Interview with Mr. Di Guoyong, Xingyiquan expert from Beijing and president of the Beijing Xingyiquan Research Association

by Jarek Szymanski

Photos - courtesy of Mr. Di Guoyong, all translations and notes by Jarek Szymanski;  J.Szymanski 2003

Mr. Di Guoyong, president of the Beijing Xingyiquan Research Association, in Chopping Fist (Pi Quan)

Mr. Di Guoyong was born in 1948 in Xiong County in Hebei Province. In 1963, three years after his family moved to Beijing, he became a disciple of Zhao Zhong expert of Shaolin Long Fist Boxing and Xingyiquan. In 1973, through Zhao Zhong's introduction, Mr. Di became a disciple of Wu Binlou and began to learn Chuo Jiao Fanzi Boxing. Since 1977 Mr. Di was studying Baguazhang under Li Ziming, and became one of Li's first disciples. For many years he was also learning from many old generation martial arts experts in Beijing. In 1983 together with Bao Yucao Mr. Di not only proposed establishing of Xingyiquan Research Association in Beijing, but also actively participated in the preparation work of the Association, served as its secretary, vice-president, and currently is the president of the Association. Since 1981 Mr. Di has been teaching Xingyiquan and Baguazhang in Beijing, and between 1989 and 1990 in Cameroon. His students did very well in both routines and free fighting competitions, including Zhang Yanming's 2nd place in 65kg weight category in all-China Sanda Competition. [according to "The Register of Beijing Contemporary Martial Artists", Beijing 1998]

 

Jarek Szymanski: Mr. Di, please tell us how it happened that you began to practice martial arts?

MR. DI GUOYONG: In the 1960s, 1960-1962, there was not enough food in China. We call it "Three years of natural disasters". At that time I was very young, 11-12 years old, and growing fast. However since we had not enough food, my health was very poor. At that time, as I was a good student, I managed to pass entry examinations into The First Secondary School affiliated to the Beijing University. However I was very ill at that time - it was rheumartritis that attacked my whole body, so I was exempted from attending labor classes and physical education classes. My illness was so bad that when the teacher was entering the class and we were all standing up and bowing to the teacher greeting him, I did not have to stand up because I was simply not able to! Some neighbors suggested that my parents should try acupuncture, but it was rather expensive for our family (my parents were old, my mother was working as a maid), so I visited doctor only once. At that time one of older students from our school who was an assistant for our class was practicing Xingyiquan and I started to learn from him. I was 13 at that time. Later he introduced me to his teacher, Zhao Zhong from Haidian District in Beijing. Since that time I was practicing Xingyiquan without any break and after a period of time my health was getting better. My main reason for martial arts practice was to recover, become healthy and strong. I noticed martial arts practice is indeed beneficial for my health and continued the study of Xingyiquan.

 
MR. DI GUOYONG'S XINGYIQUAN LINEAGE
 
Li Laoneng Liu Qilan Li Cunyi Shang Yunxiang Liu Huapu Zhao Zhong Di Guoyong
Guo Yunshen --------
 

JS: So the first style you practiced was Xingyiquan?

MR. DI: No, actually I started first with Shaolin boxing, Shaolin Long Fist Boxing (Shaolin Chang Quan).

JS: Was it the same Long Fist Boxing as taught nowadays and demonstrated during modern Wushu competitions?

MR. DI: No, it was different. It was the traditional, old, simple and unsophisticated style. Its movements, postures, were small, the range of movements was not big either, although the style also included flying kicks, tornado kicks, etc. I was practicing with Zhao Zhong for more than ten years.

JS: What about Cultural Revolution? Did you continue your martial arts study during that time? Weren't martial arts forbidden at that time?

MR. DI: Yes, martial arts were forbidden, but I did not care, I still practiced.

JS: Did your parents agree that you study martial arts? 

MR. DI: Before I started to learn from Zhao Zhong, he demanded that one of my parents comes to see him. It was not only to make sure that parents agree and support their child's martial arts practice, but also to meet them, get acquainted with them. At that time my father bought 1kg of cake (which was quite an expense at that time) and went to see my teacher. My father also liked martial arts - our family is originally from Li County in Hebei Province where martial arts are very popular. In the countryside there was nothing to do during three winter months, so kids were paying little money to buy oil for lanterns and learning martial arts from a teacher. There was a martial arts teacher working for the Wangs, local wealthy family. Wangs had a big courtyard where kids were learning martial arts. Later my father even taught me some movements he learnt in his childhood, like "Wu Hua Pao" (Cannon of Five Flowers). 

JS: Was it a Xingyiquan routine? As far as I know there is a routine called this name in Xingyi?

MR. DI: No, it was Long Fist Boxing. During Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) groups of martial arts practitioners were traveling from one village to another to demonstrate their skill. Wealthy families always allowed for teaching martial arts in their houses mainly because once the news spread around, local bandits and thieves would not dare to intimidate them and would avoid their houses.

Dragon Form (Long Xing)

JS: So at the beginning you were learning Long Fist Boxing from Zhao Zhong?

MR. DI: Yes, I was learning Long Fist Boxing for about seven, eight years. Then I started to learn Xingyiquan from him. Zhao Zhong's Xingyiquan came from Liu Huapu, who was Shang Yunxiang's disciple. Zhao Zhong told us then when he started to learn Xingyiquan, he first had to stand in San Ti Shi for three years and a half. It was because he had very strong foundation in Long Fist Boxing.

 
SHANG YUNXIANG AND SHANG STYLE XINGYIQUAN
 

Shang Yunxiang (1864-1937), styled Jiting, native of Leling in Shandong Province. As a child went to Beijing with his father, who was doing business there. At that time Shang learnt Gongli Boxing from Ma Dayi, and believing in his skill, challenged Li Cunyi (who was famous for his broadsword skills and nicknamed Dan Dao - "Single Broadsword" - Li Cunyi), but was easily defeated by him. Since then he began to study Xingyiquan from Li and soon became one of his best students. Guo Yunshen recognized Shang Yunxiang's outstanding skill and passed to him many secret methods. Under Guo's guidance Shang put special emphasize on developing leg power and soon became known as "Buddha with Iron Legs" (Tie Tui Fo).

Shang inherited three skills Guo Yunshen was famous for: "Half-step Crushing Fist", "Striking with Dantian" and "Long Pole". Shang crossed hands with many famous masters of his time, including Feng Luozheng (expert of Chinese wrestling and Bafanzi Boxing), Ma Xiu (expert of Bajiquan and long spear) and others, and defeated them all. Shang Yunxiang taught differently in different periods of his life, and even students studying from him at the same time learnt differently. Generally speaking his early students learnt the "Old Style", which could be considered the orthodox Hebei style. It was basically Li Cunyi's style with heavy influence of Guo Yunshen's method. Later - following his teacher's example (Li Cunyi also changed his style when he had to escape to Shanxi Province after the Boxer rebellion in 1900 was defeated and had contact with local Xingyiquan practitioners) and along his with growing experience and understanding of Xingyiquan - Shang was gradually modifying the original style into what is now known as Shang style Xingyiquan ("New Style"). Shang's early disciples - including Liu Huapu - learnt the "Old Style", while those taught at the end of his life - like Li Wenbin and Shang Zhirong (Shang's daughter) - learnt the "New Style".

Shang Yunxiang (1864-1937)

