Hsing-I Chuan: an examination of principles
by Jim Dees

This shall be the first in a series of articles that will examine and explain the fundamental requirements of Hsing-i Chuan as taught to me by Mr. Goafei Yan. While there are several methods of Hsing-i Chuan practiced today, the method presented here is based on the system of Shang Yun Xiang/ Hebei . Shang Yun Xian was a very famous Hsing-i boxer in China, who, along with Sun Lu Tang, were the top Hsing-i boxers of their time. Like any internal art, it is not possible to get the true feeling of the art through words, photographs or video. The internal power and corrections of structure can only be gotten from a qualified teacher. With this in mind, it is my hope that the reader will find this a valuable research source from which to compare and contrast other information you have gathered in your studies as well as to educate those who are not familiar with this great Art.

When one practices any internal art the practitioner's first step is to calm the mind and unite it with the body. This first step is achieved through wuji. Wuji is a stillness stance where one takes the time to empty the mind and align the body to facilitate the flow of chi. As you can see in photo # 1, I am in the wuji stance. To assume this posture your feet should be shoulder width apart. The hands are held naturally by the sides. The head is propped up and the chin slightly tucked down. It is very important to align your body in such a way that a straight line can be drawn from the bai hui (point on crown of the head), hui yin (point between the anus and the genitals) and the yong quan (bubbling wells of the feet), The tongue shall touch the roof of the mouth and the body shall be allowed to sink and relax. Your breathing should be deep into the tan tien and try to relax and sink the chi into your lower half. Maintain this posture until the mind is empty and calm. This is a very important posture so do not dismiss this part of the training.

There is a Hsing-i classic that specifically refers to wu ji. Roughly translated it says: Man is born in the universe where there is no competition or fighting. It is here that the mind can be fulfilled without distration.

From wuji we move into another standing posture that is called san-ti. The san-ti is the primary posture of Hsing-i. In fact, about 60 % of the Hsing-i student's time is spent holding this posture. The transition from wuji to san-ti is made by bringing the feet together and then raising the arms with the palms facing up along your sides. As your hands reach above your head, they begin to close into fists with the thumb side closest to your body. Sink your chi as the fists are lowered to the pelvis level. The right fist screws inward and up along the center line of the body. This screwing is started in the ground and involves the entire right side of the body. However, do not sacrifice your vertical posture. As the right fist screws upward along your center, the hands rise at a 45 degree angle away from the body. When the right fist reaches the level of the chin, the left side begins its movement. Just as on the right side, the left's movement starts from the ground and is done in unison. The left fist screws and follows a path along the center of your body. The fist moves away at a 45 degree angle and passes over the right fist. As the left fist passes the right, the hands rotate and the right hand is pulled back to a position to the right of the tan tien. The left hand goes forward and is held as shown. Examine the photographs closely. But I must point out that which can not be captured on film. The intent of the lead hand is to project forward while the intent of the rear hand is going back to counterbalance the action of the lead hand. This is an important point that will become more clear as we examine the requirements of the san-ti posture. As the left foot extends forward, the left foot will also step out with the toe pointing straight. About 70% of your weight will be held in the rear leg.
The Hsing-i classics address this transition. Essentially the classics state: the movement is started with the intent of the mind. With this intent the bear and eagle combine to move the body without further thought or consideration. In regard to this, here is a translation of the Song of Tai chi. The mind has already moved, and the boxing has started. (The boxing) is hard and soft, empty and full, opening and closing, rising and falling.

What I have just described is what the average person would see if he saw the transition from wuji to san-ti. Now, let me tell you what really happened. Hsing-i postures, to include the fists and animals, have four requirements that must be met at all times if a sound structure is to be maintained. When fighting, or training with a partner, there are two more requirement which I will detail when appropriate. For now, we shall look at the four we need for standing practice. They are: chicken leg, dragon body, bear shoulder, and tiger embrace. The details of these requirements are spelled out in the Hsing-i classics. I will attempt to summarize them for you here.

Chicken leg refers to the manner inwhich the feet and legs are held. First, the toes must grasp the ground to secure the feet in their place. The legs are held as if screwing into the ground. The effect of which is felt in the knees which are inclined slightly inward. The heels will feel as though they want to push out, but the toes hold the feet in place. As a result of the inward inclination of the knee, the inner thigh is opened. The pelvis is relaxed and allowed to sit back and rest on the rear leg. The hui yin is raised. The focus of the balance should be on the bubbling well of the foot. The toe of the lead foot points straight while the toe of the rear foot points about 45 degrees outward. The knee of the lead foot should be above its heel. The distance between the two feet should be comfortable.

Dragon body refers to the turning of the torso in the direction of the rear foot. The head will remain looking straight ahead, however. A key point here is to relax the inner groin and sit back on the rear leg. The muscles along the ribs should also relax as much as possible to allow for good rotation. Do not rotate the pelvis. It remains oriented toward the front. Also, keep your posture straight and erect. The dragon body accentuates the intent of the lead hand to go forward and the rear hand to counter balance it to the rear.

Bear shoulder helps keep the structure sound by relaxing the shoulders and allowing them to roll forward from the side as opposed to hunching them over the top. Think of hollowing the chest through relaxation to help you fulfill this requirement.

