Archive for the 'Language and Terminology' Category


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.


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.


Balanced Force – sinking vs heavy

In normal usage, the words chen (沉) and zhong (重) are often used interchangeably to mean heavy. In Taiji Quan, we make clear distinctions between them. The key difference is zhong is just one direction – a big force going downwards. Chen should feel like a object sinking in water – there is also an upward force.

This has very practical impacts in martial art. Because how we think, how we feel affect our postures and quality of movement right? If you think “I want to be an immovable object, like a big rock or tree”, you will subconsciously try to go as low into the ground as possible, and be as resistant to change as possible. While that may make you more stable, it sacrifices mobility and quickness. The term “Taiji” means having two opposite qualities within the same entity at the same time. So real Taiji skill means here we need to also supply an upward force. However Taiji does not dictate that those two opposite forces must be equal. Otherwise it makes it hard to move right?

So even when we’re standing still, putting all our weight on one leg, we don’t just sink into the ground, we use mental imagery like “there’s a light, pure, upward lifting energy (definition of yang) shooting to the top of the head”, or “think pushing your body out of ground instead of sinking into it”. Having forces in the opposite direction, or at least the mental preparation to exert that force at any time, helps us not just be more agile (the ability to make change quickly), but also more stable. More stable because the overall force is more balanced. That’s why we say elements of yin yang, or wu xing, are opposite but complementary forces. Complementary because they help each other, serving some bigger goal together.

So in Taiji Quan, we want Chen, not Zhong, as by definition zhong is not a taiji quality. An untrained person does not have root, so the first thing we tend to emphasize is to ‘sink qi to dan tian’. But if we only do that, we will be too slow. This is self-evident when doing moving push hand/sparring, but not so much in static push hand. This is why we see people who primary do static push hand do poorly in real fights. They give their opponents their dream target – a slow, solid object that takes in the full impact of attacks.

The overall concept of balancing forces is a very common one in Chinese martial art. In Baji Quan for example, the saying is “head butting against the sky, foot planted in the river of underworld” (头顶苍天, 脚踏黄泉). In Xing Yi Quan this is called six directional force, in Taiji Quan, Baji Quan, it’s called eight directional force.

And when you’re both balanced and agile, not only can you exert a greater force, but that force is also less subject to outside influences.


Shi – 式, 勢, 氏

In Chinese martial art the word ‘shi’ comes up a lot.   Chinese being a language with a large number of homonyms, here we’re actually dealing with several different words.

Whether we are talking about overall martial art style or individual posture, the correct word to use is 式. Because in this context, 式 is abbreviation for 样式 (yang4 shi4) – model, pattern, form, type, style.

Historically, we’ve also seen the other shi 勢 used. In linguistics, we call this phenomenon yi ti zi (异体字: yi – different, ti – body, zi – character) – two words with similar meanings, sounds similar or identical, so used interchangeably, but often shouldn’t be. The other shi 勢 can have many meanings, but one common word combination it appears in is jia shi (架勢, jia means frame), which can also be written with the other shi (架式). Jia shi, or zhao shi (招式) means individual skill/posture.

In everyday usage, 勢 can never be used to refer to an overall model, pattern, form, type, or style. Its usage in martial art then probably started off as an error (teacher transmitted it orally, student wrote it down this way), then perpetuated through tradition. This is very common in traditional culture, given the methods of transmission for manual crafts.

Here those two words are sometimes used interchangeably, and there are no meaningful differences.

The other shi 氏, means family name, surname. This word is often used when a given teacher had many outstanding students, each displaying prominent stylistic difference while the essence remains the same. Instead of saying Sun Lutang style, people abbreviate it as Sun Shi 氏. They can also abbreBagua and Taiji groups were very large, and when people meet, they ask what type of practice the other person do, instead of saying “I study with Sun Lutang (or Sun Lutang’s daughter), or I study Sun Lutang type of practice, people abbreviate that as Sun shi (氏). Of course here people also use the other shi 孙式太极拳. Here 式 sounds more formal. However, when people have to use two shi’s in the same sentence, they use different ones, just because it looks more natural that way: so Wu Style 37 Posture (wu shi san shi qi shi) would be 吴氏三十七式.


Square and circle

In traditional Chinese culture, the words fang (方 – rectangular/square) and yuan (圓 – circular) appear together very often.

