The Wu Style Fast Boxing (Wu Shi Kuai Quan)
Anybody doing a search for the Wu Style of Taiji quan on the web would quickly find clips of Wu Ying Hua (daughter of modern Wu Style founder Wu Jian Quan) demonstrating the slow hand form (Da Man Quan) and also her husband Ma Yueh Liang ( Senior disciple of Wu Jian Quan ) demonstrating another hand form known simply as Kuai Quan or Fast Boxing. It is easy to see that the two forms are recognisably related and follow the same sequence though the Kuai Quan also includes additional movements that are not in the slow form and is distinctly martial in character..
To my knowledge there is no footage of Wu Ying Hua demonstrating the Kuai Quan and I have seen none of Ma Yueh Liang demonstrating the slow form. Indeed the Kuai Quan has become so synonomous with Ma Yueh Liang that it is sometimes referred to in China as “Ma’s form”. This does not however mean that Ma invented it but that he was the inheritor and the custodian of this form since the death in 1942 of his master Wu Jian Quan. Ma himself told me in 1992 when my teacher Li Liqun, one of Ma’s senior disciples formally introduced me to Ma and his wife Wu Ying Hua, that the form was the original form passed down from Yang Luchan to Quan You and then to Wu Jian Quan and finally to Ma himself. In the Shanghai circle of Wu practitioners it is understood that the Kuai Quan was the original form from which the Slow form was developed by Wu Jian Quan around the time that Yang Cheng Fu was also simplifying the Yang family form for public teaching.
Wu and Ma were the figureheads of Wu Jian Quan’s legacy in China, taking over the Jian Quan Taiji Boxing Association in Shanghai which had been established in 1932 by Wu Jian Quan. Shanghai is considered to be the ‘old’ home (Lao Jia) of the Traditional Wu Style of Taiji quan . Ma and Wu together became famous for their Taiji skills and as upholders and representatives of the original teachings of Wu Jian Quan and as practitioners and authorities of the traditional methods of Taiji quan.Their integrity as recipients of the Wu Jian Quan legacy has never been in question. Their teachings are kept alive in Shanghai by their disciples and family as well as disciples and enthusiasts in Europe, New Zealand, USA and UK.
Taiji Quan went public in Beijing around 1912, to meet the new challenges of a changing society. The original forms and methods practised by the Yang family patriach Yang Lu Chan, which had originating in Chen village from Chen Chang Xing were modified for public teaching. The older forms however were retained and passed on through family and disciples, (primarily Ban Hou, Chien Hou and Quan You) The roots of the tree were preserved whilst the public face of Taiji was launched. The forms that we now know as the Yang and Wu forms were modified versions of those earlier forms. The modifications were made by Yang Cheng Fu and Wu Jian Quan, perhaps co-operatively. but it is worth remembering that the forms that many of us practise are just the tip of a iceberg, most of which is under the surface.
It is not possible to know exactly what was passed on by Yang Lu Chan but it is known that Yang Ban Hou and then Yang Shao Hou practised three hand forms that were very similar in form but different in characteristics. The first was a simplified form (Taiji Zheng Lu) the second, a family hand form (Taiji Jia Shou) and finally a smaller (Taiji Xiao She) more martial form that incorporated changes in speed and exhibited martial power. The existence of overtly martial forms which preceded the large slow form would of course make sense since Taiji was a martial art derived mainly from the Chen family martial root. It is also hard to imagine the Imperial Guards of the Ching Dynasty who were taught by Yang Lu Chan and his son Yang Ban Hou doing the slow form and expecting it to work on the battle field! The forms were evidently more martial than today”s and would need to provide a full martial vocabulary and the means of training all the skills and methods necessary for the life and death struggles of a Ching Dynasty Imperial Guard. The existence of fast and martially explicit forms seems obvious.
The Yang form as adjusted by Yang Cheng Fu and Wu Jian Quan are very similar and follow the same sequence. It is common knowledge that the more overt martial aspects of the forms were removed and modified for public teaching. Both families shared the same knowledge and the similarity of the Yang Cheng Fu form and the Wu Jian Quan Form indicate that the predecessor form was the same. The Kuai Quan of the Wu lineage shares the same form sequence as both the modified Yang and Wu forms though its appearance is significantly different owing to its more martial emphasis in the same way that the old Yang forms passed on by Yang Shao Hou are similar but express different characteristics. Ma Yueh Liang has said that he had seen Yang Cheng Fu practicing the Kuai Quan form. Ma learned this form directly from Wu Jian Quan. It was, to my knowledge, never taught by Yang Cheng Fu though I have heard it said that some of Yang Cheng Fu’s disciples did practice a fast form though I have never seen it and do not know if such a form still exists. My understanding is that the older Yang Family forms were passed on primarily via Yang Shao Hou. Yang Shao Hou had few disciples since his teaching methods, like Yang Ban Hou were said to be more extreme and harsh.
