The Taiji from Qingcheng Mountain

By Gene Ching and Gigi Oh

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Kung Fu Tai Chi Magazine: November + December 2015 China has one of the world’s longest recorded histories. Couple that with the world’s largest population and the breadth and diversity of Chinese traditions are overwhelming. This makes the cultural depth of Chinese martial arts unrivaled by any other fighting style on the planet. It also presents a challenge. When it comes to Chinese martial arts, pithy assumptions barely scratch the surface. The study of Chinese martial arts is a Chinese box; open one to discover another nested inside.

In the realm of Taiji, or Tai Chi as it is more commonly known here in the West, the popular legend tells that it originated with the 12th century Daoist Zhang Sanfeng (張三丰) and Wudang Mountain. Modern China espouses the five family styles of Taiji: Chen, Sun, Wu, Wu (Hao) and Yang (陳, 孫, 吳, 武/郝, 楊). However, there are other styles of Taiji which claim to predate Zhang Sanfeng; they stand outside the paradigm normally accepted by most Westerners.

“My teacher said that most Taiji was created by layman practitioners so those styles use the family name of its creators,” states Grandmaster Liu Suibin (刘绥滨) in Mandarin. Liu is the 36th generation lineage holder of Qingcheng Pai (青城派), a formidable martial style from Sichuan renowned for its Taiji. Qingcheng Pai is deeply rooted in Daoism so it is named after Qingcheng Mountain instead of a secular family. When it comes to the five dominant Taiji families officially recognized by the People’s Republic of China, some say that the emphasis on family styles was a product of the communist government eschewing religion. And yet, the very term “Taiji” (太极) comes from a fundamental cosmological concept of Daoism.

Qingcheng Pai not only retains its connection to Daoism, its lineage begins over a millennium before Zhang Sanfeng or the founder of the oldest familial style, Chen Wangting (1580–1660 CE) (陈王庭). “The Chuzu (initial ancestor 初祖) of our lineage is Zhang Daoling (34–156 CE) (张道陵), who lived in the time of the Eastern Han (25–220 CE).” Liu is quick to admit that this lineage is incomplete and that many of the names of the 35 lineage holders that preceded him are lost. As with most martial progenitors (including Zhang Sanfeng), Zhang Daoling is likely a symbolic figure. Beyond the martial world, he a legendary Daoist figure who founded the Way of Celestial Masters (Tianshi Dao 天師道) in 142 CE. This is a prominent sect of Daoism that came to Zhang while he was secluded in the Celestial Cave (Tianshi Dong 天師洞) on Qingcheng Mountain. Like with Shaolin Kung Fu’s founder Bodhidhama, whether Zhang was truly a martial artist is dubious. However, Qingcheng Pai also acknowledges earlier ancestors that were martial masters. The oldest venerated martial masters of Qingcheng Pai, known as Junyuanzu (sovereign distant ancestor 君远祖), are Rong Chenggong (容成公) and Zhu Fengzhen (宁封真), who date back as far as the Yellow Emperor period (2698–2598 BCE).

Subscribe to Kung Fu Tai Chi magazine It is important to remember that Qingcheng Pai is not just a martial art. It encompasses philosophy, art, music, medicine, astrology and many other cultural forms of expression. The same is true for Shaolin, Wudang, and many other prominent Chinese martial arts; however, both Eastern and Western pop culture usually only focuses on the martial aspects as that provides the greatest spectacle. So while it may be difficult to determine exactly when Qingcheng Pai martial arts may have emerged amongst all of its other disciplines, Grandmaster Liu is firm about the tradition as a whole. “Qingcheng Pai started from the Han Dynasty.” This makes it one of the oldest extant traditions connected to any martial art today.

