A magazine of martial and movement arts, with a focus on the internal style of Tai Chi Chuan
The Complete Works of Sun Lutang
Throughout history, a fair number of people have created a martial art style. Many fewer have that martial art named for them rather than for characteristics of that art’s style of movement. We are familiar with kung fu styles named for animals whose movements inspire those arts, such as Tiger, Praying Mantis, and Monkey. Some, like Aikido, which translates as “the Way of Combining Forces” (2), put together names that are amalgams of concepts. Other martial arts are named for people or families. Wing Chun, for example, is named for Yim Wing-chun, who learned the art from its founder, Abbess Ng Mui.(4) Sometimes names of martial art styles are created somewhat more poetically. Shotokan Karate was named for the dojo where its founder, Gichin Funakoshi, taught, and the dojo, in turn, was given that a name as a combination of words: “Shoto,” meaning waves of movement of pine needles blown by the wind, was also Funakoshi’s pen-name, and “kan,” which meant “hall.”(3)
In a more straightforward sense, naming martial styles after their creators and their families seems to be a hallmark of Tai Chi. All five of the historically recognized Tai Chi styles are named for their founders or other individual who seriously impacted the style: Chen, Wu/Hao, Yang, Wu, and Sun. It is the founder of the latter who interests us here.
Sun Lutang, was born Sun Fuquan in Heibei, China in 1860. The name Sun Lutang was given him by his Bagua teacher, Cheng Tinghua. He learned Hsing-I from Li Kuiyuan and Guo Yunshen and already was an acknowledged high-level expert in both arts by the time he approached Tai Chi. It is interesting to note that the Tai Chi style he learned—Wu/Hao, which he picked up from Hao Wei-Chen—was, at the time and remains today one of the lesser-practiced Tai Chi styles. It wasn’t long before Sun, whose abilities and understanding of the internal martial arts were profound, fused elements of Bagua, Hsing-I, and Wu-Hao Tai Chi into his own—and perhaps the first—combined Tai Chi style: Sun Style. (1) Upon Sun Lutang’s death, gatekeeping of the style was given to his second son, Sun Cunzhou, and his daughter, Sun Jianyun. Today, the International Sun Tai Chi Association is dedicated to preserving the knowledge of Sun Tai Chi as passed down through Sun Cunzhou’s daughter, Sun Shurong.
Sun Lutang wrote four books on specific internal martial arts, one book on basic internal martial arts philosophy and concepts, and four essays that cover additional general ground and which translator Paul Brennan has collected into a single volume. Apparently Sun also wrote a book on Bagua spear, though it has remained unpublished. The published works, in order of publication, are:
A Study of Xingyi Boxing (1915, trans. May 2015)
A Study of Bagua Boxing (1917, trans. April 2015)
A Study of Taiji Boxing (1921, trans. April 2015)
Authentic Explanations of Martial Arts Concepts (1924, trans. April 2013)
A Study of Bagua Sword (1927, trans. April 2015)
Essays by Sun Lutang (trans. May 2015)
“Discussing Distinctions Between the Internal & External Schools of Martial Arts” (1929)
“Some Things I Have Been Told About Martial Arts” (1929)
“My Opinions on the Origins of Chinese Martial Arts” (1930)
“A Detailed Look at the Theories of Xingyi, Bagua, and Taiji” (1932)
The following reviews are not presented in this order. Also please note that the number of pages refers not to the number in the original book but to the number in Paul Brennan’s translations when they are printed out.
A Study of Xingyi Boxing
by Sun Fuquan (Sun Lutang)
(Published 1915, translated by Paul Brennan April 2015, 140 pages)
A Study of Xingyi Boxing is Sun Lutang’s first martial arts instruction manual, and it also is his longest. However, that length does not off much in the way of historical or philosophical depth. Instead, the vast majority of the text is occupied by the form instruction section, which is highly detailed.
The book opens with prefaces by Zhao Heng and Ai Yukuan. Zhao’s preface contains some amusing anecdotes regarding Bagua, but not much real substance. Ai’s preface, on the other hand, does delve a bit deeper—though not too deeply—into the ideas that underlie all of the internal martial arts. He concludes that Xingyi might be “called a ‘boxing’ art, it is actually a secret key for reenergizing one’s life and a grand scheme for bringing longevity to the world. It is simultaneously martial and the Way.”
