To train Ma Bu is the basic training of learning martial arts. Some call it zhan ma bu(to stand on ma bu), zhan zhuang(to stand solidly like a pillar), di pen(to stand firmly on the ground like a basin), or zhuang gong(the skill of standing solidly like a pillar.) Ever since I have some idea of what martial arts is all about, I have considered it a golden rule to train ma bu, something that cannot be changed or a step that cannot be skipped, if you are serious about martial arts. I have studied kung fu for several decades, and I have endured the hardships of training ma bu, driven by the environmental factors and my own will power. When I started to teach, I have seen some people sweat it out and persevere, and yet still more people try to avoid the pain, or simply give up the idea of taking up martial arts training. So through the observation and experimentation during the teaching sessions, I spent a couple of years delving into the further understanding and consolidated what I learned about ma bu. Thus I hope I can help students overcome the obstacle, let more people benefit from kung fu training and have some fun in the process.
FUNCTIONS OF MA BU
All styles of kung fu have ma bu, especially among traditional styles, it is very much emphasized. I myself have suffered a lot from its training. In our Chang Hong system, we further divide ma bu into the Chang Chuan Ma (northern ma bu) and Hong Chuan Ma(southern ma bu.) What exactly are the functions of ma bu? Some pugilists in the past consider it only a way to train muscular endurance. Indeed it is basically correct to say ma bu can train the endurance abilities of muscles. Human body is made up of skeleton and muscles. The application of power is correlated to the endurance and tightening and loosening of muscles. But we will not emphasize here in order not to lose sight of the more important and fundamental aspect of Chi (breathing.) We will briefly divide into several parts and explain in the following.
(1)the function to sink the Chi lower
To train in kung fu, one must first change the way he exerts power. He must give up the simple muscle power that is generated by tightening the joints and convert that to the power integrated by mind, Chi and muscular power. And the simplest way to do that is through zhan zhuang(stand on ma bu solidly like a pillar.) When we have found zhong xian(imaginary central axis) and Dan-tien.(about 3 inches below navel) through the basic training of hands, eyes and body, we must let the Chi sink down, and then when we stand on ma bu, it would be like a tree with deep root in the earth or like a tumbler that has a low center of gravity. If one squats down only with one’s body, but not one’s Chi, the bottom of the feet will have a reactionary force and make one’s body float. At this juncture, although the body may seem to go down, the Chi actually floats up and makes one unstable, not to mention if one rushes forward to throw a punch. Another situation is when one squats down with the whole body tightening into one block, it may seem very stable. Indeed, if the volume of body is shrunk into one block, it is more stable, but it’s like an ostrich, not only defenseless and clumsy, and it has nothing to do with sinking the Chi down. This is not what a martial artist should strive for.
(2)to train will power and patience
In the process of traditional kung fu training, it is of utmost importance to ask the practitioners to follow the way and virtue of martial arts. That is why the practitioners must first endure hardships so that they won’t be like the ancient practitioner, Chin Wu Yang who courted disaster because of his rashness. Martial arts is not just a discipline that offers health exercise, also it’s a skill that teaches one how to defend himself, or even kill the enemies. If a student cannot restrain himself and resort to etiquette, when he is highly skilled in kung fu, he becomes a loose cannon. That can be a very dangerous thing. Therefore, in the traditional training methods of basic skills, one of the purposes is to train the students’ perseverance, endurance and will power and let the students at the same time “nurture Chi in the mind” and “straighten the internal breathing” so that the ability to have “clear mind, clear eyes, sunken Chi and steady step” is achieved.
(3) to coordinate the hips, body and power
Before integration, the force that be exerted is only bits and pieces of power that can be generated from the limbs, and not the synchronized power generated from the center of the body. The reason why we list zhan zhuang as a basic training is to synchronize san guan qio qie(neck, ribs, waist, shoulder, elbow, wrist, groin, knee, and ankle) and Chi of the mind. One must be able to feel the existence of the power of the body center, and through other practices, to train the feel of correspondence between the head and the rear, like the modulation of the river and the sea. As a result, the theory of generating power and practices will affect the demands of zhan zhuang. Different training methods and demands of ma bu of different schools diverge subsequently.
