My Apprenticeship with Li Gui Chang
By Mao Ming Chun
Translated by Huang Guoqi
I studied with Master Li from 1989, for ten years in total, beginning in 1989. But, I knew my master long before. In 1973, when I studied the martial arts with Master Yin Lian-zhi at the sports school of Northern Suburbs District, Taiyuan, as one of the top students, I met Master Li at a tournament. At that time, in his short and tidy black beard, in his black Chinese tunic suit, and wearing old-fashioned round glasses, he sat in the middle of referee seats, working as a head referee. Master Li was always serious in his demeanor, conveying a unique feeling. I was told his skill was quite outstanding.
In one tournament, because the spear I used was big and long, I did not get high scores. After the competition, Master Li asked me: “Who taught you? Why did you use such as heavy spear?” I told him that Master Ying taught me and that this was the spear I normally trained with. Master Li looked at the spear, deep in thought, saying: “It is not easy to learn the spear, just with strength. Look, your spear is so heavy. You are quite young, but powerful! In training the spear, you have to know how to borrow the strength from the spear shaft. Hey! You do not understand, even I when tell you.” He shook his head and walked away.
At that time , I did not know what it meant to borrow the strength from the spear - how to borrow strength? This puzzle stayed in my mind until I studied with Master Li. When the examinations for university admission were restored in 1977, I was enrolled into the sports school of Shanxi University through outstanding scores. I systematically studied s the theory of Chinese martial arts - Taiji Quan, Shaolin Quan, Ba Gua Zhang, Whip Stick, and life preservation skill with Prof. Chen Shengfu. In 1982, I was enrolled as a postgraduate candidate of Prof. Chen Shengfu through examinations. During my post-graduate programs, I met with Master Li quite often. Prof. Chen requested us to meet and study with the famous masters of Chinese martial arts in Shanxi province. The first martial artist was Master Li. Then, Master Li lived in the dormitory of Taiyuan Sports Committee in Xinglin district, not a big room. Because I carried the banner of Prof. Chen Shengfu, he treated me very warmly. His wife offered a cup of sugar water to me. Then, I did not understand proper etiquette and sat down asking him directly about his master’s instruction and his disciples. Master Li dealt with me in an off-hand manner: “I have not taught students for a long time. Now, I am not healthy. You see I have to lie down to rest, just saying these words. You should go back, I do not have anything for you.”
I mentioned this to Prof. Chen, after I returned to the school. Prof. Chen said: “You do not understand these martial artists folk. Many of them are strange in their temperament. If you want to understand them, you must have a modest attitude to learn from them, really a modest attitude.” Afterwards, again I went to ask Master Li modestly for advice about the issues on Xing Yi Quan and Tai Ji Quan. He gradually started to explain and enlighten me. Seeing that I had a foundation and an inquiring mind, he asked me: “If I teach you, will Prof. Chen oppose?” I said: “Prof. Chen is very open-minded, telling us to search out teachers and make friends everywhere. If I study with you, Prof. Chen will be surely happy.” Master Li said: “That is good. I will mention it to Prof. Chen, when I meet him.”
When Master Li organized a training course for Xing Yi Quan at the swimming pool of Shanxi University in 1989, I had more opportunities to meet with him. I went to the swimming pool and saw lots of people standing in San Ti. Previously I had also trained San Ti and did not truly feel and understand it. Upon seeing I was standing San Ti incorrectly , Master Li stood up and showed me his San Ti, which was really outstanding in posture. Skinny as he was, Master Li suddenly transformed into a different person: His head was slightly guided upward, with the body trunk straightened, like a upright old pine tree, but with the whole body as soft and gentle as water and a particularly bright and shining expression his two eyes. I was really shocked. A school brother standing aside said to me: “Master Li thinks highly of you. He never stands San Ti, showing like this to anybody.” I was deeply moved, expressing my intention to learn Xing Yi Quan systematically. Master Li then said: “come and train if you have time,” and presented me with his photo, his name and time signature on its back. This showed he was willing to accept me. From then on, I went to Master Li’s home to study, when I had time.
