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Xingyiquan (Chinese: ???; pinyin: Xíng yì quán; Wade-Giles: Hsing I Ch’üan) is one of the major “internal” (nèijia) Chinese martial arts. The word translates approximately to “Form/Intention Boxing”, or “Shape/Will Boxing”, and is characterised by aggressive, seemingly linear movements and explosive power. There is no single organisational body governing the teaching of the art, and several variant styles exist.

A practitioner of xingyiquan uses coordinated movements to generate bursts of power intended to overwhelm the opponent, simultaneously attacking and defending. Forms vary from school to school, but include barehanded sequences and versions of the same sequences with a variety of weapons. These sequences are based upon the movements and fighting behaviour of a variety of animals. The training methods allow the student to progress through increasing difficulty in form sequences, timing and fighting strategy.

The exact origin of xingyiquan is unknown. The earliest written records of it can be traced to the 18th century to Ma Xueli of Henan Province and Dai Longbang of Shanxi Province. Legend, however, credits the creation of xingyiquan to the renowned Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD) general Yue Fei.

According to the book Henan Orthodox Xingyi Quan written by Pei Xirong (Chinese: ???) and Li Ying’ang (Chinese: ???), Xingyi Master Dai Longbang “…wrote the Preface to Six Harmonies Boxing in the 15th reign year of the Qianlong Emperor [1750]. Inside it says, ‘…when [Yue Fei] was a child, he received special instructions from Zhou Tong. Extremely skilled in spearfighting, he used the spear to create fist techniques and established a skill called Yi Quan [??]. Meticulous and unfathomable, this technique far outstripped ancient ones.”

Throughout the Jin, Yuan and Ming Dynasties few individuals had studied this art, one of them being Ji Gong (also known as Ji Longfeng and Ji Jike) of Shanxi Province. After Yue Fei’s death, the art was lost for half a millennium. Then, during the Ming and Qing Dynasties in Shaanxi Province’s Zhongnan Mountains, Yue Fei’s boxing manual was discovered by Ji Gong.

Yang Jwing-Ming argues that aspects of xingyiquan (particularly the animal styles) are identifiable as far back as the Liang Dynasty at the Shaolin Temple.[4] Yue Fei, therefore, did not strictly invent xingyiquan, but synthesised and perfected existing Shaolin principles into his own style of gongfu which he popularised during his military service. Because this theory holds that Yue Fei based his style on existing Shaolin techniques, some consider Bodhidharma to be the originator of xingyiquan. Nonetheless, according to Yang, Yue Fei is usually identified as the creator because of his considerable understanding of the art (as shown in the work The Ten Theses of Xingyiquan, credited to Yue) and his cultural status as a Chinese war hero.

Other martial artists and Chinese martial art historians, such as Miller, Cartmell, and Kennedy, hold that this story is largely legendary; while xingyiquan may well have evolved from military spear techniques, there is no evidence to support that Yue Fei was involved or that the art dates to the Song dynasty. These authors point out that the works describing Yue Fei’s role or attributed to him long postdate his life (some being as recent as the Republican era), and that it was common practice in China to attribute new works to a famous or legendary personage, rather than take credit for one’s self.[5] [6] One source claims that the author of the “preface” is unknown, since no name is written on the manuscript. Most practitioners just assume it was written by Dai Longbang. Some researchers of martial arts believe that it was actually written in Shanxi during the final years of the 19th century.[7] In addition, historical memoirs and scholarly research papers only mention Zhou Tong teaching Yue archery and not spear play.[8][9] Yue historically learned spear play from Chen Guang (??), who was hired by the boy’s paternal grandfather, Yao Daweng (???).[10][11]

With the late Ming-era and Ji Longfeng, evidence for the art’s history grows firmer. Ji Longfeng’s contributions to the art are described in the Ji Clan Chronicles (????; pinyin: Ji Shi Jiapu). Like the Preface, the Chronicles describes Xingyiquan as a martial art based on the combat principles of the spear. The Chronicles, however, attributes this stylistic influence to Ji himself, who was known as the “Divine Spear” (??; pinyin: Shén Qiang) for his extraordinary skill with the weapon.

The master who taught xingyiquan to Ma Xueli is conventionally identified as Ji Longfeng himself. However, the traditions of the Ma family itself say only that Xueli learned from a wandering master whose name is unknown. Ji Longfeng referred to his art as Liu He, The Six Harmonies.

The Preface identifies Cao Ji Wu as a student of Ji Longfeng and the master who taught xingyiquan to Dai Longbang. However, other sources identify Dai’s teacher variously as Li Zheng or Niu Xixian.

Xingyiquan remained fairly obscure until Li Luoneng (also known as Li Nengran) learned the art from the Dai family in the 19th century. It was Li Luoneng and his successors—which include Guo Yunshen, Li Cunyi, Zhang Zhaodong, Sun Lutang, and Shang Yunxiang—who would popularise xingyiquan across Northern China. Sun Lutang exchanged knowledge with Fu Chen Sung, who subsequently took this branch of the art to southern China.

A simplified version of xingyiquan was taught to Chinese officers at the Military Academy at Nanjing during the Second Sino-Japanese War for close quarters combat. This included armed techniques such as bayonet and sabre drills alongside unarmed techniques.[12]