Shang Style Xingyiquan emphasizes standing in San Ti posture and practice of Eagle Seize (Ying Zhuo), which is considered mother fist (Mu Quan) of his system. Practice of Eagle Seize teaches "Rising - Drilling - Falling - Overturning" (Qi Zuan Luo Fan) and develops "Wave Overturning Power" (Fan Lang Jin) - unique power of Xingyiquan. It also allows to acquire the skill of "feet strike in 70%, hands strike in 30%" (i.e. in striking more strength comes from legs), "the intent of moving forward is like wind sweeping the ground" - "Wading Power" (Tang Jin) and "Stepping on Power" (Cai Jin). Apart from Five Elements Fists (in Shang Yunxiang's system Chopping Fist is performed with fist and forearm, not with palm as in all other branches of Hebei Province Xingyiquan) and Twelve (Animal) Shapes, his system includes the following single empty hands routines: Linked Fists (Lian Huan Quan), Six Harmonies (Liu He), Eight Postures (Ba Shi), Twelve Powerful Strikes (Shi Er Hong Chui) and Mixed Strikes (Za Shi Chui); matched empty hand routines: Five Elements Cannon (Wu Xing Pao) and Safe Body Cannon (An Shen Pao); weapons routines: Five Elements (Wu Xing), Linked (Lian Huan) and Six Harmonies (Liu He) each performed with Broadsword, Straight Sword, Stick and Spear as well as rare weapons: Unicorn's Horn Broadsword (Lin Jiao Dao) and Phoenix Wing Dang (Feng Chi Dang; kind of spear with additional moon-shaped element just behind the spear tip). All empty hand and weapons techniques are characterized by specific and unique to Shang style power. In his teachings Shang emphasized Internal Power (Nei Jin), one was forbidden to strain breath or use local muscles, but instead encouraged to relax and through natural, harmonious movements develop swift, violent and hard Explosive Power (Bao Fa Jin). Hard Power (Gang Jin) was considered acquired when the practitioners reached the stage of "Striking Hard Advancing Hard Nothing Is Obstacle" (Ying Jin Ying Da Wu Zhelan). The next step was to understand that Hardness is contained within Softness. "Releasing Power when Touching with the Body" (Zhan Shen Cong Li), "Gradually Releasing when Moving Slowly" (Nuan Dong Zhu Fa) refer to "Wave Overturning Power" (Fan Lang Jin); "Power is Released Once Intent Moves" (Yi Dong Jin Fa), "Explosive (Power) means Shaking and Explosive (Power)" (Jue Shi Dou Jue Ye) refers to "Shaking and Extorting Power" (Dou Lou Jin); "Exploding Power" (Zha Jin) compared to "Squeezing - Bursting - Picking Beans" (Zheng Beng Zhai Doujiao; Note: releasing "Exploding Power" is similar to the following process: when a pod containing beans becomes dry and brittle, once squeezed from both ends, it bursts all of a sudden throwing the beans out). The next step is to strive for Neutralizing Power (Hua Jin) of "Releasing Without Intent" (Bu Yi Er Fa).
 

JS: Why did he have to stand for so long if he had already been skilful in another martial art?

MR. DI: Exactly because he was good at another art! His teacher had him to stand for three years and a half and did not teach him anything else during that time. He told him to stand for so long to "erase" Long Fist Boxing from his body. My teacher would probably have to stand for longer if Wu Zizhen (head of Si Min Boxing Society, grand-disciple of Geng Jishan) did not ask Liu Huapu to teach Zhao Zhong. At that time learning martial arts was different than now - when teacher told you to stand, you just had to stand and could not ask the teacher to teach you some more movements. Students dare not to ask. However once Liu Huapu started to teach Xingyiquan movements to Zhao Zhong, it took only half a year for Zhao to learn the complete system. Zhao Zhong told us that during winter they were practicing wearing Mian'ao (cotton-padded jackets). Because of Xingyi requirement that elbows should be kept close to the body, after some time the cotton padding was coming out because constant rubbing of sleeves against the body wore off the outside fabric. In the summer while practicing San Ti Shi the ground around was wet with their sweat.

JS: What happened later to your teacher, Zhao Zhong?

MR. DI: During Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) he was persecuted by Red Guards. At that time it was important what family one was born in. However, although he was born as a poor peasant, his martial arts skills were famous before liberation (1949) and he was a member of a Zhen Ji Dui (organization for protecting public security); besides, he also took part in San Qing Tuan (youth organization under Nationalist Party). He was accused to be against Mao Zedong and the Communist Party. Zhao Zhong said he had never been against Mao Zedong and the Party, however he was still forced to stand in front of Mao's picture and admit his guilt. Zhao Zhong became very unhappy, so he took the metal badge with Mao Zedong's portrait and stacked it into his forehead. The Red Guards considered it disrespect for Mao Zedong and started to beat Zhao with sticks. Zhao's lower back was seriously hurt. Zhao later passed away because of uremia. Besides his temper was very bad. Once he got upset with his family and hit the table with the fist, breaking it into two.