Sun’s own preface and a chaper called “General Comments” come next, and it is in these few pages that Sun opens to door to the Xingyi world. These pages contain a brief history of the art and its basic philosophy, but not much else. But it does contain this intriguing information: “While once at Bai Xiyuan’s home in Beijing, I got to see one of the Yue Fei manuals, not an original copy of course, but a handwritten copy made by someone in a later generation….I secretly made my own copy and then deeply studied it, going through it posture by posture until bit by bit I had built up the material to make this book.”
Yue Fei was a famous general and martial artist of the Song Dynasty (
Sun states that Yue Fei, a famous general and martial artist of the Song Dynasty, created Xingyi, though the historical record implies that the exact nature of Yue’s martial style(s) is unknown. It is said that Yue studied at the Shaolin Monastery, and he is associated most closely with the creation of both Xingyi and Eagle Claw: the former for officers and the latter for elisted men. The brief “General Comments” chapter also contains several important principles, such a emphasizing naturalness and the use of soft strength.
Sun is finished with all that by page 11, and almost the entire remainder of the book is devoted to form instruction. If there was a paucity of information in the preceding pages, the form instruction section is more detailed, though it also is much like any form instruction in any martial arts manual. There are two parts. Part ne begins with the state of nonpolarity—the state of relaxed emptiness before the practitioner commences the form. From there, it goes into the drills that embody the Five Elements: chopping, crashing, drilling, blasting, and crossing. Part one finishes with a form that combines all five into a unified whole.
Part two contains the forms for Xingyi’s other notable stable of movements: the Twelve Animals. These are: Dragon, Tiger, Monkey, Horse, Alligator, Rooster, Hawk, Swallow, Snake, Kestral, Eagle, and Bear. As with part one, part two ends with a combined form. The verbal descriptions in both part one and part two are accompanied by photos of a relatively young Sun, sans beard. There is only one photo per movement.
The book winds up with a sparring section showing how Xingyi operates against an opponent. The illustrations here are in an older-style of Chinese drawing. This section concludes the book
There is a lot of form work displayed in this book, and since Xingyi is such a linear art, it might be a simple task to learn the art from the pages. But maybe more important is its value as a resource for Xingyi practitioners wishing to get as close to the art’s roots as possible. The major drawback is the paucity of background, philosophy, and principles of the art
A Study of Bagua Boxing
by Sun Fuquan (Sun Lutang)
(Published 1917, translated by Paul Brennan April 2015, 69 pages)
Sun’s second book, A Study of Bagua Boxing, is easily one of his best. Like the others, it is a basic manual containing Bagua’s background, philosophy, methodology, and so forth, before moving on to the instruction section. This is followed by several chapters that are more philosophical and spiritual in content. But much of the material throughout, though succinct, has more depth than is usual for a book of this type, though that proclivity has changed somewhat over the years.
The book opens with prefaces by Chen Weiming and Wu Xinggu, both of whom wrote similar prefaces to Sun’s A Study of Taiji Boxing. But there is a passage of note in Chen’s preface in which Sun gives his rationale for publishing books and teaching many students. (Material in brackets is added by translator Brennan.):
He said to me, “No matter how detailed and comprehensively I explain things, even if I am talking to those who seem capable of understanding, only one or two out of a hundred get it, and so I worry these arts will cease to be passed down.” [In other words, it’s a numbers game. The more people he shares with , the larger will be that population of the understanding few.]
This sort of statement is the kind made by a true master who is concerned about the vitality of the arts he practices. The truth is that, these days, the martial arts have never been so vital. Most action movies and TV shows display a plethora of styles, and where there were once but a handful of martial arts actors, there are now hundreds. And while the purist might argue that cinemagraphic martials arts aren’t really martial arts, I might argue otherwise. Many of these actors can clearly kick butt and have a deep, if not profound, understanding of the martial arts. My point is that the martial arts are thriving at all levels worldwide.
But back to our topic. Sun’s own preface comes next. It is short but manages to lay out the importance of the I Ching (Book of Changes) to Bagua and to skim the history of the art.
Next comes a section titled, “General Comments,” to which translator Brennan adds: “Much of the text here is reused from Sun’s Xingyi manual.” It’s easy to see how Sun might have done that by substituting “Bagua” for “Xingyi” in the text since most of the material here is very generic, though centered on the internal as opposed to the external martial arts. So it’s all pretty basic stuff, but it’s the kind of stuff that bears frequent repeating. Some of the points, however, are concerned only with Bagua. For example: “This boxing art is not only convenient for solo practice, but for group practice as well. A single circle can accommodate up to three or even five people. Dozens of people, even hundreds or more can practice together, divided up into many circles.”
