In response to a post on Emptyflower, I thought I’d translate an interview about Fu Nei Pai Yang style taiji, which traces its lineage back to a Manchu general, Fu Zhou, who studied from Yang Luchan in the mansion of Prince Duan. This branch of Yang style taiji is interesting for the wide variety of routines encompassed within the system and the jumping kicks and fajin in some of its routines. For students of the history of Yang style taiji, it would be instructive to compare the sets passed down within this branch with those of Li (Ruidong) style taiji, which also derives its transmission from one of Yang Luchan’s ‘within the mansion’ students, Wang Lanting. The following is an extract from an interview (which can be found here ) with one of the popularisers of this style, Li Zheng, who lives and teaches in Zhuhai, in southern China:
“Author (hereafter A): How did you come to study taiji?
Li Zheng (hereafter L): It was my uncles’ enthusiasm for martial arts that kindled my interest. When I first started learning martial arts at the age of 11, I mostly just practiced the basics like kicks, stretching, horse stance, etc..I first became aware of taiji in 1966, when I was 13. At that point, the Cultural Revolution had just started, and people had started burning books related to the ‘4 Olds’ (referring to old thinking, old culture, old customs and old habits). I found some books at my school about taiji and instead of burning them, hid them away and started trying to learn the form from them. The book that left the deepest impression on me was Yang Chengfu’s “Essence and Applications of Taijiquan”. It was mostly this book that prompted me to start looking for a teacher from which to learn Yang style taiji.
While studying taiji, I also studied xingyi, bagua and zha quan (a chinese martial art of muslim origin), but felt that at the end of the day I was more interested taiji.
In my taiji ‘career’ I ‘bowed’ to 3 masters: the first was M Zhai Yingbo, from whom I learnt Fu Nei Pai taiji; later on I became a disciple of M Zhao Bin (Yang Chengfu’s nephew who lived in Xi’an); and my third master was Wudang abbot Wang Guangde. M Wang Guangde is a famous figure in Daoist circles, he is Chairman of the Wudang Daoist Association and Vice-Chairman of the National Daoist Association. For all three masters, I went through the traditional baishi ceremony. All three masters have had a great influence on my study of taiji.
Even though I’ve been practicing taiji for over 40 years, I still feel like I haven’t really grasped it completely, understood it in its entirety, because taiji is so profound.
A: Most taiji enthusiasts have probably never heard of ‘Fu Nei Pai’ taiji, could you please give us a brief intro to the art?
L:The full name of our style is ‘Fu Nei Pai Yang Style Taijiquan’. The originator of our style is Yang Luchan. After passing through a few generations, it was popularised in a new form by Yang Chengfu.
The term ‘Fu Nei Pai’ [lit. inside the mansion branch] refers to the particular branch of Yang style taiji that was passed down by Yang Luchan when he was teaching within the princely mansions of Beijing.
When Yang Luchan arrived in Beijing, he taught 10 taiji sets at the mansion of Prince Duan. These 10 sets form a complete taiji syllabus. Whilst teaching at the mansion, Yang accepted two disciples: one was Wang Lanting (whose teachings form the basis of Li [Ruidong] style taiji), the other was Fu Zhou. Both of these people were men of rank within the mansion: Wang Lanting was Prince Duan’s housekeeper, in modern terms he was responsible for the security of the House; Fu Zhou was a Manchu general with a very solid foundation in martial arts. Both of these men only became Yang Luchan’s disciples after losing to him in several challenges. And so Yang taught them these 10 original sets of Yang style taiji.
A: Why did Yang Chengfu standardise Yang style taiji into the ’85-posture’ routine that is so common today?
L: When, in his later years, Yang Luchan asked his sons Yang Banhou and Yang Jianhou to come to Beijing to help him with his teaching duties, the two sons suggested that they should make some changes to the original sets. And so Yang Luchan started the process that would end with Yang Chengfu’s 85 set. You have to take the historical background into account as well when thinking about Yang Chengfu’s promulgation of the 85 set. 3 generations of the Yangs all taught within the mansions of the Manchu princes. After the fall of the Qing dynasty, the princes quickly fell from grace, and so the Yangs found themselves having to teach commoners to make a living. And so they simplified their public form to make it easier to learn. Another reason for the changes was that they didn’t want to teach the full original system to the public.
Yang Chengfu started popularising taiji in the late 20s and early 30s. As more and more people started to practice Chengfu’s 85 set, most people practicing Yang style only knew of one set, his 85. That’s why a lot of people have never heard of ‘Fu Nei Pai’ – because most Yang stylists come from Yang Chengfu’s line.
A: So how did you come to learn Fu Nei Pai then?
L: Yang Luchan’s disciple Fu Zhou passed the art to his son, Fu Ying. My grand-teacher, Xiao Gongzhuo was a general within the Northeastern Army. While he was stationed in Beijing he had learnt Hao style taiji from Hao Weizhen; he felt that taiji was a good martial art and wanted to lean Yang style. Later on he met Fu Ying through mutual acquaintances. In the 1920s, the aristocratic class in China gradually lost the power and prestige of yore. M Xiao was relatively unaffected by this, as he managed to maintain much of his financial means and social status. He became Fu Ying’s disciple and learnt the 10 sets of Fu Nei Pai taiji from him. After liberation, M Xiao moved to Baoding, where he taught a group of students that included my teacher, Zhai Yingbo.
By the time I started to learn Fu Nei Pai in Baoding, M Xiao had already passed away (in 1979). I later realised that I had seen M Xiao teaching taiji outside Baoding before I started learning Fu Nei Pai, but at that time I did not have the good fortune to be introduced. He was 93 when he passed away. M Xiao was a famous martial arts master in Baoding; he was not only a master of taiji, but was also well-versed in xingyi and bagua.
It must have been some time during the late 70s or early 80s when I started learning Fu Nei Pai from M Zhai. When M Xiao was teaching M Zhai’s generation of students, he didn’t teach all 10 sets to everyone, he taught people according to their fitness and abilities, meaning that each shibo (kungfu ‘uncle’) would know different combinations of routines. Because I got on pretty well, I learnt several routines that my own teacher didn’t know from my shibo. More importantly, I learned a lot from comparing the different understandings and emphases that different teachers brought to the same forms. You could say I’m a ‘compendium’ of Fu Nei Pai taiji!
A: Having studied a complete system in Fu Nei Pai taiji, why then did you become a disciple of Zhao Bin?
L: After I’d basically mastered Fu Nei Pai, I wanted to be able to compare and analyse the public 85 set against what I’d learnt, and so during 1990-1991 I went to Xi’an to find M Zhao Bin. I chose M Zhao thinking that, because he was a relative of Yang Chengfu’s (ed. specifically, Zhao Bin was the son of Yang Cong, the daughter of Yang Jianhou’s second son, Yang Zhaoyuan, making him Chengfu’s grand-nephew), his form would be orthodox.
After I had learnt the 85 set, I could see traces of the original sets I had learnt from M Zhai in the 85. Actually, a lot of the hand techniques [shoufa] and body requirements [shenfa] of Wu style, Hao style and Sun style all preserve traces of early Yang style as passed down to us in Fu Nei Pai.
A: Just now, you mentioned that there are 10 sets in Fu Nei Pai taiji. Could you describe each one briefly?
L: The 10 sets are (in order):
1: Zhi Chui (Wisdom fist)
2: Large frame
3: Old frame (also called the Middle Frame)
4: Small Frame
5: Xiao Jiu Tian (Nine Little Heavens)
6: Hou Tian Fa (Post-Heaven Methods)
7: 30-posture Sanshou
8: Taiji Chang Quan (Long Boxing)
9: Shi San Dan Gongfa (lit. 13 cinnabar methods; in Taoist alchemy, it was thought that the elixir of immortality could be produced from cinnabar)
- Taiji Dian Xue (striking vital points)
These ten sets form a gradated series of practice, from lower to higher levels, from external to internal. Apart from these routines, Fu Nei Pai also practice pushing hands as well as taiji ball, sabre, sword, longstaff and spear.
In this respect, taijiquan is like most other external arts like Zha Quan, Hong Quan, or even other internal arts like xingyi or bagua: all of them have several sets ranging in difficulty and complexity, forming a complete system.
It’s exactly this comprehensive training system that allowed Yang Luchan to gain the nickname ‘Yang the invincible’, and that allowed 3 generations of the Yang family to make a living as professional martial artists in Beijing.
A: How are the 10 sets related? Is it a progression from easy to difficult?
L: Each set can be practiced on its own, but at the same time the 10 sets are intricately inter-related.
Zhi Chui is an entry-level beginner’s set based on taiji’s 5 ‘hammers’, combined with some linking movements. It develops one’s intelligence. People call taiji ‘cultured boxing’, only intelligent people can really grasp it. So this routine is to set the beginner on the right path.
The large frame uses a lot of bow stances and the arm movements are very ‘expanded’. As the saying goes, ‘Step like a cat, move jin [power] like reeling silk’ [mai bu si mao xing, yun jin ru chou si]. In order to train a beginner’s foundations, this set should be performed in quite a low stance.
The old frame (aka Middle Frame) uses a ’30-70′ step much akin to the weight in xingyi’s San Ti stance. Most of the time 30% of the weight is on the front foot, 70% on the back. Both feet should be aligned and the distance between the feet should not exceed shoulder-width. It mainly uses ‘sitting step’ (zuo bu), with the body centre of gravity over the back foot. The sequence of moves and tecnhiques is essentially the same as the large frame, but the movements are more ‘restrained’.
The small frame uses ‘agile stepping’ (huo bu). I used to be a basketball player. To use a basketball analogy, the large frame and old frame are like drills in training: they’re to train fitness and tactics, whereas the small frame is the real thing. In any match, you’re never going to play exactly as you do in training, you have to adapt to the ebb and flow of the game; similarly, the small frame is a ‘combat’ frame.
Long Boxing (Chang Quan): A lot of people have quite hazy notions as to what long boxing is; they think that a routine has to have 128 or 160-some posture before it can be called long boxing. In our system, there are only 37 postures in our long boxing, 37 ‘moves’ or small ‘combos’. Each ‘combo’ is a unit that can be practiced by itself. The 37 moves can also be combined at will.
The sixth set is ‘Nine Little Heavens’ (Xiao Jiu Tian). The term ‘nine little heavens’ is a Taoist term coming from the idea that the world is the human body writ large and vice versa. In this terminology, ‘little nine heavens’ refers to the human body. The idea of this set is that we should develop attributes found in nature. We should practice until our footwork is as fast as the wind, our fa li is like torrential rain, our hands are like lightning, our dou tan jin (vibrating power) is like thunder, in order to reach the stage of ‘tian ren he yi’ (man becomes one with heaven). In the initial stages, taiji is about making sure you’re soft, balanced, and moving at an even speed; but later on, it becomes a mixture of hard and soft, fast and slow, with sudden jumps and explosions of power. This is one of taiji’s advanced sets.
Hou Tian Fa (post-heaven methods) is mostly about training hand and knee techniques for use in fighting at short distances. Explosive power (bao fa li) is used quite extensively in this set.
The next set is the 30-posture taiji sanshou set. The routines that came before are preparation for the sanshou. Many teachers split up the movements of the form in order to make it easier to teach. This is a teaching method which can make things easier for students, but actually applying these ‘split out’ components of the form in combat is very difficult, which is why our system has these 30 individual ‘moves’. In the old days, they used to be called dan cao shou. There are three variations to each move, and each move has a 4-sentence mnemonic to help students remember the move’s purpose and requirements. These sanshou moves are a bridge from taiji forms practice into combat.
Next in the sequence is the shi san dan set. Actually, this set’s purpose is to work out the kinks in the body, to allow people to self-adjust back to ‘ground state’. All animals show an ability to return their bodies to their natural state; as humans have evolved, we seem to have lost the awareness and methods to return our bodies to this natural state. The purpose of the ‘shi san dan’ exercises is to resurrect these methods, to strengthen our ability to heal ourselves. This ‘re-adjustment’ can heal aches and pains and correct imbalances in the body.
The final set is taiji’s dian xue [point striking]. Many people think that dian xue is something really mysterious, they think it’s just like in the movies where you can paralyse people with a light touch. Although dian xue can have this effect, in our system this is not the main aim. Dian xue can be used both to harm and to heal. As a martial artists, one should learn about healing methods and have a basic grasp of the body’s vital points. The main function of knowing vital points is to be able to stop bleeding and pain. As for using it in fighting, it’s not that important. For example, if someone is both very strong and has practiced iron palm, every strike will feel as if it were a vital point strike, the opponent won’t be able to take it.
A: The taiji ball set practiced by Fu Nei Pai is very distinctive. Could you tell us a bit more about it?
L: Taiji ball is a very important supplementary exercise for Fu Nei Pai stylists. Its main effect is to increase people’s pliability and ’roundness’. The ball itself is not very heavy: the wooden version is usually about 3 kg, the iron version maybe around 5.5kg. The reason for this is that taiji ball is not a form of strength training, it’s for ‘opening the joints’ and making the student more limber. If students use a ball that’s too heavy for them, it will end up making them more stiff instead of more pliable!