Tiger embrace ensures the arms will keep a sound structure while sending and receiving energy. The palms will be hollow and the tiger mouth open (area between the thumb and index finger). You must always drop the elbow and sink the shoulder. This ensures sound structure and also acts to protect your ribs. Remember to relax and hollow the chest or there will be too much tension and your chi will rise. The index finger will be on the same plane as the big toe of the lead foot and the tip of the nose.

The importance of the four requirements above can not be stressed enough. If one of them breaks down then your structure will not reach it's potential and you may become vulnerable. One of the characteristics of the Shang Yun Xiang method of Hsing-i is that it does not matter what your opponent offers for a defense. Your structure will uproot his upon contact and you will be able to strike his center. If, however, your structure is lacking in the requirements you will not necessarily be able to accomplish this feat. The other two requirements come into play only when fighting or training with a partner. I will detail those in the next article when we look at the first of the five fists.

With the foundation established by the aforementioned structural requirements, how does one issue power? The answer is bear/eagle. This concept has been referred to before in other written works but is rarely seen in illustration and application. Mr. Yan feels that many people have missed the point of bear/eagle which is as essential to Hsing-i as yielding is to Tai chi. The bear refers to the body wrapping into itself to store power while remaining true to the requirements. The eagle is the releasing of this pent up energy in a focused manner into your opponent's center. I will go into more detail when we examine the various fists, but for now I will explain the concept of bear/eagle as it is seen in the opening transition from wuji to san-ti. To put it simply, bear is the storing of energy and eagle is the releasing of it. Think back to the point in the beginning of the san-ti when the feet are brought together and the right side closed on itself and the right hand screwed in up the center. That was bear. Then, the left side did the same. This as also bear. When you step out and sink into the actual san ti posture you are now in eagle. Please, do not confuse the concept of bear/eagle with the animal forms. These are two different things. Now, think about this. Hsing-i is one of the three major internal martial arts and enjoys a great reputation for powerful striking and effectiveness in real fighting. Why? How can a method of fighting rely on five basic strikes and become one of the most well respected martial arts in China? The art appears very simple on the surface, almost as if it is some karate-like exercise. Yet, those who get the deep meaning of the art have enjoyed some of the finest reputations as martial artists in China. Because they know five punches? Obviously, there must be more to this art of Hsing-i than the casual observer notices. The deep meaning is found in the postural requirements and the method of application which adds two additional requirements.

The Hsing-i classics attribute the bear/eagle concept to be the source of Hsing-i's power. This is found in the Song of liang yi (two poles): The eagle and bear compete (their) desire (will), (we) adopt (their) way as boxing. Yin and yang secretly combine together. This is the source of Hsing-i's power. To go deeper into this concept we must understand the Explanation of liang yi. It follows: Liang yi is the posture of the eagle and bear in the boxing. It is the principle of offense and defense, going forward and backward. All of us have four limbs and a body. Expanding it becomes yang (eagle) and contracting it becomes yin (bear). So, we can say yin and yang subtly combine together. Our ancestors saw eagle and bear compete in their desire and adopted that way as boxing. Defending like a bear and attacking like an eagle, This is the true meaning. Without these two aspects the true meaning is lost. The reason we call this method of boxing Hsing-i is that our movement resembles the shape (bear/eagle) and our mind thinks their desire.

In actuality, perhaps you can now see how the Hsing-i student goes from the stillness of wuji to the mental impulse of tai chi (as in song of tai chi) and flows to liang yi (two poles) and develops into the postural requirements I mentioned earlier. These fundamental concepts are crucial if you want to develop a deeper understanding of this art.

I challenge you to be more than the casual observer, Examine the requirements and put them into context with the information I will give in upcoming articles about each of the five fists. The key point in each of the fists will be how to fulfill the requirements of posture and application.

  1. This illustrates the frontal view of the wuji posture.
  2. This is the side view of the wuji posture showing the alignment of the bai hui, hui yin, and yong quan.
  3. This starts the transition from wuji to san ti.
  4. The chi is sinking to the tan tien.
  5. Here the chi is down and your mind should be clear and the body relaxed.
  6. Here the "bear" is evident as the right side of the body wraps into the center storing energy.
  7. The right arm extends "eagle" releasing energy.
  8. This shows a different angle of photo #7 so you may see that the left hand counterbalances the action of the right. This is actually an illustration of dragon body that I will discuss more in the next article when I introduce the five fists.
  9. Here the left side of the body has closed onto itself and the "bear" is apparent as energy is saved.
  10. Here the transition form wuji to san ti is complete. It is important that the chicken leg, dragon body, bear shoulder, and tiger embrace be in place.
  11. This is a frontal view of the san ti posture.
  12. This photo illustrates some common mistakes. Note the hunched shoulders, locked knee, left arm is locked and elbow is up, palms not hollow, no dragon body or chicken leg, not rear weighted.
  13. Here we have some more common errors from the frontal view. Note the lack of tiger embrace is particularly evident from this angle. The mistakes listed in photo 12 are also here just shown form a different angle.

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