At that time after I finished my Xingyi classes I used to go to various parks in Beijing and watch other people practicing martial arts. Once I saw Wu Binlou (famous Chuojiao Fanzi expert) teaching near the Forbidden City and liked the style. It was around 1973. I approached Wu Binlou and asked whether it was possible to learn from him. Wu asked me if I had studied any martial arts before. When he learnt that Zhao Zhong was my teacher, he said he knew Zhao well and that they were very good friends. Wu told me to bring a short note from my teacher (as a kind of letter of introduction). When I told Zhao Zhong that I wanted to study Chuojiao Fanzi under Wu Binlou he was very happy and not only agreed, but also decided to go with me to visit his old friend. I was very lucky to have Zhao Zhong as my teacher - he did not have any sectarian bias and did not think it was improper that his student learnt from other teachers as well.

 
CHUO JIAO FANZI QUAN AND WU BINLOU
 

Chuo Jiao Fanzi Boxing is a merge of Chuo Jiao (an art using variety of kicks, including many very physically demanding, requiring good flexibility and strength of legs) and Fanzi Boxing (famous for its hand techniques and idea of changes). Chuo Jiao is one of the oldest martial arts in China. It derives from  Wen Family boxing of Song dynasty (960-1279), which famous Ming dynasty general Qi Jiguang (1528-1587) considered the most effective style of his time. Chuo Jiao is considered representative for famous "Northern Legs". Currently Chuo Jiao Fanzi Boxing exists in three versions practiced in Hebei Province, Beijing and North-eastern China. Technically it is composed of: Martial Routines (Wu Tangzi), i.e. Chuo Jiao, which put stress on kicking techniques, with wide, open stances and focus on hard power; Scholarly Routines (Wen Tangzi), i.e. Fanzi, with more compact movements, combining soft and hard power; Tumbling Boxing (Di Tang Quan), preparing for fighting on the ground and said to be the core of the original Wen Family Boxing.

Some researchers have noticed many similarities between Xingyiquan and Chuo Jiao Fanzi Quan, and suggest that both styles could be coming from the same source - Wen Family Boxing - and that probably Xinyi/Xingyiquan existed already in Ming Dynasty (so far all reliable documents go only as far as 17th century). These claims would require a closer study of "Wen Family Teaching Method" (Wen Jia Jiaoyu Shu), Ming dynasty book which is one of Chuo Jiao classics and so far has not yet been disclosed.

Wu Binlou (1898-1977), styled Wu Xuehai, native of Xiong County in Hebei Province, since childhood learnt martial arts from Wei "Iron Legs" Zankui, famous Chuo Jiao Fanzi master. In 1920s Wu came to Beijing here he made friends with many famous martial arts experts of the time, including Wu Zizhen (Xingyiquan), Chen Fake (Chen style Taijiquan), Chang Zhenfang (Cha Quan) and others. In 1940s Wu Binlou established Beijing Yilin Wushu Association and was teaching martial arts around the city. Wu Binlou was very famous for his skills in Chuo Jiao, Fanzi, Tumbling Boxing (Di Tang Quan), as well as in soft weapons, especially Tiger Tail Whip (Hu Wei Bian) - hence his nickname - "Flowery Whip" (Hua Bian) Wu Binlou. Wu Binlou was very respected in Beijing martial arts circles for both his skill and Wu De (Warrior's Virtue). [according to "The Register of Beijing Contemporary Martial Artists", Beijing 1998]

Wu Binlou was Mr. Di Guoyong's second teacher

 

JS: How old was Wu Binlou at that time?

MR. DI: He was in his early seventies.

JS: How was it possible to learn such a physically demanding style from him?

