A: You mentioned punchbag work just now. Is there a process to this too, or did students just start straightaway?
C: There’s a sequence to everything. M Yao divided our punchbag training into several stages. First we hit small cotton balls, then next small punchbags, until we finally started training on heavy bags. For the cotton ball training, small cotton balls were suspended from a piece of string. Students would stand at a distance where they could open up their shoulders and their guard hand could come completely round. We would then punch at the ball so that your fist only just made contact with the ball . At this point you still had to relax, you couldn’t use force; if you used physical force the cotton ball would fly away. But at the moment when your fist touched the cotton ball, you had to clench your fist, the cotton ball couldn’t be allowed to fly away.
At that time, apart from zhan zhuang, all I practiced was shi li, mo ca bu,shadow-boxing and punchbag training. I started practicing shi sheng (Yiquan’s ‘voice testing’) in 1975; it was M Yao who practiced tuishou and sparring with me. In 1976, in readiness for a staff-fighting competition organised by our factory militia, I started learning the long pole (ganzi) . I had never practiced with a staff before, but was very keen to enter the competition, so I mentioned it to M Yao. He said “That’s easy, you’ve already got the foundation, all I need to do is to explain it [the staff] to you”. Because of the conditions in the countryside at that time, naturally there were no standard kungfu poles. In order that I’d have something to practice with, M Yao fashioned 2 poles from 2 wooden staffs just over a metre long. Wouldn’t you know it, I won all of my 10 or so matches using those makeshift poles in the competition and was named champion! A lot of the other competitors were ex-soldiers who had been allocated to our factory upon demobilisation, so they had received army-style lance training, but they couldn’t stand up to my Yiquan staff. There was one person who was an obvious choice who hadn’t entered the competition – the vice-head of our Armoured division. In the army, he had been a top pole-fighter within the Beijing region, who had achieved top honours in the competition organised by Luo Ruiqing. Many people at the time were urging him to take me on, but he refused, because he had seen me hit an opponent’s protective wire helmet so hard that the metal mesh bent inwards, cutting the opponent’s face in the process. What we actually used in the competitions were actually wooden spears with the spear tips removed and replaced with rubber ones. He realised that I was using different footwork to the other competitors.
A:What footwork did you use?
C: It was just the footwork from jiji zhuang (attacking pose). Many times in the competition, my opponent would lunge at me, only for me to dodge and then all it took for me to send him flying was a straightening of my pole.
A: Does Yiquan have any other weapons besides the long pole?
C: Yiquan has the ‘double grip sabre’ (shuang ba dao)
A: What’s that?
C: The shuang ba dao is a broadsword gripped with both hands. In this way, the body is balanced in combat and and one can release hunyuan li. I learnt my shuang ba dao from M Yao when he was still in the countryside. The characteristic of the shuang ba dao is that the sharp edge of the sabre faces the wielder, while the blunt ‘back’ of the blade faces the opponent. Whether the opponent attacks with a hack or a stab, you intercept with the back of the blade and then counterattack by whole-body spiralling.
A: You mentioned that after M Yao was allowed to return to Beijing in 1970 the group was allowed to practice semi-publicly. Where did you practice?
C: After M Yao was allowed to move back to Beijing, we practiced in Tucheng and the city parks. M Yao would spend half a day there. It was then that more people started to study under M Yao. Apart from myself and the Yao brothers (Yao Chengrong and Yao Chengguang), there was also Liu Pulei, Wu Xiaonan, Jia Xiaoying, Li Hongjin and Bai Xuezheng. In fact, Liu Pulei started studying with M Yao while he was still in the countryside, we had accidentally met once before. Most of the time, M Yao’s wife would cook for us; sometimes, when the mood took him, M Yao would do the coooking. We would usually practice in Tucheng, but on Sundays we would practice in the small wooded area next to the exhibition centre. For the two years of 1980 and 1981 we practiced there; I heard that later they fenced it off.
A: So when were you finally allowed to practice in public?
C: Later on when we started practicing in the small public gardens on Nan Li Shi Rd, we didn’t have to worry any more, because from about early 1982 to September 1984, we had the support of the heads of the Beijing Sports Research Institute. By then our training ground had moved to the Xian Nong Tan sports ground, where M Yao trained us intensively. At the same time, he conducted research into Yiquan. M Yao also applied Yiquan’s training methods to the national athletics, swimming, weightlifting, football and shooting teams.
A: Your mention of Xian Nong Tan reminded me that there has long been veiled criticism in the kungfu community of M Yao’s use of boxing gloves and headgear.
C: Actually, M Yao had already started using protective gear and kickpads in Yiquan training in the 30s and 40s. In this respect, M Yao was ahead of the curve. The protective gear meant that, firstly, there was more protection for students, and secondly, it allowed for sparring that was closer to actual fighting. Nowadays there are a lot of people saying, I can’t spar with gloves, because they limit the moves I can use. This is also true. What I’ve heard from M Yao’s contemporaries is that in friendly contests, he would allow his opponents to attack barefist, but that he himself would wear gloves. Even so, his challengers all left in awe of M Yao.
A: As someone who followed M Yao for 13 years, you must have witnessed his gongfu.
C: Let me tell you a couple of anecdotes to illustrate. There was one time when I went to visit M Yao in the countryside. As we were eating after training, M Yao said “Rui-bin, who knew that our Yiquan could be used against horses too!” Baffled, I said “What has Yiquan got to do with horses?” M Yao replied “A few days ago I was in a commune meeting when a startled draught-horse threw its reins and charged at the crowd. Seeing the oncoming horse, I grabbed its halter and yanked hard, which caused it to rear up. As it reared up, I drew it around in a circle and it just fell over. All the onlookers were amazed.” Think about how much strength a startled horse has. One day in 1980, after we had spent the whole morning training next to the exhibition hall, I had lunch with M Yao. After lunch, M Yao said “Come back to my house, you can have a siesta and then train again in the afternoon.” And so, M Yao and I were lying on his bed when he said “Experience this, my lad”. I had no idea what M Yao was talking about, so I said “We’re just about to go to sleep, what am I supposed to experience?” Just as I finished my sentence the bed that we were on starting shaking, gently and slowly at first, but then the shaking got faster and faster, stronger and stronger. I exclaimed “M Yao, what’s going on?” He laughed and said “Try and get to sleep!” I looked over to M Yao to see him lying on his side with his legs curled up – he hadn’t moved. I realised that M Yao was practicing his gongfu. One time, M Yao took me visit Zhou Ziyan (another student of Wang Xiangzhai). While M Zhou and I were discussing martial arts, M Yao was chatting and standing in zhan zhuang at the same time. M Zhou suddenly turned his head and said “Young Cui, look at M Yao, now that’s what I call real gongfu!” I looked over to see M Yao standing in zhan zhuang. His body was motionless, but the edges of his jacket were ruffling as if being blown by an unseen breeze. M Zhou said to me, “Young Cui, you must practice hard. Your teacher has real gongfu. All the things I’ve been talking about are tricks really, they’re fake.”
A: How do you explain this phenomenon?
C: M Yao’s internal movements caused the body to produce high-frequency vibrations, which is what caused his jacket to start ‘ruffling’ at the edges.
A: Can you replicate this feat?
C: (laughing) I wouldn’t dare to say I had reached M Yao’s level yet, but you can feel for yourself. (Cui Ruibin stood up into an ‘even stance’ (ping bu zhuang) and rolled his trousers up to his knees. I saw high-frequency vibrations starting form his calves.)
A: How does this kind of vibration apply to real-life combat?
C: Let me reply to that with another anecdote. Everyone I tell it to thinks it’s incredible. One day back in 1982, I was doing punchbag work at the Xian Nong Tan sports ground. M Yao was attending a meeting held by some of the experts from the Beijing Sports Research Institute. After the meeting was over, a baseball coach named Fan Tingyu (we called him ‘uncle Fan’) gestured for me to come over to him, saying “Young Cui, come over here.”I said I was busy with training. Uncle Fan said “Just get over here.”And so I walked over and asked him what was the matter. Uncle Fan said, “Young Cui, you’d better learn all you can from M Yao, his gongfu is amazing!” I said I knew that already. Uncle Fan, displeased, said “What do *you* know?” From his tone of voice, I knew something was up, so I said “Well, tell me then.” Uncle Fan said, “Just now during the meeting, someone brought up the topic of wushu. Suddenly, there was a thud as the windows and tables of the meeting room juddered violently. It might sound exaggerated, but it was like a small earthquake. The attendees all got up and looked outside in alarm, asking what had happened. I noticed that out of all the attendees only M Yao had stayed seated. I also noticed that, just before the ‘earthquake’, M Yao had raised his hands slightly and ‘shivered’ slightly. Seeing that M Yao had stayed seated with a faint smile on his face while everyone else had jumped up in alarm, I knew that it must have been your teacher’s doing.”
A: This all sounds a bit incredible.
C: I’m telling you, in physics this is called resonance. Every object has its own resonant frequency. At that moment, M Yao was sitting on a folding chair. M Yao’s momentary ‘shiver’ generated high frequency vibrations which caused the surrounding objects to resonate. You asked just now what kind of use this could have in real combat. When these high-frequency vibrations are applied in an instant on an opponent, the feeling is like being struck by lightning. This is what M Wang Xiangzhai was referring to when he discussed ‘super-speed movement’. Around the time of Spring Festival in 1973, Han Xingqiao (another well-known student of Wang Xiangzhai, who we called uncle Han) wrote a letter to Premier Zhou Enlai about sports psychology and physiology and how Yiquan training methods could help, which was passed to Premier Zhou by the then military commander of Xinjiang, Pei Zhouyu. Because of this letter, Premier Zhou wrote a memorandum to the National Sports Commission. And so, the Commission invited Han Xingqiao to come from Xinjiang, and also invited M Yao from the countryside. At that time, whenever M Yao came into Beijing he and I would stay at the house of my shixiong (kungfu brother) Zhang Hongcheng. In the evening, Bai Jinjia shixiong as well a group of students from Baoding would come to seek instruction from M Yao. During the meeting between M Yao, uncle Han and the Sports Commission, in order to ‘test out’ Yiquan, one of the boxing coaches asked if he could have a bout with M Yao. As he aimed a straight jab at M Yao, M Yao applied ‘Dragonfly touches the water’ to the coach’s forearm, sending him flying. When he got up, he couldn’t understand how M Yao had sent him flying, so he tried again, but with the same result.
A: Did M Han take part in these ‘tests’?
C: Uncle Han said to the young coaches “You can test me out, on one condition: you’re not allowed to run out of this room. I’m a 70-year old man, if you start running outside I won’t be able to catch you. As long as you stay in this room, I can make you fall down whichever way I wish.”