In 1992, in his 80th birthday party, lots of martial artists and enthusiasts came from various cities of the province cerebrating his birthday. Master Li himself arranged for Prof. Chen and me to sit with him in the same table. At the table, Master Li asked Prof. Chen: “Can I continue to train your disciple?” Prof. Chen was very glad to hear this, saying: “It is our duty to build up his talent. You are a martial artist. I am very relieved, if you train him.” Then, Prof. Chen said to me: “Look! Mao Mingchun. You are really lucky, now that the master that is looking for disciple. You must painstakingly learn, and make your talents known in the field of sports. You must not let Master Li disappointed.” At that moment, I immediately poured glasses of liquor for two masters, on order to pay my respect to them. Master Li said immediately to everyone at the table: “from now on, he is my disciple, and I ask all of you to offer you help to him.” Then, I took a photo together with Master and his wife.
In 1993, Mr. Li Rongchun from Shanxi University suggested that we organize the Taiyuan Tui Shou (Pushing Hands) Association. Master Li agreed with his suggestion and told me to contact with large number of Tui Shou enthusiasts in Taiyuan. Within the year, Taiyuan Taiji Tui Shou Association was formally organized. Master Li was elected to be the president and some of my school brothers and me were appointed by Master Li to be deputy presidents. After the Tui Shou association was organized, I went to Master Li’s home almost every day, managing some business of the association, learning and studying come techniques and discussing some teaching materials. Then, we received a letter from the North American Tang Shou Tao Association, saying about 30 coaches from the Tang Shou Tao Association would come to study Xing Yi Quan and Tui Shou with Master Li. In April of 1994, our group of six to seven people traveled to Beijing and stayed in Beijing Exhibition Hotel. I was in charge of compiling the teaching plan, liaison and simple translation. We trained 28 coaches of Tang Shou Tao Association for ten days and obtained satisfactory results.
After coming back from Beijing, Master Li said to me: “your foundation is not bad, but you do not understand my style. You can only be my disciple and understand our method, after you train proficiently. My expertise is in Southern Shaolin Soft Arts, Xingyi and the whip stick. When Xing Yi, Tai Ji and Ba Gua arecombined, that is real Tai Ji. Otherwise, Tai Ji is empty. In my view, you are basically skillful in those aspects. You only need to process internal regulation, and clearly understand the essence (kernel) of Southern Shaolin and Xing Yi Quan.” He repeated: “you do not need to learn forms, because the forms are made up, while the essence that cannot be made up, is the internal instinct. The key is in how to initiate and control it. At this time, it is first necessary understand San Ti.”
Studiying San Ti with Master Li
Thousands of methods in Xing Yi Quan emanate from San Ti. The following is my understanding in training San Ti with Master Li.
Master Li said: “San Ti, also term San Cai in the old time, San Ti refers to the heaven, earth and human beings. In Xing Yi Quan, it refers to the upper, middle and lower Dantian areas, and refers to the head, hand and foot externally. Before, many people training Xing Yi Quan injured their legs. This is a fact. The reason is that they did not stand San Ti correctly. There are basically two reasons: In Practicing San ti, one must practice standing for a long time – from 6 months to three years. Many people stood San Ti without inquiring about its principle, just standing there with strength. And the second is that most of them stand in thirty percent and seventy percent weighting. People do not understand that the thirty percent and seventy percent gravity is a single weighting method, a method for practical application of the attacking and defending techniques. It should not be adopted in the beginning of training. In the beginning, it is necessary to stand in a balanced position with slightly big step, namely, equal strength in both legs and the same sensation in both soles. The purpose of this is to train the balance of the body and the balance of internal qi and blood. Without balance of qi and blood, there will be no health. If there is no balance in the body, how could it be possible to change. Therefore, it is necessary to seek balance before looking for changes. Balance is necessary for there to be single weighting. Then success will be possible with single weighting.”
