Teaching the rich and the powerful, continued…

One of the persistent myths in Taiji is that when Yang Luchan went to Beijing, he made the training easier by taking out all the hard stumping and jumps from the form to make it easier for the nobles.  There has been two reasons supplied for his doing so: 1) the form would otherwise be too difficult for the nobles, 2) he didn’t want to teach the real art to the Manchurians who invaded and took control of China in 1644.  If we just take a step back and take a look at everything else we know to be true about the martial art scene in Beijing at the time, we can easily conclude this not to be true.

To start, both of these reasons implies the true essence of Taiji lies within powerful stumps and high jumps.  But those are not what make basic Taijiquan skills work, or makes it different from other martial art right?  If we want spectacular high jumps and kicks, none can surpass those in modern Wushu.  Are those Wushu’s athletes’ competition more authentic than even the classical forms then?  As for powerful Fajin in strikes, out of the Big Six martial arts of the north,  Tongbei and Baji are the ones most famous for that.  In terms of stumping, Baji and  Xingyi emphasize those in their training more than other arts.  The essence of Taiji is using subtle circular forces to change the direction of the opponent, taking him off his center before he is aware.

Yang Luchan may very well have changed the practice over his lifetime, and taking out the powerful fajin and jumps (the high kicks are still in the form) may very well be a conscious decision to make the form’s tempo completely slow, even, and smooth, which help the practitioner get the correct feel sooner.

As for deceiving the prince of Qing Dynasty for all those years, that is just not possible for someone in his position.  First: before coming to Beijing Yang Luchan spent his entire adult life as an indentured servant.  He was freed only because his master died, and it was unseemly for an single adult male his age to be living alone with the widow of the master.  A commoner cannot even loiter outside a prince’s palace without permission.  Before coming to Beijing, Yang Luchan first went back to his hometown of Yongnian.  There he seriously injured an opponent during a fight.  The challenger’s family and clan sought revenge.  When Yang Luchan came to Beijing, he was able to keep a low profile for a while, taking a job as a regular family tutor (literature, not martial art) for the owner of a famous pickled vegetable shop.   However when one day a band of 20 brigands tried to rob the factory shop, he single-handedly defeated all of them.   Soon the old enemies showed up at his door again.

The shop he worked at – Tianyishun Jiangyuan (天义顺酱园), supplies the imperial family.  The owner knew Duan Wang, the cousin to the emperor.  The shop owner Zhang Fengqi (张凤岐) introduced Yang to the prince, with the idea that with him serving the prince, trouble will stop following him once and for all.  And that was the way things worked out.  Not only did it provide livelihood, honor, and prestige, but the association with the prince provided security and peace of mind as well.  Why would Yang Luchan, whose life has been mostly impoverished and troubled up to this point, do anything so outrageous and daring as secretly creating two systems of teaching and deceive the person he depended everything on?!

Besides, we all know how counter-intuitive the slow Taijiquan training method is.  How would it look to the prince if he and his men spent years training with little results, while Yang’s own son Banhou, who is 3 years younger than Quan You and others, grew by leaps and bounds in skill?  Such deception is simply not possible.

Besides, we knew people inside the palace got the real skill.  As the famous saying goes “Of Luchan’s students, Wanchun (萬春) got his hard fajin, Lingshan (凌山) was adapt as throwing, and Quanyou (全佑) was skilled at neutralization.”   So these were his three best students (besides his sons of course).  Wangchun, Lingshan, and Quanyou were Manchurian guards working at Prince Duan’s palace.   Wangchun and Lingshan had no desciples, Quanyou today is respected as founder of Wu Style Taijiquan.  According to family lore within Taiji circles, there were actually two other Manchurian students who obtained Taijiquan skill before these three, but they both perished during the invasion of Eight-Nation Alliance.

We can tell whatever Yang Luchan taught, he taught everyone the same.  Banhou’s skill and training is no different from what is taught in Quan You’s lineage, or different from those of Yongnian students Yang Luchan taught before coming to Beijing.  In fact, of the six big styles of Taijiquan today, all five that shared common ancestor in Yang Luchan look more or less the same, with only Chen Style looking very different.

So if Yang Luchan made the change, he taught everyone the same way, he did not single out the Manchurian employers.  If that were not the case, then there should be no difference between Yang Style and Chen Style.

This is where understanding the cultural context is really helpful.  Who are these Manchurians who learned from Yang Luchan?

Manchurian Warrior on Horseback

Manchurian Warrior on Horseback

The Manchurians are an ethnic minority at the northeastern border of Ming Empire.  They were an autonomous vassal state that had to pay annual tribute to Ming.  With Ming government overthrown and country still in chaos as the peasant rebels still trying figuring out what to do, an opportunity arose for them to raid the country.  But clear-sighted and ambitious Prince Dorgon rightly saw this as not just another big score, but an rare opportunity to take over the entire country.

There was great opposition as the native Han ethnic group opposed rule by foreigners.  Those opposition died down fairly soon as Qing Dynasty was blessed with many brilliant, enlightened rulers, in sharp contrast to Ming Dynasty.  The Manchurian did not repeat the key mistake the rulers of short-lived Mongol empire made – trying to make a much larger, more advanced civilization conform to the social, economic, and agricultural systems of a less advanced nomadic culture.  Instead, they eagerly adopted Han ways, so the native population did not feel a constant cultural clash that reminded their differences and fueled dissent.

One tradition the Manchurians did not abandon is the way its male members lived in constant readiness for war.  Made up of 8 tribes/clans, the male of each of the tribes were not to have full-time occupations that would prevent them from being called up for war/raid at a moment’s notice by their clan leaders.  For most of its 261 year history, Qing Dynasty enjoyed uninterrupted peace and prosperity.  For all this time, the entire male population of the ruling ethnic groups lived off rich government stipends, and had nothing but free time on his hands.  These man are known as Sons of Baqi (Baqi Zidi 八旗子第).  Baqi – eight flags representing the eight tribes of Manchuria.