MR. DI: Wu Binlou was every single day riding bicycle to the northern gate of the Forbidden City to teach martial arts. He was there very early, before everyone else. Once I wanted to be there before him, so I got up very early and arrived before 6:00AM. It was still dark and I thought nobody was there. All of a sudden I noticed a person - Wu Binlou was there already! I asked him when he came and he said he did not know - he did not sleep well so he came. Next day I decided to get up even earlier - at 3:00AM and was at the place we practiced at 4:00AM. I was sure nobody could be there. To my surprise Wu Binlou was there, jogging and warming up! He had no TV set, he was living alone (he had three wives and all of them passed away), so after supper he had nothing to do and went to bed very early. Wu Binlou also knew Xingyiquan - it was Shanxi style. Wu was in Shanxi, and his teacher's teacher - Wei Changyi - was even teaching Chuojiao Fanzi in Shanxi, exchanging it for Xingyi with Li Fuzhen. Wei Zankui (Wei Changyi's student and Wu Binlou's teacher) was known as "Iron Legs" (Tie Tui) Wei Zankui. Wei Zankui was hardening his legs by rolling the shinbones with a rolling-pin, and then hitting them with sandbags. Besides he was hardening his palms by striking trees. His legs were so hard that a cart with iron rims on the wheels could pass over his legs without hurting him. Hence his nickname - "Iron Legs" Wei Zankui.

Wu Binlou was very fit for his age - much fitter than people in his age, and probably as fit as people 10, 20 years younger. Of course he was not as fit as young people, teenagers. His waist, legs had worse flexibility than those of young people. However he had a lot of experience in fighting and had true skill. Once during practice he asked me to strike his forearm. Since at that time I was in my late 20s and he was over 70, his arms were thin and I was afraid that I would hurt him if I used too much force. After the strike he noticed that I was reluctant to use much force and ordered me to use as much power as I had. So I did as he asked me to and... could hardly resist the pain. It was like hitting an iron bar and my arm immediately swelled out in the place which had contact with Wu's forearm. Wu was very good at Tumbling Boxing (Di Tang Quan, a style designed for fighting on the ground) and at the age of 60 was still able to turn a number of somersaults in a row.

JS: Nowadays it would be very difficult to find somebody like Zhao Zhong, who would introduce his student to another teacher. Most teachers claim their style is superior to other ones and would rather discourage their students to learn from others.

MR. DI: In fact one should not pay too much attentions to some phenomena that are very common among  practitioners of martial arts in China. It is common that people claim their style is good or better than other ones; otherwise nobody would like to learn their arts from them. There is also another situation - some practitioners look for high position within a style and in order to achieve it are becoming disciples to a teacher who ranks higher (Beifen Gao) in the family tree. Actually they already possessed some skills and do not really learn from the new teacher. For this reason I think it is important to see the technique of the practitioner in order to determine where one's art comes from.

JS: When did you begin to learn Baguazhang from Li Ziming, was it in 1979? (click here to read about Li Ziming)

MR. DI: No, I was the last one in the first group of students he accepted as disciples. It was around 1975 or 1976.

JS: Who was in that group?

MR. DI: There were eight persons - first there were Wang Shitong, Ma Chuanxu, Sun Hongyan, Ma Ling, then  Yang Jiacang, Wang Tong, Zhao Dayuan and I.

JS: Why did you decide to become Li Ziming's disciple? After all you had already been learning Xingyi and Chuo Jiao Fanzi...

MR. DI: There was an old saying: "Xingyi hands, Bagua steps" (Xingyi de Shou, Bagua de Zou) - Xingyi has very good hand techniques, while Bagua has very good footwork. "You will not be afraid of demons if you practice Xingyi and Bagua" (Xingyi Jia Bagua Shengui Dou Bu Pa). Hence one I learnt Xingyi I wanted to learn Bagua and its footwork. Kang Gewu and I were very good friends so I asked Kang for advice. At that time I only knew of Gao Ziying who was very skilful at Bagua. Kang suggested that I learn from Li Ziming. I did not know much about Li, because he was not as famous as Gao Ziying then. Li Ziming became famous after Beijing Baguazhang Research Association was established and Dong Haichuan's tomb excavated and moved. Besides because Gao Ziying studied for some time under Guo Gumin (Li Ziming's older "gongfu brother"), so he called Li Ziming "uncle" (in Baguazhang family). Li Ziming's status was high also because he rendered meritorious service for the Communist Party - in the 1930s he protected an underground group of Communist Party members, one of whom later became vice-mayor of Beijing. Li Ziming also gave them financial support.

