Xingyiquan is generally considered to be one of the older Chinese martial styles, dating back to the famous boxer and spear fighter Ji Longfeng (a.k.a. Ji Jike) back in the early seventeenth century. While the Forms of Xingyi are simple, the movements have a great many uses and indeed there is a Xingyi saying that "to know one (technique) is to know ten!"
In Xingyi, movements are performed at a brisk pace which helps the cardiovascular fitness of students. Taiji already has a great reputation in the West for health cultivation, but in China, Xingyi is known to have produced some of the longest-lived practitioners of any style, with some teachers still able to bash all comers at the age of 100!
All of the movement and posture principles are essentially the same as for our style of Taiji, and it too places a strong emphasis on the "Reeling Silk" (Martial Rotation) power generation method. To understand this is to understand the essence of all of the styles we teach and once a student begins to grasp it, the apparent differences between the various styles largely disappear.
Xingyi and Taiji student John writes:
"It is fascinating to take the skills obtained in the grounded discipline of Taiji and place them in a more forward and rhythmic context. As a Taiji student it has - so far - only benefited me to explore Xingyi. This exploration is now providing an interesting arsenal of movement and defensive strategies. I find that I can practice Taiji and Xingyi separately but also that they can be almost complementary. I have only just begun to study Xingyi, but already when I practice the motions of Xingyi and then of Taiji it becomes apparent that another level of the Yin Yang relationship emerges (Xingyi - at this point in my training - being Yang). It is not that Taiji is without aggression but more that Xingyi seems to have a forward and more relentless persona.
Xingyi also introduces the five element theories to the martial context, the element theories are (as many readers will know) common to many strands of traditional Chinese thought. What such matters bring with them is a deeper and more general understanding of the broad range of Chinese traditions from which both disciplines emerged. This is enhancing and not deleterious to our progress."
FIVE ELEMENTS AND TWELVE ANIMALS
The first thing a Xingyi practitioner learns is the five elemental fists. Forms and numerous applications will be practiced. Generally the progression is as follows:
Piquan (splitting fist)
Associated with the elemental phase of Metal, the hands rise and fall like an axe.
Zuanquan (drilling fist)
The water element - your fist shoots upwards in a drilling motion like a spiralling water spout.
Bengquan (crushing fist)
Equated with the growth elemental phase (wood), your punches shoot or burst straight out like branches jutting out from a tree trunk. Again, some spiralling is present. If you examine a tree closely, a spiral growth pattern is often visible on the bark of the trunk and branches.
Paoquan (cannon fist)
Here the association is with cannons and with fire. The technique is expansive and explosive with one hand deflecting upwards while the other shoots out from the heart like a cannonball.
Hengquan (crossing fist)
Finally the earth fist, said to contain elements of all the others, at least potentially. Rotation is the theme of this technique with the fighter generating an arcing sideways drill-punch that is quite hard to defend against. It can also be expressed with some upwards or downwards intention.
The next thing the student will typically learn is the creative and destructive cycle of the five fists. This is a partner set where each student defends against their partner's attacks with the appropriate counterattack. While one student progresses from wood to fire to earth (the creative cycle), their partner will be countering with metal then water then wood which also follows the creative cycle, only starting in a different place. The clever thing is that the destructive cycle naturally comes out of this encounter. Metal is the correct technique to destroy (chop down) the wood attack. The fighter who threw the wood punch transforms into fire (wood creates fire) which is the correct destructive element to combat metal and so on. It is actually all a lot easier than it sounds.
Next come the twelve animal forms which combine and expand upon the basic five attacks. Each one evokes something of the spirit of the animal it is named after, but the imitation is not absolutely literal. Rather a central idea or theme is explored, such as the elongation and contracton of a dragon's spine, the tiger's strategic preference for attacking from the side or rear, or a bear's inclination to stand up and bear down on its foes with mighty front legs driven by powerful rounded shoulders. In some animals (such as the swallow or the sparrowhawk) it is the fighter's hands that are equated with the flight patterns of the birds. In the case of the snake, the arms represent the animal's body and the hands become the snake's head.
THE XINGI CHIMERA
Animal imagery is quite strong in Xingyiquan: in addition to the different animal forms, the Xingyi fighter is told to emulate various animal-related concepts throughout his or her practice of the style as a whole. The Xingyi fighter should have the fierce grasp of an Eagle, the undulating body of a Dragon, the crushing embrace of a Tiger's jaws, the strong and rounded shoulders of a Bear, with the neck straight and the legs of a... Chicken! This last image might seem a little strange or even amusing, but it refers to the fighter's ability to stand firmly on one leg and perform rapid undulating kicks. Stepping in Xingyi is crisp and clean like that of a Chicken.
Another traditional image is that of "roaring and stamping like thunder". Occasionally the fighter is also said to have the gaze of a Monkey and the agility of a Swallow. Although it employs many evocative animal images, Xingyi is not really an animal imitation style, rather the essential idea of each animal is absorbed into the fighter's movements and techniques.
Other choreographed partner sets exist, along with more free-form "push-hands style" sensitivity and opportunity drills. Finally, the practitioner may progress to weapon forms, including the straight sword and the spear.