Since they can’t have full-time professions, they had full-time hobbies.  During this time, every conceivable leisure-time activity:  arts, crafts, falconry, gardening, cuisine, … cricket-fighting, everything got pushed to absurdly high, refined levels.  This included, for a people whose entire way of life (and very idea of manhood) centered around horseback riding, wrestling, and hunting, a natural and abiding interest in martial art.

It is during this time Shuaijiao reached its zenith, as Manchurian, Mongolian, and Han styles merged into a much larger, more detailed skill.  The Manchu emperor has his own wrestling team of around 438 people, divided into two camps.  Throughout the year the camps competed with each other, had frequent exhibitions, traveled with emperor during hunts, and most importantly, faced off against the Mongolian king’s wrestlers in annual contest.  Membership and promotion in the team depended entirely on one’s performance in all these events.

The 438 of professional wrestlers at Shan Pu Ying (善扑营) belong to but one of the three capitol city garrisons.  The one where Yang Luchan, Liu Zhijun, and Song Mailun taught at – Shen Ji Ying, had over 2,000 instructors/weapons experts who led the training of 30,000 strong palace guards.  That plus the battle-hardened agents of Big Ten security companies (Biaoju), members of Big Six martial arts of the north, and all the people who flock to the city to make a name for themselves, Beijing during Qing Dynasty represented the peak of development and growth of traditional martial art.

Shan Pu Ying

Wrestlers of Shan Pu Ying

The lifetime patronage of the large number of ruling class already deeply steeped in martial culture played a huge role in all of this.  The Manchurian, experts to start with, with unlimited time and resource, were discerning connoisseurs of martial art as in any of their other hobbies.  One nobleman – Duke Lan,hosted Ma Gui for years hoping Ma would teach him the famous Eighteen Interception (si ba jie 十八截) – an advanced broadsword (regular length, can be worn at waist) skill.

Taken all together, given the large, vibrant, and knowledgeable community, it would be impossible for the Yang’s to be teaching one set of drastically watered-down skills to the nobles – the very people who made all these growth and development possible, and teach another, more advanced set to other Han people, whom the Manchurian patrons also know equally well.

This traditional of patronage would continue during the early days of Republic era.

In 1933, Yuan Liang became the fourth mayor of Beijing.  Yuan was deeply interested in martial arts, and asked head of Beijing Physical Culture Institute (北平体育研究社) Xu Yusheng (许禹生) to recommend a teacher for him.  Xu was one of the first modern educators in modern China.  Between age 20 – 24, Liu Dekuan came and taught him at his house.  Beijing Physical Culture Institute was the first time martial art was taught to the public outside of the traditional private master-disciple system.  Many of the first generation instructors were great masters, they were responsible, as a necessity for teaching large classes, systematizing, formalizing, and in many cases creating (ex. Bagua Jian) many of the empty hand and weapons routines in traditional martial art.  So Xu knew everyone.

Yuan Liang had one pre-condition, that he would fight each candidate, if he loses, he will be the disciple with no questions asked.  The first few candidates, afraid to harm the most powerful man in Beijing, held back and ‘lost’.  Yuan was deeply unsatisfied.  He demanded Xue Yusheng produce someone better.

Wang Maozhai

Wang Maozhai

It is at this point that Xue Yusheng thought of Wang Maozhai.  Also a senior disciple of Quan You, Wang was not much involved in the business martial art.  Throughout his life he operated a profitable building supply company called Tong Sheng Fu (同盛福) in the center of the city (Don Dan district).  He didn’t need to teach, and worry about any politics associated with it.  As predicted, Wang Maozhai had no reservations when he met Yuan Liang, and beat Yuan Liang as he would with anyone else he met.  Of course he did not injury Yuan Liang, but gave Yuan Liang a very clear idea of his skill.  Yuan Liang, thoroughly impressed, immediately knelled down.

When word of this went out, Wang Maozhai, who was previously only known inside the professional circle, became famous overnight.  Many flocked to him.  Wang, throughout his life, always felt his teacher Quan You was slighted by the nobles of Qing Dynasty, he always told people “my teacher is Quan You, and his teacher is Yang Luchan (not Banhou).”  He could not have cared less of ranks and titles, in fact he was antagonistic.  He refused to teach anyone related to the Qing nobles.

The people flocking to him now were the elite of Beijing’s political and commercial world.  Everyone want to be ‘brother’ with the new major.  After a careful selection process, Wang Maozhai also admitted seven other famous businessmen of Beijing at the same time as Yuan Liang.  During the same ceremony, Wang allowed his disciple and successor Yang Yuting open his door.  It was here that Master Wang Peisheng joined the group.

Master Wang’s experience training with the new elites of Beijing was very interesting.  From very early on he got the opportunity to train with Wang Maozhai directly.  He remember as a teenager going to Wang Maozhai’s home in the winter, and next to the door he would see all these coats and pelts made of the most expensive, exotic material.  This is before the age of advanced man-made fibers, winter cloth tend to be heavy and bulky, made of cotton.  Except if you are very rich, then you can afford materials like mink that is incredibly warm and extremely light at the same time.  It was quite a sight for a boy from poor family.

As mayor Yuan Liang was deeply interested in traditional culture, he initiated many projects restoring and promoting traditional art and architecture around the city, hoping to turn Beijing into this cultural heritage site appreciated by all foreigners, who would in turn oppose Japan’s design on it (Yuan went to university in Japan).  With Yuan’s patronage Wang Maozhai established public classes at the Grand Temple (Tai Miao 太庙).  Eventually thousands flocked to those classes, making Wang Maozhai the leader of largest Taiji school in history (that record was broken when Yang Chengfu went to open his school in Shanghai).

Wang Maozhai's Taiji class at Tai Miao 4 - Henri Cartier - Bresson

Wang Maozhai’s Taiji class at Tai Miao – Henri Cartier – Bresson

Master Wang started assisting Wang Maozhai in his classes at age 18, a mere 3 years after he started learning Taiji – probably the youngest Taiji instructor ever.  His duty consisted of spending hours every day doing push hands with all the rich and powerful students trying to hobnob with the mayor.