Di Guoyong with late Li Ziming, his third teacher

JS: Did you participate in excavating of Dong Haichuan's grave?

MR. DI: Yes, I did. The idea to excavate Dong Haichuan's tomb was first suggested by Master Li (Ziming) and Kang Gewu. At that time the place where Dong Haichuan's tomb was located was a plantation of tomatoes. The tomb was invisible - even the stone tablets were underground. How did we know where the tomb was? There was an old man, a member of the family that was responsible for protecting the grave since Dong's funeral. He told us where exactly the tomb was located. We started to dig there and found it together with four stone tablets. The tablets were first moved to Beijing PE Institute, and later to Wan'an Public Cemetery.

JS: Did you find the coffin?

MR. DI: Yes, we found it as well. We found out that it was robbed - there was a hole in the coffin through which mud got inside it. There was nothing inside - just bones and some buttons. We counted the number of bones and measured their size.

JS: Was Dong Haichuan tall?

MR. DI: No, he was not.

JS: However most accounts describe Dong as a tall person with very long arms...
MR. DI: Judging from the size of the bones he had broad shoulders and thick chest. Hence he had to be physically a very strong person. He must have looked very much like on that famous painting (by Quan Kaiting).

Later Beijing Baguazhang Research Association was established as the first nongovernmental martial arts association. After that Beijing San Huan Pao Chui (Canon Boxing of Three Emperors) Research Association was established; Beijing Xingyiquan Research Association was third. Zhao Dayuan and I were paying visits to all old Baguazhang teachers in Beijing at that time. It was rare opportunity for me to meet them and interview. I still keep notes that I took during those visits.

JS: Could you tell more about history of Beijing Xingyiquan Research Association?

MR. DI: After Beijing Baguazhang Association was established, it gave other styles good example and Xingyiquan practitioners in Beijing also wanted to establish their own organization. In 1982 I talked about it with Zhao Dayuan, my older gongfu brother, and Kang Gewu, and they gave their support. Then I visited all old Xingyi experts in Beijing and we held ten meetings before on March 15th, 1983 our association was officially approved.

Dragon and Tiger Meeting Each Other (Long Hu Xiang Jiao)

JS: Who was the first president of the association?

MR. DI: We invited Sun Jianyun (Sun Lutang's daughter) to become first president of our association and she agreed. She later said, joking, that she had to accept the fate... However at that time most activities of the Association have been organized by Zhang Baoyang (disciple of Wang Jiwu), Bao Yucao (disciple of Liu Caichen) and I. After a year Zhang Baoyang was elected the second president of the association (he was the representative of the president earlier). Zhang was president for two terms. He was also chosen president for the next term, but he offered his seat to Luo Dacheng (Luo Xingwu's son) (at that time Zhang opened a TCM clinic in Xinji, his hometown) who acted as president during next term. Since 1996 elections I have been the president of the association.

JS: What Xingyi styles are currently practiced in Beijing?

MR. DI: The most popular style is the one coming from Shang Yunxiang. Then Sun Lutang's style, Song Shirong's branch (Xu Fanzeng is one of the representatives of this branch), Wu Zizhen of Si Min Boxing Society (Niu Baogui is the main representative of this branch), Li Xinggong of Henan branch of Xinyi Liuhe Quan, Three Lis from Dingxing (Dingxing San Li - i.e. three students of Li Cunyi from Dingxing in Hebei Province: Li Caiting, Li Wenting and Li Yueting). There are also many other smaller branches, like Dai style Xinyiquan, Dong Ziying's branch, etc.

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