When I read that, I had a flash of some huge plaza where hundreds of Bagua players occupying scores of interlocking circles move around the circles in an intricate dance, like the gears of cosmic wheels. Every time they use the single- or double-palm change to turn and start the other way, the whole mechanism changes direction instantly and simultaneously. Imagine the energy that would churn up!
Okay, again back to the topic. Chapter one covers the structure of Bagua and why the art is named that. It is, of course, named after the bagua diagram, which depicts the eight trigrams that make up the sixty-four hexagrams of the I Ching. Each of the eight trigram consists of three lines that are some combination of either solid (——) or broken (— —), and the total number of pairings of the eight trigrams is sixty-four. The I Ching uses these pairings to deliver prognostications based on the energy pattern indicated by the various configurations of the broken and unbroken lines.
Chinese thought concerning the trigrams and hexagrams and their relationship to the reality around us can be seen in many places other than the I Ching, and can get extremely abstruse once one goes into the various possible relationships between the trigrams and their relationships to other aspects of reality, such as the five elements (wood, water, metal, fire, air). It also is a notable component of Bagua philosophy. Hence, discussions in Bagua literature can become quite involved and abstract, but thankfully, Sun only takes a toe dip here, not a complete immersion. But it’s enough to get a glimpse of the depth of Bagua’s foundational philosophy.
Chapter two covers the three mistakes that beginners make. All three could have come from any generic internal martial arts manual: Don’t use excessive energy (hard or unbalanced energy), don’t use awkward effort (force), and don’t stick out your chest and lift your belly. These are so often repeated in internal martial arts literature that they could be a mantra, which also means its good advice.
Chapter three delves into the nine requirements at the beginning of training. I’ll just list these, using Sun’s own terminology, and let you go to the book itself for more definition to these ideas: sinking, hollowing, lifting, pressing, wrapping, loosening, hanging, shrinking, and clearly distinguishing between lifting, drilling, dropping, and overturning. Most of these are self-explanatory or are already familiar to internal stylists, but the last is fairly interesting and shows how Sun can pack a lot of information into a small space.
As for “lifting, drilling, dropping, and overturning”: lifting is drilling and dropping is overturning. Lifting is horizontal and dropping is vertical. Lifting and drilling are threading. Dropping and overturning are striking. But when lifting is also striking, dropping is still striking. Strike with lifting and dropping, like the wheels of machinery spinning continuously.
There go those cosmic wheels again, but that is probably only natural for an art that practices by walking a circle.
After defining these nine requirements, Sun goes a little more deeply into how the energy flows around the circle and through the various trigrams, altering in character and function as it does. There’s some intricate reasoning here that I won’t go into, but again, a passage begs to be noted: “Although the arts of Xingyi and Bagua are divided into associations with the square circle and the round circle, their theory is simply to restrain your power while moving, causing your energy to consolidate and return to your elixir field.” At the time of this writing, Sun had yet to learn Tai Chi, but if he had, no doubt he’d have added it to his description.
Next comes a chapter covering Bagua boxing’s four virtues, eight abilities, and four basic situations. Again, I’ll simply list and leave it to you to read Sun’s own brief but pithy explications. The four virtues are: going along, going against, harmoniousness, and transformation. The eight abilities are: parrying, blocking, checking, covering, pushing, propping, leading, and guiding. The four basic situations are: lifting, drilling, dropping, and overturning. You will notice that the theme of the square and the octagon are continued here, and Sun spends some time linking different aspects of all of these virtues, abilities, and situations via the bagua diagram.
Chapter five distinguishes left and right circle walking and the next four chapters delve into the postures known as “nonpolarity” and “grand polarity,” which are the states of nonmovement then internal preparation for movement—essentially standing there, centering and relaxing oneself then energizing your body without yet moving. Tai Chi Chuanists utilize the same methodology in Preparation to Open Tai Chi.
Then it’s time for the form instruction section. Sun breaks the form into easy to digest sections, each of which is relatively short on terms of number of movements. Each section links to the one before it, and each is prefaced with information about the performance, meaning, and application of the movements in the section. Warnings also are included. When writing about a particular technique, for example, Sun says: “A moment of two-fingered pressure can cause sudden death. This method can be understood but must not be deliberately used.”