HORSEBACK RIDING STANCE OF CHANG CHUAN AND FOUR-EVEN HORSE STANCE OF HONG CHUAN
In the previous section, we discussed the basic functions of ma bu. Here we eemphasize that ma bu is the basic skill to let the body balance, coordinate and the Chi become stable and flexible. The training methods and demands of ma bu will vary depending on the power generation habits of different styles of kung fu. In the following, we will explain in further details using the basic ma bu stances of Chang Chuan and Hong Chuan in our system as examples.
1. horse-back riding stance
The movement of Chang Chuan is long and extended. As to the power generation mode, it is through the change and rotation of hips and legs in conjunction with the application rules to make it accelerate in the end and extend the body, so called “straight line acceleration power penetration, hips and legs extension and retraction, whipping power generation…” Therefore, we must pay very careful attention to the coordination and balance of body.
With respect to the training aspect of stances, the basic eight stances are considered the basic zhuang fa(method of standing firmly like a pillar.) Among them, the horse-back riding stance is considered basic of the basic. The gist of training ma bu is to straighten up the body, sink the Chi low, tilt the knees slight inward toward the center of the body, and let the hips remain flexible. When the body is straight, it is well balanced from the left and right, without tilting to any one side. And then in conjunction with the lowering of one’s center of gravity, let Chi into the Dan-tien, and let remain stable there. Since Chi is in Dan-tien now, it is not stuck in the upper body, and the hip is not stiff, upper body is relaxed, not uptight. If Chi does not go down along with the center of gravity, normally it gets stuck in the chest and ribs. In this case, the body will be deadly stiff or even floating upward. It will be very painful to do ma bu then. So at this instant, one has to try to adjust breathing, and stand a little bit higher, and let the knee and thigh form a 45-degree angle. Wait until the breathing is smooth and low in the Dan-tien and then gradually squat down lower. Otherwise, there will be all sorts of twisted postures like stiff chin, drawn up shoulders, thrust out chest, a spine that is bent too much inward, and as a result the buttocks seem to be projecting outward.
Another important requirement of horse-back riding stance is to slightly bend two knees inward toward the center of the body. When we stand on ma bu, if we relax our body, the force of gravity will fall evenly on two feet, and the weight of the body will evenly sink down too. But sometimes when we do ma bu, due to the changes of breathing, center of gravity and posture, part of the force of the center of gravity and body will disperse outward because of pressure and will result in the phenomenon of what we call “the confusion of axis and wheel.” Unless we only want to use the rotational force of perimeter of the body and reactionary force, we have to straighten up the lower back, bend the two knees slightly inward, try to concentrate the Chi in the Dan-tien, and produce the torque about the central axis. This way we have some idea of the central axis, and this is the kind of power generation mode we want.
During the ma bu training process, we always ask the students not to let your knees go over your toes, even if that means you have to stand up a little. (You can go over a little, if you are built that way, but not too much.) Why is that? That is because the power generation method within our school is to rotate your body around the fixed axis centered in Dan-tien and create the torque. So you have to stabilize your Chi in the center, not to push it to the front or extend to the back. Also you have to straighten your body, not to tilt to any side. Furthermore, when you execute the blow, it has to be swift and direct like snapping a whip or shooting an arrow. On the other hand, if the knees should go over the toes, the Chi will be in the front part of your belly instead of center, and the pressure will fall on the knees. In this case, you can only exert power using the perimeter of your body to rotate as opposed to the central axis. For Chang Chuan, this is not direct and crispy. After the fine points are understood, then the rest is all time and sweat. Grand Master Lee once said, “kung fu is grinding practice of time and sweat.”
After one has nailed down ma bu, the next stage is to learn its flexible changes. First, it’s the upright body and sunken Chi, in combination with the left right switch of mountain-climbing stance; the real false conversion of cat stance ton make the change of posture nimble gradually; and then with the application of forms to make the stances reach the stage of being alive and usable.
We have to pay attention to one particular point. That is when we practice the change of various stances, a lot of people overlook the “straight” transmission. What I mean by “straight” transmission is that we move with the rotation of the whole body, not to hold your breath and move like a concrete block. For example, when we change from horse-back riding stance to mountain-climbing stance, pay attention to the accompanying change of heel and ball of the foot, we can’t just twist the knees and the upper body. We will lose balance that way. Then when we switch from left to right stance, although there is no pause in the middle, make sure to change to horse-back riding stance facing the front, and then rotate to the right smoothly. This is the right way to do it. This rule should not be neglected in the training of zuo pan, fu hu, xu bu and du lib u either. From the requirement of ma bu to hold your body straight, and then to accompany the change of other stances, this is the basic training, and also a very important process to step into the doorstep of the treasure house of Chang Chuan.
2. four-even horse stance of Hong Chuan
According to the tradition, there are 12 different stances in the Hong Chuan posture training, which is the building block of Hungar kung fu. Among the 12 stances, the four-even horse stance and Er Zi Qien Yang Ma are essential. Four-even horse stance is for the low wide stance training, and the Er Zi Qien Yang Ma is for the tall narrow stance training. In the following section, we will introduce the four-even horse stance of the 12 stances.
The so called “four-even horse stance” is in fact a ma bu. The only difference between it and the horse-back riding stance is that its stance is lower, the knees don’t bend inward and the requirements of “four-even, four-straight, and four-sinking.” The four-even is to have an even head, even shoulders, even thighs, even heart. The four-straight is to have a straight head, straight body, straight posture, straight Chi. As to the requirement of four-sinking is to have sinking shoulders (not to draw up), sinking elbows (not to raise it. Should point to the direction of the floor.), sinking groin, and sinking Chi.
To study Hong Chuan, one must have the concept of mind and Chi first, and its central idea is “the way of nature.” Hungar kung fu adopts the forms of the birds and wild beasts, the shape of the mountains, rivers and nature, the figure and presumed intention of gods and Buddha so that the students can imitate the form, study the intentions, and make it a reality. “This so called reality is that you can try it out in your daily life.” Therefore, it is pretty important to grasp the idea of mind and Chi, and the central axis of the body.
It is stressed in Hong Chuan system to exert power from internal Chi, and therefore to keep the body straight up is emphasized. As a result, the changes of 12 stances rooted in the four-even horse stance demand attention to the postures, accompanying Chi and variations, not to do it at will without paying attention to the center. This is why the forms for the beginners seem to be slow and driving the Chi all the time, clumsy and not as agile.
3. horse-back riding stance, four-even stance/north and south, it’s all in the family
Many people believe ma bu of different styles cannot be mixed and practiced at the same time. In fact this is a misconception based on the misunderstanding of the relationship between “man and martial arts.” As a matter of fact, martial arts is a skill evolved from the struggle between man and the world, man and the animals, between man against man for survival, for protection of his home and community.. It is the man who uses the skill. The application environment is variable. How can we limit ourselves to a narrow area? Therefore the more advanced martial artists can control the body with internal heart, mind and Chi to better adapt to the changes of nature and environment. They will not stick to rigid rules to train their ma bu and entrap themselves. Consequently, if one is good at controlling the Chi and mind, he can adapt to different stances of different styles, not just the Chang Chuan and Hong Chuan. Otherwise, even ma bu and bow stance have different configuration, how can one train at the same time? Cat stance even requires a different center of gravity and falsehood and reality, not to mention if you add hand and leg techniques. This is where the difference of good and bad interpretation lies between martial arts learned with external physical training and training with internal Chi. After we understand the relationship between center of gravity and accompanying Chi, we know why some styles of martial arts are classified as external pugilism.
ZERO IN ON ONE OR DABBLE INTO DIFFERENT STYLES
Almost all martial artists from all styles of traditional Chinese kung fu emphasize stances to have a solid foundation. As a result, stance plays an important role in all schools of martial arts, such as the 10 basic stances of Chang Chuan and the 12 stances of Hong Chuan. But can we mix the stances of all styles and train at the same time? People’s opinions vary on this subject. In fact, compatibility of the stances between Chang Chuan and Hong Chuan is high. For instance, the stances of Hong Chuan centralize on four-even stance, and some of the styles of Chang Chuan in the north utilize this stance too like Hua Chuan. Whereas the horse-back riding stance is the major stance of our style, Chang Chuan, which is also used in Hong Chuan as a modified little four-even horse stance. Therefore, putting aside for a moment the requirement and variation of mind and Chi, one can focus on one stance to train utilizing it to train the Chi to go down and the integration of the body, and then use the other to train for the variations. This way you don’t have to worry about mixing them up.
When can you change this and start to 2, 3 styles or even more? This is not a difficult question to answer. After you start to train for a while, you will know if you can or not. You don’t need to hurry to make a decision now. Let’s reflect on the experience of some of the senior famous masters. After they have immersed in a style for a long time, when they try to learn a new style, they often are stubborn about changing old habits. This is to say for this kind of people, it’s even more difficult for them to change their deep-rooted habit or conception. This is the shortcoming of learning one style, and then trying to learn another, when they have some basis. And this is why some masters don’t like to teach students with previous experience, because “it is easy to learn a new style but difficult to right the wrongs of the old style.” As to the beginning students who just started to learn the basics, it is also a grave concern to get mixed up. But if one can understand the relationship of the way of martial arts between the front and the rear, the subject and the object, it is alright to learn a few styles of skills, sports. It’s just that if you dabble into too many different kinds, you may have only a superficial understanding of everything. That’s something to be concerned about. Therefore, teachers become very important to the students who are beginning to form their first concept and seek their first objective. They should pay attention to mind and Chi, not just in the pursuit of exterior form. So in the beginning, if they seek to understand what their purpose and concept of learning kung fu, what their central idea is, and follow that direction to search, then whether to focus or to leaf through, stabilize on the constant or to seek the change, the choice to choose and to give and take should be clear to make.
To practice the basic moves, one has to understand its objectives and guidelines. One can’t just practice blindly or brush it over. The practice of these beginning moves will affect the progress you can make and the level you can reach in the future. Stances to martial arts are the building block for future development and basis for a variety of change of stances and movements, and launching pad of power generation. Therefore, with respect to the diverse detailed applications of kung fu, if one can’t accommodate with diverse flexible concept of stances and direction of training, one can’t bring the abilities to a higher level, nor can he grasp the intricacies of kung fu applications. Therefore when learning the basic skills, like stances, one has to be flexible, and to try to grasp the changes and internal breathing, and not to stop short at imitating the external forms. Normally the formation of a more complete or important style of kung fu is complicated. Take Chang Chuan for example. Currently, the prevalent Chang Chuan style is not just one school, one style, but formed of many styles, many divisions. The characteristics of each style are not exactly the same, if we try to delve into the nuances. Just like Lien Bu Chuan and Gong Li Chuan, there are different requirements, style and objectives. As to the formation and content of Hong Chuan, the variances are even greater. For Wu Xing (5 forms), Shi Xing (10 forms) and Zhang Fa (palm skill), they are different in requirements form from form. They are so different in terms of stances, power generation methods and style that they each can form an independent school. The reason why they can be combined into one school must have its theoretical basis and common grounds. Subsequently, one has to be aware of the following points when learning the foundation building stances.
1. It has to be correct
Especially, the consistency between the stances and power generation methods of relevant styles can’t be neglected.
2. Seek the flexibility of diverse changes.
Kung fu is a physical skill, applicable in daily diverse variable environment. If one is rigid, and can’t cope with changes, one would always feel “it is never enough when you need it.”
3. Use Chi and Mind as the guiding principle to train.
This will break through the rigidity and clumsiness of stances resulted from the wrong training methods and will enter into the new realm of diverse and synchronized world of kung fu.
So, in conclusion, if a kung fu student who doesn’t have much time, or who thinks he can’t handle it because he just “doesn’t have it” or because of impracticality, he can just choose one style or even just one form, and don’t even think about learning many forms and many different styles. But if you can surpass this, the rest will take care of itself.
by Joseph Jiang