Xingyi stepping vs. karate stepping

When I first started this blog my main objective was to put down on "cyber paper" some of the martial principles and methods that I've taken for granted for many years but which I hadn't seen discussed elsewhere, at least to my satisfaction.

It surprises me that after 3 years of blogging I still keep coming across martial principles/methods that I take as self-evident, but of which others might not even be aware. One of these is the difference between karate and xingyiquan as regards the methods of stepping and punching/striking employed in those arts. Given my recent experience in Taiwan (which involved many, many hours of xingyi practice), I thought I'd start the year with a discussion of just this issue.

My friend and colleague at the Traditional Fighting Arts Forums, Victor Smith recently posted this video of the xingyi lian huan quan form and suggested that it bore a certain similarity to karate. I think he was right:

An example of xingyi's lian huan quan (linking form)

The Chen Pan Ling version of this form is reasonably similar: I intend to film it sometime soon. However as regards Victor's comment about its similarity to karate, my response was as follows:
    "Yes, karate is quite similar, but the differences (subtle as they are) are quite significant. The problem is the same as one finds in linguistics - ie. the unwary will encounter "false friends". Just as one might think that the French word "opportunité" means "opportunity" in English (it doesn't - the former means "timeliness") one might assume that the stances, punching etc. in xingyi are the same as in karate, when in fact they are not.

    In my experience, karateka find the transition to xingyi difficult because the differences are so subtle and they default to their usual habits. I have been there personally.

    The biggest difference in xingyi punching is that the punch lands with the leading foot - not the back. While this seems like a small matter, the context in which xingyi places the punch is almost always opposite in karate. This means it takes the karateka quite some "unlearning" to understand how to effect the xingyi beng quan (the punch that is one of the 5 elements of xingyi)."
However, as my friend Jonathan asked, what do I mean by the punch lands with the leading foot and not the back?

To answer this question, I'll reference beng quan (crushing fist) - one of the 5 elements of xingyi. It provides a useful example because (a) it is a punch and (b) it is typical of xingyi's stepping method. What is this method?

Xingyi features a type of footwork where you lunge forwards with your front foot and your back foot slides up to shorten the stance. In Japanese arts this is known as "suri ashi". So far you might well ask how xingyi is different: karate has heaps of suri ashi, so there would appear to be nothing new here.

The difference however lies in the timing of the strike during suri ashi.

Karateka will overwhelmingly time their punch so that it coincides with the back foot slide-up, where xingyi requires you to land your technique with the lunge of the front foot and no later.

Karateka are specifically taught to practise their basic stepping and punching in a way that is opposite to xingyi. In karate basics you step first, then punch. Consider the adjacent images of Tsuguo Sakumoto performing the kata Anan and note how the strike coincides not with the front foot landing, but with the back foot slide-up. The idea is that you don't want to charge in using your arm as a battering ram, but rather you want to use staged activation to impart as much force as possible. So you get into position, then fire.

I have previously discussed the concept of staged activation, but in a nutshell it involves moving progressively from your larger joints/body parts to your smaller ones, so as to use your body as a synergistic whole.

Added to this is the fact that in karate basics, punches are often performed in forward-biased stances like zenkutsu. This has important ramifications.

In xingyi there is a backward-weighted stance, usually called the san ti posture or zhan bu (battle stance). This is similar to the Japanese kokutsu dachi, but with the hips turned forward (yet another thing to which karateka find difficulty adjusting).

Note the movement from 0:20 to 0:22 - a lunge/step that has its counterpart in xingyiquan, but with very different timing of the strike

As I've noted, you have to step and punch at precisely the same time. This type of stepping is used in xingyi partly because you have a backward-weighted stance, which requires you to harness as much of the forward momentum as possible in delivering your punch (you can't rely on your weight shifting to your front leg).

In xingyi stepping you still use staged activation, but the emphasis is much more on harnessing the forward momentum of your body than on sequentially activating the hip, then the shoulder then the arm etc. In other words, staged activation is assumed, with the emphasis shifting to flow (as I discuss in my article "The importance of flow").

The assumption of staged activation is just one reason why I regard the internal arts as more "advanced"; they take as a given body mechanics that take years to develop, focusing instead on other, subtler and more sophisticated mechanics built on the foundation of what has been assumed. The xingyi concept of flow would be a prime example of this: I personally don't think it is applicable in combat unless you understand the principles of staged activation used in the basic karate-type step/punch (at least, I don't think it is readily applicable). However it is true to say that the xingyi approach goes beyond the karate technique in harnessing the whole of your forward momentum. Ideally one should learn both, progressing from the step, then punch, and adding the internal arts "flow" when the time is right (see my discussion on "sequential relativism" in my article "The importance of flow").

The above animation provides an example of how karate techniques look when they are used with xingyi stepping. It is substantially the same move as performed by Sakumoto in the earlier series of pictures. You'll note that I'm using sanchin stance, but it could just as easily be zenkutsu dachi, etc. The important thing is that the strike lands with the front foot - not with the back leg slide-up. Take careful note of how the back leg is still in motion after my strike has landed. As I say, this is what most karateka find different/unusual and often struggle with. As a karateka I've often likened learning xingyi to having to "rewire your brain".

