SHANXI JOURNAL II
Almost exactly one year after my first trip to Taigu, Shanxi Province to attend the 160th Birthday Anniversary of Grandmaster Song Shirong, I made a second visit. This trip was longer than the first and was for the specific purpose of training in Song Style Xingyiquan at the Song Family home.
Several months after my first trip, I had started training in Hong Kong with Sifu Tsang Hon-Kit (“Sifu Tsang”), who is an indoor disciple and the main representative of the Song Style in Hong Kong. He is a good teacher who has a deep understand of the internal martial arts and one who truly cares for his students. Through his lessons, my understanding and appreciation of Song Style Xingyiquan deepened. It has very well developed internal aspects. When practiced, the style feels much more internal than some other styles of Xingyiquan. Every lesson was a revelation. Prior to some lessons, I would think that maybe I have already learned most of the important points, but each time Sifu Tsang would proceed to give me new concepts and insights that made real differences in advancing my practice. A lot of these concepts are quite advanced internal material that cannot be seen superficially by a casual observer. Sifu Tsang also told us many stories of his training with Grandmaster Song Guanghua (“Song Laoshi”). Therefore, I was filled with excitement at the prospect of training directly with Song Laoshi.
Unlike on the first trip, this time our flight arrived exactly on time. Sifu Tsang had gone ahead a week earlier with some of his other students and had promised to meet us at Taiyuan airport. I travelled with my cousin who has been practicing taiji for many years and who recently also started training with Sifu Tsang. Her family is quite well connected in China, and upon our arrival we were immediately met by two girls with two large bouquets of flower sent by the Taiyuan branch of a Chinese bank. Both our hearts sank. I have never been so embarrassed in my life, receiving a flower bouquet right in front of Sifu Tsang and Master Song Bao Gui, eldest son of Grand Master Song Guanghua.
The Song Family home was exactly as I had remembered it. It was a traditional Chinese four sided house with a courtyard in the middle that was ideal for practicing martial arts. Upon our arrival, we were invited to have tea with Song Laoshi and his wife. They were very welcoming. Apart from the level of his martial art skill, the thing that most impressed me about Song Laoshi during my first trip was his character. He seemed a true gentlemen and nice person with very good air (“qi”). This initial impression was greatly reinforced on this second trip. He was always polite, patient, and willing to teach and share. His demeanor is very peaceful and contended, with an air of inner happiness. He radiates qi and spirit, even more than most people much younger.
Song Laoshi is accessible and down to earth. On the evening before our departure a week later, he even personally went into the kitchen to fold dumplings for us for dinner. During tea the first day, he would take the initiative to make small talk with us and ask us questions. But whenever you ask him questions on xingyi or if the conversation turns to martial arts, you can tell his interest and enthusiasm greatly lights up. This was true for Master Song Bao Gui also.
Song Laoshi explained to us the importance of being very relaxed during the first part of a strike, tensed exactly at the moment of impact, and being immediately relaxed again after contact. He also gave us an analogy of a gun. When you fire a gun, there is a recoil going backwards as the bullet is going out the barrel. Likewise in Song Style Xingyi, when there is forward, there is always backwards. There are always opposing forces. When there is left there is right; when there is up, there is also down.
Song Laoshi also stressed the health aspects of Song Style. His ancestors researched internal training manuals including the “Nei Gong Si Jing” and modified Xingyiquan to incorporate all the internal principles into their art.
I asked Song Laoshi what is the difference between external and internal martial arts. He explained that internal styles know how to use qi. External styles usually do not use qi. In internal styles, the practitioner’s qi sinks down, while in external styles, qi rises up to the chest due to the nature of the moments.
When Song Laoshi made a few very small hand movements to explain xingyi even while he was sitting, there was already the flavor of Song Style Xingyiquan, which is different from other styles. His movements looked very comfortable and soft, yet exude internal power that was partially hidden. The movements were captivating to watch.
We talked some more about martial arts and other topics. I was really enjoying the conversation. Just this session made the trip worthwhile already. I went to bed that evening looking forward to first day of training.
Training began early the next morning. Master Song Bao Gui was to be our main coach for the week. We were to find out that he is an excellent teacher. He is extremely intelligent, and his teaching is very detailed and knowledgeable. He is very quick to understand questions, even when I used my rather rudimentary Putonghua. He often would answer my questions before I had finished asking them. He can spot problems in a student’s practice immediately, even very small ones. For example, due to an old injury, I unconsciously put slightly more weight on the outside edge of my left foot in Santi. He immediately spotted this and corrected it. When he demonstrated moves his issuing power (“fa-li”) looked extremely fast and powerful. In addition, Master Song Bao Gui was always patient and very resourceful, and personally took care of any problems during our stay.
Master Song Bao Gui began by instructing us on how to stand in Santi Posture. He gave us many requirements of the Santi Posture in Song Style. Some of the instructions are basic, but very important. Others are deeper, such as where to put separately, the spirit, qi, and strength. Although we were just standing in a stationary posture, it was unbelievably tiring as he made us take rather low stances.