Unlike the Manchurian patrons during an earlier age, these wealthy merchants and politicians tend to be of middle age, otherwise inactive, used to life of luxury and comfort.  They tend to be very overweight, and quite a few indulged in opium.  They were not martial art material to say the least.  During push hands, they have poor awareness of their own center, and tend to lean forward too much during advances.  It was young Master Wang’s job to prevent them from falling in such circumstances.  Similarly, he need to very precise in his own attacks so these clients won’t get thrown down to the ground.  Master Wang looked to this not as a drudgery, but an opportunity to refine his skill: here has this heavy weight he needs to carefully control at all times, he has to follow the opponent, make him think he’s doing well, he needs to do his own skill, but beat the opponent without hurting him or cause any discomfort.  Imagining getting a job at New York’s Museum of Modern Art moving around the marble statues in the Greeco-Roman Gallery everyday, it would be something like that.

Master Wang would remember these clients remarking at the end of their practice that “it was some workout”.  He could only laugh inside as he was the one doing most of the work.  So in the case of Master Wang Peisheng, teaching corpulent, inept students turned out to be unexpectedly beneficial to his own Taijiquan practice.  It was a unique challenge to one’s skill that most people don’t get to experience.


Biaoju 镖局- security companies

In the previous post we talked about masters who taught princes and nobles. In terms of status and prestige, that is definitely the highest level a professional martial artist could aspire to.

In general, career options for martial artists – those whose focus purely on weapons and empty hand skills (vs broader studies involved in military arts), are few in traditional society. There were basically four:

1) The best, most ideal situation is one where the master has his own school. Here the students come to you.  This requires the highest level of skill, as you have a known, fixed location, and anyone can come and challenge you. If you lose, by custom you have to leave and cede the school to the challenger.

2) The next level is being a teacher, but you don’t have your own school, you have to go to where the students are – you work for someone, or you teach in the military.

3) The third level is one where you have to risk your own life for protect the life or properties of private clients/masters. Examples are security company jobs, and bodyguard services. In the later scenario, normally you would be live at the household you are protecting. Here the head of security can be a prestigious position, but the rank and file are basically servants of the house. In general there is a huge fall-off in prestige between the second and third level, as people think only the desperate would risk their lives like that.

4) The lowest level is in entertainment. Whatever people say about those who risk their lives for private clients, they must have a certain level of fighting skill to make a viable living doing that. The requirement for fighting skill in performance and entertainment is much lower or non-existent.

As with the case of teachers living and teaching at houses of nobles having the highest level of prestige than others with their own school, there is a notable exception for level 3 mentioned above.

In 2006 China’s central television company (CCTV) had a really interesting documentary on development of modern banking in Shanxi province.  In mid to late Qing Dynasty there was great posterity, and the population of the country doubled within a century. Commerce flourished; suddenly there were many types of people needing to securely transport currency and other valuables over long distances. The interesting part is how all of this drove the development of Xinyi/Xingyi in Shanxi.

Before the invention of modern banking, if you had a lot of money, they were stored in the form of gold or silver. When you move you would have to transport all that bulky metal, becoming a big, slow, conspicuous target.

It was in Shanxi where the depositor’s note system and interstate banking was first developed some two hundred years ago. These large banks have between 5 – 10 millions ounces of silver in circulation at any one time. They had branch location in all the major cities along important trade routes. You can take their note to any one of their branch locations and convert it to hard currency.

Now there are large silos of gold and silver where these banks branches are, hence the need for large number of high level martial artists to guard the bank and the wealthy bankers. Since this is Shanxi, it meant Xinyi/Xingyi masters.  Because of the great market demand, high level Xingyi masters were paid like today’s professional athletes. No surprisingly the ranks of elite Xingyi masters and the art itself grew by leaps and bounds during that time.

In Shanxi the number one location for these banks is Taigu. There one such wealthy banking family the Chao’s (曹) employed over 500 security guards for his household alone. The martial instructors working for him included such luminaries as Li Laonong (李老农) and Che Yizhai (车毅斋).

This is also where the first government-approved private security company – Biaoju (镖局), was founded. The martial art master who founded the first Biaoju is known as Zhang Heiwu (张黑五). He was the fifth (wu 五) son of his family and had dark complexion (hei 黑). Today we don’t know exactly what martial art he studied, we just know that he was from Shangxi. According to legend he was martial art instructor to Emperor Qianlong. That it was with the emperor’s suggestion/approval that he opened the first of the “Big Ten” Biaoju’s of Qing Dynasty. He actually opened the Beijing branch first. This makes sense as most banks have locations in the capitol, and at year-end they usually ship large quantities of gold/silver home to headquarters in Shanxi.

Before the age of motion pictures, television, cable, satellite, internet, and recorded medias, everywhere people in sports and entertainment in general occupied the lowest rung in societies. But with the power of media comes astronomical increase in the earning potential, and with that the elevated status. So it is true that great masters who would otherwise have their own school or teach powerful/wealthy clients would choose the pursue the most dangerous, but now incredibly lucrative private security business.

Before the arrival of modern ships, trains, and automobiles, long distance travel was one of the mundane but highly hazardous endeavors in life.  It is for this major reason these security companies exist. These security companies have 6 main lines of business: 1) mail courier service for the government (xin biao 信鏢)、2) transport of bank notes (piao biao 票鏢), 3) transport of gold/silver (yin biao 銀鏢), transport of grain as tax revenue for central government (liang biao 糧鏢), transport of goods (wu biao 物鏢), transport/safeguarding of people (ren shen biao 人身鏢).

Biao Che

Cart use by Biaoju

One of the most common types of customers for security agencies is retired government officials or officials at the end of a term transferring to another post.  If you passed the imperial civil service exams, the government would post you wherever people are needed. So you may be thousands of miles from home town. In China there’s this very common attitude of “a leaf falls to its root” – when you retire you’re supposed to stage a triumphant return to your home town. You left town a ‘wearing plain cloth’, you return ‘wearing silk/satin’. Showing how successful you are, how you brought glory not only to your ancestors but the home town.

