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By: Lu Shengli

Lu Shengli-Combat Techniques of Taiji, Xingyi, and Bagua.jpeg

Combat Techniques of Taiji, Xingyi, and Bagua

Principles and Practices of Internal Martial Arts

By Lu Shengli

Translated by Zhang Yun

(Blue Snake Books, 2006, 372 pages)


Review by Christopher Dow

Combat Techniques of Taiji, Xingyi, and Bagua by Lu Shengli is a handsome book filled with excellent and thorough information delivered in clear, measured language. It might well have been subtitled, “A Family Portrait,” since the three arts it discusses are closely related in philosophy and methodology if not specific techniques. Lu learned the three arts from several masters, most significantly Wang Peisheng. His training was long, arduous, and deep, lending his book an air not just of competence, but of intelligent contemplation.

The book begins with two long forewords, one by translator and editor Zhang Yun, and the second by one of Lu’s students, Strider Clark. Unlike many such forwards, which contain only rote praise, these also help characterize the personality, mindset, and martial expertise of the author. Lu’s preface comes next, and in it, he describes who he is, how he came to the martial arts, and his general philosophy on them. What he says sounds pretty good to me.


Chapter one covers the basic principles of the internal martial arts. The distinctions between Neijia Quan (internal martial arts) and Waijia Quan (external martial arts) is made, but Lu is quick to point out that the distinctions are not hard-and-fast lines but are somewhat flexible. While some arts (Tai Chi, Bagua, and Xingyi) are primarily internal, and Shaolin-style arts are primarily external, others, such as Baji Quan, Tongbei Quan, and Sanhuang Paochui Quan are mixtures of internal and external.


Following this thoughtful delineation that takes in many aspects and characteristics of both these two basic schools of martial arts, Lu goes into the development of the Chinese martial arts in general, saying that external styles came first, with internal styles later providing an alternative way of combat. His information is detailed and seems well researched, and I’m inclined to accept much of his take on Chinese martial history. This is especially true when he lays out various alternative histories, from the wildest of tall tales to the most rational of views on the topic, almost always landing on the side of the latter. But that doesn’t mean he ignores the wild histories of Tai Chi, Bagua, and Xingyi—or even disparages them—since he knows that, first, they are important parts of martial arts lore; second, they are entertaining; and third, they sometimes relay something of value regarding the principles and methodology of the martial arts they concern.


The next section looks in greater detail at the main differences between Waijia and Neijia, which entails discussions of Buddhism and Taoism, the human capacity to increase or change natural ability, training methods (outside to inside and inside to outside), external and internal jin, and fighting strategies.


Next come three sections, one each on Xingyi, Tai Chi, and Bagua, in that order, from eldest to youngest—at least in terms of verifiable historicity. Each of these sections have a similar structure. First is a subsection on history and lineage, how the martial art developed into different styles, the differences between them, and notable practitioners. In relating the histories of each art, the author not only names the lineages and major branches, but covers in some detail the progressive etymology of each style’s name(s). Even better, he peppers the narrative with tall tales, colorful anecdotes, and character studies of major practitioners, and he does his best to distinguish between fact, informed supposition, and fantasy. This is followed by a subsection on the principles and features of the art, including philosophy and precepts, and after this comes a subsection on training methods. Lu also gives somewhat lesser space and detail to Tongbei Quan and Baji Quan.


It is intriguing to read the various versions of the development of a martial art, even of those one does not practice, and I found Lu’s sections on Xingyi and Bagua highly detailed and very worthwhile. But being a Tai Chi guy, I was most interested in his take on the history of that art. It is a convoluted journey, covering what he calls the five legendary forms of Tai Chi, only the last of which begins with Chang San-feng. It is known that internal styles embodying the same principles as Tai Chi existed for some time prior to the art’s historical beginnings with the Chen family, and Lu lends his knowledge of Tai Chi history to flesh in that shadowy genesis and meandering development. It should be noted that his tacit acceptance of the five strands of Tai Chi development is not isolated to Lu, but appears in several other histories of Tai Chi reviewed on this website. The implications of this multiplicity are worth serious consideration.


The history of Tai Chi’s modern era begins with Yang Luchan learning Tai Chi from the Chen family. Lu delivers a far more detailed accounts of Yang’s association with the Chens than is usually seen. In most versions, Yang finagles his way into the Chen family and learns Tai Chi while employed by them. In Lu’s version, Yang was sold as a slave to the Chens by his uncle and remained their indentured servant for much of his life until finally given his freedom, by which time he’d become excellent at Tai Chi.


Fundamentals of basic internal martial arts movements and applications are the subjects of the next chapter. Lu does not break these down by specific art, for his intent here is not to continue the existence of the three arts as separate and independent (the already-strong link between Xingyi and Bagua notwithstanding), but to blend them, much as Sun Lutang had done previously, into a single coherent art that embodies and melds the best aspects of the three. Lu’s composite form consists of sixteen postures, and it is designed to emphasize combat skills.


So, instead of relying on descriptions of form movements, he breaks things down into individual skills clustered by body part: hand, elbow, shoulder, hip, knee, foot, head, and trunk. Each section contains multiple possibilities for attack or defense, and as might be expected, the section on the use of the hand is the longest and contains the most possibilities. This is all good stuff for internal martial artists of any style and might even add to your repertoire.


A section on stepping comes next, all based on Tai Chi’s five named stances—forward, backward, left, right, and central equilibrium—but Lu adds a few variations on these themes to improve their utility.


Basic gong fu training occupies the next chapter at eighty pages. Taking the real meaning of “gong fu”—excellence achieved through effort over time—Lu advances the reader through an arduous and involved set of strengthening and conditioning exercises that have as their foundation pile standing (standing post). Following this are numerous exercises designed to help the practitioner improve and strengthen the flow of internal energy and are like moving chi gongs. Many philosophical ideas, principles, and precepts are examined here, often in great detail. This stuff would be difficult to practice, but it probably would be worth it if you intend to reach the higher levels of one or more of the internal martial arts. If you’re inclined to take it up, I advise you to start at a relatively young age. Some of this is not for oldsters.


In the next chapter, Lu introduces his sixteen-posture form, which he says, “is designed to help middle-level practitioners understand and master the fighting principles and skills of the internal martial arts.” This is a pretty standard form instruction, the main difference being the thoroughness and detail of its explanations, each of which includes potential applications. Adequate photos depict each form movement and its applications.


The final chapter discusses the practice of applications in tactical terms, focusing on specific application training, assessing the opponent, finding the proper distance, determining timing and direction, moving in various directions, protecting your body, and practicing applications. “Are you ready for fighting?” asks the title of the final section, and Lu answers the question in no-nonsense terms.


Combat Techniques of Taiji, Xingyi, and Bagua is an excellent book powered by deep understanding and conveyed in a simple, straightforward writing style that delivers the facts and reasonings in clear, concise ways. While the the superbly detailed information contained and the considerate tenor of the text are undoubtedly Lu’s, we should also give credit to the two translators/editors—Zhang Yun and Susan Darley—for some of the book’s helpful structure and excellent English-language version.


The book really only has two detriments—and both are serious. First, it lacks an index. This is a lot of book to try to thumb through to find something specific, which you might want to do considering the quality of the author’s knowledge and expertise. And second, the author utilizes a large number of Chinese terms but most often fails to define what they are in English. This is where a comprehensive glossary would be invaluable. Right before that index.


Otherwise, beginners and mid-level practitioners should get a great deal of solid information, no matter which of these arts they practice. Highly recommended.

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