But promises of better things also are there: “When the energy in your elixir field is sufficient, then your Daoist mind will be born. Once your Daoist mind is born, passive fire in your heart will be dispelled, and you will be without dizziness and blurry vision.”
The form instruction section, of course, occupies most of the book, and the careless reader might not realize that buried beneath all of that, at the back of the book, rests a treasure. In five brief chapters, Sun delivers some of the most interesting material of any of his writings. Here, he goes into some depth regarding internal energy and its genesis and development through deliberate acquisition and further explicates the bagua diagram and its relationship to the art and reality. Other topics include “the attributes of active fire and passive compliance in Bagua,” “ the attributes of refining spirit and returning to emptiness in Bagua,” and, finally, “on time and place in Bagua’s training for spiritual transformation.” The material in these five chapters is meaningful to any internal martial artist, regardless of style, making this one of Sun’s best and most important books.
A Study of Bagua Sword
by Sun Fuquan (Sun Lutang)
(Published 1927, translated by Paul Brennan April 2015, 46 pages.)
Sun Lutang was a master of the internal martial arts, but this book does not contain any outstanding insights. Instead, it is a standard-issue introduction to and instruction manual for Bagua sword. As such, it is generally no better or worse than most such manuals, except for the fact that it is by Sun Lutang, who was closer to the genesis of Bagua than most other writers on the subject He also was closer to the heart of the art than just about anybody else.
The book opens with a preface by Wu Xingu, which discusses a couple of elements of Bagua in general terms. Following that, Sun presents his own preface, which is brief enough since he states that the origins of Bagua sword are unknown but that it was disseminated in Beijing by Dong Haichuan. Sun’s own teacher, Cheng Tinghua, was Dong’s disciple. The preface goes on to elaborate the eight-trigram theory that dominates Bagua philosophy. He finishes, however, by stating that Bagua Sword ought to be called Taiji Sword because of its adherence to polarities.
Sun then goes on to discuss the idea that external appearances are of much less consequence than is imbuing one’s sword with vital energy. He then goes into the dynamics of Bagua circle walking. His descriptions are very detailed, and toward the end of this section, they take into account the sword’s relationship to the footwork.
A discussion of hand positions comes next, and those for each hand are detailed—and I do mean detaiedl. What Sun calls the “eight essential terms in sword practice” are listed, each with a brief description, and this is followed by a chapter titled: "The Distinction in Bagua Sword of Left and Right Circle Walking and Left and Right Sword or Hand Threading.” A couple of sections on non-polarity/non-polarity posture and grand polarity/grand polarity posture wind up the introductory material. Non-polarity is essentially wu wei, or the state of non-action, and the posture is the same as Tai Chi’s beginning posture before commencement of the form. Grand polarity is the moment in which the flow of internal energy begins but before it is manifest.
The form instruction section comes next and occupies almost all of the remainder of the book. As with most such instruction sections, this one has sections of explanatory text, each accompanied by a single photo of Sun performing the posture. The form is broken into eight subforms, each named for one of Bagua’s eight trigrams, and while the single photo accompanying each individual movement isn’t really adequate, the explanations are very detailed. This probably would be valuable material for any Bagua sword enthusiast.
The next chapter covers Bagua Sword’s ten basic actions, which are explained briefly in practical combat terms—your opponent does that, you do this. The final chapter is on the essentials of Bagua Sword’s unfixed practice, or, mixing up and embellishing the basic actions to make your sword technique flexible and unpredictable.
All-in-all, this is probably one of the best Bagua Sword manuals out there, though I certainly don’t have more than a cursory knowledge of others that might sit on the shelves of the ultimate martial arts library. Among those is another translation of this same book done by Franklin Fick.
A Study of Taiji Boxing
by Sun Fuquan (Sun Lutang)
(Published 1921, translated by Paul Brennan April 2015, 88 pages.)
Amazon.com shows a dozen or so books devoted to Sun Style Tai Chi, some by Sun Lutang, some by or in cooperation with Sun Jian-yun, the daughter of Sun Lutang. What we consider here is the original Sun Style manual, authored by the founder himself. I’ll note here that there is at least one other translation of this same book done by notable martial artist Tim Cartmell, but I have not compared the two versions.