Of course, just like the current situation in modern China, corruption was built into the bureaucratic system.  In modern program management parlance, China historically chose a ‘people-centric’ system versus a ‘process-centric’ system, believing no amount of written laws can cover all situations, that ultimately it’s up to the judgement of officials in charge.  Also, there’s this idea that punishment must always be balanced by humanity (eg. when sentencing people who are stealing food because they are starving).  The drawback of course of placing this much power in the hands of individuals is that this leads to ample opportunity for abuse/corruption.

Even a mid-level official would be extremely wealthy by the time his tenure ended. This is where one of the most common attempts at highway robbery took place. The local people would think “you made all your ill-gotten gains off us here, that money should rightfully stay here”. The capitol, more than anywhere else, is where these clients were.

Chun Dian Manual

Manual of Underworld Slangs as recorded by Pingyao Biaoju

There’s actually a lot of interesting things written about the security agency/bandit relationship. Like modern virus-protection software companies, it’s at the same time an antagonistic and symbiotic relationship. Lots of time it’s not even real outlaws as local powers. For example, something like a dock, or waterway, it’s ruled by some kind of gang. If you want passage, you have to go through them. There’s a Chinese saying “even a strong dragon cannot bully the local snake”. Imagine you’re going to a land that is completely new to you, you don’t speak their dialect, you don’t know anyone, you don’t know their unique regional culture, you don’t know the terrain. If they really wanted to, they can set a trap and get you fairly easily.

The local snakes were smart, they wouldn’t just rob every traveler, as that would just make people avoid their area all together. That’s where the semi-antagonistic element come in. You go to a new place, you need to pay respect to the local powers. If you’re new, you have to fight them. If you beat them, they’ll know having a full scale fight with your company is not a good business proposition. They’ll respect you, and let you pass through their territory. Of course you have to shower them generously with gifts each time. If you’re weak, and a nobody, then they’ll just take everything from you.

So security company doesn’t operate by trying to beat everyone who’s in their way every time. But they have to beat everyone at least one time. Diplomacy by itself is useless against uncivilized people if not backed by very real force. As the saying from the Warring States era goes “a small/weak country has no diplomacy” (they just do what strong countries tell them).

Where high level martial art is most needed is when you’re opening a route for the very first time. After that comes diplomacy, but you still need to maintain a great fighting reputation, so people won’t stop respecting you. The biggest companies, like the one operated by San Huang Paochui group, are the ones that had opened safe passages to many important areas of the country. Sort of like you’re an airline and you dominate the New York – Los Angeles route. That’s how your potential customer will know you and select you.

In Chinese the saying is “when at home[town] you rely on family, when traveling outside you rely on friends”. Obviously in the later case the more friends the better. Life on the road is unpredictable, you may run into all kinds of unforeseen problems. In the old days everything is based on relationship, so it helps to have a large network of such powerful “friends”.

The best example of successful agency is that of San Huang Pao Chui group. Song Mailun was originally a high ranking member of Shen Ji Ying (Capitol Garrison – Modern Firearm Division). The prince in charge of Shen Ji Yin was so impressed by him that Song was promoted to Class Five government official (out of 9 classes). But seeing how fruitless it is to serve the corrupt and declining government, he went private and formed Hui You (meet friends) Security Company, the largest in the capitol.

Hui You Biaoju

Hui You Biaoju

From his government work he became well connected politically with the political and economic elites, giving him unparalleled access to his potential client base. As a top level martial artist – a peer of, and good friends of Dong Haichuan, Liu Zhijun, and Yang Luchan, he was well connected to the martial art scene, giving him access to the talent talent needed to run his company.

His work at the security company made him intimately familiar with every type of person, profession, and associations (religions, professional guilds, gangs, outlaws, etc) in society, from the highest to the lowest. All of this gave him great knowledge and wisdom. In today’s parlance we’d call him someone who really knew how the entire system works, who can solve very difficult problems under seemingly impossible deadlines. So he was highly sought after by all kinds of people.

Because they fight in the real world all the time and employed so many martial artist, the Pao Chui group left perhaps the largest curriculum of any martial art group. Empty hand routines alone comprise of 108 sets. On top of that every type of weapon imaginable… They had a great reputation because of the constant feedback from their daily work, any weak members would’ve been weeded out very naturally, quickly.

Just as their rise was rapid and impressive, with the arrival of trains, ship, automobile, and better roads, the decline was also swift. The last of the “Big Ten” Biaoju closed its doors in 1920.

Martial art, like any human pursuit, is an organic product of its environment. When there are economic, military, social incentives, it develops and flourishes. When those needs go away or changes, the arts either decline, disappear or adapt to meet the new need. So it is that we can say the overall state of art for Xinyi/Xingyi (and most traditional Chinese martial arts) was definitely higher in year 1800 than year 1700, and better in 1900 then 1800, but in 2000 it’s definitely lower than 1900.


Teachers to prince, kings, and palace guards

In popular culture, such as video games (eg. Virtua Fighter), many martial arts were described as being taught to the “king”, or “inside royal palace”.  There are some confusions in this area as “king” in China meant different things than what that title means in European tradition.

Before China was unified in 221 B.C., the country was ruled by kings (wang 王).  When King of Qin (秦) conquered the others, he gave himself the title The First Emperor (shi huang di 始皇帝).  Ever since then the ruler of China, though now one country, called himself the emperor.

Throughout history the title of king continued to exist, granted to the highest rank of nobles.  These are usually people who were instrumental in founding of a dynasty, like Han Xin – King of Qi in Han Dynasty, or members of royal family.  During the Qing Dynasty, only brothers and sons of the emperor can be conferred that title.  So in Qing Dynasty at least, king should really be translated as prince.

Of the famous masters of internal martial art who taught princes, Yang Luchan of Taijiquan was the first.  Yang taught Zaiyi (載漪 1856-1922) – Prince of Duan (Duan Jun Wang, or Duan Wang 端郡王).



During his time in Prince of Duan’s palace, one of the prince’s bodyguards 全佑 (Quan You) studied with Yang also.  But Quan You could not be recognized as a disciple of Yang Luchan, as that would make him a brother of his master the prince.  Instead, officially he became disciple of Yang Banhou – Yang Luchan’s son.  After the fall of Qing Dynasty, like many Manchurians  Quan You adopted a Han name – Wu (吴).  Later on he would be recognized as founder of Wu Style Taijiquan.

