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