The style I practise is called PiguaTongbei Quan, which is one of the oldest styles of traditional Kungfu. It is quite different from Wushu style that is a popular modern variation of Kungfu. Traditional PiguaTongbei is a highly practical and efficient training system with a long history that can be traced back to the early Qing dynasty. A few of the ancient documents have also shown that the concepts and martial techniques of Tongbei have been prevalent since the late Ming dynasty, which means our style has been around for more than 400 years.
Nowadays, when people talk about Tongbei Quan they often refer to different schools or styles of Tongbei. To name a few examples, there is Pigua-Tongbei, Qi-Tongbei, Wuxing-Tongbei, Baiyuan-Tongbei, Heyi-Tongbei and many more. Personally, while I predominantly practise PiguaTongbei, I have experience in all four of these aforementioned styles as I have tried to compare them and analyse what concepts of Tongbei these 4 different styles share in common or express differently.
One of my Masters often talks about Tongbei Quan as having three core elements – which in my opinion are a good reference point and framework for the further discussion on Tongbei Quan and its shared characteristics. These three elements are Power, Footwork and Movement.
First and foremost, I would like to say that Tongbei Quan is more of a method or principle than a particular Kungfu style. Tongbei is a methodology for generating explosive power using the flexibility, suppleness and shape of our human bodies. Tongbei practitioners of all styles often use the metaphor of a whip to explain this power generation method:
Imagine your body is a whip with your legs being the handle, your body is the middle length and your arms are the end of the whip. Power in Tongbei comes from your feet and lower body passing on the energy through your body, especially the back, and finally sending the energy/power out toward your target through your arms or weapon. This whiplike “cracking” imagery is the principle we try to apply to every single movement and technique in Tongbei Quan styles. Instead of a power that is generated from a single part or small group of the body muscles like biceps, chest muscles or even Dantian. Tongbei Quan calls for a power transmission that requires the whole body to move in tandem. Therefore the coordination, relaxation and strength of multiple body parts and muscle groups is crucial to Tongbei Quan. Otherwise, if your body parts are stiff, disjointed and not fluid, then the transmission of power cannot be carried out very well. Simply put, a straight arm punch that comes only from the arm and back, without the footwork or movement might still land powerfully but it would not be characteristically Tongbei.
The second element that is common throughout all Tongbei styles is the footwork. People often refer to Tongbei as a Monkey or Ape styles in Kungfu. In my opinion, this description can be slightly misleading since there are actual Monkey Styles Kungfu that imitates the animal much more realistically than Tongbei Quan styles. However, it is true that Tongbei Quan footwork and movement was originally inspired by the movement of monkeys or apes in the trees and on the ground. Tongbei practitioners often reference a technique known as the Ape’s Step/Footwork. By practising this stepping we are able to move fast forwards and backwards, whilst staying stable and flexible to change in any direction like an ape – as a saying goes “moving like the wind”. Using this stepping also allows us to control the distance from the opponent better, which is an essential skill for any combat situation. Therefore Tongbei Quan styles will have the skill of knowing when to approach our opponents, create openings and controlling distance through footwork. As my Master always casually reminds us: “No footwork, no Tongbei!”
Last but not least, the movement of Tongbei styles are famous for their efficientness and accuracy. In Tongbei, we are using the whole arm to hit the opponent, instead of the hands only. Behind the whole arm we are also using the whole back and waist and behind that is the footwork where all the power starts from. Even the fingers, palms and forearms are used. This way, Tongbei is very power efficient since every step can become an attack, as every attack comes from the footwork; moreover in a fight, one must be constantly in motion. Tongbei would not stand still in order to punch using the fist only. Additionally, because the power is generated from the lower part of the body, and not the arms themselves, the power can be released on multiple points of the arm in a short time. Another speciality of Tongbei moves is that every single technique can be delivered on both sides of the body. The practitioner will practice symmetry and mirrored techniques, which better coordinates both left and right brain and body. This is good for the balance of the Qi/Chi of the Yin and the Yang but also enhances the mobility and choices that a combatant would have in a pinch situation that is chaotic and unpredictable – like the ancient battlefields of Northern China that had horses, field traps and even arrows. In other words, the Tongbei style of movement is very flexible and reactive with their surroundings because of the footwork and how the power is connected to the footwork. You would not lose any more energy to throw punches or attacks than you would already have from purely moving around the combat field controlling the distance between you and the opponent = energy efficient.
Power, Footwork and Movement are the three core elements that are essential to all Tongbei styles, including PiguaTongbei Quan. Without any one of these core characteristics, it is hard to identify a style as Tongbei, since these three elements are highly interconnected to each other as a principle. Various Tongbei styles may have different key elements, but from my experience, all will certainly have this concept and so I like to refer to it as The Divine Triangle. It’s something to look out for when you watch great Tongbei practitioners of various styles. What do you think?