A: Nowadays, a lot of the people who practice Yiquan never saw Wang Xiangzhai for themselves, they’ve only heard or read about him. These people all want to develop M Wang’s ability to ‘launch’ people and talk about his feats with relish. What do you think of this phenomenon?
C: This kind of desire isn’t wrong, but you shouldn’t blindly pursue it. You need to understand the process, and that process is the training methods. It’s as if you wanted to climb onto the roof of a house, you first need a ladder. The number of rungs on the ladder will be determined by the ‘quality’ of the students – that’s the crucial point. For example, in M Wang’s case, there were 3 rungs; in M Yao’s case, he was given 5 rungs; and for my own students, I might set out 8 rungs. This is a natural law – times are moving forward, science is advancing but people’s reactions are becoming duller. Although spirit, intention and body awareness are important to Yiquan, the development of ‘natural power’ is even more important. The trend of modern people’s physiques generally not being as good as those of previous generations is even more reason for us to take a step-by-step, gradual approach in order to master this [ability], it’s a process of growth. As M Wang said, “A raise of the hand, a lift of the leg, What do you want to do? What’s the aim of it? What’s the effect? What are the intervening processes and phenomena?” You go from not being able to issue force, to being able to issue and not just to issue but also to launch people, this process is very important.
A: I bet there are lots of ‘knacks’ that have to be physically shown as part of this process.
C: Yes. For example, when I was training jiji zhuang under M Yao in the countryside, I couldn’t grasp the requirement of straightening the body and slightly caving the chest [han xiong] at the same time. M Yao took up a combat stance and said “Feel my chest”. As soon as I touched the centre of his chest, I instantly understood, and when I next did zhan zhuang, I immediately found the internal sensation. Another example was when M Yao was teaching us how to use a punchbag. He said, “When I’m hitting the bag, you should not only look at my movements, but also at my bearing (shen tai).” After you had seen his expression in the moment of issuing force, when you came to hit the bag yourself it made a world of difference.
A: (Wang Xiangzhai’s disciple and champion boxer) Bu Enfu once mentioned M Wang and his disciples in conversation with Liu Pulei, saying “I don’t dare mess with [Yao] Zongxun and [Zhao] Daoxin, with the rest of them, if they stay away I can hit them, if they come in close I can throw them.” Amongst the older generation of martial arts masters in Beijing, M Yao was known as ‘Yan Wang’ (the Chinese judge of the dead), they had a lot of respect for his attainments in martial arts.
C: (nods) M Yao’s premature passing caused uncalculable damage to Yiquan. If he had only lived longer, Yiquan wouldn’t be in the state it is today. Prior to M Yao having to go into hospital, he and Ivan Fok (head of the HK Yiquan Association) had already agreed that he [Ivan Fok] would contribute 3 million RMB towards the construction of a training ground for M Yao. After M Yao was hospitalised, Ivan Fok initially wanted to continue with the project. ‘Uncles’ Ao [shi-peng], Zhang Zhong and I went ‘house-hunting’. The site we were considering was in Wenchang Hutong oppposite the The Cultural Palace of Nationalities in Xidan [in central Beijing]. The complex consisted of 4 or 5 houses surrounding a courtyard of about 100 square metres. At that point, we wanted to buy the whole complex. Later on, some people suggested that we should ‘use business to fund martial arts’, i.e. we should use this money to do business. M Yao was of the opinion that Mr Fok had provided this money in order to promote Yiquan, not to do business. And besides, none of us knew the first thing about running a business. One day I was visiting M Yao at the hospital and happened to see him writing a letter to Mr Fok. In it, he had written, “This sum of money was intended for the development of Yiquan, it can’t just be used for any old purpose. Don’t give it to anyone without my express permission.” After M Yao had finished writing the letter, he asked me to post it. M Yao passed away soon after, and this project was left unrealised.
A: It’s a pity M Yao could not see his grand aspirations realised in his lifetime.
C: While M Yao was in hospital, Guangzi, Rongzi, Huzi (‘Tiger’, a nickname for Li Hongjin), Bai Xuezheng, Wei Yuzhu and myself took it in turns to look in on him in hospital. Seeing this, M Yao sighed and said “This illness of mine has set back your training.” And so, even though he was on a drip, he would still oversee our practice. The most striking memory I have of that time was when I was doing the large Ti An Shi Li, M Yao said “Make it even bigger….bigger than that….even bigger….Yes, that’s it.” He told me, “Remember, that’s surging power (gudang li).” It was also during this period that he instructed me on how to deal with both the younger and older generations of the Yiquan community, person by person, name by name. One day slightly later on, when M Yao was getting near the end, ‘uncle’ Ao and I were sitting by M Yao’s bedside when uncle Ao said “Ruibin, why don’t you ask M Yao if he’s got anything left he needs to tell you.” M Yao, lying on his hospital bed, motioned for me to kneel down in front of the bed. He said “Everything there is to tell I have already told you, there’s nothing more to say. Just remember, keep on practicing, don’t slacken off, that’s all.”
A: A lot of people say that M Yao’s premature passing was because he was depressed due to the political campaigns that he had suffered under.
C: We all experienced the brutality of the cultural revolution. For someone like M Yao, who had his own ideals and ambitions in the martial arts, not to be able to realise his ambitions due to historical reasons and the oppressive environment, well, that kind of pain is not something most ordinary people could withstand. When M Yao was transferred over to An Zhen Hospital, many of his kungfu brothers called a meeting at which they decided not to put him through an operation. Myself and a few others advocated going through with the operation, saying “He’s got to have the operation. At least if he has the operation there’s some hope [for recovery]; if he doesn’t there’s no hope at all.” In the end, they decided to go through with it. After the operation, the surgeon in charge called over myself, uncle Ao, Madame Yao and Guangzi, and said that M Yao was critically ill, he couldn’t undergo any further operations. All the surgeon had done was gastric reconstruction to let M Yao eat some liquids. He told us to prepare ourselves for the worst, that M Yao had 3 to 6 months left. While M Yao was in hospital the Beijing Wushu Association gave its wholehearted supported to M Yao, especially in terms of his medical bills. Medicines are divided into grades; for example, nowadays, globulin is freely available, but back then supplies were extremely scarce, if you didn’t make the grade they wouldn’t give you the medicine. And so Beijing Wushu Association wrote a letter allowing M Yao a portion of his needs, and Ivan Fok bought another portion in Hong Kong for M Yao. M Yao was hospitalised for the 6 months from September 1984 until he passed away on the 11th of January, 1985. I wasn’t at his side when he passed away, which is something that causes me pangs of guilt even now. It so happened that my grandmother was on her deathbed at around the same time, so my family had me stay by her side. I even said to Guangzi “If there’s any change in the old man’s condition, let me know”. Perhaps because he had never gone through this before, he couldn’t find me that day and so didn’t tell me when M Yao passed away. After M Yao’s funeral, my shixiong Xu Ruhai saw me at the garden [where we used to train], as soon as he saw me he started scolding me, saying “Where the hell did you get to? Near the end M Yao kept on asking after you, yet no-one could find you!” I heard that that day uncle Ao, Bo Jiacong and Guangzi. Right near the end, Xu Ruhai and some others went to see him, and asked Guangzi to go to the house in Ma Dian; by the time Guangzi got back from Ma Dian, M Yao had already passed away. [In saying this, a look of sadness passes across M Cui’s face]
A: Let’s change the topic, you’ve already discussed a lot today, do you think you could go into the details of what the intensive training at Xian Nong Tan involved?
C: During the intensive we trained for more than three hours in the afternoon three times a week. The training was divided into stages. In the first stage, we would do an hour of zhan zhuang, then practice shi li and mo ca bu, nothing else.