“The key points in standing stake, beside the training based upon the rules and the experience of the ancient people: the most important thing is supposed to focus on the mutual response in the five body parts: vertex, palm, sole, gravity, and center. The vertex should be uplifted. The combination of the five body parts is the essential in standing stake.”
My understanding: I trained San Ti for long time, but I did not have any special sensation, other than feeling very tired in the legs. After I trained San Ti again under Master Li’s instruction, a series of reactions took place inside my body. First, I could train in relaxation: Master Li requested me to stretch out the head, hands and feet in relaxation in standing the stake: with the head uplifted in relaxation for pulling apart every section of the spine column, so qi and blood can flow smoothly in the Governor Vessel, with the palm and sole stretched out, in order to dredge qi and blood in the four limbs to build up internal energy. After training this way for a period of time, I felt warm in the four limbs, sweating in the hands. I felt clear in the ears and bright in the eyes, and I felt more powerful. After having these positive g sensations, I became even more deeply engaged in the study of San Ti. Master Li used to say training is primarily supposed to develop the instinct and potential of the human body. So, I studied the relationship between San Ti and instinct; and how to develop the instinct.
First, in standing San Ti, the legs started to vibrate after standing for several minutes. At the same time, presenting a distending, heating, numb, painful and aching sensation. In that moment, one issue took place. If in standing the position of thirty percent and seventy percent weighting, the vibration came quickly, but lasted for short time. In standing in the position of the balance stake (balanced San Ti), vibration came slowly, but lasted for longer time. By careful sense, I found that periodic change took place in the balanced stake; also periodic change synchronous to vibration. I became extremely excited about it, because I could not find any relevant experiments and explanations in the various texts on sports physiology. At that moment, I sensed that this phenomenon must be very important and significant physiological reaction and training method. Because vibration is periodical, I termed this type of stake as “Taiji Stake” of San Ti, indicating the rising and falling changes in energy, metabolism and body sense. Later, the tests showed that frequency of this muscular vibration in “Taiji Stake” of San Ti was about 7 ~ 10 times per second, close to the natural muscular vibration of 10 times per second, and also close to the meridians wave of 7 ~ 13 times per second.
Therefore, an idea appeared in my mind: could the muscular vibration in standing stake be used to train the springing and shooting energy, the strength-releasing speed of the leg muscles, and the speed of the fist? The vibration in standing stake is natural and instinctive and is a kind of the physiological reaction of the human body to the motor stimulation. If the main intention and movements are added into the natural vibration, what could happen? By training and experiments, good effects could be produced in the combination of those two, and reaction ability could be greatly elevated, and the strength could be obviously increased, and the coordination of body movement could also be improved. Further, the internal five organs could be stimulated, if training goes internally.
After I told Master Li about those sensations, he was slightly shocked: “you have had these sensations and experiences? I tell you: the spontaneous vibration of the muscle is supposed to train the pre-heaven energy, and that initiated by the mind is post-heaven energy. During the vibration of the muscles in standing the stake, if initiated by the mind, it is the joint training of the pre-heaven and post-heaven energy. You have found it but cannot control it. Only when the pre-heaven energy is trained to react instantly, can it be possible to attack people without sense. In the training, it is necessary to pay more attention to the sensation and reaction of the Diantian, sole and palm.”
As for the development of the instinct and potential of the human body by Xing Yi Quan and the theory of “practicing the fist skill like walking”, walking is an instinctive movement of the human body. Let us study what walking means. By studying the walking and standing method of the chicken, we can understand that what we learn from the chicken legs in Xing Yi Quan is the stability of the chicken in stepping energy, stamping energy and standing on one leg. By studying the relationships between the walking, running and pouncing movements of animals that walk on four legs and the movements of Xing Yi Quan, we can discover that San Ti is like the standing posture of the tiger and leopard, and Pi Quan is like the walking process of the tiger and leopard.
