Today’s blog is about a weird quirk of the Xing Yi world. There’s a surprisingly large amount of online debate in Xing Yi circles about where the elbow should be when performing Xing Yi. I mean, a surprisingly large amount of debate. Especially for a matter that might, forgive me for saying this, be seen as trivial by people actively engaged in combat sports that actually spar with resistance.

Obviously, if you have some sort of two person free practice in your Xing Yi system that you actually engage in regularly, I’m not talking to you. I think the real reason why all these debates happen is simple – too much forms and not enough fighting.  

But, ok, there are other reasons. For example, details do matter in internal arts. Quite often we’re being asked to look in detail at our movements and micro movements to get the most perfectly coordinated and natural human movement possible. But without keeping one foot on the ground, (and grounded in the reality that sparring provides), the theoretical arguments start taking over and the art disappears up its own bum. A martial art that is predominantly forms-first is always going to be theoretical at best. To take the well worn analogy – you don’t learn to swim by practicing on dry land.

Long, explanatory videos have been made, back and forth, about why a certain person is doing it right or wrong because his elbows stick out or tuck in.

The problem stems from the fact that there’s a line in the Xing Yi classics that translates as: 

“The hands do not leave the heart and the elbows do not leave the ribs”.

But it’s how literally you take these words seems to be the crux of the matter. Now, I’ve seen videos of respected Xing Yi masters quoting this passage while demonstrating and their elbows are clearly leaving the ribs, if not in the horizontal axis, at least in the vertical axis. 

The reasoning behind keeping the elbows tight is sound – in boxing, kickboxing and MMA it’s generally considered best practice to keep your shoulders high and elbows tucked in close to the body to help protect the ribs. But boxers don’t tend to get hung up on this – as their individual style develops they don’t feel like they have to conform to the same ‘rules’ that the novice has to. They are free to develop their own personal style through experimentation and testing in the ring. I’m sure Prince Naseem was taught the same basics as Mike Tyson, but look how differently their boxing styles turned out in the end.

So, (and I know, dear reader, that you are just dying the hear this), what’s my take on where the elbow should be in Xing Yi?

Well, I’m glad you asked. Rather than getting hung up on words in an old writing (that may or may not be old at all) I prefer to get hung up on history. I mean, you have to get hung up on something, right?

Xing Yi is generally considered to be descended from military spear fighting. If you hold a heavy spear it becomes readily apparent that your best chance of wielding it with power is to keep it in front of the body, not out to the sides. It’s the same when you hold any heavy object – you are stronger when your arms are in front of you holding it than when they are at your side holding it. This is the truth I feel these words are aiming towards, and generally the postures and techniques of Xing Yi all comply with this idea of keeping the elbows in and the arms in front of the body, not to the sides. There are exceptions though. For example, Xing Yi Bear has a much rounder posture, with gaps under the elbows, more like the Yi Quan standing postures.

Some postures in our Xing Yi dragon and chicken links are for hitting with the elbows and we hold them out to the side when doing so, but in these cases you are normally (but not always) standing side-on to the opponent, so the elbow tip is pointing at the opponent, so in that sense it is not ‘out to the side’. 

A good example is this famous Liang Yi Zhuang posture from Baji, which is similar to the chicken posture I was talking about. (Baji is another Northern Chinese martial arts, that is a bit similar to Xing Yi).

Picture from两仪桩

I mean, we could decide that viewed from the opponent’s position the elbow is in line with the body, therefore it is not leaving the ribs, but the hands are not in front of the heart. No way. Are we therefore going to decide that this posture, taken out of context on its own, is wrong because it doesn’t correspond literally to some ancient writing that may, or may not, have been referring to a specific context?

Here’s another theory: I think what the whole thing is quite possibly about how soldiers work in formation on a battlefield. If Xing Yi does have military roots then a line of soldiers on a battlefield would all be orientated towards the enemy, standing side by side in a line. That’s another good reason to stick the elbows to the ribs. Any bladed weapons going towards your sides would definitely not be welcomed by your brothers in arms. 

Ultimately, I don’t expect this post to have really made a difference to the debate. I feel like this one is just going to run and run forever. So long as there are mainly theoretical practitioners of the art there will be always be many theoretical debates about how what somebody is doing is right or wrong in relation to some ancient writing.

I just think people’s efforts would be better put to trying moves out on other people and getting feedback that way. As one of my teachers used to say often:

“There is no such thing as correct technique, there is only appropriate technique.”

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