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Character “tong” means “through”, character “bei” means “back”, character “quan” means “fist”. Hence the name of the style can be translated as “fist of spreading power from the back”. There exist another styles, which names are spelled as “tongbei”, but are written with another “bei” character (“preparing”, “arm” etc). Many books about chinese martial arts confuse those styles whith each other. Also there exists “hongdong tongbeiquan”, which is local version of taijiquan and, therefore, is different style.

Tongbeiquan (literally “Spreading Power from the Back Boxing” as “tong” means “through,” “bei” means “back” and “quan” means “fist.” Tongbeiquan is one of the schools popular in northern China.

Tongbeiquan’s basic precepts are Daoist in nature and many of the training methods in Tongbeiquan are similar to those of the internal styles. In traditional Tongbeiquan training, several parts are included; they are basic training (Stance, arm techniques, leg techniques and conditioning), combinations, forms training, two person free sparring, weapons training, and qigong training.

Originally, Tongbei may not have referred to a school of boxing but to a way of exercise. When the exercises are done, power is generated from the back to pass through the shoulders and then reach the arms.

In this way, heavy blows can be delivered at the arm’s length to control the opponent. Tongbeiquan emphasizes the combination of inner core and outward application.

Tongbeiquan Training

Legend says that this style was created during “Fighting Kingdoms” period (VI-III centuries B.C.). According to the legend, there lived a man named Yuan Gong. Once he challenged another master, but lost, was transformed to the white monkey and flew to the forest. By this reason he received nickname “Baiyuan laoren” (“Old man – white monkey”). It is the reason why this style is called baiyuan tongbeiquan.  According to another legend, this style was created by daoist Chen Tuan (?-989), who lived during Song dynasty.

Modern history of tongbeiquan usually starts from Qi Xian, habitant of Zhejiang province. In the beginning of XIX century he studied from daoist Lu Yunqing. His som Qi Taichang moved to Beijing, reformed the teaching of his father and created a new version of the style. Hence there exist “laoqipai” (“version of old Qi”) and “laoqipai” (“version of young Qi”). Another Lu Yunqing’s student was Shi Husheng. He also created his own version of tongbeiquan.

Qi Taichang’s version is based on continuous using of the five kinds of palm strikes. Each kind of strike is correlated with one of the five pra-elements (earth, metall, water, tree, fire), hence “version of the young Qi” also is often called as wuxing tongbeiquan (“tongbeiquan of five pra-elements”).

There are exist six basic sets: “Dapeng zhangyi” (“Big eagle spreads its wings”), “Qixing huaji” (“Changing of forms and transformations of strikes”), “Yuanhou chudong” (“Monkey go out from the cave”), “Yuanhou rudog” (“Monkey come in the cave”), “Yizi lianjipao” (“Continuous cannon strikes of “one” character”), “Shier lianzhupao” (“12 continuous cannon strikes”). This style doesn’t use single strikes, all strikes usually are linked together in sequences. There are exist “three deadly palms”: “palm of entangling the soul”, “palm of hunting the soul” and “palm of chopping the soul”.

Basic training in Qi version is based on 108 single methods, sometimes called “chai quan” (“divided fists”). Basic training in Shi version is based on 24 forms, sometimes called “lian quan” (“linked fists”). Version of Qi family is widespreaded and has many additional sets; version of Shi family is not so well-known, hence sometimes this version is called “hei quan” (“black fist”).

Application of the Five Elements to Tongbeiquan Theory: Wuxing Tongbeiquan takes the five elements as its core and back-through as its application. Back-through Boxing takes the five elements of traditional Chinese philosophy as its basic theory. This philosophy believes that heaven is an ecosystem while the human being is a small one but the principles of the systems remains constant regardless of the size.

The five elements of the heaven are metal, wood, water, fire and earth while those of the human being the heart, liver, spleen, lung and kidney. The five elements of Boxing are wrestling, batting, piercing, axing and boring. The Chinese boxing philosophy believes that everything in the world finds its roots in the five elements while all Boxing schools are also based on its five elements. The following table demonstrates the interrelations among the five elements of the heaven and those of the human being and boxing:

Human Organ Element Action Feeling Natural Occurrence
Lung Metal Flicking Exploding Lightning
Liver Wood Batting Pushing Fog
Kidney Water Piercing Hammering Star
Heart Fire Chopping Hitting Thunderbolt
Spleen <Earth Drilling Tossing Arrow

Names and Subsets: Due to its long history, Tongbeiquan has various names and sub-sets in different places. Baiyuan Tongbeiquan has two subsets Shi and Qi style. From Qi style Baiyuan Tongbeiquan there are also a number of subsets such as, “Wu Xing” (5 Elements) Tongbeiquan and 5 Monkey Tongbeiquan. While there are different names and styles of Baiyuan Tongbeiquan all of the fore-mentioned styles are based on the same boxing theory and have the similar origins. There are also Shaolin Tongbeiquan, Pigua Tongbeiquan, and others that differ from Baiyuan Tongbeiquan in methods and principles, but bear similar names.

Tongbeiquan Lamsaywing

There are other styles, which names are also pronounced “Tongbeiquan,” but are written with another “bei” or “bi” characters (“preparing,” “arm” etc). Many books about Chinese martial arts confuse those styles with each other. Also there is another style called “Hong Dong Tongbeiquan,” which is a local version of Taijiquan and, therefore, is a different style.