Of Mountains and Rivers
Qingcheng Mountain is one of the most important Daoist centers in China. It is blanketed with dozens of ancient sacred temples. The mountain range has thirty-six peaks, the tallest of which stands over 4000 feet high. Rising majestically from the plains of Chengdu in Sichuan province, Qingcheng is intimately connected to the Dujiangyan irrigation system (都江堰), one of the world’s oldest, dating back to 256 BCE and still functioning today. In 2000, Qingcheng and Dujiangyan were inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Grandmaster Liu explains that water has a longstanding connection to Daoism and longevity. In 1977, noted philosopher Alan Watts echoed this correlation with his seminal book, Tao: The Watercourse Way, but Grandmaster Liu explains that it is more closely bonded with the Daoist quest for longevity. “There are some 129 Wushu systems, but only 10 ‘longevity’ counties.” Despite the communist attempts to expunge religion, Daoism is deeply embedded in Chinese thought, and with it, the longstanding desire for longevity. Thus, China has officially recognized 10 counties as “longevity” counties for their historic links to the pursuit of immortality and their notable elderly population. Zhang Daoling was a classic Daoist recluse dedicated to longevity practices. Legend says he lived past one-hundred-and-twenty years of age. “The place of origin is Qingcheng Mountain and Dujiangyan, one of the top ten counties known for longevity,” say Grandmaster Liu. “Many of our ancient grandmasters lived long lives. Fan Changsheng (范长生) of the Jin/Wei period (220–420) lived to one-hundred-and-thirty-six. Qingcheng inherits this. In modern times, Li Chenggong (李成功 ) lived to one-hundred-and-twenty-eight. And Daoist master Jiang Xinping (蒋信平 ) lived to one-hundred-and-eleven. He passed away just recently. He was one of my meditation teachers.”

Liu asserts that the emphasis on longevity in Qingcheng martial arts is in part a result of the land. Shanshui (literally “mountain water” 山水) is a fundamental concept in traditional Chinese art, specifically painting but also poetry. It refers to a classic style of natural landscape painting that expresses the Five Element Theory of Daoism. In the martial arts, Liu points out that there is an imbalance in many other systems. “Shaolin, Wudang, Emei – most other systems just have mountains. No water. Qingcheng and Dujiangyan are more in harmony with the five elements.”

A Wandering Daoist
When Grandmaster Liu describes the other styles of martial arts, he knows what he’s talking about as he studied them as well over his varied martial career. Liu was born in 1965 in Dongbei to a martial arts family, but moved to Sichuan Province when he was very young. There, he started studying Qingcheng Pai at age six under his maternal grandfather. “I didn’t like it when I was young, but I was bullied and weak.”

However, as Liu grew, he became serious about his practice and voracious about his research, exploring various styles from Shaolin, Wudang, and Emei. He trained in Sun Bin Quan (孫臏拳) in Shandong Province. “I bowed to more than ten masters and Daoist hermits. Most of my martial arts masters were bodyguards and military coaches. I am a disciple of Wang Shutian (王树田).” Professor Wang was a noted Sichuan Grandmaster and one of the primary architects of China’s free-sparring sport, Sanda (散打). Liu was a professional Sanda and boxing instructor for ten years. “If young people don’t learn fighting, it’s just flowery.”

Liu also graduated from Chongqing Medical School and practiced medicine for twelve years, so his emphasis on health stems from more than his Daoist style. In 1997, he grew away from fighting for sport and went internal. “Taiji changed my life. After teaching Sanda for ten years, I could fight, but my mind was not at peace. After learning Taiji, I don’t try to win all the time. I don’t have as many injuries. When you are middle-aged, if you don’t learn Taiji, you’ll die early and that’s against the Dao.”

After a successful competitive career that got him up on the podium six times in international competition, Liu returned to the study of Qingcheng Pai under the 35th lineage holder, Grandmaster Yu Guoxiong (余国雄). “Many young people win a few medals and can fight. They think they are good, but they do not really have a smooth life. Maybe they have a lot of anger issues because these people only learned the surface. They did not learn Daoism. I was lucky. In the ‘90s, I started following Grandmaster Yu.”

