My background in Chinese martial arts is varied and diverse. I have been lucky enough to study with some of the best teachers working, both famous and unknown. My first art is Taijiquan, which my teacher Gabriel Chin learned from the Yang Ban Hou lineage. Later I studied Wushu with Ma Chao of the Beijing Wushu team. Ma Chao introduced me to a style called Ma Shi Tong Bei, and since that time I have developed an enormous love and devotion to this style. In my experience, no style encompasses more of the history, science, and spirit of martial arts from China better than Ma Tong Bei. As such, I would like to share my love and obsession of this style with my readers.
Ma shi Tong Bei 馬氏通備is one of China’s most venerated and accomplished martial arts. The system has produced top competitors, teachers, and scholars. Ma Shi Tongbei is one of the most advanced styles of “mixed martial art” a phrase becoming more wide spread with the popularity of the sport of MMA. Tong bei is based in history, drawing on methods of the past and from different traditions. But it also has its eyes set on the future. Always growing and attaining new knowledge, the system is still alive and growing.
The Ma Family: a brief introduction.
The Ma Family is one of the most prestigious Hui Muslim families of Chinese martial art. The Style’s founder, Ma Feng Tu 馬鳳圖was a General during the Republic period and was instrumental in the National Guo Shu movement of the same time. His eldest son, Ma XianDa馬賢達 was influential in the creation of the new Sport of Wushu and was a huge proponent of saving ancient methods by looking at other current methods from other sources like boxing and fencing. His son, Ma Yue , my teacher, was one of the first students to receive a degree in martial arts from Beijing University, was among the first San Da (Chinese kickboxing) and Duan Bing (short weapon fencing) competitors in the early 80’s.
The youngest son of Feng Tu is Ma MingDa.馬明達 Professor Ma is perhaps the world’s leading authority on Chinese martial arts history. He studies and teaches history in Gaung Zhou China as well as Tongbei at Jian Gong Academy with his son Ma LianZhan.
The main idea behind Ma Tongbei is one of combining things into a whole. There are different contexts in which we use martial arts. But there are common skills that are needed in all of these contexts. Hitting, grabbing, kicking, throwing, and locking are all trained for various purposes in every martial art. What ever the context, one’s skills in these areas is paramount. The body mechanics involved, likewise, will be essentially the same no matter what context or culture.
Tongbei attempts to balance the skills in a practitioner by combining things with different philosophies and methods. Finding the universal mechanics and ideas behind martial art exercises and integrating them into a cohesive training regimen. The style its self starts from a base of three arts, Pigua劈掛, Baji 八極, and Fanzi 翻子 and then expands by using other exercises, methods, and weapons from other systems and even different cultures. A true “mixed martial art” system. Taking the strengths from one art to help mitigate the weakness of another. Or, more appropriately, taking stock of one’s own deficits and talents and training in order to connect everything so one has no gaps in their skills. For what ever purpose one has to apply those skills.
It is with this philosophy of combination, completeness, and discipline to the art and how that art exists in reality, that Tong Bei distinguishes its self. This has enabled Ma TongBei to grow and incorporate not just other Chinese methods, but those of modern sports like fencing and boxing.
The method is famous for bringing several styles of martial art together into one system. Of these arts, three are identified as the bulk of the system and the main branches that the skills trained hang upon. The three big styles are Pigua, Baji, and Fanzi. Together with Chou Jiao, Tan Tui, and several other methods and sets, Ma Tongbei distinguishes its self as being both traditional and modern, regimented and free, scholarly and practical.
Each of these arts accomplishes a different goal. The name “Tongbei” means to prepare your skills and connect them into a single whole. Strength, speed, balance, agility, and athleticism should be complimentary to each other, without one area being overly developed. These three arts all represent many skills and ideas that should be brought to bear. This was the intention of Tongbei. To bring the skills from every conceivable area of martial arts in order to elevate the practice. Here is a quick over view of these styles and how they fit into the Ma Shi Tongbei training regimen.
Pigua is the base of the system. Not only because it is is the parent art of Ma Fengtu, but because it is focused on the basic condition of the body needed for proper athletic development. Low stances and active footwork develop the lower body first by stabilizing the stance and then by quick and agile changes of direction. The upper body is trained with full extension of the arms and active rotations and manipulations of the shoulder.
The arms are controlled by the body, and more so, the core. The lumbar vertebrae play an important part in the movements of Pigua as does the lower abdomen, hips, and latissimi dorsi.
The main points of Pigua are that the limbs should be at full extension. In the arms this means little to no bend in the elbow and in the leg it means low stances and long strides. The upper body benefits from the full extension of the arms by being forced to move first from the core, since artificial stiffness in the arms is near to impossible to produce while extended. This takes the entire shoulder girdle and Thoracic spine through their full range of motion. In the lower body, the full extension and flexion of the hips is paramount. Stances should be long, low, and stable when stationary and lively, light, and quick when moving. Being able to go between all three levels smoothly and with speed is the goal.
The training benefits the range of motion of the hips and shoulders. Recruitment of the core and back muscles stabilize the lumbar vertebrae and allow power to be transmitted to the limbs. The full extension of the arm increase impact and speed with relatively little limb recruitment. This saves energy and allows one to strike as full force for longer before succumbing to fatigue. The raising and lowering of the body in low stances and jumps is also in service of increasing athletic ability. Being able to move freely at full speed through these sets is difficult in the extreme. But the techniques and body methods are fundamental.
Pigua is named for its two vertical attacks/concepts. Pi 劈 means to chop or split and refers to the downward chopping motions so prevalent in the practice. Gua 掛means to hitch or hang and represents the opposite of pi. Namely blocking, hooking, and otherwise disturbing incoming attacks from the opponent.
The art of Baji is the art of generating power. Almost the entire body of training material contained in Baji trains power generation from several different methods. Whole body power is contained in every movement, and a fluctuation between hard and soft. The power used by Baji is directed with various features for different purposes. These different types of power and force or “jin”, contain the various ways of issuing force. Slow, fast, heavy, light, down, up, in, and out.
The method of force production is accomplished in several ways. These have become the characteristics that are now associated with Baji in general. The sets are uncomplicated but have intricate instances of “fajin” or issued force (in the physical sense, “power”) . Dropping into low stances holding postures for a longer time are both methods that are used to condition the body. A quick tensing and relaxing of the entire body sends waves of force through the limbs. Baji teaches how to direct and use those forces to accomplish work.
The stomping is one thing Baji is known for and it is one of the primary methods of force production. Stomps are done with the heel of the foot, the ball, or the entire sole. There are stomps with one foot, two feet, alternating and repeating sides. These stomps are coordinated with the expressions of full power in the various sets and exercises.
Fanzi is known for its speed and rapid fire techniques. It uses much of the same body mechanics as both Baji and Pigua, but focuses them into one direction. Fanzi is characterized by rapid fire punches and upper body work, fast footwork advancing and retreating, and quick changes of direction. The performer also reaches high and drops low in quick succession. Fanzi is about the speed, agility and athleticism of martial arts.
The body mechanics are tied to the name. “Fan” 翻, is translated in many different ways but means the flipping, turning or reversing of a flat object like a coin or a door. The body is imagined as a series of planes, each of which can be “flipped” in one plane of motion. Together, the body is made to snap in to positions and throw multiple techniques in quick succession. What this is an expression of is external movement patterns being done internally. The chopping motions of Pigua becoming hooks and rolling punches. The core strength and explosive power of Baji is used to propel the body through space and give the fists a solid launching pad from which to take off. The movements are short which is both a reason for and function of the quickness and speed being taught.
In combat, Fanzi is about changing the ranges and positioning while keeping a the opponent busy with many quick punches and upper body attacks as possible. If any form of Chinese kung fu ca be likened to boxing, Fanzi is one of them. The punches are varied and are adept at penetrating defenses while remaining powerful enough to be worth the effort. The hands protect the head and launch attacks from there as the body changes level up and down. The quick entering and retreating to dodge allow one to set and control the rhythm of the encounter.
This is just the most brief of over views. Each of these arts can be explored, and will be, in depth. The also can be seen as working together from many perspectives. Each segment of Ma’s training, not just these big three, occupies multiple places in the system. The name of the style means to train a well rounded and complete martial artist. The Tongbei system is uniquely positioned to create these types of artists. The system contain training and techniques from many systems and many different applications of martial arts. From fighting to performance, military to academic, Ma Tongbei is an ever expanding and deep system for those who are truly into the Chinese martial arts.
The Tongbei philosophy is one one that can benefit people of all arts and styles as well. Allow the different things you train to influence each other, but do it it mindfully. In Ma Tongbei, Baiji helps Pigua which helps Fanzi etc. Be able to identify that which is helping you and where you need more help. Be able to asses your own skills through application and sparring to find out where your defects lie. Then, feel free to look in all places for a remedy to that defect. It is a systematic and mindful way of training. Not a blind, “do what I say when I say it” approach to teaching, it instead focuses on building understanding of the broad topics while teaching the specific techniques and forms. This is one of the reasons I fell in love with this system and that I am so honored to be a member of this illustrious martial arts lineage.
I will be doing more pieces on Tongbei in the future. My teacher, Master Ma Yue will be visiting the US for a workshop and seminar in August. Please check out the information here. It will be a class focused on tongbei weapons training and duan bing short weapon fencing. We hope to see you there!