Sun Lutang was already an acknowledged master of Bagua and Hsing-I when he learned Wu-Hao Style from Hao Wei-chen, beginning in 1911. He later was invited by Yang Shao-hou, Yang Chenfu, and Wu Chien-ch’uan to teach at the Beijing Physical Education Research Institute. During his years there, Yang, Wu, and Sun Styles all underwent significant development. (5) Because Sun was developed out of of Hao, it could be said that all the styles that were direct offshoots of Chen Style were represented at the institute. Undoubtedly there would have been a comingling of efforts and understandings among these significant masters.
In the early 1980s, when I’d been practicing Tai Chi for only a short time, I didn’t know much about the history of the art. And back then, there weren’t the kinds of resources we have today. Even finding books on Tai Chi in bookstores was chancy business, and I tended to buy any and every one I found. In doing that, I ran across a book titled Wave Hands Like Clouds by an Anglo couple styled Li Po and Ananda. I usually find adopted names like this to be pretentious—something akin to folks loudly proclaiming that they are masters—but I was interested in the Tai Chi style they depicted. While it was not Wu Family Style, which is what I was doing at the time, it had clear similarities—more so, even, than might be seen between Wu and Yang Styles despite Wu being a direct descendant of Yang. Learning that Sun Style’s greatest period of development took place in the company of Yang Shao-hao and Wu Chien-ch’uan, both masters of small-frame Tai Chi, helped me place Sun Style not only within the Tai Chi family tree, but within Tai Chi’s various overlapping spheres of stylistic influences. No wonder his style has recognizable similarities to Wu.
A Study of Taiji Boxing opens with a couple of prefaces by invitees: Chen Weiming and Wu Xingu, and both are standard fare for books of this sort. The author’s preface, which comes next, put considerable more meat on the bones, however. It begins with a mystical description of the creation of the universe and the separation of the primordial energies into yin and yang. This in turn morphs into the world of form—the ten thousand things. Sun quickly moves on to the story of Damo traveling to and residing at the Shaolin Temple and teaching the monks the rudiments of chi kung and kung fu.
Sun then discusses several Tai Chi principles, such as the “use of acquired postures, but not of acquired strength. In every movement and stillness, it is entirely natural, never emphasizing animal vigor, for its purpose is to transform energy into spirit.” There follows a somewhat detailed explanation of how Tai Chi moves from “the single principle to the nine palaces, then returns to the single principle.” Each of the “nine palaces” is defined, but I’ll leave that to Sun.
But I will give an extended quote that I think is important, especially given the personal expertise of the author: “I received instruction from Hao, practicing daily for several years, and came to somewhat understand the general principles within the art. I also deeply pondered upon my own experiences from my previous training, and then the three arts of Xingyi Boxing, Bagua Boxing, and Taiji Boxing merged to become a single essence. This single essence is yet separated into the three distinct systems. The postures of the three systems are different, but their principles are the same.”
Next, the story of Zhang (Chang) San-feng’s development of Tai Chi and its dispersal via Wang Zongue is briefly recounted, and after that, Sun describes, also briefly, his own journey through the internal martial arts.
The next chapter, “The Name ‘Taiji Boxing’,” discusses how the art conforms—physically, mentally, and spiritually—to the ideas of tai chi as a concept of the interplay of yin and yang, as embodied in the taijitu, or the tai chi symbol. Topics touched on are flow, expansion and contraction, continuousness, and interchange of energy.
All this material is too brief considering it is from a master who probably had so much more to say. A short chapter that lays out the remainder of the book and another that contains a form list come next, then Sun moves into movement throughout the form instruction section. This occupies most of the remainder of the book. The textual descriptions are accompanied by one photo per unique movement, which means that toward the end of this section, there are few photos. The photos, themselves, are murky, which is a reflection of the time when this book first appeared and when photo reproduction was not as expert as it is today.
A chapter on push hands is next, mostly covering tui shou. After that, Sun transcribes the Tai Chi Classics written by Li Yiyu, which is appropriate considering Li’s place in Wu/Hao Style history. Plus, the Classics are always a good reminder of Tai Chi principles, and can be read profitably time and again. With those, the book ends.
A Study of Taiji Boxing might be distinguished by its author, but it really is a basic martial arts manual that only skims the great depths of the Tai Chi ocean. It would be essential for Sun Style practitioners, but the information not directly attached to Sun Style can be readily found—often better—in most Tai Chi books of this sort.
Today, the Sun Style Tai Chi tradition is formally carried on by the International Sun Tai Chi Association, which takes its imprimatur from Sun Shurong, daughter of Sun Cunzhou, who was, in turn, son of the grandmaster himself.