Anybody who practices or who has seen the Wu Kuai Quan and is familiar with the Traditional Yang Style will immediately recognise their similarity though their linking and expression is quite different. It is also overtly martial and contains high and jumping kicks, stamping, changes in speed and explosive power. They are the very characteristics that Wu and Yang are said to have removed from the original form so that it could be taught publicly with an emphasis on the civil rather than the martial. The manner then of the Kuai Quan indicates that it came from a much older source. That it was the precursor to the Slow Form. That it also shares some of the Chen family characteristics makes alot of sense considering the source of Yang Lu Chan’s martial knowledge.
The Kuai Quan along with the Yang family fighting forms and methods would have remained hidden or obscure being passed on to very few individuals. The Kuai Quan has only been disclosed relatively recently, although I am told by my Shanghai sources that Wu Jian Quan first introduced it to the public in 1936 in Beijing (I have not as yet seen the book that this is purported to come from). In 1987 a book on the Fast Form was published in China written by Ma Yueh Liang, Wu Ying Hua and their disciple and adopted daughter Shi Mei Lin. It showed many line drawings of the form and set out the principles of practice. However, it did not identify its origination. I believe there may have been an earlier edition published in 1982. Around this time there was a swing in government policy towards the preservation and promotion of the Traditional martial arts of China and it was shortly after that the Jian Quan Taiji Boxing Association in Shanghai under the leadership of Wu Ying Hua and Ma Yueh Liang disclosed the Kuai Quan. To my knowledge Shi Mei Lin demonstrated it publicly as early as 1983 as did my teacher Master Li Li Qun who became the Secretary of the Association for many years. In 1991 it was demonstrated at Yong Nian in front of a panel of masters such as Fu Zhong Wen and several Yang family representative including Yang Zhen Duo as well as Chen Village representatives and was accepted as part of the Wu/Yang tradition. It has also been shown on China television and Master Li has written about it in magazines and more recently a book which has as yet not been translated. I think it is safe to say that amongst the officianados in China and family style leaders the Kuai Quan is considerd to be authentic and probably one of the precursors to the Wu and Yang slow forms. It perfectly reflects their martial origin as well as being the natural link to the original root forms of the Yang family passed down from Yang Lu Chan. Even so, its provenance is still disputed, not least within the ‘Wu Family’ Taiji system which has grown out of the teachings of Wu Gong Yi ( son of Wu Jian Quan who moved to Hong Kong in 1948 to establish teaching centres). The “Wu Family” Taiji system as taught outside of China appears distinctly different from the Wu family transmission in Shanghai even though the hand forms follow the same sequence. I believe they place the origin of the Kuai Quan with Master Ma even though Master Ma has stated clearly that it came from Wu Jian Quan. There is no easy explanation here so I will leave this thorny issue to future historians.
I personally doubt if there will ever be any definitive proof as to its origins and now that Ma and Wu have passed away we only have their disciples and family to consult. Perhaps it does not really matter but for those who believe in the integrity of Master Ma and Wu Jian Quan”s daughter, Wu Ying Hua, the origination of the Kuai Quan should be undisputed.
A brief comparison with the current traditional Wu Style Slow form as taught in Shanghai will clarify the essential differences and similarities.
The Kuai Quan combines and expresses the hard (Gan) and Soft (Rou) movements and energies. This both expresses the laws of changeability as expressed in the theory of Yang and Yin and comprises the Taiji arsenal and martial strategies as well as the theoretical and philosophical foundation.
The Kuai Quan combines slow and fast changes whereas the Big Slow Form is practiced at a slow and continuous speed. It is possible to practice the slow form at speed and even exhibit martial jin as in the Chen forms but this still leaves out some of the more complex martial vocabulary that is included in the Kuai Quan.
The Kuai Quan still retains jumping, stamping, explosive striking and high kicks as well as postural changes from high to low whereas the slow form is generally taught with the head kept at a constant height and with no jumps, stamps or high or explosive kicking or striking (Fa Jin). Finally, the Kuai Quan alternates and combines a big frame and small frame movements whilst the Traditional Wu Style at least is primarilly only a medium to small frame form.
There are additional differences which to me are also important. The Kuai Quan has very accelerated turns, long and deep rapid skip step advancing and rapid changes in the stepping strategy; non of which appear in the slow form. There is an equal emphasis on striking as well as throws and uprooting techniques. The postures are slightly more stretched and generally lower. The sequence of the Kuai Quan and Slow Form are the same but the Kuai Quan has additional movements, most notable 4 variations on Brush Knee and Twist Step and additional and more complex variations of Cloud Hands, Tiger and Leopard Leap to the Mountain and several other much more martial variations. However, there are also a striking similarites in some of the movements, notably on of the Brush Knees, Single Whip and Turn and Chop with Yang Chen Fu’s form which indicates the close and mutual Yang/Wu link. All of the above martial characteristics that are built into the Kuai Quan and which are not in the Slow Form would need to be studied and trained separately if the slow form or indeed Tui Shou are the main training vehicle in developing a boxing vocabulary and fighting skill.
Master Ma Yueh Liang, disciple of Wu Jian Quan and inheritor, along with Wu Jian Quan’s daughter Wu Ying Hua of Wu Jian Quan’s teachings in Shanghai spoke of a 5 character maxim for the practice of both the Long Slow Form and the Kuai Quan. They are Stillness (Jing), Lightness (Qing),Slowness (Man), Exactness (Que Qie) and Perseverence (Heng) and for most practitioners their meaning will be understood at least to some degree. However with the fast and more dynamic forms, especially the Kuai Quan, the category of Slowness is replaced by Agility (Ling).
The achievement of Agility means to understand stillness within movement. retain central equilibrium (Zhong Ding) at all times and also understand the transitions and changes where the body must change stepping or direction. It also means to balance and distinguish the hard martial energy (Ganjin) of attack with the soft energy (Roujin) of defence and to retain the continuous fluidity within the stretching out and pulling/drawing in.
Finally blending the fast and slow, beginning and finishing and how both are mutually dependent and harmonised gives the form a particular characteristic not seen in external forms.
The Fast Form combines both circular, corkscrew and spiralling shapes . Its characteristic movements and shapes give a strong feeling and appearance of the body’s rotational force rarther like a centrifuge, where force is generated by rotation at the centre and expressed at the outer edge of your frame. There is also the opposite effect where there is a spiralling and pulling inwards towards the centre.These are key martial strategy in the Kuai Quan. Striking and kicking however are direct and may resemble more conventional external systems though the manner of training and generating power as well as the ability to hide it in softness during the defensive phase is special to the internal methods.
In all cases martial power (jin) is stored in the spine and supported by the qi of the whole frame and internal structure and directed by intention. The explosive force of Taiji emerges rapidly and on demand from the supple structure of the trained body; Yang emerging from Yin. The directed force flows easily through the bodies architecture along lines of least resistance trained through form and various other methods.. It can be likened to energy generated by a whip and moving like a wave to the end point or like the power of water, both penetrating and crushing. Central equilibrium and natural comfort in the postures and transitions are critical to successfully achieving the qualities required in the form especially the Fa Jin. Regulating the breath is also one of the major challenges of the Fast form since inhalation and exhalation must be comfortable and yet be able to both sustain and power the changes in speed, stretching, jumping, stamping and explosive kicks and strikes. If you end up thoroughly breatheless then you are doing something wrong. Between start to finish the breathing should remain even and calm as well as deep and sustaining. It is one of the great test of the more demanding internal routines.
I first studied the Kuai Quan under my master Li Liqun ( a fourth generation Wu master and a senior disciple of Master Ma Yueh Liang) in 1992 in Shanghai. For me, the Kuai Quan was the missing link filling in many gaps about Taijiquan. It forced me to address everything I thought I knew about Taiji and it totally changed my understanding of the Slow Form and the martial strategies. In addition it demanded a higher level of physical and mental integration than was necessary in the Slow Form. It also opened a window onto the old roots of Taiji quan and offered a comparison and a credible explanation for the evolution of the Slow Form. The Kuai Quan is a difficult and demanding form and as such it remains, at least in the Shanghai Wu Style the last form to learn, studied only by the most dedicated of students. It is the Jewel in the Crown of Wu Jian Quan’s legacy.
Author: Michael W. Acton
Michael Acton has published a book Eternal Spring – Taijiquan, Qi Gong and the Cultivation of Health, Happiness and Longevity is published by Jessica Kingsley Publisher and is available on their Singing Dragon Imprint.)
Images: Michael W. Acton and Taiji-Europa