After the Santi Posture training, Master Song Bao Gui told us that the next set of instructions will be on fa-li. Perfect, I thought. These are exactly the two areas I had wanted to study. I felt it was more important to work on the basics rather than learn fancy new moves and sets. Song Style fa-li is quite distinct from other styles of Xingyiquan. Song Style emphasizes use of internal and whole body power. It is what gives the Song Style its distinctive character when it is performed. The power in the body travels in a completely different path than in the other xingyi styles I have previously studied. Although movements might be similar to other xingyi styles, the quality and appearance is quite distinct.
In addition to Master Song Bao Gui, Song Laoshi was always around to give advice, make corrections, and often personally taught us. Song Laoshi would often highlight the important aspects that we need to master. Throughout the week, he would point out mistakes to me repeatedly, never showing signs of any impatience or giving up on me. He was always very encouraging, showing a lot of delight whenever we do something correctly or make any progress.
Song Laoshi is a very intuitive master. Whether this intuition comes through his internal training or was a natural skill, it is difficult to say, but long years of internal training can certainly heighten one’s mental powers and senses. It seemed to me that he would instinctively know what is best to teach each student at that particular point in time. Also, he can read a student like a book. He greatly surprised me when gave me some advice in writing that will be very helpful for me to remember and follow. In addition, he intuitively knew that my cousin will have interest in learning a sword set, and early on the second morning, he began to her that set personally. My cousin is a very fast learner and Song Laoshi had sensed that. Before they began, he told her that she will learn the entire set in one or two days. He personally taught her whole the set, and they managed to finish it in just one day. It was quite a complicated set and would have taken me weeks to learn. My cousin commented that it was easy to learn from Song Laoshi because he would stop and repeat a series of movements at just the right time and pace for her to learn.
Training felt quite hard the first few days since our bodies were not used to the amount of work. The normal routine was four hours in the morning, stopping for lunch at noon, followed by a very welcomed nap, and then training until dinner. Often times, Master Song Bao Gui or Song Laoshi would tell us to take a break and enjoy some fresh fruits. Throughout the day, different disciples and students would drop by to practice and chat. Quite frequently, they would practice moves even when chatting. More senior students would share with junior ones. At one time, two senior disciples practiced very fast free fighting exchanges which were impressive. The entire time was almost a nonstop exchange of Xingyiquan. I found everybody very friendly and willing to answer my questions in great detail. I received some very useful information. A large part of the learning process is to watch the many disciples and students and simply absorb it. For me, the days were perfect, immersed in nothing but Xingyiquan, and the week would soon pass by very quickly.
In the evenings, my cousin would make tea and tell me stories about what she read about Song Laoshi’s grandfather and grand uncle, Song Shirong and Song Shide, the founders of Song Style Xingyiquan. The famous internal arts master Sun Lutang once commented that there were only two martial art masters he had met in his lifetime have really impressed him. The first was the teacher of his teacher. The second was Song Shirong.
During the week, my emotions fluctuated through several cycles. On the first day, I felt quite confident. I received compliments from Song Laoshi and Master Song Bao Gui on how fast I was learning. Because of the training with Sifu Tsang in Hong Kong, I was able to grasp some of the teachings quickly. But then, during the subsequent days, I felt no improvement at all. I was trying very hard to correct some long term habits, but without much success. Compliments faded away, and I started to doubt whether I can master the style. Sometimes I would feel I made some progress, only to be disappointed the next moment. However, I kept practicing and thinking hard, trying to understand the movements. Then, on the fifth day, I started receiving several comments from senior students that I had improved a lot. This was very encouraging, but I knew it is only a beginning and there was huge room for improvement. Due to the clear teaching from Master Song Bao Gui and Song Laoshi, I am starting to gain a better understanding, and the power in my body has started to feel more connected. When I return to Hong Kong, it will be a matter of training the body and mind through countless repetitions.
On the afternoon of the last day of our stay, my cousin decided to finish training early and go sightseeing since this was her first trip to Shanxi. I considered accompanying her, but I could not make myself give up a final few hours of training. Since Master Song Bao Gui and Sifu Tsang will both go with her, I asked Sifu Tsang to help me arrange for one of the senior students to teach me. Later, I was happily surprised to find that my teacher for the afternoon was to be Song Laoshi himself. He patiently taught me the whole afternoon. Although I need not have to, I naturally worried that I did not improve fast enough for the amount of instruction I received from Song Laoshi.
During part of the training, Song Laoshi personally led me through the Advance-Retreat Continuous Set that I had learned a few days ago. His movements were beautiful to watch. It had that flavor of a very experienced internal stylist, honed through years of training. There was that distinctive air and quality of Song Style Xingyiquan. The movements were very smooth and soft, yet you could sense there is an abundance of power which was mostly hidden.
During breaks, Song Laoshi taught me some breath and qi work which are to be incorporated into the practice but can also be practiced by them self. These feel extremely good to practice and help the qi to sink down to the dantien. He further explained some theories about the internal aspects of Song Style Xingyiquan. I had learned more on this trip than I could have imagined.
I feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to study with a living grand master and his family. Grand Master Song Guanghua, Master Song Bao Gui and their family and students are all wonderful people, and I look forward to returning to Shanxi to continue my training with them.