A: Has M Yao’s Yiquan moved away from M Wang’s Yiquan in its appearance?
C: On top of the foundation laid down by M Wang, M Yao made his Yiquan clearer, more detailed. He used modern kinesiology to explain Yiquan. He also investigated the aspects of physiology, psychology, neurology and sports science that related to Yiquan. His training syllabus was continuous with that of M Wang. For example, ‘opposing force’ and reaction training, these two ideas are Yiquan’s roots, we can’t do without them. How do we develop these methods further? You can’t keep expressing the essence of the art in vague ways that leave people scratching their heads. That kind of thing will only lead to misunderstandings by Yiquan students. In this respect, M Yao made Yiquan clearer, more transparent. He changed some of the terms and explanations used during M Wang’s time for more modern, more easily understood names. During the Xian Nong Tan intensive, ‘uncles’ Han Xingqiao and Bu Enfu visited us there. Primarily, they came over to show us how to train the jibengong, but at the same time they also recounted their experiences of training under M Wang in Shen county (in Hebei province). ‘Uncle’ Bu [Enfu] said that they had to run, do leg stretches, and do punchbag work as part of their training. Every morning they would do long-distance running to build up their stamina. They would run from the countryside into the county town with M Wang following behind. When they got too hot they would take off their tops and pass them to M Wang. Once they got into town they would stretch their legs and practice kicks by the gate tower. They did punchbag work every day. The punchbags back then were a bit different from the ones we use now, the filling was a mix of wood shavings and sand. Because they punched the bags every day, their skin on their knuckles would split open and start to bleed. The blood would seep into the bag and clot around the wood shavings, forming little clusters. The next day their punches would once again break apart these clusters. Imagine them pain of breaking those clusters up every day! We asked M Bu to give us some pointers for combat, but he said “There’s no need for me to tell you when you’ve got M Yao around. What I can talk about is how I learnt boxing.” M Bu’s boxing coach was an Italian. Even before he became M Wang’s disciple, he was already a professional boxer and national shuai jiao [chinese wrestling] champion. That’s why he wasn’t allowed to compete in boxing tournaments post-Liberation, because only amateurs could enter.
Another time, when uncle Dou [Shiming] came to visit us at Xian Nong Tan stadium and saw the material that we were practicing, he said “Ruibin, you guys better practice hard, because M Yao is trying to really teach you!” M Dou said “A lot of the things you guys are practicing, M Yao never taught us.” The truth is, it was not that M Yao didn’t teach those things in the past, it’s just that his teaching methods had become more reasonable, more scientific and more varied. For example, during M Wang’s time, his students just ran in order to build stamina. By M Yao’s time, he had adopted boxing’s method of punching whilst running in order to train his students’ co-ordination during hard exercise. But Yiquan’s version of this exercise [running and punching] is different from that in boxing. This is ‘yang wei zhong yong‘ (making use of western ideas to benefit China), borrowing other people’s ideas in order to improve our own things. As early as the 1920s and 30s, M Wang put forward the idea of investigating people’s cells during exercise; at that point people were still fixated on muscle groups. M Wang’s understanding and research were ahead of their time. When M Yao was at the research centre, he used modern scientific instruments to verify the changes that occur to people’s muscles, cells and nerves whilst practicing yiquan, gaining clear, objective data in the process.
The older generation of masters didn’t have this opportunity, they had to use the external form of a student to gauge how hard they were working out, which can easily lead to problems. Students who train hard are at risk of overload, fatigue, or damage to internal organs, which is a case of more haste, less speed. A reasonable training regime must combine training, application and recovery all in one. Now that science has become more advanced, it’s time to make these things more quantifiable, and let the numbers speak for themselves. I followed M Yao for all those years, I’ve always kept M Yao’s last words in mind, I haven’t dared slacken off. I’ve met many of M Wang disciples, who trained with M Wang at different times, and I’ve seen all of them perform, and so I think I have a right to talk about Yiquan. Yiquan’s history isn’t very long, I’m only the third generation. Even after M Wang founded Yiquan, he was continually experimenting and reformulating Yiquan’s training methods. M Yao built on the foundation that M Wang had laid, and through his own experimentation and realisations, gradually improved Yiquan’s training methods into the scientific, systematic regime of today. Of course, with the passage of time, we can’t just stay standing still, we have to develop and progress with the times. It’s like anything else, if it doesn’t develop then it will regress. I’ve discovered that some people have recently discovered some of M Wang’s early writings that he later refuted and are treating them as some kind of treasure. For those that have never met M Wang’s early disciples, they can look at the photographs and records they left behind, you will find that their ‘frame’ and movements still have a lot of xingyi in them.
Nowadays, a lot of the Yiquan that’s being taught is distorted, either because the teacher has not understood the essence of Yiquan or has taken the teachings too literally. The west long ago adopted taiji as an exercise for astronauts to investigate the issue of people’s ability to move around in zero gravity. M Yao said to me at the time, “Yiquan is very difficult to practice, if we don’t use modern, scientific methods to explain how it does what it does, students will have great difficulty in grasping it. Other people are also investigating and developing, before long they will surpass us.”
A: I think it’s not wrong for wushu, including Yiquan, to develop in the direction of modern competition and leitai fighting. Not only do I not think it’s wrong, I think it should evolve in that direction.
C: You’re right. M Wang’s decision to adjust his students’ ‘frames’ in order to enter boxing tournaments is a prime example of M Wang’s willingness to break with tradition and his eagerness to innovate. If a martial art wishes to maintain its vigour, it has to move with the times. That’s the only way that we can compete fairly, and the only way we can get a chance to realistically test out our gongfu. Otherwise, if a martial art shuts its doors, makes excuses why it can’t compete, the result will be that that martial art will die. Of course, no matter how a martial art evolves, its essence, its internal techniques and culture melded into one, cannot be lost, that is the crucial point for Yiquan’s development, as well as for other martial arts.