Simply Simplicity

XY3My Xing Yi training is not extensive. I practice the Five Elements and the Linking Set. I’ve played with the 12 animals . And my only Xing Yi weapon is the famous San Cai Sword. I am an admirer of the style, though. I like its simplicity.

Simplicity that works is not as common as you might suppose. People tend to mindlessly extol simplicity. They don’t always check to see if the simplicity is appropriate. I like to quote Einstein on this ( who doesn’t? It makes people sound smart ), “Everything should be made as simple as possible , but not simpler.”

All of us martial artists can gain by considering the appropriate simplicity of Xing Yi. As in considering the beauty of a lovely woman the parts “dissected” do not equal the whole, but they can be interesting in themselves. The first feature of Xing Yi’s simplicity is that it is manifest in the very roots of its actions. That means the basic movements of Xing Yi are not just easy and direct: they are distilled. Some styles also have simple movements but you need scores of them to actually construct the style. This is the jelly bean approach. But the simple yet refined basics of Xing Yi are more like the primary colors of painting: nothing can be done without them and, ultimately, nothing can go beyond them.

Because this first thing is so, so follows the rest. Each “simple” movement can blossom into a bouquet of applications. Each Xing Yi action balances on the tip of its own possibilities and can fall in any of a million directions. Remember the name of the style; because in this case the reality fulfils the promise. Xing Yi means “the shape of intent” and it champions an unwavering and determined commitment which manifests in whatever form necessary to accomplish a given task. Xing Yi literally takes its shape at the moment of execution, like a jazz riff; an action painting; an impromptu dance performance. It is the unchanging wrapped in change because the intention never flickers even while its shape transforms like a dancing shadow.

The details of its practice hold true to Xing Yi’s sense of simplicity. In this style tactic outranks strategy. Traditionally, Xing Yi lays emphasis on flesh meeting flesh; bodies banging together; spontaneous application; and actions that surprise the practitioner himself. Forms are only suitcases to hold your possessions while you travel. But when you settle down, you unpack and return to the immediacy of basics, basics and more basics. My analogy for the place of forms in the Xing Yi practice, goes something like this: one day, the student comes to the teacher and says, “I have to leave because I’m moving to town to work for Google.” So the teacher says, “Well, in that case, I’ll teach you some forms.” Xing Yi is old, and the training so rooted in true Kung Fu, that it is really a practice of methods, not forms. That’s all the attempts at fixing Chinese martial arts have been about. Ziranmen, Yi Quan, JKD and all the others in the last century or so are just attempts to simplify and return to an essential reality; a simple reality, but not a simplistic one. A reality already contained in Xing Yi.

Now, just between you and me and the stone Buddha in the corner, that’s exactly the way things were in Kung Fu for centuries and should be in again. But if that’s the case how have forms developed into such over-valued stocks? These isolated students: the ones who leave their instructors, as all students must: even though they retain and pass on their instructor’s methods; even though they transform the hands-on practicality with their own maturing skills: these same distanced students ultimately posses only precious forms as keepsakes of their instructor’s presence. The nature of Xing Yi has customized the practice itself to their intrinsic gifts leaving only the formality of forms behind like portraits of one’s ancestors. Thus, forms became like family myths to be preserved, not for their essential clarity, but for their filial remembrance. Yet Xing Yi avoids even this cloudy thinking, because its hand and weapons sets are all constructed from such solid and dependable. Xing Yi is unlike those Chinese styles with such a plethora of techniques that you could practice the entire repertoire of forms without knowing which are the most essential elements. Like math, the building blocks in Xing Yi are relatively few; the combinations unquestionably infinite.

There are very few styles, especially in Chinese martial arts, which could not be improved by following Xing Yi’s example. Simplicity is not just throwing things out. It’s knowing what to throw out and what to keep. Every martial art can be improved by a thorough inventory check now and then. For example, Northern Shaolin doesn’t really need ten hand sets. Nor does Cha Quan. And Yang Taiji doesn’t have to have an 8, 16, 24, 32 and 48 sub-set. I have a book in my library on Kuk Sool Wan boasting “3000 techniques”. One is breaking the first finger. One is breaking the second finger… One is…

Simplicity indeed.


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