Yang Luchan and Yang Banhou both worked as instructors for Shen Ji Ying (神机营).  Literally “divine machinery garrison”, an elite force specializing in firearms (canons, rockets, mortar in the beginning, later on also rifles…) that had its origin in the previous Ming Dynasty, when firearms began to become practical battlefield weapons.  Up to 30,000 strong during Qing Dynasty, it was a royal garrison that guarded the Forbidden City and traveled with the emperor.  So it was one of the three most elite, trusted military units of Qing Empire.

Shen Ji Ying

Shen Ji Ying

Dong Haichuan arrived in Beijing much later than Yang Luchan.  He served both the 8th and 9th generation Royal Prince Su (Su Qin Wang 肅親王).

In China’s there was a great tradition called “Jiang Di” (降递) that governed the passage of noble titles from one generation to another, that the title get demoted by one rank each time until it reaches the lowest of noble rank.  This way succeeding generations have a incentive to make notable contributions to the empire.  There were exceptions to the rule.  During the Qing Dynasty, there were 12 Prince titles that were inherited intact from generation to generation, these were known as Iron Hat Princes.  In Chinese when we say something is “iron”, it meant that thing is solid, for real, not liable to change.  Su Qin Wang, a title originally conferred to the first crown prince of Qing Dynasty, was one of these 12.

During his many years of service with Su Qin Wang, Dong Haichuan spent about 10 years away from the palace, managing the prince’s large estate in Mongolia.  During these years he was accompanied by his senior disciple Yin Fu.   It was during this time the 64 Palm form was formalized.  Many people believe Yin played an instrumental role in creation of that first form.

Later, when Dong moved out of Su Qin Wang’s palace after retirement, martial artists flocked to him as he was basically inaccessible to them before.  Many of these disciples were accomplished masters already, and Dong modified the training method according to what each student knows already.  Dong also started to further systematize his art.  Hence the first 64 Palm form later became known as Yin Style Baguazhang.

Dong and Yang were on very friendly terms, they were introduced to each other by Song Mailun, the head of the largest security company in the capitol, and great master of San Huang Paochui.  Yang and Dong had one known encounter.  It was at one of those huge garden restaurants popular in Beijing at the time.  A large group of people were present at the party.  At some point they got up and went outside to the garden, closing the doors behind them.  When they came back after a while, both praised each other’s skill.  Within Taijiquan circles, legend had it Yang said afterwards Dong was able to neutralize all of his attacks.

Another great master who also taught at Shen Ji Ying was Liu Shijun (劉士俊).  That was where he had the famous encounter with Yang Banhou:  one day Yang Ban Hou came home, he was happy because he threw Xiong Xian Li (Li’s nickname, he came from Xiong County).  When Bauhou related the account to his father, Yang Luchan remarked, “don’t be too happy, it doesn’t look like a clean victory.”  Banhou was puzzled.  Yang Luchan said “Look under your armpits.”  Sure enough, there were holes under the armpits on Banhou’s robe.  Liu Shijun, well-known master of eagle claw gongfu, could have caused him serious injury but obvious chose not to.  Later that evening, Yang Luchan felt uneasy thinking about this, and quickly made his way to Liu Shijun’s place.  Liu was already packing his belongings to leave the city, as per tradition.  Yang persuaded him to stay, saying this encounter was but a casual crossing of hands, all the while praising Liu’s skill and character. After much persuasion, Liu finally agreed to stay and came to admire Yang.  One of Liu’s most prominent disciples was Liu Dekuan (劉德寬), who went on to achieve even greater famous after studying with Dong Haichuan.

Yang Luchan, Dong Haichuan, Liu Shijun, Song Mailun, these were the premiere martial artists of the capitol city.  These masters taught princes and elite soldiers that guarded the princes’ and emperor’s palaces.  But they had no direct connection to the emperor or the royal crown prince.  That would change with the next generation.

Ma Gui

Ma Gui, Yin Fu’s senior disciple,  had a chance encounter with Yang Banhou at Duan Wang’s palace.  One of Ma’s nicknames was Mu Ma (Wooden Horse, Ma’s surname means horse).  One time he was on the job at Duan Wang’s palace when Yang Banhou was teaching the prince push hand.  Just 18 year old at the time, he let out an impolite laugh while watching Yang, which is a major taboo between martial artists to start with, much less in the presence of a prince.  However Duan Wang was in a playful mood.  He asked Ma why Yang laughed, whether it’s because he also practices and understands what they were doing.  Ma replied “yes, but I just walk circles.”  “Then perhaps you would like to try”, said the prince.  Naturally he meant against Banhou.  Ma was short and slight of built his entire life, no doubt that and his age made Banhou underestimated him.  For as soon as they touched, Ma Gui sent Banhou on an uncontrolled flight, knocking down and breaking a man-sized garden vase given by the emperor in the process.  Again, thankfully Duan Wang was in a great mood that day, as Ma Gui could’ve easily lost his life over that offense.  Instead, Duan Wang made Ma Gui teacher to his son Pujun (溥儁).



In 1899, the Dowager Empress Cixi, the real power ruling Qing Dynasty, made Pujun “big brother” (da a ge 大阿哥) – crown prince.  Unlike his reactionist cousin Duan Wang, Emperor Guangxu, son of Cixi’s sister, was a modernizer who was trying to transform the political system into a constitutional monarchy modeled after the great western powers at the time.  But Chinese feudalism had reached a point where it could neither afford its illnesses nor the cure.  His reform effort failed, and Cixi planned to replace him shortly with Pujun.

While Ma Gui was now the teacher of the future ruler of China, it was his teacher Yin Fu who stood close by to the current one.  Yin Fu was the bodyguard of Cixi.  His rank was Yi Pin Dao Wei (一品刀卫) – First Rank Sword Guard, meaning he was one of the few people on earth who could stand steps behind the ruler of China while wearing a sword.

Yin Fu would have been immortalized for his martial prowess alone.  However, during his time, he won his great fame for another reason that is not talked about much today – he was responsible for security when the royal family escaped Beijing during the invasion of Eight-Nation Alliance in 1900.