The back leg slide-up can accommodate a second punch, but this is ancillary to the first one: see below at 0:16, for example where I do 2 punches. Note that the first punch lands with the front foot step, the second with the back leg slide-up:

A video in which I demonstrate a double beng quan at 0:16

In closing I'd like to refer you to a sifu of one of my colleagues at the Traditional Fighting Arts Forums. He has very exact xingyi form - possibly the most exact I've seen on the web. Even though his style is significantly different from that which I have studied, I can see that it obeys the fundamental "rules" of xingyi.

In this case you will see that with every one of the 5 elements, the sifu pays careful attention to his timing to ensure that his strike lands precisely at the same moment as his front foot.

While I have had some karate colleagues insist that this type of stepping and striking is part and parcel of their karate practice, I have yet to see anything like this in any karate performance. It might not be unique to xingyi (it is found in some other far eastern martial arts, I'm sure) but it is still significantly different from karate.

While certain moves in kata might resemble this simultaneous step/punch, they invariably involve a (deliberate) delay - particularly when there is a slide-up of the back foot.

One such move that has been suggested to me is the last uraken in the goju kata seiunchin. However in that case, the technique that is being applied when the front foot moves/lands is the seiyruto uke (ox jaw deflection) - or, if you prefer, shotei/teisho (palm heel/palm) uke. The uraken conincides with the back leg slide-up. That's how I learned the movement and I can't really see how it could be done otherwise if you have both techniques occuring in that period of time.

In the middle and last frames above you can see there has been a slide-up preceding the uraken. The front foot has well and truly landed. Again, this is how I was taught, so perhaps others do it differently, however you'd have to dispense with the seiyruto/shotei movement or at least make it precede the forward movement (which robs the seiryuto/shotei uke of its efficacy by removing the forward tenshin/taisabaki).

An excellent example of xingyi stepping/striking

I make these observations about stepping because I'm fairly sure that many martial arts practitioners - karate, xingyi or otherwise - have given very little thought to how they time their steps and strikes. Consider the following example of beng quan and you'll see what I mean:

An example of how not to do xingyi stepping

Copyright © 2011 Dejan Djurdjevic


  1. Hi Dan
    That was something that was drummed into me at length in my sport fencing training. That the epee tip should touch the opponent as the front foot lands on the lunge.


  2. Thanks Perry.

    That said, even karate's kizami zuki would dictate the same - ie. when you're lunging from cat stance and punching with the lead arm. It is the step-through in karate that is different. And I don't know if there is a fencing equivalent to such a step-through - is there?

  3. As far as I have reasoned out, the reason why you are striking first and then landing your foot on the ground is because the moment your foot is on the ground, your body is no longer falling through a gravity well. Thus if you strike while both feet are on the ground, you have almost zero body power. All you have is whatever muscle twitches and forward momentum that can be shifted to the fist from the hips, torso and shoulders. However, if you strike with the fist, then it's like jumping up and stomping on someone's leg. You're using their leg as an actual landing platform, so they eat all the force and then collapse unto the earth. That's the point of the strike landing on the target before you foot does. Because you are not transitioning your "weight" to your foot. You are transitioning it to your "fist" and into the target. Your fist on the enemy's target zone is now actually your LEG.

  4. The same is true with the sword in a fire and stones cut, described by Miyamoto. In kendo, you strike with the sword before your leading foot is on the ground otherwise you are said to have made a glancing blow, not a cut that you can be given a point for. This utilizes body motion (in point of fact, for some reason, the Japanese have very very excellent full body force use with kenjutsu and iaido, especially iaido, but not karate. Cause karate came from Okinawa, right, and I believe the Okinawans didn't really look favorably upon the Japanese and thus held back the goods) and applies it behind the sword so that the sword will literally have the mass of your entire body behind it as it cuts the foe.

    Only a fire and stones cut will simply blast through an opponent's sword block or even destroy their sword, because the entire body mass is behind that cut. People trying to "cut swords" using a Japanese katana that don't know what they are doing, basically break the blade. They don't have enough "acceleration" due to mass to force the blade to "cut". Instead they are using their muscles to make the sword "hack" through a blade using a DIRECT straight line motion, when in fact the Japanese katana is best at cutting along the entire upper edge to middle edge.

    I've heard stories that incompetent swordsmen break blades all the time, whereas a properly executed cut will never tarnish or damage the katana blade. Most of what I have read or seen, supports that view.

  5. What you say is true, however I think it is important to remember that there is more to xingyi stepping than availing yourself of gravity. You are utilising the forward momentum of your body as well. By striking before you've landed your foot you are still utilising the forward momentum of your step as part of your strike (not divorcing the step from the strike). See my article The importance of flow. "Flow" is what enables you to use your body in a synergistic way. While xingyiquan doesn't appear (to the uninitiated) to be a "flowing" art like taijiquan, this is incorrect. It has a "flow" (albeit, restricted to specific, shorter, combinations, in particular a deflection and counter - eg. pao quan). Yes, gravity plays some role in any flowing sequence (even if the moment utilised in the counter is forward rather than down). However the bigger factor in my view is the forward momentum that you've generated with your own muscles. Thanks again for reading and for your input.