Essays by Sun Lutang
by Sun Lutang
(Published 1929-1932, translated by Paul Brennan May 2015, 20 pages)
Essays by Sun Lutang is a collection of essays that Sun wrote between 1929 and 1932. All were published in various Chinese martial arts publications of the time. Translator Paul Brennan states at the beginning that these are “important essays,” but to my mind, only one contains real substance.
That one is the first: “Discussing Distinctions Between the Internal and External Schools of Martial Arts,” written in 1929 but not published until it appeared in the Yin County Martial Arts Institute 1st Year Commemorative Publication, 1931. This essay delves into the distinction commonly made among Chinese martial artists between the external/hard/Shaolin martial arts and the internal/soft/Wudang martial arts. In this work, Sun begins with a relatively brief but succinct overview of the commonly held beliefs regarding this sort of categorization, followed by a few paragraphs on his own early approach to the matter.
Seeking further knowledge, he then visited with Song Shirong of Shanxi to learn more on the subject. It was natural for Sun to turn to Song, who was a successor to Li Luoneng, a 19th century popularizer of Xingyi and martial arts brother of Sun’s own teacher, Guo Yunshen. Much of the remainder of the essay is Song’s take on the distinction. “Can I say,” he asks Song, “I’ve obtained the internal power of boxing arts? My energy has sunk down and my lower abdomen is hard as a rock.” Song’s answer is, “Oh, no, no, no. Even though energy might be getting through to your lower abdomen, if it doesn’t transform that hardness, it’ll eventually just make you feel overworked, and that isn’t the highest level.”
It quickly becomes clear that, for Song, the distinction between the external and internal has less to do with history (Shaolin vs Wudang) or method (hard vs soft), but more to do with breathing that leads to inner harmoniousness. “If this is not clear,” Song says, “then even if you practice until you are as agile as a fluttering bird or strong enough to lift a ton, you will be no more than a brash oaf and always will be of the external school. If instead you train to the point of centered harmoniousness…then even if you are a mass of muscle, you can be considered one of the internal school.”
Song’s pithy words helped Sun discover for himself “that the way of boxing arts is the way of Nature, and that the way of Nature is the way of mankind.”
I have, of course, only skimmed the surface of this essay in this review, but it is a strong work of value to any martial artist, but perhaps mostly for those of the internal school to help guide them along the path of least resistance.
The collection’s second essay is “Some Things I Have Been Told About Martial Arts,” published in the Jiangsu Martial Arts Institute Annual in 1929. Sun begins this essay with his own dabbling in various styles at a young age, discovering “that the way of the boxing arts is all-encompassing, embodying everything with nothing left out.” The implication of this statement is that his broad introduction led him to become master of several internal styles and resulted in his syncretic Sun Style Tai Chi.
Sun then relates portions of conversations he later had with several individuals who seemed to advance Sun’s syncretic approach. The first is Gao Daofu, a master calligrapher who was one of Sun’s students. In this conversation, Gao likens the martial arts to calligraphy, noting not just that both the martial artist and the calligrapher must exhibit a fluidity free from tension, but that there often are abstract structural similarities. As an example, he likens the five elements of Xingyi to the five strokes used in calligraphy. An interesting aspect here is Sun’s unspoken presumption is that students can teach the teacher, and that each person can bring to his art—martial or fine—individual viewpoints that can advance his or her understanding of any sort of human endeavor.
The second conversation is with Li Jinglin, a military supervisor and founder of the Warrior’s Society. According the Sun, Li was an exquisite Tai Chi swordsman who concluded that sword art theory “touches upon everything, thereby connecting it to all other systems.” Indeed, even his military experiences in strategy and battlefield tactics had an effect on his sword theory.
The third conversation is with another swordsman, Zhuang Sijian, who was a clerk in the Records Bureau. “What Li practices,” Zhuang told Sun, “is Taiji Sword, and what I practice is Bagua Sword. Although the two styles are different, their methods of application are fifty or sixty percent the same, and they share the same names of the different grip positions.” Sun tells Zhuang that “the principles of the boxing arts and sword arts roughly amount to three: 1) Above and below coordinate with each other, 2) Neither reaching nor separating, neither coming away nor crashing in, neither under-involved nor over-involved, and 3) The boxing is without boxing. The intention is without intention.” In response, Zhuang agrees, taking us full circle back to calligraphy: “This actually the same as in the rules, spirit, structure, transitioning, and manner of calligraphy.”
