Posts Tagged ‘Song Mailun


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.

January 2020
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