Historical background of Yang style Taijiquan as passed down by late Wang Yongquan
For more than half a century people in China and other countries have learnt about and to a certain degree understood Taijiquan, while health aspects of Yang style Taijiquan attracted special attention all over the world.
However very few people know that during the transmission of Yang style Taijiquan, its true essence has almost been lost and forgotten because old masters kept it secret.
Happily, the lineage that has been secretly passed down from Yang Jianhou in Beijing, has fairly completely preserved the practice methods and Kneading Hands (Rou Shou, i.e. Pushing Hands) techniques of original Yang family boxing. This is because of all the energy and efforts that Mr.Wang Chonglu and my teacher Wang Yongquan poured into as well as subtle inspiration that cannot be forgotten.
The origins of this art should be traced back to the end of Qing dynasty (1644-1911). At that time Mr.Yang Jianhou was summoned to the residence of Bei Lei and Bei Zi to teach Taijiquan to the members of the imperial family. Since at that time the Qing dynasty imperial family members and aristocrats enjoyed high positions and lived in comfort, it became fashionable to pay attention to good health. Most “bigwigs” learnt Taijiquan only because of fashion and considered it just another entertainment to divert themselves from boredom and did not really practice hard.
Only the oldest grandson of emperor Xuanzong, Pu Lun Bei Zi had become extremely interested in the skill that Mr.Yang Jianhou was occasionally revealing during the classes, and was often inviting Mr.Jianhou to his residence asking for guidance, paying very high salary and showing special favor to him. Because of dept of gratitude for Pu Bei Lun Zi’s recognition and appreciation as well as special treatment, Mr.Jianhou gradually passed to him secret art of Yang family Taijiquan.
At that time there was a servant at Pu Bei Lun Zi’s residence called Wang Chonglu, who was very interested in martial arts. Wang was receiving waiting upon Mr.Jianhou when he was coming to Pu Bei Lun Zi’s residence to teach boxing. Wang, already skilled in boxing, when listening to Mr.Jianhou’s very clear explanations of boxing principles, realized this art was out of ordinary and contained the ultimate principles of all times, heaven and earth, all things of creation; moreover, Wang noticed that the practice method taught by Mr.Jianhou was utterly different from everything he had seen before, and truly was the best martial art he had been yearning for day and night. For this reason he was particularly venerating Mr.Jianhou, very careful in all respects all the time, showing him every consideration.
After some time Mr.Jianhou was moved by Mr.Chonglu’s sincerity and often taught him one or two boxing postures in free time. After few years Chonglu became very skilful at Taiji, and since he was honest, sincere and kind-hearted, Mr.Jianhou thought high about him and gladly accepted him as indoor disciple.
Wang Yongquan, Chonglu’s son, was interested in martial arts since childhood and when seven started to study Buku (“wrestling” in Manchu language) and became very sturdy and his movements were strong and vigorous. At the age of eight he often accompanied father to Yang’s house. Mr.Jianhou liked Yongquan as he was a very bright kid and allowed him to learn martial art of yang family. Mr.Jianhou ordered him to accept Yang Chengfu, Jianhou’s third son, as his master. Since then father and son often went to Yang’s house in the western part of the capital to study martial art.
Yongquan was also often sent by his father to Yang’s house to help manage household affairs and could often hear Jianhou’s and Shaohou’s (father and son) discussions on boxing techniques. Sometimes in the height of his enthusiasm Shaouhou would call Yongquan to come and cross hands to feel his strength hence prove his point; since Yongquan had good basics in “Buku” and knew how to fall and was not afraid of it, every time he was hit by his gongfu uncle’s (i.e. Shaohou’s; since Yang Chengfu was Wang Yongquan’s master – Shifu, gongfu father – and Shaohou was Chengfu’s older brother, then Shaohou was Wang’s Shibo – gongfu uncle; word “uncle” used later in the translations should read as Shibo – gongfu uncle; note from translator) swift and fierce power and tumbled several times on the ground, he would immediately stand up and move close to Shaohou waiting for another show of uncle’s skill; for this reason Shaohou liked him a lot.