In 2001, Grandmaster Yu named Liu as his successor. “He passed down the hallmarks of the lineage holders to me: the sword, the seal, the robes and the quanpu (fist lyrics 拳譜).” The sword was a special sword form that only the lineage holder receives. “I want to release it but I cannot break the rules of tradition. There are three lu (literally ‘roads,’ but in this context it indicates separate forms 路). My teacher gave me permission to share the first lu, but he passed away before allowing me to share the rest.” The seal is a stone stamp, colloquially called a “chop,” that is the official signature for Qingcheng Pai. Quanpu are codified names of the techniques in a poetic form. These are commonplace nowadays for most of the popular Chinese martial arts, but for some more esoteric systems, these are still regarded as secret transmissions.

Today, Grandmaster Liu has adopted the Daoist name Xinxuan (信玄) but is far from becoming a hermit. In fact, he’s very active and even became a Guinness Record holder in a televised event. However, this was not the internationally recognized Guinness World Records established by the Guinness Brewery in the 1950s. China had its own Guinness Records. Zhongguo Dianshi Jinisi Jilu (China Television “Guinness” Records – jinisi is a phonetic translation of Guinness 中国电视吉尼斯纪录 ) was a Chinese production that appropriated the concept for their own television show. It was carried over a hundred TV stations in China and only stopped broadcasting recently. In 2000, Liu set the record for extinguishing the most candles by punching. He blew out thirteen candles set in a row 160 cm in length. “The first few are easy. The last few are very hard.”

Candle punching gained some popularity in the United States as a martial arts practice in the late ‘90s (see Candle Punching by Jeff Bolt, February+March 1998). It’s a great party trick for Kung Fu enthusiasts. “I don’t practice this technique anymore. It’s not good for your health. You have to expend too much energy and must rest for a long time afterwards. Candle punching trains speed and strength. My speed was clocked at six punches per second by CCTV. It also teaches penetrating power for your punches. When my teacher taught me, we only trained for a distance of 30 cm, the thickness of a human body. But later, the distance grew just from the students competing with each other. The real Guinness World Records requested that I reprise the stunt for them, but I declined. I’m too old already.”

Liu also holds another unusual record with the Chinese Jinisi. In December 2012, he had thirty-eight Taiji practitioners recite Qingcheng Taiji in Antarctica. That’s not really a category for the Guinness Book of World Records, but it rates for Jinisi.

The Qingcheng Sect
There are actually three Qingcheng lineages recognized in China today. Grandmaster Liu is the lineage holder from the most established one; his has been officially recognized as a Sichuan Provincial Intangible Cultural Heritage. The focus of this article has been on Qingcheng Taiji, specifically the secret transmission that Liu specializes in known as Qingcheng Xuanmen Taiji (Xuanmen is a Daoist term meaning “profound gate” 玄门太极拳). However, Qingcheng Pai includes many other styles of Kung Fu.

“Because Qingcheng Pai is Daoist, there is a lot of jian (straight sword 劍) and bian (hard whip 鞭).” The jian is the signature weapon of Daoist priests, used as much in mystical rituals as it is in actual sword fights. The bian is a solid rod, like a baton, often made of solid iron or steel. These have all sorts of designs, often ribbed or fashioned in bamboo-like patterns, and are often extremely heavy. Bian isn’t seen in modern-day practice very much, but there are still some traditional styles of Kung Fu that maintain bian forms.

Beyond the classic Daoist weapons, there are other styles embedded within Qingcheng Pai beyond Taiji. Black Tiger Fist (hehuquan 黑虎拳) is a familiar name to Kung Fu researchers as it is a mainstay of Shaolin Kung Fu. However, Liu states categorically that it is a completely different style. According to Liu, the Black Tiger Fist of Qingcheng Pai is a homage to the mount of the God of Wealth, Zhao Gongming (赵公明).

Another major style with Qingcheng Pai is Lulin Pai (Green Forest Sect 绿林派). Liu claims that this is more of a southern style and connected to underground rebel heroes, like those in the martial classic Outlaws of the Marsh (水滸傳). Qingcheng Pai has ties to what some have informally called Bandit styles of Kung Fu. These are the techniques of wandering rebel knights, “do gooders” who fell on the wrong side of the law because the government of their era was corrupt. In Western legend, they were parallel to Robin Hood. In Chinese, they are known as xiazha (knight clan 俠家 – note that this is the same term used for the Tibetan Kung Fu style of Hop Gar, but that is a totally different thing). Li believes these techniques migrated into Qingcheng Pai from Shandong Province during the late Ming and early Qing (the Ming to Qing transition was 1644 CE). Shandong was also the setting of Outlaws of the Marsh, which was based on historic events in the 12th century. The adventures of rogue knights have been romanticized throughout Chinese fiction in a genre known as wuxia (martial knight 武俠). This body of wuxia literature was the inspiration for the modern Kung Fu film genre.

As a side note, the leading modern writer of wuxia fiction today is Louis Cha (a.k.a. Jin Yong 金庸). From the mid-fifties to the early seventies, Cha produced fifteen epic wuxia sagas that captivated readers around the world. He is China’s best-selling living author to date. Many of his novels have been made into Kung Fu movies. Cha is also an author of non-fiction works on Chinese history so some of his wuxia stories have some foundation in fact, but much is also made up, an exercise in artistic license. This has muddled many martial arts researchers as some modern-day styles are clearly based on fictions from Cha’s colorful imagination. In the past, Cha has refuted a few styles as his creations or the stuff of legend; however, Grandmaster Liu took him to task when Cha said Pikong Quan (splitting empty fist 劈空拳) was just a myth. In deference to Liu’s expertise, Cha publicly apologized.

There are other styles within the Qingcheng Pai curriculum, but in the interest of brevity, that is a subject for another article.

Qingcheng Goes Global
Grandmaster Liu has only twenty-two indoor disciples but thousands of students. Of the 650,000 residents of Dujiangyan region, Liu says over 200,000 study Qingcheng Pai, so many that, two years ago, China held a Taiji Elite competition there and last year the World Championship. Liu also says that Qingzhen Pai is in some fifty countries now, with some 100,000 outside of China, and 20,000 in France alone.

Qingcheng Pai Taiji had a role in the 2011 international blockbuster film Kung Fu Panda 2. Sichuan is home to many of the world’s last surviving wild giant pandas. The Dujiangyan Giant Panda Center is a facility that is working to preserve the species, so when the Dreamworks team was developing the film, they visited the area for research and Raymond Zibach, the production designer for the film, modelled some of the Taiji postures on Qingcheng Taiji as performed by Liu and his disciples.

Liu has also cultivated some very affluent patrons including some of the richest entrepreneurs in China today, top ranking government officials from thirteen Asian nations, and ambassadors and their spouses from thirty-two countries and counting. He has developed health programs for Shell, BMW and Mercedes-Benz. Already the author of several books, Liu works to keep his time-honored tradition current by developing smart phone training apps and special health programs.

His foremost health cultivation program is Six Form Qingcheng Taiji (Zhanzhuang Gong Liu Shi 青城太极站桩功六式). “I created this six movement method out of thirty-six movements from the first Taiji lu. A lot of my CEO students suffer health issues. With the men, it’s usually inflamed shoulders. With the women, it is often cold feet and poor circulation. Most Taiji methods say to drop the shoulder and elbow, but this Qingcheng training is different. The goal is to use the least movements over the shortest time requirements in the smallest practice space to obtain qi energy in the fastest way. It only takes two minutes of practice a day.

Some obstinate martial artists still feel that Taiji should only be practiced as a martial art. But many forward-thinking masters like Grandmaster Liu see that it can help heal a broken world. “No matter how much the world is changing, everyone still wants a healthy body. Zhang Sanfeng wanted warriors to have a long life. Taiji is based on Daoist wisdom and culture.”

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Kung Fu Tai Chi Magazine November + December 2015

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About Gene Ching and Gigi Oh :
To see Grandmaster Liu Suibin demonstrating his Six Form Qingcheng Taiji, subscribe to the YouTube channel. For more on Qingcheng Pai and Grandmaster Liu Suibin, see Qing Cheng Pai Renaissance by Andrew Miles in our March+April 2010 issue.

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