This article was first published in Pakua Chang Journal, Vol.3, No.5
The information in this article was obtained during interviews with Hong Yimian (洪懿綿) in September 1992 and March 1993 and with Hong Yixiang (洪懿祥) and his son Hong Zehan (洪澤漢) and Hong Zepei (洪澤沛) in March 1993. Thanks to Bill Tucker for translating these interviews.
Although Zhang Junfeng had literally hundreds of students, the two who are probably the best known are two of the Hong brothers, Hong Yimian and Hong Yixiang. In part this is due to the attention they have received in various books, magazines, and television documentaries, however, they were also among Zhang’s ten original students in Taiwan, studied with him longer than most, attained high levels of skill, and continued teaching the arts for many years. So, it is natural that their names would have become well known in martial arts circles.
The Hongs came from a wealthy Taiwanese family who originally made their money in the candle making business. This business later expanded to include incense, oils, and fireworks. Because the family was well-off, they worried about thieves and so the Hong’s father hired a Shaolin master from the mainland to teach them martial arts so that they could protect themselves and the family business. The Hong’s father and the eldest son were the first to study the Shaolin art. Although the other four Hong brothers received varying degrees of Shaolin training, the three middle brothers developed their martial arts skill while studying with Zhang Junfeng. There were five Hong brothers all together, however, only three of them, Hong Yiwen, Hong Yimian, and Hong Yixiang, studied with Zhang.
Hong Yimian, who is currently 73 years old, was the middle Hong brother. Four years younger than Hong Yiwen and five years older than Hong Yixiang, Hong Yimian was at the right age at the wrong time and was drafted into the Japanese Army during World War II (around 1940). Although the Hong’s father and eldest brother had started studying Shaolin before Hong Yimian was drafted, he had not been very interested in studying martial arts and therefore his first exposure to combat arts was bayonet training in the Army. Every morning the soldiers would wake up and practice basic bayonet thrusting techniques. Although Hong Yimian received this training over fifty years ago, he still loves to demonstrate this skill. During each of our two visits with him, when the topic of his training in the army came up he went into a back room and came out with two wooden Japanese style swords and had the translator attack him. He dodged and blocked attacks as if he had been continuously studying the bayonet drills all his life.
During the War, Hong Yimian fought against the Americans in the Philippines. While his unit was on a ship moving between islands, the ship was captured by the Americans. The ship they were on was disguised as a hospital ship, however, the Americans stopped the ship to investigate. When they found soldiers, the Americans captured the ship and took it and its passengers to Australia. Hong and his unit were held as prisoners in Australia for 2 or 3 month. At the end of the war they were released and sent back to Taiwan. All together Hong Yimian had spent five years in the Japanese Army. He was 26 when he returned home in 1945.
If you can’t take the pain, go home and don’t practice.
Sometime after Hong Yimian returned to Taiwan he was out one morning exercising. Zhang Junfeng saw him working out and called him over. Hong had previously watched Zhang practicing near the Round Mountain area and thought what he did looked very strange. He said that he could not understand why Zhang would walk around in circles or why he would stand for long periods of time holding one posture, move one step, then hold another posture. It was very different than anything he had seen before. When Zhang called him over, he showed Hong some Xingyi and Hong became interested. Shortly afterwards Hong’s two brothers, Hong Yixiang and Hong Yiwen also became interested in practicing with Zhang.
The Hongs told their father that they had met a very good martial artist and were interested in studying with him. The elder Hong invited Zhang to his house and asked if he would teach his sons on a regular basis. Zhang agreed and the Hong’s father helped to support Zhang, giving him a place to stay when he needed it. Some of the classes Zhang held with his original ten students where held at the Hong’s home.
Hong Yimian said that the first art Zhang taught to them was Xingyi Quan. The practice sessions were very difficult. Zhang would have them hold postures for long periods of time and constantly tell them to get lower in their stances. Commenting on the purpose of this practice, Hong said that the standing helps improve the practicioners intention. He also said that in the standing practice the student should quiet the mind and calm the heart. The eyes should not flinch, but be fixed with a steady gaze.
Hong would often complain to Zhang, saying that the practice was too painful. Zhang responded simply by saying, „If you can’t take the pain, go home and don’t practice.“ Today Hong states that the only way to get good kung fu is to practice very hard and experience the pain.
Hong Yimian believes that in practicing the Xingyi five elements as an introduction to the internal martial arts, the student can clearly understand the way the body should be trained to move in the internal styles. His feeling is that Xingyi is a more direct expression of the internal principles and thus a student who starts out with Xingyi is able to develop some internal skill relatively fast. Hong states that it is a good idea to learn Xingyi’s five elements before beginning Bagua Zhang practice. This is the manner in which he was taught by Zhang.
After learning all of Xingyi’s five elements, Zhang started teaching Bagua’s Circle Walk practice. Hong said that along with the study of the Xiantian and the Houtian Bagua, Zhang Junfeng also taught other developmental exercises such as the Tiangan (Heavenly Stem) exercises, and had the students hit bags and other objects to develop their body. All totaled, Hong Yimian studied Zhang’s Bagua Zhang for 10 years, Xingyi Quan for 8 years, and studied how to treat martial arts injuries for about 3 of those years.
Hong Yimian did not say that he studied Zhang’s Taiji at all, however, he said that he thought the Xingyi Quan was like middle school, Bagua Zhang is like high school, and Taiji Quan is like college. He added that although Taiji is the most refined and can potentially be the highest level of these arts, he had not ever met many who could apply Taiji in fighting. He said that good Taiji fighters are few and far between. Hong said that Zhang Junfeng also taught many weapons, but he did not specifically state that he learned any weapons from Zhang. When asked about weapons he said that once you learn the movements and principles of Xingyi and Bagua, you will know how to use any weapon and you can use any object as a weapon. So saying, he picked up the stool he was sitting on and started wielding the stool as a weapon while executing Bagua Zhang movements.
Although Hong Yimian taught a number of students, he was never a professional martial arts teacher like his brother Hong Yixiang. He was involved in the family business and taught martial arts as a hobby. Today Hong Yimian is retired from teaching and does not practice much anymore. He said his kung fu was at its best when he was between the ages of 31 and 40 when he was practicing the most. He remarked, „If one stops practicing, the skill will disappear very fast.“ He pointed out that his last student was Allen Pittman who studied with him in 1982 and 1984. After he taught Allen he retired and has not taught anyone else since. Hong Yimian says that he never liked to promote himself as a martial arts teacher. He was never interested in getting a big name, he said, „others who teach for a living should do that.“
Hong Yimian does not talk much about his ability, however, many others in Taiwan say that Hong Yimian was Zhang Junfeng’s best Bagua Zhang student. He is known for his quickness and agility. Some say that he acquired this skill because Zhang liked to hit his students and so Hong became especially skilled at moving out of the way of his teacher’s powerful strikes. Although Hong Yimian is small and thin, those who knew of his fighting ability said that he was a fearless fighter. They say that when he returned from the war after fighting hand- to- hand for his life in the jungles of the Philippines, boxing opponents didn’t scare him much, no matter how big they were.
In discussing Bagua Zhang principles and practice, Hong Yimian emphasizes awareness, sensitivity, quickness, agility, and the ability to adapt and change when applying the art. He says that one must be sensitive to the opponent’s movement, know what the opponent is doing, and act immediately. This ability requires the development of ting jing (聽勁), or „listening skill“. He continues by saying that in martial arts fighting, there is no set way or set technique. It is important to respond to the opponent’s movement in the most appropriate way. To accomplish this the student needs to develop a sense of sight, sense of touch, sense of movement and a keen awareness. The eyes take in without focusing and the body responds immediately.
You cannot just talk about sparring, you have to practice it.
In order to learn how to respond spontaneously to an opponent’s movement the student needs to develop the ability to change and vary the set forms. Hong states that the student must have a flexible mind and thing about possible variations when practicing. He says, „If you cannot figure out the variations, the forms are of limited use.“ He continues by saying that the instructor cannot really teach the student how to change. The student has to use his mind in practice and figure it out for himself. He said he was not taught this ability by Zhang, he learned how to do it through experience in sparring and practicing two-man and three- man sets of the 64 linear Bagua Zhang techniques. He learned by getting hit in sparring practice and then trying to figure out why he got hit. He said that in the past he would practice sparring so much that he would come home with bruises all over his face. „You cannot just talk about sparring, you have to practice it.“
After conducting two interviews with Hong, I can attest to the fact that he would rather practice sparring than talk about it. With every question I asked him, he would stand up and demonstrate his point on my translator Bill Tucker. Every explanation ended up with Bill getting hit two or three times. Although Hong was not hurting him, Bill was getting tossed around quite a bit. Hong loves to move to evade an attack, position his body at an optimum angle for counter attack and come in punching. His hands are very fast and skilled. He smoothly and continuously moves through an avoiding, joining, redirecting, and striking sequence with each of the opponent’s attacks. After 20 or 30 minutes of asking questions and having Hong pop out of his chair and say, „Let me show you how that is done,“ I started to feel sorry for Bill. In an attempt to give him a rest, I tried to redirect the conversation from Bagua technique to Bagua history or personalities. My attempt to give Bill a rest failed however because when I asked Hong about someone who had taught or practiced Bagua his response was, „Well, let me show you how he fought“ and again Bill would be attacked. When Hong Yimian said that „you have to practice sparring, you can’t talk about it,“ it was obvious that he practices what he preaches.
When practicing Bagua Zhang sparring, Hong feels that it is important to practice with people who have good intentions. The partners should work to help each other improve. He recommends that students practice a lot of sparring in order to obtain the feeling of how to change and adapt to various situations, however when practicing the partners should be careful not to really hurt each other. He said that sparring partners should wear light gloves and not hit with full force. The importance of sparring practice is to learn how to adapt and flow smoothly from one technique to another with the varying situation, it is of little use if the sparring partners are out to see who is the „best“. They should work with each other.
There is no use going straight in on someone who is big; move around and then hit their weak spots. Attack the eyes, throat, groin and nose. Be clever and use your head.
Hong also recommends that when sparring the student spar with partners of various sizes. He said that smaller people have to learn how to move around a lot and they have to use their head when fighting. The Bagua practicioner should learn how to use angles to avoid and then move in fast. His advice to small practitioners is, „learn how to move and get through someone’s defenses.“ He states, „There is no use going straight in on someone who is big, move around and hit their weak spots. Attack the eyes, throat, groin and nose. Be clever and use your head!“ He further states that you cannot punch a big guy in the body, they are more susceptible to an attack to the side or back. „You hit the places that are not protected my muscle or fat.“ Hong said that when he was at Zhang’s school, he had the opportunity to spar with Wang Shujin on several occasions and really had to use his speed and agility to get out of Wang’s way.
Although Hong Yimian is retired and says that he does not practice anymore, he is very energetic, appears to be in excellent health, and still loves to demonstrate his martial art. Since his wife passed away a few years ago he describes himself as „old and lonely“, however he appears to be anything but „old and lonely“. He seemingly has the energy of about 5 men. He gave up drinking and smoking several years ago and since his father died at 94 and his mother died at 90, if he follows this family tradition, he will probably be around for a long time to come.
While Hong Yimian is small, thin, talkative, and very energetic, his younger brother Hong Yixiang is exactly the opposite in physical build and character. Hong Yixiang is a large man who does not talk much. While I was interviewing Hong Yimian, he hardly ever sat down, he was always moving and demonstrating. During the interview with Hong Yixiang, he sat calmly in his chair the entire time. If Hong Yixiang is to be known as the „Not- so- little- Elephant,“ Hong Yimian could be called the „Energetic Monkey.“ Those that have known the Hongs for a long time say that their fighting styles are very reflective of their characters.
Where Hong Yimian was very quick and agile and used evasiveness to move out of the opponent’s direct line of attack and counter- attack the opponent’s weak areas, Hong Yixiang was known for being very direct in fighting, using his size and strength to control the opponent. Where Hong Yimian was good at outside fighting, Hong Yixiang’s skill was in sticking, trapping, and controlling the opponent on the inside. This being the case, Hong Yixiang naturally gravitated toward Xingyi and Hong Yimian towards Bagua Zhang. Hong Yimian said that Zhang Junfeng would train each student a little differently depending on the student’s physical characteristics. He obviously hit the mark when training the Hongs.
Prior to study with Zhang Junfeng, Hong Yixiang had experience with the Shaolin his family practiced and he also studied Judo during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan during World War II. When the three Hong brothers started their study with Zhang the first thing they were taught was Xingyi’s Piquan (splitting fist). This was followed by the other four fists of Xingyi Quan. Hong stated that because of his base in Shaolin he was able to easily transition to the movements of Xingyi Quan.
In Hong Yixiang’s opinion, starting with Xingyi Quan’s five elements is the best way to develop internal power. He said that students must learn to develop power at the ming jing (明勁，obvious power) level before they can understand higher levels of refined skill. In Xingyi the expression of internal power is inherently more obvious and direct than either Bagua and Taiji and thus it is a good starting place. He says that although the three arts will suit different people, whatever art a person studies they should train the strength aspect first and then once that has developed they can refine it and learn how to use it. He feels that it is best not to start with Taiji because it is a high level expression of internal power and if the student has not developed internal strength in practicing an art like Xingyi Quan or some other strength training exercises, it will be difficult for the student to understand internal power as it is expressed in Taiji.
When Zhang was teaching in the early days he would often use Hong Yixiang as his demonstration partner when demonstrating application to the other students. Hong said that he felt his „hands on“ experience with Zhang was an important part of his development. He believes that when learning, the student should have as much „hands on“ contact with the teacher as possible so that they can feel what the teacher is doing.
A story which was told in the „Way of the Warrior“ documentary about Hong Yixiang, produced by BBC in the early 1980’s, says that at one point in Hong’s training with Zhang, he questioned whether or not the internal styles would really work in a fight. He thought maybe he was wasting his time in studying with Zhang. Zhang told Hong, „Go and challenge senior students of other instructors, if they beat you, then you should study with their teacher.“ Twenty- five fights later Hong returned to Zhang’s school undefeated.
Hong Yixiang stated that after he had studied with Zhang for several years, he often led classes for Zhang. Because the internal martial arts were still very new in Taiwan, many curious people would come to test Zhang’s skill. Hong said that Zhang would often send him out to show the visitors what the internal styles were all about. Many of the elder martial artists in Taiwan remember Hong as being someone who was involved in many fights, both in and out of the martial arts studio.
In the mid 1960’s Hong Yixiang opened up his own school under the name Tang Shou Dao. He states that at that time there were many foreign military personnel studying at the school. Because he had many foreigners, he did not want to call the school Guo Shu or „National Arts“ as most martial arts schools were called. He said that the name Tang Shou Dao had more of an international flavor. In this new school, Hong taught the beginners basic Shaolin techniques with a fighting emphasis. He wanted students to have a basic understanding of striking, kicking, locking, and throwing before they began to study the more refined internal arts. In teaching these aspects of fighting to beginners Hong drew from his background in Shaolin and Judo as well as the internal arts he learned from Zhang.
After Tang Shou Dao students gained some basic martial arts skill with the fundamentals training, Hong would start them with Xingyi before they studied Bagua Zhang or Taiji Quan. Hong’s Taiji does not come from Zhang, but from another well known mainlander who taught in Taiwan, Chen Panling.
Hong feels that the progression in martial arts is cyclic. He says that a new student starts out having no form, no intent and no method. Through the study of basic Shaolin the student will learn form. When the student progresses to Xingyi, they will learn to have intent. In the practice of Bagua Zhang and Taiji Quan the student will learn to refine the form, cultivate the intent and discover the method. The „method“ extends beyond fixed form or „technique.“ Understanding the method involves a deep experiential understanding of the concepts and principles of the art. Hong believes that at the highest levels, the practicioner will completely internalize the method and practice with no form or intent. The cycle, which started with no form and no intent, is complete. Hong states that a great fighter’s movements will be very simple and direct.
In addition to the martial arts curriculum, Hong feels that it is important for students to understand Chinese medicine. He says that anyone who studies the fighting, should also know the medicine. He states that even the minor strains and bruises which are part of everyday practice should be taken care of properly so that they will not lead to more serious complications.
Although Hong Yixiang is primarily known in Taiwan for his Xingyi, he and his students, both American and Chinese, have been instrumental in helping to spread all of the internal Chinese martial art styles throughout the world. We salute his efforts and hope that he will continue to pass on his knowledge for years to come.