Wang Yongquan (1904-1987)
At that time Shaohou, also called “Mr. Big”, used to strike showing the opponent no mercy and became famous for his fierce and malicious power. People who had a taste of this power and were flung by him high up would tremble with fear and not dear to come close to him again. However Yongquan would do what he could to cross hands with uncle Shaohou to feel the direction of his strength (Jin), the power and timing, although hit and thrown on the ground. He could only feel the strength and would not dare to ask uncle what power he used. During several years Yongquan was imperceptibly influenced by what he saw and heard and was able to comprehend it. For this reason, and because of instructions he received earlier from Mr.Jianhou and later from his father, Mr.Yongquan received true transmission of Yang family Internal Skill (Nei Gong) and Power Methods (Jin Fa), and had high attainments in Kneading Hands (Rou Shou). After that for the next decades all along he kept practicing the original early methods of Old Six Routines (Lao Liu Lu) that he had learnt together with his father from Mr.Jianhou; the movements he taught were different from the postures and methods his teacher Yang Chengfu taught when he (i.e. Yang Chengfu) went south to Shanghai and other places. (…)
Explanations of Neigong (Internal Skill) Principles
Taijiquan practice must be conducted internally and externally, Yin and Yang must melt together into one. If one wants to achieve Internal Skill (Nei Gong) of Taiji, one must first grasp practice methods conforming with Taijiquan principles. Principles and methods of Internal Skill are the only way to cultivate Spirit (Shen), Intent (Yi) and Qi; that’s why practice methods in traditional Taijiquan not only pay attention to movements of body and hands, but even more stress principles and methods of Internal Skill. Under any circumstances they cannot be separated.
Many students of Taijiquan practice incorrectly – first learn the routine, and only after they are skilled at it they explore the principles; what they do not understand is that through this empty practice without principles their bodies already get used to the incorrect way of practice, stiff, inflexible, with physical strength. Once the students want to explore the principles, the way they move (with stiff and inflexible strength) already becomes habitual and the problems are very difficult to get rid of; and although they practice correctly for a long time later, Internal Strength (Nei Jin) is out of their grasp and there is no way that they can reach deep understanding of high skill levels.
My teacher handed down a correct method of teaching martial arts – from the beginning both movements and principles are explained clearly, with stress put on using principles to guide the movements correctly. The principles of movements have very explicit guiding meaning, and only by following the correct order of practice handed down by old generations of masters one can quickly enter the correct path and pursue more advanced study.
Yang Style Taijiquan emphasizes internal and external practice, every movement and every posture should contain a Method (Shu) within, and the Method must come out of the movements and postures. Movements and Method depend on each other and complement each other. One must not first practice movements and then learn the principles, as well as one must not first learn the principles and then practice movements. The beginner by imitating (the teacher) will first grasp the external movements, but since the principles of Internal Skill (Nei Gong) cannot be seen, it is not easy to understand their essentials. Since on the elementary level Spirit (Shen), Intent (Yi) and Qi are not ready to accept assignments coming from the mind (consciousness), it is impossible to merge movements and Methods in one step. For this reason students should first of all attach importance to the careful study of the principles.
Every movement and posture of the boxing routine practice should have, as the boxing classics say, “Intent in first place” (Yi Zai Xian), Intention should guide the form from the beginning to the end, one should not practice “empty movements” even for a short moment. For example in the Commencing Form, before the hands raise and the movement is born from utmost stillness, Intention has already started to control the whole body so that all its parts one by one have been adjusted according to the Internal Skill principles.
When the practice reaches the intermediary level, there are many principles, every movement and posture have one kind of fixed principles, and the principles between two movements may mutually alternate and derive from each other. On the high level the accumulation and changes of principles appear naturally, without thinking. My teacher once said, during routine practice, when movements and Methods are harmoniously combined so that they strictly follow ones Intent, at that moment a subtle and profound (phenomena) may develop. The whole body is transparent and empty, one forgets about oneself and is non-active – this high level starts from learning to soften hands and wrists. Every step and every move should be completely guided by the principles of boxing movements, and only later one can gradually attain the level of complete relaxation, transparency and emptiness.
For this reason all those who want to learn Taijiquan should be warned to seriously explore and understand the principles of boxing movements. Following are chosen explanations of the principles of boxing movements; for the sake of better explanation (deeper impression), the pictures show both correct and incorrect movements so that Taijiquan practitioner will not go astray.
1.CROWN OF THE HEAD SUSPENDED (XUAN DING)
Concerning “Crown of the head suspended”, boxing manuals say “Emptiness guides propping up strength” (Xu Ling Ding Jin), “Top of the head suspended” (Ding Tou Xuan), “Baihui pushes up” (Baihui Shang Ding), etc.