The Qing rulers of the time were not unlike the French royalties during the French Revolution, but imagine in this instance the rulers and their large retinue miraculously managed to escape and return unharmed.  In a situation where was complete breakdown of civil society, guarding a large group of people who are weak in every sense of the word, that completely out-of-touch with real world, that could be no greater demonstration of one’s intelligence, resourcefulness, fortitude, and martial prowess.

At the same time Ma Gui was facing the greatest challenge of his life as well inside of the capital.  The Eight-Nation Alliance saw Duan Wang being the master manipulator who played off the Taiping Rebellion against the foreigners inside China, so his palace was one of their high value targets.  By this time Duan Wang and the royal prince Pujun had escaped as well,  but many household members were left behind.  Decades later, a daughter – one of the handful of survivors of the invasion, would write “the foreign soldiers came in with orders to wash the palace with our blood, in the end only a few of us made it out.  I saw Master Ma Gui cutting a bloody path through the sieging armies.”  This was a very valuable historical account, unique in that it actually mentioned the name of a martial art master.

After Yin Fu escorted the royal family back to the capitol, Cixi was forced to exile both Duan Wang and Pujun in 1902 to the remote Xinjiang province, stripping them of their ranks and titles.



China’s long feudal era finally ended with the fall of Qing Dynasty in 1911.  Shortly after in 1915, one of the major warlords of Qin Dynasty Yuan Shikai briefly tried to establish himself as emperor, his “reign” lasted a mere 83 days as the nation rebelled.  No one counts him as the last emperor.

Similarly, the person who was the last emperor – Puyi, was later installed as emperor of a puppet government by the militaristic Japanese government of the time.  As with Yuan Shikai, no one recognizes his legitimacy after 1911.  Society had finally moved on, there would be no more kings and emperors for China.  For this reason, although great Baji master Li Shuwen’s student Huo Diange was bodyguard of Pu Yi, to be historically accurate we cannot say he was bodyguard of emperor.  Huo Diange was a great master of Baji himself, and had many run-ins with the Japanese handlers of Pu Yi.  His tenure there was ultimately a very tragic one.

These rulers of late Qing Dynasty were hugely unpopular in China to say the least, as they presided over the most humiliating chapter in the nation’s history.  My personal opinion is that people (majority of country is ethnically Han) perhaps placed too much blame on these ethnic minority rulers, who most likely wouldn’t have behaved differently if they were Han.  The fundamental problem was not these Manchurian rulers were bad at being feudal rulers, it was feudal system/culture they represent that are at fault.  For these historical reasons, today it’s not politically correct to exalt the royal service of these illustrious masters.

Today it really doesn’t matter whether who they served was really the king of China, the crown prince, the royal cousins or uncles, we can simply admire them for their skill.  These are people who started on one of the lowest rungs in traditional society, and through their incredible talent, hard work, discipline, and their wits, fought every step of the way to the highest place possible for them in that society, ultimately to be in the daily presence of the rulers of their known world.


Simple, boring, painful, time-consuming 耗

There is a Chinese expression that “Gongfu comes out of Hao (功夫是耗出来的)”.

Hao (耗): expend, consumed, dawdle, waste, exhaust, wear out.

In martial art practice Hao means holding a particular pose, and just stay there for long periods of time. Martial art is art of movement, so why do people place such emphasis on static training?

This addresses a common problem in martial art training. That people by nature find certain things more exciting, interesting to practice. Everyone loves practicing skill, technique, whereas holding a hamstring stretch for 30 minutes at a time is a lot less appealing. However, most basic training such as flexibility and post standing requires Hao type of training. Basics are important because they are the foundation. The strength of the foundation puts a limit on how high a building could be.

Hao Tui

In everyday usage, when people say hao shijian (耗时间), it means wasting time doing meaningless activity. But that’s not the case with training. Beyond basics, there are many aspects of martial art training that looks simple, boring, and repetitive, but that’s exactly where we develop our gongfu. Hence the expression “Practicing skill without practicing gongfu, in the end we have nothing (练武不练功,到头一场空).”

Another aspect of Hao that discourages people is that it’s often painful. So this is when we get questions like “can we listen to music when we practice?” Here what we’re really asking is “can I at least mentally disengage from this activity, and get some short-term gratification?” Actually pain is a teacher, it tells us a lot about the strength and weaknesses of our body. We should instead go deeper into the practice, and investigate it: where is the pain (in the muscle I want to stretch, or in the tendons and ligaments), what kind of pain is it (soreness or sharp/wrong kind of pain), is it caused by something else (if it’s in a joint, is it because weakness in muscles, so this part is overcompensating), etc.

In martial art practice as in life, results are determined by what we focus our attentions to, what we spend our time on. We naturally prefer certain types of things, and neglect, belittle the importance of things that seems easy to understand, boring, painful, and takes a very long time. But often it is those seemingly simple things that are of key importance, deserving of our full attention.


Reverence and Fear 敬畏

PBS did a good documentary on the making of Samurai swords. The program weaves together footage of craftsman making the sword in the traditional manner along with lucid scientific explanations of the process in modern language by professors of metallurgy and religious studies from a prestigious engineering school.

One of the comments that caught my teacher’s attention was how by treating the process as a sacred religious ritual, it in fact has the effect of quality control. The Japanese people really believed all things in nature are imbued with spirits. And a finely made sword was the spirit of Samurai. Therefore every step of the forging process must be taken seriously, as if it’s a religious ritual. During a ritual, every tiny detail must be attended to carefully, as you feel you are in the presence of god, and any mistake would bring severe punishment. This mentality is called Jing Wei (敬畏) – reverence and fear.

For my teacher, who teaches western students internal martial art and Qigong, this represents an everyday challenge in which tradition clashes with modernity.

The human mind has a very deeply-seated need for the world to make sense, for things to happen for a good reason. From earliest days of civilization, we have been creating explanations for phenomenons we crave to understand. In the case of Chinese culture, the early theories we came up with for how nature works involves Taiji, Wuxing, and Bagua. For disciplines like internal martial art and Qigong, many of the terminologies and explanations for various practices have these mythological/philosophical origins.

Since that time we have come to know a great deal more about how nature works, theories that makes the ancient ones seems naive and childish by comparison. The challenge then is when teaching modern day students, do we still use the old languages and terminologies? That is actually very hard. Here’s a practical example: one of the foundation building (zhu ji 筑基)exercises in Qigong is called Cai Qi – gathering of Qi. The exercises involves breathing exercises done at dawn and full moon, using arm motions that look like the practitioner is literally reaching out to gather the sun/moon with his arms, then bringing it down into the dantian – like a mythical creature swallowing the sun/moon.

Do I believe this process actually brings in yang/yin energy into my body as it is described, I am deeply skeptical. But what I am not skeptical is the actual results of Qigong exercise, of doing breathing exercises, of getting up early, regularly to exercise. But here lies the problem: if I am skeptical of the process, then I will not get the full benefit of it. Why would that be the case, because as we say in Chinese: 心理影响生理 – psychology affects physiology.

It’s common sense that one’s mental state has a huge effect not just on performance of physical tasks, but the body itself. Anyone who has been under prolonged mental distress can attest to that. So how does this affect Qigong practice? Well, if you don’t believe the power of the sun, that you think it’s just a tool to get you perform a bigger movement, you can then do that exercise in a cramped apartment, just imagine the big sun with your mind. But for a beginner at least, it is much more beneficial if he were actually at a mountain top, at crack of dawn, being able to actually gaze up at the huge sun directly without fear of eye damage, bathed in fresh morning air, and do this exercise. The feeling, and the effect, will be dramatically different. To be in the presence of something big can bring that correct feeling out directly, easily. It’s like meditating in a quiet place versus in the middle of Time Square.  Yes, ultimately we should be able to put our minds in a calm state anywhere, anytime, but to learn that skill, to experience that deep calmness in the first place, it helps if we are in a more remote, isolated setting.  If we only practice in less idea settings, we may never know what our goal (real, deep calmness) is like.

Yin Qi

So here is the dilemma: in the old days not only do people believe in these theories and explanations, but the teacher student relationship was different. When the teacher says do something, the student obeys without questioning. People believed this is the only way the teacher student relationship can work, the same way people still believe unquestioned obedience to all orders is the only way military can work. However, modern students often demand full explanation before they carry out the practice. But once you start explaining the reason you’re asking them to go out at night on the 15th, 16th, and 17th of the month is because that is when Yin Qi of the moon is at its strongest, they will most likely reject that explanation and not do the exercise the way traditionally prescribed, and risk not mastering the skill. So here’s a very interesting example of being rational and thoughtful actually impeding our training.

In traditional Chinese culture the number one criteria for success in any practice is called Cheng 诚. Cheng means honesty, sincerity, loyalty. In terms of practice, it means believing 100% in what you’re trying to achieve, and the prescribed method for reaching those goals. That you trust your teachers, who obviously reached those goals by those means, that you just need to persevere and work hard until you succeed. Much emphasis has been placed on not having “impure thoughts (杂念)”. Here impure means miscellaneous elements that keeps a thought/belief (“swallow the moon”) from being 100% pure. So these could be doubts, or other random thoughts that arise naturally that could distract from our practice.

So my own thoughts about this is the same as I have for acupuncture and other traditional medicine – it’s obviously a technology/methodology with demonstrable results. To get the result, I will follow the steps faithfully, and ignore for the time-being traditional theories that explains why it works. After I get the feeling, I can maybe make modifications (just imagine the sun and the moon, no matter what time of day and where I am) or improvements.


Portraits of Thirty-three Swordsmen – 31 Xia wife

No. 31 Xia wife: no need for [offering of] gold, when there is this robe.

Dong Guodu, formal name Yuanqing, of Jiangxi province, passed the national exams in the sixth year of Song emperor Huizong, and became Jiaoshui (in Shandong province) county governor’s secretary. Upon Jin army’s incursion south, he stayed at his post by himself, while his family remained in Jiangxi. After the central plains fell to the Jin army, he became stranded. Abandoning his post, he sought refuge in the neighboring countryside. He became good friends with his landlord who, sympathetic toward his situation, arranged the purchase of a concubine for him.

It’s not clear where that concubine is from, but she is smart as well as beautiful. Seeing Dong’s financial straits, she started to plan a way out. She used the entire savings to purchase donkeys and wheat. She would mill the wheat using the donkeys, then every couple of days, would ride the donkey into the city to sell the flours, returning in the evening with money. Three years passed like this, a lot of money was earned, enough to purchase house and land.

Never less, separated from his mother, wife, and two sons, with all communications cut off, Dong was often melancholic, rarely joyful. Over the years the concubine often asked him reasons for his poor mood, now he told her everything: “I was actually a Song official, my whole family is in the south, I alone am drifting outside, not sure when I would return. My heart breaks every time I think about this.” The concubine replied “why didn’t you say so earlier. I have an older brother who loves to help people. He will arrive soon, and we can ask him for help.”

In ten days or so, a tall man with big curly beards showed up. He rode in on a tall horse, trailed by ten or so carriages. The concubine said “Here he is, my older brother has arrived!” She rushed out to greet the man, and introduced him to Dong. The three of them drank until deep into the night. Only then did the concubine brought up the issue of returning to the south.

But now Dong started to become afraid. At this time there was a standing order by the Jin government, anyone who was a Song official must volunteer his status. If it was revealed by others, he would be put to death. Afraid to let this secret come out, Dong started to deny he was a Song official. The curly bearded man started to become angry, but held it in check “You and my younger sister had been a couple several years now. You are like my flesh-and-blood now. This is why I’m willing to risk my life to help you return south. If you’re discovered, I would be in trouble because of you. Seeing how you are behaving now, how can I be sure you won’t betray me when we encounter trouble? Here, hand over the official order for you assignment as collateral, otherwise I will turn you over first thing in the morning.” Dong, becoming even more afraid, thinking he would be dead no matter what he does, handed over the document. After the curly bearded man was gone, he spent the rest of the night in tears, panicking, not knowing what to do, what to expect.

Early next morning, the bearded man showed up with an additional horse, telling Dong “Let’s go.” Surprised and overjoyed, Dong rushed back inside to get the concubine. But she said to him “I have some urgent matters that I must take care off, I can’t leave just yet, I shall come looking for you next year. I’ve sewn a quilted robe for you. I wear it and go with older brother. When you arrive in the south, my brother will attempt to give you money, perhaps in the hundreds of thousands, but you must refuse it no matter what. If he persists, hold up this robe and show it to him. The reason for this is I’ve done a big favor for him before. Escorting you back to the south by itself is not enough to return that favor. If he accepted his money, he’d think we’re even and he won’t bother helping me come over as well. So be careful, take care not to lose this robe.”

Dong was stunned, all of this is just too bizarre. Afraid to draw the curiosity of neighbors, he hastily bid his concubine a teary farewell. They sped to the coastline, where a large ship is about to leave. The bearded man ordered Dong to board immediately, and bid farewell himself. The ship immediately sailed south.

Alone on his journey, with hardly any money on him, Dong felt awkward. However everyone on the ship was extremely courteous toward him, offering him food, drink, everything he needed. Yet no one asked a word about his destination.

Several days later, the ship arrived in the Song territory. When they docked, the bearded man was already waiting by the bank. He took Dong to a restaurant to celebrate his arrival, where he offered Dong twenty ounces of gold. Remembering what the concubine told him, Dong firmly declined. The bearded man was equally firm: “You arrive home with empty pockets. What are you planning to do, have your wife and children starve together with you?!” With that said, he got up and left. Dong chased him down outside, and held up the quilted robe. Staring at the robe, the bearded man was astonished, but he quickly recovered and laughed, “Sigh, she is indeed smarter than me. Looks like my work is not done yet. I will escort your beauty back here next year.” With that, he turned around and left.

Upon returning home, Dong Guodu found everyone to be fine. They spent much time talking about what had transpired since the separation. At one point Dong’s wife held up the robe to examine it closely, and saw yellowish light dimly emanating from it. Upon taking it apart, they saw there’s a gold leaf inside each quilted patch.

After settling things at home, Dong reported back to the central government, where he received a promotion as a county level junior military officer. In the second year of his return, the big curly bearded man brought over his beloved concubine as promised. The two of them lived together to happy old age.








Portraits of Thirty-three Swordsmen – 32 Xie Xun’s Concubine

No. 32 Xie Xun’s Concubine: should have just left, why harm others, jealousy is reproachable*.

Xie Qian and his younger brother Xie Xun have always loved each other. During the Jing Kang Incident, Xie Qian was stationed in Hubei province, and became a highly decorated general. Meanwhile, Xie Xun was trapped in the occupied northern territories. His wife had attempted to return to her mother’s home in the south, but was abducted by the defeated army midway. Separated from wife and family, Xie Xun was poor, miserable, and alone. Later, through introduction, he took a concubine who brought a lot of money with her. Only then did Jie Xun’s start having good days in his life again.

Still, Xie Xun missed his wife. One year, during the Chong Yang Festival, he was thinking about his wife, and tears started to stream down his face. Seeing this, the concubine was moved, and decided to help him return south, even saying “if your formal wife is still alive, I would gladly offer half of my dowry to her.” She was extraordinarily capable: planning and arranging every detail of the journey, passing through each checkpoint without incident, and overcoming all manners of obstacles and difficulties on land as well as on water.

Ecstatic upon reuniting with his beloved younger brother, in addition to a new residence, Xie Qian offer Xun four young servant girls. Thinking the concubine would object, Xun initial instinct was to decline. But the concubine advised otherwise: “We really need them right now, and should count ourselves lucky. If you like we could raise them as our children. So why refuse?” Soon however, Jie Xun, being a man still in his physical prime, started to drift away and neglect the concubine, and shift his affection and attention to the new, younger girls.

One day, while drinking with the concubine, they started arguing. The concubine accused him “when you were stranded in the north, you didn’t know where your next meal would come from. If not for me, most likely you would’ve been starved to death by now. But as soon as fortunes changed, you forgot all about past kindness and righteous conduct, such is not the behavior of a real man!” Xie Xun, shouting back, started to punch the concubine. The concubine just sneered, neither saying anything nor doing anything to physically defend herself. Meanwhile, Jie Xun continued with his angry tirade and wild punches. Then suddenly, the concubine stood up, all the lamps went out at the same moment, an oppressive chill struck the bodies of all who stood around. The four servant girls, terrified, all fell helplessly to the floor.

A long time passed before someone dared to light the candles. They can see Xie Xun’s body on the ground, separated from his head. The concubine is gone without a trace.

General Xie Qian, shocked by the report of his brother’s sudden death, immediately sent 3,000 of his elite troops after the concubine. They found nothing.

Notes and commentary
* Ren Xong’s attitude is typical of his time, that in a situation like this, the discarded woman should just leave. In a society where polygamy was the norm, jealousy was deemed a vice unbecoming of a good women.


解潛与其弟洵,素相友愛。建炎、靖康之際,潛積軍功,帥湖南。洵獨陷北境。其妻歸母家,又為潰兵所惊。數年后,為間關得歸。見潛,相持悲慟,潛置酒勞苦,而語之曰:“吾弟雖不幸流落。而兄幸蒙國恩,握兵權。每与虜及群盜戰,奏功于朝,必為弟審名籍中,已至正使,誥命皆在此。”即畀之。洵再拜謝過望,因言: “頃自汴都過河朔,孤單羈困,或見怜,為娶婦,奩裝丰厚,不暇深詳其出處。正無以為活,殊用自慰。偶以重陽日把盞,起故妻之思,不覺墮淚。婦惻然曰:“君豈非欲本朝乎?茲事易辦也。經旬日來告曰:“川陸之計已具,惟命是從。我亦俱行。倘君夫人固存,自當家嫁而分囊橐之半;万一捐館,當為偕老。”遂登途,水宿山行,防閑營護,皆此婦力也。今在舟中,未敢輒參謁。”潘嗟异,途命車招迎。見其眉宇秀茹,言詞明慧,益加敬重。


April 2020

%d bloggers like this: