yi Quan as overcoming firmness with gentleness, rather then relying on firm strength. Master Li felt that Xing Yi could have different expressions, there could be firmness within softness, or, softness within firmness. He felt that these stylistic differences were based on an individual’s previous martial arts background, temperament and physical build. Because Li Gui Chang and Dong Xiu Sheng were both small men, they learned to apply their art with more gentleness and subtlety, rather than firmness.

In 1930, after strict examinations and screening in which he received outstanding scores, Li Gui Chang was admitted to the team that taught and trained the Shanxi Army in martial arts. Dong Xiu Sheng was in charge of this team. Li was recommended to Dong by Master Zhang An Tai, a famous master of Xing Yi Quan. At this time Li Gui Chang became Dong’s discple.

Master Li studied Xing Yi Quan, Ba Gua Zhang, and Southern Shaolin Five-Element Soft Style with Dong from 1927 until 1936. Dong Xiu Sheng died in 1938 at the age of 58. Li Gui Chang also studied Yang style Tai Ji Quan with Liu Dong Han. Liu’s  teacher was Yang Zhao Lin, the only son of Yang Lu Chan’s eldest son, Yang Feng Hou.

Master Li felt that Tai Ji and Xing Yi share many of the same principles and advocated training in both arts. He coached the martial arts training team of Shanxi Province from 1958-1959. During his lifetime, Master Li held the position of Vice President of the Taiyuan Martial Arts Association, Vice President of the Shanxi Xing Yi Quan Association, and was President of the Tai Ji Push Hands Association.

Master Li Performs “Swallow Drawing Water”

Li Gui Chang’s mastery of pushing hands (Tui Shou) was profound. One of Li’s students described Master Li’s ability in Tui Shou as follows:

In pushing hands he seldom issued power. He utilized the whole body skills of sticking, adhering, connecting, and following. When Mr. Li pushed hands with people, he seized the opponent’s power path. He would stick as the enemy retreated; expanding and contracting, coming and going. He followed everywhere. Sometimes sticking, sometimes walking, sometimes hard sometimes soft, he was never stuck nor obstructed. Sticking and yielding whenever appropriate, one could not see the actions of his hands. [1]

My own experience in seeing Master Li push hands was that it looked like magic. The slightest movement of his hands would send the opponent bouncing backward, usually laughing, because they could not tell how he did it.

When my long-term friend and training partner Martin LaPlatney and I began to train with Master Li in Taiyuan in 1995, he was already advanced in years. Master Li had us learn from his disciples, but oversaw our training and came by several times to make comments and suggestions.While his disciples genuinely tried to teach us, each corrected different things, and their advice at times even seemed contradictory. After several days Master Li commented that we had not improved at all. When I asked if he could choose a single person to teach us, he immediately understood the problem, and without hesitation suggested that his disciple Song Zhi Yong be our mentor from that day forward. Master Li told us, “Song is the standard and best represents my art.”

The next four days of training with Song Zhi Yong changed everything. The vast depth of the art of Xing Yi was evident in his movements and explanations. At the end of that time, Master Li told us that we had made good progress. I did not realize then that this was the last time I would see Master Li, nor did I appreciate the difficult training that lay ahead.

I was always impressed by Master Li’s open and honest manner and his ready smile. When he demonstrated, his form was perfect, the lines clean and the expression of power subtle, yet palpable. In the words of one of Li’s students: He trained in Xing Yi Quan until he was peerless. His internal power was simple and clean. [2]

I remember Master Li demonstrating Beng Quan (Bursting Fist). His movement looked effortless, yet the line of power was clean and powerful, with the emission of power visible at the the very end of the punch, so that the force went inside the opponent’s body with no wasted effort.

Master Li Performs Beng Quan

Master Li died at the age of 87, on October 18, 2000. Like Sun Lu Tang, and numerous Daoist masters, who reached a high level of internal development, Master Li knew ahead of time the day of his death, and was able to say goodbye to his many devoted students.

After Master Li’s passing, Song graciously hosted us several times in Taiyuan and took on the responsibility of teaching us.

Li Gui Chang & Song Zhi Yong – 1990

Before meeting Li Gui Chang, Song Zhi Yong studied Xing Yi Quan with several different teachers. He had only seen expressions of Xing Yi that were firm and powerful. Song told us that because Li Gui Chang was advanced in age, he thought he would be able to push Mater Li easily, but instead, Song himself was thrown down quite effortlessly by Master Li. Song said Li was soft and relaxed, able to throw him down without seeming to do anything. Although Song was young and strong, when he pushed hands with Li Gui Chang, he could not find a point against which to apply his strength. Song describes his early training with Li Gui Chang as including practicing San Ti Shi (the trinity posture) and Pi Quan (Splitting Fist) for three years while he looked inside for the Jin (energy, strength).

                        Master Li Performs Tiger

Today, Master Song Zhi Yong manifests profound skill in Xing Yi Quan and push hands. His movements are soft yet powerful. His body seems to melt away from attacks and then without warning is inside your defenses. In training, Song emphasizes connecting with the internal strength (Jin) through the practice of San Ti Shi and Tu Na Si Ba Nei Gong (Four Method Breathing Internal Exercises). Song is a generous, but exacting teacher.

In July 2009, Song Zhi Yong accepted an invitation to be Senior Advisor of Xing Yi Quan to New York Internal Arts (NYIA). NYIA/IAI has made it possible for several of our students in the US to study directly with Master Song in Shanxi.

In recent years, IAI instructor Valerie Ghent and I have traveled to Shanxi several times to train with Song Zhi Yong. Song has been very generous in passing on Master Li’s expression of  Xing Yi Quan. On several occasions Valerie and I trained intensively with Song and his students in Taiyuan’s riverside park, both in morning and afternoon training sessions. The emphasis of this training was on holding San Ti Shi and Pi Quan. Song’s many students, young and old, train seriously and are warm and generous. Most recently Valerie and I spent several days of intensive private training with Song Zhi Yong to train in Tui Na Si Ba and Tai Ji Quan. In 2013, Valerie Ghent was accepted as a disciple of Master Song. Valerie is Song’s only American disciple.

Song Zhi Yong teaching Valerie Ghent (Taiyuan, Shanxi, China 2013)


1. The Teachings of Li Guichang. From Xingyi Quan Jiaocheng, by Shen Huazhang, translated by Joseph Crandall. Pinole, CA: Smiling Tiger Martial Arts 2006.
2. The Teachings of Li Guichang. From Xingyi Quan Jiaocheng, by Shen Huazhang, translated by Joseph Crandall.