Xingyi Quan is considered one of the three Chinese internal martial arts according to the classification wrought by Sun Lu Tang. Whereas Baguazhang and Taijiquan are often characterized by circular motions and open palms, Xingyi Quan is seen as a far more linear, closed-fisted, and aggressive art.
Its philosophy is heavily rooted in the Daoist notion of Five Elemental Processes, which apply the concepts of metal, water, wood, fire, and earth to five combative maneuvers: chopping or splitting (Pi), drilling upwards & outwards (Zuan), expanding directly outwards like an arrow (Beng), exploding forcefully (Pao), and crossing with horizontal force (Heng). The Five Processes are also applied to internal medicine principles to strengthen the heart, liver, spleen, lungs, and kidneys. In the Five Elemental Processes, there is a series of which element conquers which: Metal conquers Wood, which conquers Earth, which conquers Water, which conquers Fire, which conquers Metal. There is also a generative process: Metal gives rise to Water, which makes Wood, making Fire, which gives Earth, which produces Metal.
According to some masters, such as Dr. Yang Jwing-Ming, the practice of the Five Fists will strengthen the associated internal organs as well as develop intrinsic energy and internal force. On a more physical level, the Five Fists follow the creation/destruction pattern as well; all other things being equal (such as the level of skill, force, speed, etc.), the “Metal Fist” (pi quan, or “splitting fist”) is “conquered” by the “Fire Fist” (huo quan), and so forth. You can view the videos embedded below to see the form (sadly, not the application) of the Five Fists.
Force training in Xingyi Quan, like almost all other styles of kung fu, begins with stance training (zhan zhuang). The most important stance is the Three Treasures Stance (san ti shi), which much resembles Taijiquan’s Playing the Lute and Baguazhang’s Green Dragon Stretches Claws. The practitioner sits in a 4-6 stance with the palms held before oneself guarding the body. Force training is also seen in the sets themselves, which are practiced with perfect form, flow, and exploded force. The force developed by a Xingyi Quan exponent is said to be hard on the outside but soft on the inside, enabling for powerful and penetrating blows without the risk of harming the practitioner’s internal organs. My grandmaster has mentioned that Xingyi Quan’s internal force is “hard and solid.”
The techniques of Xingyi Quan are predominantly fist-oriented and manifest explosive, shocking, and penetrating power. A practitioner might stamp forward a half-step into the 4-6 stance and drive their Phoenix-Eye Fist into their foe’s heart or a coiling fist into their nose. Xingyi Quan’s practitioners often make use of pressing and continuous attacks in linear patterns that call back to the art’s predecessor techniques which are said to derive from the spear. There are relatively few kicks; predominant kicks are low thrust kicks and clutch kicks which serve more to distract and disable a foe to set up for a decisive punch. There are relatively few purely defensive maneuvers in this art; far more common are direct counter-attacks such as smashing the fist onto an attacking arm or leg, or a quick shuffle followed by a penetrating punch.
After the basic training of the individual Five Fists, the practitioner moves on to the Five Linking Sequences (which practice the five fists in a continuous manner), the Twelve Animal Forms as well as the An Shen Pao set (“Peaceful Body Cannon”) which trains the practitioner to retain a calm and centered mind whilst delivering explosive body movements in the midst of battle; it is, in essence, a two man combination set.
There is a Xingyi Quan saying that declares “The fists do not leave the heart, and the elbows do not leave the sides.” This refers to the direct and coiled nature of the practitioner and is an admonition from masters to maintain the “three harmonies” of head, hands, and feet. By maintaining correct posture, internal force is more easily manifested and driven into a foe like a lance or spear.
My grandmaster (“sigung” in Cantonese), Wong Kiew Kit, demonstrated a short Xingyi Quan set, Five Elemental Fists, at the UK Summer Camp in 2012, and he will be teaching Xingyi Quan in the 2013 UK Summer Camp. He remarked to me that Xingyi Quan is an excellent complement to Baguazhang: while Baguazhang’s qualities are soft, flowing, and with elaborate techniques, Xingyi Quan is hard, solid, and with direct techniques. My brother practices Xingyi Quan as taught by Sifu Lin of the Chinese Taoist Martial Arts Association. My brother’s training emphasizes a number of sequences designed to teach Xingyi Quan movements, but little in the way of combat application. Using Sigung’s Shaolin combat sequences as inspiration, I composed a few combat sequences for my brother to realize his style’s applications. The next time I’m in Glenview, I’ll record the sequences with him.
Here is a nice video of one master Han Yanwu practicing the Five Elemental Fists in series. Master Han Yanwu and his student begin with Lifting Heaven and Earth, Sinking Fists, Drill Fist, and Three Treasure Stance (though the manner in which it is performed can also be used as Splitting Fist). The first series is a combination of Drilling and Splitting Fist, and so forth through the various Elemental Fists. Notice the half step/stamp that accompanies many of the movements; that half step/stamp, when accompanied with proper waist rotation, picture-perfect form, and relaxation, greatly assists the transfer of force from the entire body to the hand.
Here is a nice short documentary on the history and philosophy of Xingyi Quan. The master in that video has rather intriguing footwork and rarely stays at a given posture long enough to be captured by the camera. I wonder if that was purposeful? I’m a little worried at how slender the young men practicing look, to be honest, but there’s some nice information from the narrator, and the master’s performance is quite adept.
This excellent documentary by the BBC features a (now sadly deceased) Taiwanese master, Hung Yi Hsiang, who was himself a master of various styles of kung fu. This documentary highlights Xing Yi Quan, Baguazhang (my preferred art), and Taijiquan, as well as Master Hung’s branch of Chinese medicine. I highly recommend watching this episode (titled “The Soft Way”) and its related episode, “Kung Fu: the Hard Way”) to see how the previous generation practiced, and for some intriguing interviews with the masters.
This information cribbed from the teachings and writings of Grandmaster Wong Kiew Kit of the Shaolin Wahnam Institute, Xingyiquan by Masters Yang Jwing Mind and Liang Shou Yu, Wikipedia, and other miscellaneous sources.