Tong Bei, Loose and Powerful

Here is a pretty advanced Kung Fu puzzle: along with Bagua Zhang, Xing Yi Quan and Taijiquan, what do all of the following styles have in common:  Liu He Ba Fa (Six Harmonies, Eight Methods,) Mi Zong (Lost Track,) BaFa Quan (Eight Methods,) Liu He Quan (Six Harmonies Boxing) and Tong Bei Quan (Through the Back Boxing?) They are all candidates for membership in the newly minted category of “internal style.” What makes Tong Bei a candidate is that it specializes in loose and relaxed arm movements, a great deal of waist work, and special angular attacks which emphasize relaxation as a source of power.

From the start, Tong Bei limb training makes Tai Chi look stiff. As in Hop Gar, the extended arm positions are almost boneless, delivering power—at least during the training stage—through ropey and exceptionally fast cutting arm movements. Even in the Long Fist Kung Fu community Tong Bei is a Longer Fist art. Let me give an example: in Choy Lai Fut, a southern Long Fist style, the arms are whipped into any number of orbits but the stances, though fluid, are still strong and firm: mountains and clouds.

In Tong Bei, the commitment to torso-driven actions is so great that the body must reach to new angles to follow the lead of the whipping strikes. If this also sounds like PiGua this is because PiGua, with its famous “empty sleeve” power generation, has been absorbed into Tong Bei as a key form of movement. This extreme approach sometimes moves the body out of the way of the centripetal power, bending the head to one side, reaching out with a twist step.  We need not try to resolve the question of lineage right now. It is characteristically circuitous. Even the name of the style is a small debate: Tong Bei (Through the Back), Tong Bi (Through the Arm) and that is not mentioning the many branches of the style.

At first blush the arcing movements of Tong Bei are so distinct that people can only think of it as a “haymaker” style. But TBQ counter-balances this inequity with some of the straightest and snappiest punches you have ever seen. The ability to close the fight line is a constant concern of the style. Tong Bei is a fine style. But among the branches you may find enough differentiation that you will want to expose yourself to its range. Five Element Tong Bei, for instance, tends to be a little faster and harder than, say, Chi style TBQ.

In fact, most styles of TBQ build on the relaxed whip-actions so famous and recognizable. True, some kung fu experts think that the characteristic whipping movements are too disconnected and violate the ‘through the back’ principle. Nonetheless, most martial instructors consider Tong Bei’s continuous energy a perfect example of the ‘through the back’ concept, ranking it with the Tan Tui form.

Why is TBQ coming to the front at this time? In my opinion, its looseness makes it a natural candidate as the usage equivalent of Tai Chi. For instance, one of our best books on usge for Taijiquan, Bagua Zhang and Xingyiquan—coming from Wang Pei Sheng’s students, to top it off—is essentially filled with nothing but Tong Bei applications. The reason? They felt that Tong Bei’s usage was so clear that it would lay a foundation for application in the other styles. To Wang Pei Sheng, and his students, there was no question; Tong Bei was the real deal.

After all, for many top Tai Chi practitioners such as Wang Pei Sheng, TBQ is the “back up” style (no pun intended). Will TBQ last to the 22nd century? Almost assuredly, if the introduction to the wider populace shows the best face of this remarkable style. At the very least I hope that Tong Bei’s distinctive and exceptional warm up and loosening exercises become better known. There are a lot of stiff shoulders out there that need a gentle and relaxed re-framing.

6 Responses to “Tong Bei, Loose and Powerful”

  1. Walter says:

    Thank for these freshly combined thoughts
    could you please indicate what book is meant
    with usage from Tong Bei for Taiji BGZ and XY?
    Kind Regards

  2. Patrick says:

    TBQ is a very natural style. I once witnessed an ape use these moves as it unwisely grabbed a caiman’s tail as the caiman was basking in the sun and turned very quickly to defend itself. Fastest long arm slaps I have ever seen. Also saw an ele. school student use moves on another student irritating him. No training involved.
    TBQ found a lot in Northern Mantis as well.
    However I think it is found more in the White Ape TBQ. I noticed other TBQ styles may not have a simian quality about them.

  3. Plum Staff says:

    Hi Walter,
    Oops! Sorry, should have said. The book is Combat Techniques of Bagua, Xing Yi and Taiji, found here.

  4. Plum Staff says:

    Many thanks for your keen observation on this crucial point. It inspried me to write a longish reply, almost as long as the article itself.

    I absolutely do make that connection which, if you take it to its logical conclusion, means that every Chinese martial arts style is internal. Because in every case, I know specifics about a different way of thinking.

    The person who has done the most on this, at least in English, is Adam Hsu, and that is one reason why we support him and have created a site for him. He has gone so deeply into this. But I think almost all real sifus know this, whether or not they can put it into words to explain to their students without the students running away—of that, I’m not sure. It’s definitely what we at Plum believe we are about.

    I’ve said many times that there is no such thing as an external style or an internal style—it is just a matter of where you start on the clock. As Adam Hsu says, the difference between external and internal is the level of training. You can call a style “internal” but there’s no such thing as starting internal. Everyone must start from the outside. There are no martial styles that are ONLY internal. The mix of the two is different at the low levels. At the higher levels, they are all almost exactly the same.

    Another important thing: if you do not change the way that you think, it is not real Kung Fu training. It’s the part of the tradition that people are leaving out. They remember that piece of equipment or that trick, but they are leaving out this part of the training; this, again, from Adam Hsu, or George Xu for that matter.

    One of the basic ideas of Kung Fu training is that you have to train the internal, and internal training brings the emotions and the perceptions into play. Basically what you’ve done is catch my whole point, the one I try clumsily to make over and over again. It’s this: that you can get really good with external training if it’s for specific purposes. But if you want to do real Kung Fu there must be an internal component. To further complicate matters, what people call “internal” is inconsistent, there is no standard, but a serious practitioner must mind one thing: despite its “internal” designation, if the training does not change your way of thinking, I say it is incomplete.

  5. DavidFromDenver says:

    Wonderful article. I’m doing this from memory so please correct me if I’m wrong. Somewhere on plumpub I remember you said there are styles that demand you change your way of thinking: bagua, baji, pigua, tongbei, mantis. As I remember.

    Here you discuss the physical aspect of tongbei as internal. Do you make internal connection with styles that require a different way of thinking?

  6. Ulf, Sweden says:


    A dumb question I know…
    But when you talk about TB warm ups do you mean the ones shown on the Zhao Ya Jun DVDs (that I purchased a while back)


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