In the case of Taiji Quan, the rectangular/square refers to the four main skills of Taiji Quan (peng, lu, ji, an) and the four supplementary skills (cai, lie, zhou, kao). In ancient times, before we have the understanding of the natural world we have today, Chinese people though “heaven is round while the earth is square (rectangular)”. Heaven is thought to be round because it envelops the earth, and seemingly without boundaries and seams. Earth was thought to be square in that you can readily assign the four cardinal directions and four diagonal directions, delineate it in a grid-like manner (“earth is like a go board”).

In Chinese culture people believed Dao (Tao), the universal principle, can explain every thing in this world. So even people in what was considered “low-level” pursuits try to explain and elevate what they do by mapping it to those high-level philosophical principles. In this way the 5 main skills of Xingyi where mapped to 5 elements, the 8 palms of Bagua Zhang mapped to 8 trigrams, and the 4 main skills and 4 supplementary skills of Taiji mapped to coordinates of earth in Chinese cosmology. If you have the earth (4 cardinal + 4 corner skills) and the heaven (circles), then you have everything right?

Today it’s hard to say how we got internal martial art skills: did people think “this is way Dao works, the soft can overcome the hard, how do we apply it to martial art?”, or did martial art skill get to a point of high efficiency where people start to connect the dots: “hey, through clever timing and direction and manipulation of other aspects of force (not just speed and power, but also angle, direction, duration, etc), in this case we successfully dealt with a large force of this type using a smaller force of this type, this is soft overcoming the hard! Let’s investigate it further, because according to Dao we should be able to deal with all types of forces in a similar manner…” My guess is it’s probably the later.

The abstract principles of Daoism does a great job of explaining how and why internal martial art skills work on a physical level. However we need to be aware of the cultural tendency mentioned above, and be careful of its inherent pitfalls in trying to find one-to-one correspondence between martial art and philosophy/religion:

  • Traditionally people say there are 36 (one of those magic numbers) main types of jin (trained force) in Taiji Quan. In reality there are more than 36 basic types. So her we need to be careful not to miss something important.
  • On the other hand, in the overall scheme of things, historical martial art is a small dao (xiao dao). Meaning what we’re trying to do is simple – try to kill another person with bare hands and some simple tools. It’s not solving the world financial crisis. It is but a tiny subset (very partial one at that, not a perfect microcosm) of our overall experience of life, universe, and everything. So it’s futile to map 64 palms of our form to the all-encompassing, rich, dense layers of meanings that are embedded in Yi Jing’s 64 trigrams.

Liuhe and Baji

One of the earliest references to the term liuhe (六合) appears in the book Huai Nan Zi (淮南子).  Written in early Western Han Dynasty (~2,000 years ago).  The book was mostly Daoist in essence, mixing in some Confucian and Legalist ideas.  It contains a collection of Chinese creation myths, what early Chinese thought about the structure and geography of the universe (heaven, earth, underworld).

As the book  explains, liuhe means the 4 cardinal directions in the earthly realm, plus above and below.  Baji are the outermost boundaries of earthly realm in the eight directions (4 cardinal + 4 corners).  You can tell from these designations that back then people thought earth was flat, and had no understanding of the implications of a three dimensional universe (where there would not be any absolute ‘up’ and ‘downs’).

So in every day usage, liuhe is synonymous with ‘universe’ – everything within all directions.  Since they all refer to directions, six and eight can both mean all directions.  A lot of times we use them interchangeably to avoid word repetition in a sentence, as in the popular phrase “eyes observing 6 directions, ears listening in eight directions” (be alert, take in everything, have complete awareness).

Naming a martial art after such terms serves as least two purposes.  Firstly you want something that conveys power and grandeur.  There’s a popular phrase that describes a great man’s largeness of spirit, that his “qi covers all of liuhe”.  In the case of Baji Quan, you’re saying so great are your powers, they extend to all the way to the very boundaries of our world.

The second purpose has to do with key principle of the art.  In martial art liuhe has special meanings not found at all in everyday usage.  Here the key is the word ‘he’.  The English word “harmony” is not a perfect one-to-one match for the word He.  The literal translation is closing, as in two halves of a box connected by a hinge closing toward each other.  The broader meaning is integration.  Because each part should not act independently, separately of the other, their effort should be combined harmoniously to serve a unified purpose (snapping the box shut).  So the word he also implies coordination.

I’m not qualified to discuss the many levels of liuhe practice in the various arts.  Here’s an article written by one of my elder gongfu brothers on practicing for 3 external integrations in Taiji Quan.

January 2020
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