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  • Writer's pictureMartin LaPlatney

The Lock and The Key

I never intended to go to China. By 1995 I had been practicing martial arts for twenty seven years. For the previous seven years I had been focused on Xingyi and to a lesser extant Bagua Zhang. Training in China was not something I really thought about or that i even believed possible. Especially considering my life in acting. But in 1995 everything changed. My good friend Tom Bisio was going to China on behalf of the North American Tang Shou Tao Association and since he felt that three sets of eyes would be better than one he asked myself and another very experienced martial artist and friend Tom Clifford to go with him. Tom had been asked by Vince Black to visit some of the different King Fu families in Beijing, Tianjin and Taiyuan that he had built relationships with in order to research their styles and strengthen their bonds with his organization. NATSTA was organization we all belonged to and that Tom Bisio was Vice President of. For the first time in my life I had the money and the time to take such a trip. So, recalling a drunken conversation with Vince Black from a couple of years before where he said I should go to China at least once, I said yes. Soon enough I found myself on an airline bound for Beijing.

Many eventful things happened during that first trip. Experiences that had a deep effect on me (including drinking baijiu for the first time!) but the thing that changed my life the most was traveling to Taiyuan in Shanxi province and meeting Master Li Guichang and his disciple Song Zhiyong. Tom had spent time with both of them the year before when Master Li and other Masters Vince Black had spent time with were invited to teach a large group of NATSTA students and instructors in Beijing. At that time Song Zhiyong only seemed to be taking care of Master Li and no one saw him do any Xingyi. I heard that he did seem to like to party though. Indeed when we arrived in Taiyuan it appeared that Song Zhiyong was acting as nothing more than our host. It would be a few days before our preconceptions would be totally altered.

It is hard to really express my feelings when I first met Master Li. In my journal from that time I write about the brightness of his eyes and his kindliness. I recall the sense of being with someone who was very different from the other Masters I had met in my past. This is not in any way to disparage any of them but only to emphasize what was, to me, his specialness. The first day we are were in Taiyuan we worked out a schedule with Master Li and some of his disciples. Because Master Li was quite old he agreed to teach us for a limited time in the morning and the afternoon. The rest of the time the teaching would be done by his disciples Cui Jinmin, Wang Chengjing and his son Li Runxi. I remember us going out to dinner that first night with Song Zhiyong as our host. A wonderful evening in another country far from my own. At this point we still knew nothing of Song Zhiyong’s Xingyi skill. But he was a great host!

The next day we begin going over their way of doing the Wuxing. Although everyone was very good at Xingyi the teaching soon got very confusing. One would move your hips or hand one way and another would move them differently. It was a case of “too many cooks”. However when Master Li would arrive and demonstrate it was remarkable. I recall at one point he was showing us Pi Quan and laid his hand gently on Cui Jinmin and with only a slight movement collapsed him to the ground. I wrote in the journal i kept at the time about never having seen someone like him. After lunch that first day Song Zhiyong invited us to see his company. I write in my journal that he is was the oil business but I don’t know if that was correct or not. While visiting with him in his office he asked if we would like to see him do Lien Huan. This is the point where I began to understand what a remarkable martial artist he is. His Lien Huan was extraordinary. He told us he would visit at the hotel later in the evening and do some Tui Shou with us. We continued to work with the others in the afternoon but didn’t seem to be progressing much, if at all. That evening we waited for Song but soon Master Li and everyone else arrived including Chen Quangong (one of Master Li’s oldest disciples). Master Li asked to see our Wu Xing and of course we weren’t very good at their style due to our confusion. We did some push hands after that and Master Li got up to demonstrate with Chen Quangong. I had seen film of Master Li doing Tui Shou before but it was very different in person. I remember that with only a slight movement he sent Mr. Chen tumbling down the hallway outside our rooms at the hotel. Later that night Song Zhiyong privately told us he would meet with us the next morning at six before the others would arrive to teach at nine.

Song Zhiyong did not move like others I had met. He seemed to move under his skin and he had an elastic internal quality that was very unusual. Later we would joke about how he might be an alien. The next morning I recall being relieved because he was an excellent teacher and very clear. Later that day we did the Wu Xing for Master Li and unlike the night before he was quite pleased. Tom spoke privately to Master Li about the situation with teaching us and Master Li completely understood. He said at that time that we should only work with Song Zhiyong and that he was the standard for his system. It took me a long time to understand what that might actually mean. I don’t think It was about the forms of Xingyi, although Song can be quite exacting about the finer points of them. He actually does not do a lot of forms. (I once asked him why that was and he said he felt it was very difficult to develop the internal if one spent a lot time doing a lot of forms. A person only has so much time and should devote it to what they think is important.) What Master Li meant, i think, was that Song Zhiyong was the standard for the real internal development of Xingyi. The most important part of the art and the most difficult to learn. Over the years since that first visit to Taiyuan I would discover exactly how difficult it could be.

When i left China after that first trip I honestly thought I was one and done. I have never tried to be a professional martial artist so I didn’t think I would be going back. The problem was that i really felt that Master Li’s Xingyi was what I should do. I found myself going back to China again and again over the years. On one of our visits after Master Li passed away Song Zhiyong arranged a trip to visit Master Li’s tomb. He took Tom and I around to the back of the tomb and showed us where our names were on the list of disciples. It was a great honor.

When we first were working with Song Zhiyong we had to do so in secret so that other disciples wouldn’t be jealous. Once we were formally disciples ourselves he could teach us openly. Before he died Master Li told Song to teach us everything honestly and hold nothing back. I have also been fortunate in that whenever Tom went to China on his own he would give me any film he took while there and would go over whatever Song taught him. I did the same for Tom when I went to Taiyuan on my own. That exchange helped me a great deal. Song Zhiyong has always insisted that he is not our teacher but instead our school brother. As a school brother he feels an obligation to answer whatever we wish to know. However it is important to know the right question to ask.

Master Li said “Currently in learning the martial arts more attention is spent in training the set forms, not the skill. The students learn the forms and usage but the disciples also learn the skill (Gongfu). Why is there a difference between the students and disciples? In fact it is just a difference of whether, in learning the martial art, they have been given the key or not.” Xingyi and other martial arts have a lock attached to them. It is not very hard to learn the forms and applications and theory. Many masters are quite good at teaching these things and a person can also get good at fighting using only these methods. There is however a deeper level that Master Li is talking about. When I first got to China I could see that level in Master Li and Song Zhiyong but I had no idea how to achieve it. I had no key. Over time Song Zhiyong’s method became clear. Instead of reciting a lot of theory (although he can) he would just have me put my hands on him, his waist, back, joints etc. so I could feel how he moved internally as he did Si Ba or Pi Quan etc. That way, coupled with other instruction, I was able to gradually feel the same movement in my own body. This is a sort of direct transmission and it is, I believe, the key to really unlocking the arts. However it is also subject to the skill development of the teacher. Many teachers may allow the students to touch them on occasion but what they will actually feel is dependent on that teachers own development.

On my last trip to China Song Zhiyong told me that my Xingyi had reached a high level. I don’t know about that but I do know what a profound effect the practice of what he taught me has had on my life. I was very fortunate to meet Master Li Guichang and become his disciple but that would have led to very little without the generosity and skill of Master Song Zhiyong. His open and honest teaching over these many years has been a great gift for which i will be forever grateful.

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