My teacher never mentioned the above sayings; he only explained secretly transmitted essential “Back of the neck rubs against the collar”. “Rub against” means that back of the neck is relaxed and straight, and is lightly kept close to the collar when slightly turning. During the process when the back of the neck rubs against the collar, cervical vertebra gradually tends to become upright and straight, and the posture of the body will also become centered and upright; when one attains the state when it is centered and upright, in that short moment all of a sudden whole body will get “fixed” – head will be centered, Spirit clear and Qi refreshed, relaxed and comfortable as if nothing existed. The feeling of relaxed head can make one happy and free of worry, and this state of mind will naturally influence the facial expression showing a slight smile; in this way both the inside and outside of the body will be in peaceful, gentle mood. Paying constant attention to slightly rub against the collar with the back of the neck will keep the Ren and Du channels clear of obstructions, and since when Qi flows than blood moves, chronic illnesses of insufficient supply of blood to the brain, neck aches and blocked Yuzhen will be eliminated. (Ill.1)
Ill.1: CORRECT – back of the neck kept close to the collar Ill.2: WRONG – withdrawing the chin on purpose Ill.3: WRONG – lifting the head on purpose
If one does not correctly understand the relation between relaxed, straight neck and upright head, and does not realize how harmful it is for the postures and the body when head is not upright, then one will allow the head to bend and lift and this may turn into a bad habit.
When chin is withdrawn too much, head bends down, the front of the neck is suppressed, breathing is difficult, blood circulation is not smooth, and as a result one becomes apathetic and dispirited. (Ill.2)
When head is lifted then back of the neck is suppressed, Internal Qi can only circulate between Jiabei and Weil and cannot pass through Yuzhen. When Three Gates (San Guan) are not opened, then one gets neck and head aches, head swells, which may even result in vertigo. (Ill.3)
Only when neck is relaxed and straight, then head is centered and upright, at ease and comfortable, which is a very important part of the (Internal Skill) principles.
2.EYES EXPRESSION (EYE SPIRIT, YAN SHEN)
Once the principle of relaxed and straight neck is correctly understood, head will be absolutely empty and eyes expression will naturally attain (the state) of looking and not seeing, which will integrate with (the state of) ears listening but not hearing. The feeling of relaxation of the head will make one’s spirit happy and influence the facial expression, showing a slight smile.
One must not misunderstand the eyes expression of “looking and not seeing” as dull staring, like a pond with still water, without movement and changes. Going out and entering of eyes expression (Eye Spirit) is naturally interlinked with the mind and intention, which give rise to the changes of Opening/Closing of expression. When eyes expression is merged into the movements of boxing routine one should only keep the eyes open, when Eye Spirit goes out, it is for sure accompanied by the Spirit entering; entering of Eye Spirit is surely followed by the Spirit going out; only when going out and entering alternate and circulate, one can truly use eye expression in such a way that there is Yin within Yang, Yang within Yin and Yin and Yang are combined together. (Ill.4)
When Eyes Spirit is held back and looks towards the inside, it does not mean that eyelids drop and eyes are closed or one narrows the eyes and does not look ahead; when Eye Spirit is fixed on a point, it is not using strength and straining the eyes. If the Eyes Spirit is not correctly used, then eyes may hurt because of strain, and it is not only not healthy but very harmful.
Ill.4: Natural Opening and Closing of Eye Spirit
During boxing practice people often only pay attention to sinking the shoulders and often overlook to empty the armpits. They often incorrectly believe that sinking and dropping is the correct movement of the shoulders. Actually deliberately sinking the shoulders, which are pulled down with strength, may result in the feeling of heavy and tired shoulders.
Concerning empty armpits, the secret method passed down by my teacher is “practicing boxing with two hot steamed buns carried under the armpits”. My teacher used to give an example from a daily life to explain this: when you pick steamed buns from the steaming hot food steamer, the movement and posture at this short moment are vivid explanation of the essentials for empty armpits. At that moment the strength you use to grasp the bun is extremely precise, because you may scald your hand when you grasp the bun too tightly, and drop it when the strength is not sufficient; at the same time it forces you to use your hand in such a way that it is neither too close nor too distant (from the surface of the bun), in a state of holding with just right strength. “Practicing boxing with two hot steamed buns carried under the armpits” in a plain and easy to understand way illustrates that the armpits should be relaxed and at the same time one should combine a very intriguing, slight strength that is both antagonistic and united. When one practices boxing keeping in mind the hot buns kept under the armpits, then Internal Qi in shoulders and arms will pass smoothly and flow swiftly. After a long time of practice the habit will become natural and emptying the armpits will not have to be intentionally conducted. (Ill.5)
Ill.5: CORRECT – Both armpits empty Ill.6: WRONG – Armpits empty, arms close to the torso
If one keeps two armpits empty incorrectly, the elbows raise and shoulders becomes stiffened and tensed; the flow of Internal Qi will be obstructed. When armpits are not empty, the arms are kept close to the torso, shoulders can’t relax and hence Internal Qi is suppressed and does not flow. (Ill.6)