The third essay in the collection is “My Opinions on the Origins of Chinese Martial Arts,” originally published in the Collection of Articles from the Zhejiang Martial Arts and Recreation Conference, 1930. In this short work, Sun lays out his version of Chinese martial arts history, beginning with pre-historic Chinese emulating animal movements. He then very briefly covers the Yellow Emperor’s contributions to martial arts development and the further development of the arts through several dynasties.
The legendary Damo traveling to the Shaolin Temple makes an appearance, as do Chang San-feng, and this segues quickly to mere mentions of several styles subsequently developed from Shaolin and Wudang martial arts. He concludes with the statement, “Narrowmindedness toward other styles leads to snobbery, and so I fervently hope that throughout the nation it is the broadminded masters who are doing the teaching.” Unfortunately, that eventuality seems unlikely in this world.
This essay is easily the weakest and most facile in the collection. Sun’s “history” is too terse to deliver much information, and the information it does deliver relies on the standard mythic take on Chinese martial arts development. Better—and more accurate—histories can be found in many other sources.
The final essay is, “A Detailed Look at the Theories of Xingyi, Bagua, and Taiji,” published in a 1932 issue of Martial Arts Weekly. Sun opens the essay by distinguishing three broad categories of Chinese martial arts: Shaolin, Wudang, and Emei. The first two are probably familiar to most practitioners of the Chinese martial arts, but the third is more obscure. Emei, or more properly, “Emeiquan, is a group of Chinese martial arts from Mount Emei in Sichuan Province…. It is known for its swiftness and flexibility…and is known for its animal-based fighting methods.” (6)
In saying this, I’ve told you more about Emeiquan than Sun does in this fairly long essay. Instead, Sun focuses on the three major internal arts of Xingyi, Bagua, and Tai Chi, and there is some pithy information here for internal martial artists of each school. Each art is treated in about a page of text according to the tenets of the art: Xingyi’s five core movements and twelve animal imitations, Bagua’s adherence to the 64 hexagrams of the I Ching, and Tai Chi’s centered harmoniousness. He concludes: “By analogy, Xingyi is the ground, Bagua is the sky, and Taiji is mankind.” And in keeping with Sun’s syncretic approach to the internal martial arts, he then states, “The three substances of sky, ground, and mankind are merged into a single whole, mixed into a union with no meaningful distinctions.”
With the Complete Works of Sun Lutang, Paul Brennan has made a significant contribution to English-language martial arts literature. His translations are professional-grade, using clear and precise phrasings to relay the knowledge contained in these books in a highly readable format.
Also interesting are the photos of Sun on the title pages of several of the books—scans courtesy of translator Paul Brennan. Photos of Sun in books and on the web typically are shots of him as an older or old man, with his trademark long whiskers and serious demeanor. That’s the case with most of the photos in these books, but a couple show a younger man. The earlier of the two, in A Study of Bagua Boxing, depicts a young Sun in full-dress uniform as a Junior Field Officer for the Presidential Palace, for which he served as a captain in “Scholar Tiger” Section. In this photos, he has no facial hair. The second shows a more mature Sun in a dark jacket with a high collar and sporting a mustache.
In many ways, Sun’s most important legacy is not the schools that have built up since his death around his various martial arts. It is, instead, the idea that if you understand and can embody one of the internal martial arts, to one degree or another, in many ways, you can understand and embody them all. Everything else is style of movement training and catalogs of martial technique. The true essence is not the martial but the art, for that is transmitted via the way the body is trained to move—the more sophisticated the movement, the more effective the martial art, not only for self-defense/fighting and health/well-being, but for producing satisfying emotional and philosophical content. Sun Lutang was a master of three internal martial arts, which meant that he had learned to deeply embody each style as an individual art. But his greatest achievement is in succeeding in combining all three as one. For him, free and intentional multi-dimensional movement was real, and he was happy to share with others the possibilities inherent in that fact as well as the methods one could use to achieve similar results.
1 “Sun Lutang,” Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sun_Lutang
2 “Aikido,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aikido
3. “Shotokan,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shotokan
4. “History of Wing Chun,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Wing_Chun
5. “Sun Lutang,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sun_Lutang
6 “Emeiquan,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emeiquan
International Sun Style Tai Chi Association
For those interested in more on Sun Style Tai Chi, check out Michael P. Garofalo’s list of links—totaling 51 pages—to sites with Sun Style connections: