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Xing Yi Quan Paradoxes

Great masters of the internal arts often employ seemingly paradoxical statements to explain the principles of internal boxing. Over the years I have found some of the Xing Yi sayings very helpful, both for my own training and for explaining the subtle aspects of Xing Yi Quan to students. The use of somewhat mysterious, paradoxical statements often serves to get our body and mind out of the rut of established preconceptions and habitual patterns of thought which can interfere with one’s individual progress. Some of the IAI instructors like to refer to these seemingly paradoxical statements as “Xing Yi Koans”. In a sense they are like koans, statements that bypass the normal thought processes, to enable us to think and feel outside our own self-created box.

In this post we look at a few of these quotes from the past masters to better understand some fine points of Xing Yi Quan.

One of my favorite Xing Yi “koans” is:

There is no fist in the fist.

Sometimes this is also translated as: There is no boxing in the boxing.

I recently quoted this statement to a group of students practicing Zuan Quan (Drilling Fist). A common error with Zuan Quan is to focus on the fist, thereby putting one’s intention and energy in the fist, rather than the body, resulting a kind of short-distance uppercut, driven by the arm and shoulders. This mistake occurs when one thinks too much about striking, resulting in the energy, Qi and Jin being disconnected. In fact, drilling is an action of the body from foot to head, and has nothing to do with the fist, which is just an extension of the body. When the body drills, the fist also drills, through its connection to the whole body. Drilling is the power dynamic one seeks in Zuan, but if one focuses on the fist, the results and application are limited. If one focuses on the body, many possibilities and opportunities for power delivery and application can be realized. Remembering that there is “no fist in the fist” helps one to focus on the internal body, rather than the hand, and on the internal mechanics rather than on a specific application. I think that the students found this phrase helpful that day.

The Xing Yi rhymed verses for Zuan say that Zuan Quan is attributed to Water and seems like lightning. A poking uppercut does not feel like water, but a body that drills and rotates internally does feel like water flowing around a rock in a stream. Additionally, “seems like lightning” can mean that it is fast, but in fact may refer to the feeling of a non-linear movement passing though the body, that feels like lightening.

Master Li Gui Chang – Zuan Quan

The full quote regarding no fist in the fist is often attributed to the great Xing Yi boxer Liu Qi Lan:

There is no fist in the fist and no intention in the intention. The real intention is in the middle of intentionlessness. When there is no heart within the heart the heart is empty. Not empty and yet empty is true emptiness. Although empty, it is substantial. If someone suddenly attacks me I have no intention to strike, I just respond to his intention.

This idea of “intention, no intention” (Yin Bu Yi) and “no heart within the heart” pervades Xing Yi Quan and the internal arts. This statement conveys one of the key internal aspects of Xing Yi that I have seen teachers like Master Song Zhi Yong manifest (and try to explain) many times. Namely, that through proper training methods, the intention, power, force, and Jin reside naturally within and can simply “come out” at the proper moment. We learn applications and techniques and practice them, but in a sense we also forget them so that we can respond to the demands of the moment rather than with pre-set responses. As more than one Master has pointed out, this idea pertains to both martial arts and to living life.

So how does one have “intention without intention” and “no heart within the heart” ? We find this by training correctly and sensing internally without preconceptions. Not easy, but when did anyone say that internal arts were easy?  As Daoist adept and Ba Gua Master Sun Xi Kun said: Those who study the Dao are as numerous as hairs on an ox, but those who reach attainment are as rare as a Qi Lin.*

*The Qi Lin is a legendary hooved chimerical creature that appears in Chinese mythology, and is said to appear with the imminent arrival or passing of a sage or illustrious ruler. A Qi Lin has a single horn on its forehead, a yellow belly, a multi-coloured back, the body of a deer, and the tail of an ox. Qilin (麒麟) is often translated into English as “unicorn”.