  6. I agree momentum is part of the setup. That momentum can be transfered by shifting of the hips or weight transfer from one leg to the other, however, and does not absolutely require striking before the leading foot lands.

    It is the vertical component of the momentum that would be lost, since the horizontal component stays the same absent friction or a reverse force acting on the body.

  7. Back before I was talking about the penetration depth needed to surpass the collar bone's resistance in a standing opponent, I mentioned that one needed 3 feet of penetration. Meaning the strike is carried from the beginning, to the target, and 3 feet behind the target, while being in full contact with the target through as much of that 3 feet as humanely possible.

    That is an example of the use of forward momentum and it requires displacing the opponent's body by literally stepping not at his feet, but 2 feet behind his feet while launching your body through him.

    Due to the elasticity of the shoulder tending to rotate and the very high difficulty of getting enough penetration into the collar bone to break it, this is a relatively difficult attack to make but a few things would make it much simpler. If his other shoulder had been attacked and he was rotating to his opposite shoulder and you attacked his collarbone rotating towards you, now that collarbone has to not only stop its initial movement but also fly away from your strike. That generates more impulse by utilizing the opponent's moment as part of your attack. Alternatively, if you grab the opponent's left arm and trap it, and then strike through his left collar bone, he can't move back very fast due to that, and thus receive more impulse, or applied force. Another easy way to modify this and decrease its difficulty, is simply using a vertical foot stomp on the collar bone when a person is prone. That requires the least effort and probably zero skill needed other than the ability to stomp on something you see on the ground accurately.

    I think internal martial arts is hard to learn, not because it's all that hard, but simply because the applications are too advanced and too abstract for people to grasp, when they also don't understand the underlying principles powering the physics.

    I think if all things were equal, external martial arts, weijia (I just remembered that I know Mandarin and weyy means "outside" in Mandarin. Had to correct for the strange accent spelling of Chinese (japanese has almost perfect phonetics in their romanji system) is harder to learn and practice than neijia. It's because weijia requires conditioning of the body and certain basic levels of coordination, strength, agility, etc. Neijia doesn't require that at all, it just requires that someone be able to move, breath, and balance themselves on two feet.

    I also subscribe to the belief that neijia was created to expressly defeat weijia, or anyone else with superior strength, speed, or size.

  8. Weijia sounds more like Why J Ya.

    And Neijia sounds more like Nee (like nee how) j ya.

    Using a Sichuan accentation.

  9. Re vertical component, I agree there is some. The main issue for me is still the horizontal one. After your foot lands, much of your forward horizontal momentum is lost, hence xingyi punches land with the front foot, not after, to use this momentum (as well as any downward moment).


    In reply

  11. Hi Dan ...

    Several comments in response to your post.

    I think the Karate landing-the-punch-with-the-back-leg-dragging in response to the need for reach may be a subversive strategic move. In most sportive situations it is far better to land the punch ASAP - which means even before that front foot lands. That gives tactical first-strike advantage to either hard style or soft style fighter.

    Now after the first strike, the karate-ka could then focus on those finishing strikes. Much of what I understand of soft styles centres around flow - meaning I might imagine some water analogy 'flowing' through my limbs and smooth motion might deliver a strike or movement based off this analogy.

    The Karate-ka however is committed to transmission of mass - at least that's what my brand of karate seeks to generate. Therefore probably more in line with your back leg approach.

    That might work in a kata, but in reality, the strike is punctuated with a total surge of body acceleration and deceleration. A pulse rather than a 'flow' that is not tied with or timed to the step.

    As for the zenkutsudachi. I think the prevalence of that form is due to the methodology of training up and down the line. I can punch fairly well in shizentai, as I can in kokutsudachi or in zenkutsudachi. In fact, just looking at animated gif image looks like what I'd do if I was gap closing - if you exchange the heel palm for a punch, it would be almost exactly the same as how I'd do it.

    I sound like I'm rambling ... but what I think I'm saying is that I think there's less to do with timing or footfall than to do with tactical objective.



  12. Thanks Colin.

    I would agree with you except that a decade of trying to teach this type of footwork makes me realize how profoundly difficult it is for people to learn. I can't get students to learn it quickly or easily: they tend to default to timing the landing of the blow after the front foot lands, regardless of what I tell them and how focused they are on what they are doing.

    It's essentially the principle that makes many aikido techniques work effortlessly - in particular irimi nage (the arm and foot move simultaneously). Yet it is very hard for students to do - even when they have been practising it for a while. Take footage of them frame by frame and you see the lag - despite their very best efforts.

    So to me, the issue here is not tactics, but control. Can a particular student control their body and move this way? Once the student can control his or technique to land in the xingyi way, all the tactics of which you speak become possible. Until then, the timing is likely to be ad hoc because the student doesn't have sufficient control to be able to choose - particularly under pressure.

    Yes, some practitioners find it relatively easy and I suspect you'd be one of them given your years of experience. However my experience in teaching this as well as the more typical karate/tkd/external gong fu approach is that it far from easy for most folks.

    Thanks again!



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