By Hai Yang
Xing Yi is one of the most practical martial arts in China. It has been in a dominating position in the Chinese martial arts community for more than a century. Especially since the beginning of last century, Xing Yi was well-developed and tested in real combat. As a style, Xing Yi was even taught to military soldiers when Japan invaded China. For a period of time, other styles were called Martial Arts, but Xing Yi was called the 'National Art' since Xing Yi is very practical in combat.
For many years, the traditional Xing Yi practice has not been well demonstrated in martial arts communities around the world, especially out of China. Since Xing Yi is one of the internal martial arts, many people believe that Xing Yi practice should be very soft, and without force. This is totally wrong. How could Xing Yi be a famous fighting style if the movements are so soft? Has anyone seen any soldier who can kill his enemy with soft movements?
From studying martial art history, since Xing Yi was a style used in the army and bodyguards, it should not be very soft at all. Any martial art needs power to be effective whether it's an internal style or external style. Any misunderstanding or wrong concept has a certain reason behind it. So what is the reason for people thinking that Xing Yi' s practice should be soft?
Before answering this question, we should know the relation between Xing Yi and Daoism.
Xing Yi belongs to Daoist practice, so Daoist theory should be the guidance of this style. In Daoism, being soft is considered as higher level, it is the common belief to many people. However, what kind of softness is the right one?
Actually, Daoism focuses more on balance between softness and hardness, rather than only softness. Please look at the Yin-Yang logo, it's all about balance. Just as softness and hardness should be kept in balance, so should martial art practitioners maintain the balance between softness and hardness. Emphasizing only softness at the expense of hardness is not the way of Daoism. Furthermore, in Daoism, real softness derives from hardness, and real hardness from softness. This implies that in order to have the soft force, hard force should be practiced first. The soft force that comes from the hard force practice will be the real soft force.
The normal progression of Xing Yi practice is that students should practice with relaxed body manner and structure. In this way, the hard force will be developed over time. At this stage, there is no soft or hard force involved at all - it is just a beginning stage. The beginning stage will only develop the basic skills of a certain style, especially by removing bad habits which are against the principles of the style. It usually takes at least a year to finish this step.
After students get the basic skills of Xing Yi movements, at the same time, their body will adapt in accordance with Xing Yi principles. Then, the next stage will begin from here: developing the hard force as much as possible. This is the crucial stage of the whole Xing Yi practice. Many Xing Yi practitioners stop their progression at this point or jump to the next stage too quickly. This is why eventually most Xing Yi practitioners are unable to develop force, or only get fake soft force, which may give them some false sense of security but which is useless in combat.
Traditionally, there have been so many masters that emphasized this stage of practice that some masters such as Shang Yuxiang, even said that he would practice hard force 30 years more if he could live longer.
Normally, this stage of developing true hard force takes about 5 to 10 years.
The next stage is the proper time to develop the soft force. It will be a really soft force. However, please remember that the "soft" force is not soft at all - it is a kind of force that looks soft but is very powerful in application. It will take a much longer time to develop this stage. Many people confuse soft movements with soft force. They think that their movements are soft so their force must be soft force. It is simply wrong, because force is different from movement. Movement is only the vehicle of force.
After the stage of developing soft force comes the time to develop refined soft force.
From the experience of many masters in history, we can say that the second stage, which is the stage to develop the hard force, is the most important stage. Unfortunately, it is the stage most people ignore, failing to put enough time and effort into it.
So what is the external appearance of the hard force? It should be powerful, crisp and strong. In Xing Yi, some people use "Thunder Sound" to describe the power.
How to get this kind of force, or how to make our practice correct in the second stage?
The foundation of the first stage is important, since the body should be ready to develop the force for the next step. Students should practice each single movement very carefully with concentration. Students should focus on not only the main movements, but also the coordination among other movements too. This is the most difficult part of practice, so the instructor should pay more attention to correct each mistake the students may make. Otherwise, many bad habits will happen from here, and they will be hard to correct in the future.
Many people have not spent enough effort in this stage, because the concept of soft force is very appealing to many practitioners. In order to get the soft force, they stop practicing hard force too early. This is why they can never get soft force at all in the rest of the practice. Because we have known already that the real softness is from the real hardness, before achieving the real hardness, people should not seek any softness.
In order to practice Xing Yi well, you have to know your stage of practice first, then think of where and how to make progress from this point.
There is a very famous poem in Daoism: the dragon is from the fire and the tiger is from the water.
Therefore, practice hard force as much as possible before you practice any soft force, then the real tiger will come out from the water.