According to the Boxing Chronicles by Xu Jianchi (1931), Qi Xin of Zhejiang went to teach the back-through Boxing at Gu’an in Hebei Province in the middle and latter half of the Qing Dynasty. His style was then called Qi-style Boxing which was later named as Tongbei or Back-through Boxing. Qi’s son, Qi Taichang improved and developed the Boxing techniques. People then divided Tongbeiquan into an old style (represented by father) and a young one (represented by son).

The old style emphasizes simplicity and power whereas the new style concentrates on exquisiteness and suppleness. Many masters emerged in this school later. Tongbei Quan now in practice is generally divided into two styles. One has been passed down from Qi Xin, the father and the other from Qi Taichang, the son. Xiu Jianchi, a successor to the new style, combined the best elements of his predecessors and left his theoretical summaries on stances, methods and philosophy of the Boxing to his followers, Xiu’s writings are vital materials for the study and research of Tongbeiquan. Another of Lu Yunqing’s students was Shi Hongsheng who also created his own Shi style Tongbeiquan.

From 1910s, some Qi style masters started to teach Tongbeiquan to the public. Subsequently, Qi style became much more popular than the Shi style. Today the vast majority of Tongbeiquan practitioners are in Qi style or its branches. But even when they taught in public, the masters still withheld some skills. Most masters only taught high level skills to some disciples in their private classes. As Qi style became somewhat more popular, a few forms were created for teaching purposes. Compared to Qi style, Shi style group still kept the old way. So people sometimes called the Shi style Hei Quan (Black Fist), and their style is sometimes considered heterodox.

Old Qi Style:

  • Qi Xin’s Lao Qi Pai basic training is based on 108 single methods, sometimes called Chai Quan (“Divided Fists”).
  • Qi Taichang’s Shao Qi Pai variant is based on continuous using of the 5 kinds of palm strikes. Each kind of strike is correlated with one of the 5 elements (earth, metal, water, wood and fire), hence Shao Qi Pai is also called Wu Xing Tongbeiquan (“5 Elements Tongbeiquan”).

There are 6 basic sets of Shao Qi Pai Tongbeiquan.

  • Da Peng Zhang Yi (Great bird spreads its wings)
  • Qi Xing Hua Ji (Changing of forms and transformations of strikes)
  • Yi Zi Lian Ji Pao(“Continuous cannon strikes of one word”)
  • Shi Er Lian Zhu Pao (“12 continuous cannon strikes”). This style does not use single strikes, all strikes are linked together in sequences.

There are more advanced forms in Shao Qi Pai Tongbeiquan such as “3 Deadly Palms”: “Palm of Entangling the Soul,” “Palm of Hunting the Soul” and “Palm of Chopping the Soul.”

Shi Style:

Basic training in Shi version is based on 24 forms, sometimes called “Lian Quan” (“linked fists”). Since the two Qi styles of Tongbeiquan are so widespread and has many more forms; version of Shi family is not as well-known, it is considered a heterodox style and sometimes is called “heiquan” (“black fist”). There are 5 basic sets of Shi Baiyuan Tongbeiquan:

  • Six Prime Skills
  • Eight Older Fists
  • Twelve Linking Fists
  • Twenty Four Posture Form
  • Thirty Six Take Apart Fist

Secrecy: Baiyuan Tongbeiquan masters followed the orthodox Chinese martial art model of keeping their teachings very secretive. Even other traditional wushu stylists often criticize this group as too conservative. Tongbeiquan instructors usually do not teach in public. Because of this conservatism, it is very difficult to join the group to study this skill. Tongbeiquan teachers would teach only behind closed doors.

Even though disciples studied for a long time, their masters would still not show them really high level skills. The masters always felt that the high level skills should only be passed to morally upstanding people who must have a good personality and morals, smart enough to grasp the principles, as well as be diligent in practice. So all this prevented Tongbeiquan from growing in popularity and has sent Tongbeiquan practice on a steep decline relative to other Northern Chinese wushu styles like Shaolin or Taijiquan The result of this lack of open teaching is seen in the rarity of the style. The traditional master either passed away or went in to obscurity without passing on much of their knowledge. Traditional Tongbeiquan masters even in the style’s traditional homelands like Shandong and Hebei provinces are hard to come by and finding one willing to teach anyone is harder still.

Tongbei is present in contemporary wushu as well and is practiced by the contemporary wushu athletes coming out of the Chinese sports universities (referred to in some wushu circles and the University faction Xue Yuan Pai as opposed to the traditionalists who study the routines in school and learn with performance being the key feature). In the 1970s Tongbeiquan was added by the Chinese Wushu Association as an open routine for wushu taolu forms competition. In the 80’s it was formally classfied as a Class II Other Open Hand event which mean it is in the Northern category of traditional empty hand forms along with Fanziquan, Piguaquan and occasionally Chuojiao. However, this contemporary wushu interpretation of Tongbei bears little resemblence to the traditional style.

Today, the style is kept alive through the efforts of traditional practitioners throughout northern China, particularly in Beijing. There are also schools scattered throughout the United States and other parts of the world keeping the traditional methods and teachings alive.