In the second stage, we would still do zhan zhuang, but the stances would be different to those in the first stage. After zhan zhuang, we would start practicing air punches, specifically advancing straight punch [jinbu faquan]. M Yao had me lead the others in this punching practice: we would start with one-sided punches, a straight punch, then a ‘drilling fist’ [zuan quan], followed by ‘planting fist’ [zai quan], within which there are 3 variations. After that, we would move on to ‘combined’ exercises that trained combos, footwork, posture and leg methods [tui fa]. Before practicing leg methods, we would do leg stretches, straight front kicks and shi li with our legs. When practicing leg methods, we would use a ball held in place vertically by springs or leather straps to train the accuracy and ‘crispness’ [cui jinr] of the issuing of force in our kicks. Later on, we added training with focus mitts. These included static and moving focus mitt training.
A: Is the focus mitt training in Yiquan the same as that in San Da and boxing?
C: No. In Yiquan, when you hit focus mitts, you hit it once as soon as the mitt comes towards you and again once you’ve gauged the correct distance. This trains the practitioner’s reflexes. At first, you don’t have to hit the mitts hard. I always used to tell my students, it’s like skeet-shooting, you’re waiting there with your gun, as soon as the clay disc shoots out, you should raise your gun and hear the disc breaking almost at the same time. At the same time, your posture, footwork and distancing need to be good, because the guy holding the focus mitt will also be moving. The mitt holder is crucial in helping students achieve good results from this training. At the end of the day, it’s all about training up-down, left-right and front-back. After mitt training, we move on to reactions training. The ‘rule’ of this exercise is that if I don’t do [something], you don’t do anything. For example, my fist is coming towards you, you’re not allowed to react until it reaches your forehead. You can’t counter-react as soon as I launch my attack; this is real reaction training. At that time, all of us developed thick calluses on our foreheads. In this way, not only did it train our reactions, but also the ability of the backbone to absorb force, because you’re very ‘solid’ (zheng) when you react. Of course, there are other benefits to this kind of practice, but I won’t go into them just now. Later on, we started hitting punchbags. But before we hit the punchbags, we first held du li zhuang (single-leg pose) and fu hu zhuang (crouching tiger pose) for 20 to 30 minutes each.
Once we were all used to it, each training session would consist of zhan zhuang, airpunching, foot shi li, reaction training, focus mitts and punchbag work. After we had finished working through all of this jibengong [basic exercises], we would start sparring. In the beginning, when we practiced sparring we weren’t allowed to hit the head. We wore those very basic steel helmets that the PLA used to use for bayonet practice. Even though you weren’t allowed to go for the head, you still had to be conscious of protecting the head. After we had finished sparring, we then had to run around the Xian Nong Tan stadium whilst throwing punches: on the first lap we would throw straight punches,on the second it was drilling, and on the third planting, followed by 1 lap of varying speeds and 1 lap at steady speed. 5 laps of the stadium was almost 5000m. Our punchbag work was timed: we would hit the bag for 6 sets, each set being 3 minutes long. In one 3 minute set I could throw 260-270 combos. Guangzi could too. The rest interval between sets varied between 1 minute and 40 seconds. M Yao would support the punchbag while we were hitting it, following the movements of the bag as you hit it. That was his way of testing if your punches had penetrating power, and also whether you could punch with a consistent amount of power each time. M Yao also redoubled our training of zheng li (yiquan’s ‘opposing forces’ concept). M Yao told me “zheng li and reaction training are the core of Yiquan”. He sought the power of reflex through two relative bodies (your own and the opponent’s) (?). A lot of people right now are talking about ‘er zheng li’ (opposing force pairs); M Yao also discussed this, but in order to master zheng li, you need to start off by training specific force pairs.
A: A lot of people nowadays think that M Yao’s Yiquan is trending towards modern competitive fighting, that it’s become almost the same as San Da. The implication being that what M Yao teaches is not what M Wang taught him. What do you think about these kinds of statements?
C: This kind of opinion is due to a limited understanding of Yiquan, they can’t see the essence of Yiquan. They don’t understand M Yao, nor do they understand M Wang. In martial arts, you can’t keep on focusing on some ‘original’ training methods. We should make the training methods of our art more scientific and more transparent. You can’t keep clinging to abstruse explanations.