About 5 years ago I was browsing around Powell’s bookstore in Portland, OR (a magical place). As per my usual, I’d done my perusal of the history and fiction sections and was now browsing through the martial arts section. I randomly plucked a book off the shelf. The name “Xing Yi Boxing Manual” sort of tickled some memory but nothing major . I truly have no understanding of why I felt I had to buy that book that day, nor why the art of Xing Yi has been a thorn in my martial arts brain since that day. I can’t seem to stop thinking about it.
Xing Yi Quan
Xing Yi Quan (most commonly translated as “Form Intention Fist/Boxing”) is a Chinese martial art that is thought to have developed from military spear usage. I won’t go into the detailed history here, especially as like most histories of martial art styles there is a blurry line between fact and fiction, but that it “descended” from spear is something that makes sense to me when you look at the movements. Xing Yi is one of the big three “internal” Chinese arts, meaning the focus is on soft power through alignment and chi rather than on pure muscle power. It is usually described as very direct and linear . As with any living lineage art of significant age there is a lot of arguing (you thought HEMA was bad HAHA!); once you get past the “My master had a bigger pecker than yours!” stuff one of the most frequent discussions is about what is the “true” Xing Yi? See, Xing Yi training is typically broken up into three stages/methods – Zhan Zhuang or post standing (standing isometric meditation while remaining in a stance), 5 Elements/Fists/Phases, and the 12 (ish) Animal Forms. I have read too much about what is more important the 5 Elements or the Animal Shapes and frankly I don’t truly know enough to have an opinion. But I am a White American Male so giving my opinion about things I know nothing about is my heritage .
The 5 Elements
I want to focus on the 5 Elements for this post because I think those are the pieces of Xing Yi that have the most broad usefulness to HEMA. These movements are based on the Classical Chinese Elements of Metal, Water, Wood, Fire, and Earth  and their cycles of creation and destruction. For instance, the creation cycle has Metal creating Water, which creates Wood, which creates Fire, which creates Earth, which creates Metal, ad nauseum. The Destructive Cycle has Metal destroying Wood, which destroys Earth, which destroys Water, which destroys Fire, which destroys Metal, ad nauseum.
Within the context of Xing Yi 5 Element Fists, these are broken into martial  movements as such (see the Additional Sources below for video links):
- Metal – Splitting Fist
- Water – Drilling Fist
- Wood – Pounding Fist
- Fire – Exploding Fist
- Earth – Crossing Fist
These individual fists are often (as I did at first and to some degree still think applicable) plugged into the Creation and Destruction Cycles outlined above. For example, if my opponent attacks me with a Splitting Fist (Metal), then the best way to destroy that is with an Exploding Fist (Fire), which I can then chain (creation) with a Crossing Fist (Earth). But there is much more at play here. Not only are the Elements individual technique exemplars, they are methods to teach you how to apply force. Adding in the direction of force to the list it then becomes:
- Metal – Splitting Fist – Downward Energy
- Water – Drilling Fist – Upward Energy
- Wood – Pounding Fist – Forward Energy
- Fire – Exploding Fist – Inward (to the Inside Line) Energy
- Earth – Crossing Fist – Outward (to the Outside Line) Energy
By adding those energy vectors, now instead of a set of techniques we have a set of teaching moments to learn how to apply force. This is where the Adam Chan videos in Additional Sources are really helpful.
Aaaaaaaaand Why should HEMA care?
For the average historical sword enthusiast, knowing how to execute an empty hand Splitting Fist in Xing Yi is a lot less useful than knowing how to cut a fendente or a forehand descending blow. But Splitting Fist can teach you how to use your body to help generate power in that downward vector. Knowing how to apply energy to your Outside Line can really increase your success rate with smallsword parries in Ters/Third. They stop being peculiar techniques to this one Chinese martial art and start being principles of motion for all martial arts. This is also where the history of Xing Yi being developed from spear techniques makes a ton of sense for me. Splitting is a descending blow, Drilling is the motion your rear hand makes when executing a sliding thrust, Pounding is static hands thrust, Exploding is defending your Inside line, and Crossing is defending your Outside line. Because let’s face it, one thing HEMA sources desperately lack is any explanation of basic actions. Lots of things are just assumed to be known by the authors. An advantage  to living lineages is that there are a lot more people having time to think a lot more about their art, especially as they age. This tends to get people to think more about good mechanics rather than relying on muscles.
Adam Chan usage videos:
Splitting – https://youtu.be/PJgmT2egABs
Drilling – https://youtu.be/_680jDkqnmk
Pounding – https://youtu.be/TTXVyBgVGVE
Explosive – https://youtu.be/oMQHGZ3Bw_U
Crossing – https://youtu.be/s-RyZP9Xxmc
Technical videos from MuShin: https://youtube.com/playlist?list=PLJt_T8ZFvyuRjsdqL_hQ4ZIqzWWu0Jgcb
- Wikipedia page for Xing Yi: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xingyi_quan
- “Agressive” was definitely something my Fiore heart liked to hear. But that’s also possibly a reason I have struggled to integrate Xing Yi into the rest of my study and practice – I worry about supplanting Fiore, et al as HEMA sources and using Xing Yi to prop up my ideas, as we (the HEMA community) continue to see done with cutting mechanics and Japanese ryu.
- But seriously, anything I say about Xing Yi comes from self-study, watching videos, and reading sources.
- Same idea as the Classical Western (read Greek) Elements of Water, Air, Earth, Fire, and Heart….shit, no that was Captain Planet. Forget about Heart.
- Jim Emmons loves when you describe things as “martial” HAHA
- And often disadvantage. It is a double edged sword.