When we stand in San Ti and bend the body forward for 90 degrees, it looks like the posture of animals walking with four limbs on the ground. Human beings evolved from the ape and the ape evolved from the animals that walk on all fours. The baby’s crawling is very similar to the walking of a small cat or dog. The changes in San Ti - Pi Quan - is very similar to walking of the tiger and leopard. The release of force in Pi Quan can be viewed as the forward pouncing of the tiger and leopard. In the twelve animals of Xing Yi Quan, the special techniques of the animals walking with four limbs like tiger, monkey, horse and bear were adopted, and with San Ti (the essentials of Chinese martial arts) were summarized and refined through long-term practice. The importance of this is that the movements and postures are very close to the natural, instinctive movements of animals and humans being.
There is a famous saying in Xing Yi Quan: “to strike a person is like walking.” When it is said that one should to return to the state of infancy, it means to that one should crawl naively like baby; in standing, feel like you are crawling. Because the four limbs touch the ground in crawling, every step is real and firm. Therefore, it is said “the fist does not go out in vain and come back in vain.” In Six Harmony Boxing Methods, there is a saying: “a baby’s striking and playing methods must develop naturally.”
In walking, the animals of four limbs always touch the ground at three points. In order to maintain balance, the lower back and tail turn naturally. When the human stands and walks, the center of gravity is high. Although the two hands do not touch the ground, the arms still wave forwards and backward, like the movements of the two forelimbs in walking of. When animals walk, the rear foot of the same side always replaces the front foot of the same side, and the front foot extends forward, to walk alternatively at the left and right side. When the tiger and leopard run quickly or pounce on their prey, after the two rear feet land on the ground simultaneously, the front two feet land on the ground simultaneously; and four limbs land on the ground in turn in normal running and walking.
In Xing Yi Quan, there is such saying that “only when the hand and foot arrive at the same time, is there real skill. The hand and foot arrive in separation, in walking, running and gathering force. The hand and foot arrive together, in galloping, pouncing and releasing the force. The basic original form of San Ti is smooth step and twisted step. The smooth step is suitable for straight force, like Beng Quan, and the twisted step suitable for curved force, like Heng Quan.
San Ti is the foundation for attacking skills and movements of Xing Yi Quan, and all the movements in Xing Yi Quan come from this basic posture, so it is said that “all methods come from San Ti”. San Ti includes the basic principles of the stepping forms, body forms and hand forms in Xing Yi Quan. San Ti is not only a posture for both attack and defense, it also can powerfully strengthen the body, expel illness and prolong the life. By standing in San Ti, it is possible to regulate the balance between qi and blood, and regulate the coordination of the nine major sections of the whole body. Therefore, it is a basic method for training internal and external “six harmonies”.
The intensity of the movements is maximal in standing San Ti with gravity of front thirty and rear seventy, and less in standing with gravity of front forty and rear sixty, and even less with gravity of front fifty and rear fifty. There is also a form with the front bow step. There are different demands and functions in each standing posture. All of them need to be trained.
There are four phenomena in Xing Yi Quan: chicken leg, dragon body, bear shoulder and tiger holding the head. Therefore, in standing San Ti and practicing Pi Quan, it is necessary to sense their respective and interesting implications.
Master Li on Taiji
Returning back to Taiyuan after teaching the coaches of North American Tang Shou Tao Association, Master Li called me to his home, saying: “The American students want to learn Tai Ji Quan. The 88 forms are too long. I wrote down 45 forms, derived from the main movements of 88 forms.” The following are the names of 45 forms written down by Master Li.
3. Walk forward and hold the sparrow tail in the right.
4. Single whip.
5. Uplift the hand.
6. White crane spreads wings.
7. Left pulling knee with twisted step.
8. Play Bi Pa with the hand.
9. Left and right pulling knee with twisted step.
10. Play Bi Pa with the hand.
11. Walk forward to move, block and pound.
12. Like blockage and like closure.
13. Cross hand.
14. Hold the tiger back to the mountains.
15. Grab the sparrow tail sideways.
16. Look at the hammer underneath the elbow.
17. Roll the humerus backward.
18. Left and right oblique fly.
19. Uplift the hand and advance the posture.
20. White crane spreads wings.
21. Left pulling knee.
22. Needle on the bottom of sea.
23. Flash the whole arm.
24. Turn the body and throw the hammer.
25. Walk forward to move, block and pound.
26. Walk forward and hold the sparrow tail in the right.
27. Single whip.
28. Cloud hand.
29. Single whip.
30. High exploring horse at the left and right.
31. Separate the feet leftward and rightward.
32. Turn the body and stamp with the left foot.
33. Left and right pulling knee with twisted step.
34. Walk forward and pound with the hammer.
35. Turn the body and white snake spits the tongue.
36. Walk forward to move and block.
37. Stamp with the right foot.
38. Crouch the tiger at the left and right.
39. Turn the body backward and stamp with the foot.
40. Strike the ears with two fists.
41. Stamp with the left foot.
42. Turn the body and stamp with the right foot.
43. Walk forward to move and block.
44. Like blockage and like closure.
45. Cross hand.
Master Li said: “I have given you a subject, a subject for examination, and also a research project. You need to carefully study the special points in Xing Yi Quan and Ba Gua Zhang, and you’d better put those important points into the 45 forms. Earlier, Sun Lu Tang compiled a kind of Tai Ji Quan, called Moving Step Tai Ji Quan, based upon the footwork of Xing Yi Quan. We also should be innovative and compile them scientifically. Now, there is so much knowledge compiled not good than our predecessors?” Master Li said: “this art was termed Xin Yi (heart and mind) and Xing Yi (form and mind)”, and we have Xin Yi (new intention).
Master Li’s comments encouraged me greatly. I researched many things and studied Xing Yi Quan, Tranquility-Skill Threads-Entangling Tai Ji Quan (Jin Gong Chan Si Tai Ji Quan), Wu Style Tai Ji Quan, Ba Gua Zhang, and Shaolin Soft Arts. Through repeated compilation and revision over five years, the manuscript was preliminarily finalized. After demonstrating for Master Li, Master Li commented: “it is okay. You need to consider the frame, intensity, energy and force, speed and smoothness; whether you are able to separate the true and the false, and have the energy burst forth instantly; can the 45 forms be practiced faster than Xing Yi Quan, and are the various body parts more smooth, active and changeable?”
After hearing all this, my head was spinning. How could it be possible to practice with such high demands, and to have them all included into 45 forms? Master Li enlightened me: “The frame should be reasonable and the accumulated energy should be full and perfect, like stretching a bow, and the energy should be shoot out like an arrow, when it is needed. The Dantian is a round ball without a terminus. How could you change it into two appearances, four images and eight trigrams? The force should be intensified from looseness, and the key is the internal intensity. Do not show it in hands. Once it is smooth and active, it is fast in speed. Where are a thousand units of weight? Where are four units of weight? Once you find it, you can speed up as you want. At that moment, it does not matter if it is Tai Ji Quan, Xing Yi Quan or Ba Gua Zhang, and you can change the speed and energy as you want. Do not forget the circle of the Southern Shaolin soft art.”
Then I worked everyday on the research subject given to me by Master Li, continuously testing and continuously improving. When, just after making some progress, I needed his instruction and guidance, I was shocked with endless sadness by the news Master Li passed away. Ten years have passed and his voice and expressions still frequently appear before me. Certain progress had been made in the subject left over by Master Li, but it is still far away from his demands. We (myself and the other disciples) must unite closely, study jointly, make progress together and follow the expectations of the ancestors to pass down Chinese martial arts.
In memory of Master Li with this article