Strider Clark
Tongbei Quan and I

Strider:  I want to see the rest of the world receive the benefits I have from Tongbei.  I want people to see the beauty and power of this art and gain the health and happiness it has brought me.  I want to pass on the rich tradition of the Chinese martial arts and culture for future generations to enjoy.  I also want to see people balance their mental, physical and spiritual selves through Tongbei.

Chris:  When did you start to study Tongbei Quan?

Strider:  I came to know and love this art at the age of 17 when I met Master Zhang Yun.  Zhang is a highly skilled master in the Yin Cheng Gong Fa system that has several different styles of Chinese gong fu.  When I met Master Zhang, he showed me many different styles, namely Taiji, Bagua and Xingyi.  At such a young age, I really wanted to know skills for the application of real fighting.  I was truly amazed at the power and devastating skills of Taiji and other internal arts.  I found that these skills were far beyond my level and would take years to develop even a basic understanding of them.  I think looking back, Master Zhang knew what I was thinking and demonstrated some Tongbei for me.  I was awe-stricken with the speed and power of the techniques.  Master Zhang explained that Tongbei would be a very effective system to learn for defense right now as well as being a bridge to the more difficult internal styles.  His frequent quote was, "Tongbei is for help you now, Taiji is for your future."  Little did I know at the time, but Tongbei was more than just any style.
Interview by Chris Young
Chris:  What exactly is Tongbei Quan?

Strider:  It is a complete system of striking, kicking, throwing, pressure points, iron palm and iron body, weapons and qigong.  It is one of the oldest martial arts in all of China.  There are references to a Tongbei style going back to the Song Dynasty over 1,000 years ago.  Several Texts mention the first emperor, Zhao Kuangyin, in battle to defeat the famous general Han Tong who used Tongbei.  The history of the art is extensive and we could save that topic for another time.  The art itself is very special in the way that it generates power and executes its techniques.  It is difficult to talk about how it is different because really, one must feel the difference.  "Tong" means connected or unobstructed, clear or to pass through, "Bei" means arm or back.  Basically the idea of Tongbei is to make the back and the arms move as one.  The qi and force flows through the arms and back as one unit.  This doesn't sound impressive or difficult on paper, but in person it is amazing, almost

Chris:  You have mentioned there are different branches in Tongbei?

Strider:  Yes, there are several branches of Tongbei in China.  The most famous branches are Qi style and Shi style.  Our group practices Shi style Baiyuan and Ruyi style Tongbei Quan.  In my Gong Fu family many learn Baiyuan Tongbei.  My uncles Zhao Zeren and Lu Shengli and Gu Yun have practiced Baiyuan Tongbei for over 30 years.  Each one of them possesses amazing fighting skills.  There are several other branches as well that are listed and discussed more on our website.
Chris:  You have trained in many styles from a very young age, why do you love Tongbei so much?

Strider:  The style is so efficient, effective and a complete well rounded system.  The movements are done slapping the arms and parts of the body to help strengthen them as weapons.  It is like a built-in forging method that teaches power and relaxation and increases the body's ability to become a more devastating weapon. I also like the fact that it teaches power through relaxation making
Chris:  Is Tongbei something that everybody can do?

Strider: Tongbei is considered a hard style.  Normally it could be said that it requires a strong foundation in good physical conditioning and requires stamina and flexibility.  I do believe that like most martial arts, it has something for everybody.  It just depends on what you want to achieve in your training.  Is it for health, self defense, fighting, spiritual growth, or is it all of those?  Each person will have different goals and different areas of interest.  I think it is up to the instructor and his talent to be able to bring the art to each individual on the level that he or she requires.  The only limitation of an art is the limitation found in the mind of its practitioner.   
International Baiyuan Tongbei Quan Association
Copyright(c)2003, Zhang Yun     All rights reserved.
Center Punch, the most famous Tongbei skill
resembling the surprising power from the internal arts.  One major thing we can say about Gong Fu, especially the internal styles is the ability to unify the body's force and move it all together.  We here from our master constantly about "the body being separated" or not using the "whole body force".  Tongbei truly does this and teaches this idea very clearly and effectively.
Chris:  If Tongbei is so great, then why don't we hear much about it?

Strider:  Tongbei like other Chinese gong fu, suffers as well as benefits from the traditional culture.  There are a number of reasons we have never really heard of Tongbei Quan and why it is not practiced outside certain areas of China.  Tongbei like Gong fu in general is taught selectively and conservatively.  Historically if one wanted to learn Gong fu, your family or a family friend had to have a special connection or friendship with a master.  Then you had to be accepted as a student and study very hard for several years.  In that time you would be tested and closely observed by your master to see if you had what it took to go on to learn.  After this several year process, the master would determine if he liked your morals, personality and abilities and decide if he wanted you as a disciple.  It would be from this point that you would really start to learn the art and the deeper facets of the family secrets.  This is a very serious process involving a special ceremony and the approval of the other family members.  Once inducted into the family, it was just that, a family.  Your master is like your father and you treat him as such.  As well as all the other members like cousins, brothers, uncles, aunts and so on.  It is believed that the tie between your master and your brothers is greater than a blood relative.  This is because it is believed that you knew them in so many past lives and that the tie was so strong, you met in this life as well.  Not even death of the physical body could separate your tie to these people as they continue to share your advancement physically and spiritually in this world.  If you are familiar with the many stories of martial arts and heroes in Chinese culture, you can see how this impacted the deeds they did to save each other, to help one another, or to revenge ones death.

Please note that the system and customs I just described are not exclusive or necessarily the standard.  China is a very large and vast region.  There are many family customs and beliefs in place.  This makes the complexity and diversity of various styles and their methods hard to comprehend at times.  However, the conservative values and strict guidelines of passing knowledge is a common standard among most groups.

Understanding this process is vital in understanding in part what has happened to Chinese martial arts today.  This process I explained is largely in place today with many martial art families, including ours.  I went through the same process and the same ceremony as my forefathers did hundreds of years ago.  I was not considered to enter the Yin Cheng Gong Fa family for many years without
With my great-grandmaster Wang Pei Sheng and his wife in my indoor disciple ceremoney in Beijing, 1993
having to train extremely hard and prove my character to Master Zhang, his brothers and even Master Wang himself.  In a society today where black belts are sold and handed out after 3 years of training and kickbox aerobics classes are the most popular, you can begin to see some of the reasons for the decline in Gong Fu.

Another reason we do not know of arts like Tongbei is because it is a mainland art.  Many arts would be locked behind China's Communist curtain for 3 and 4 decades.  Not until China started to open its doors to the rest of the world, would we see the more obscure arts or even hear about them.  Probably the most significant factor in regards to the obscurity of Tongbei, was its own family customs.  The conservative nature of the Tongbei groups of the past up to the present is considered extreme even by the most traditional standards.  Very few masters would teach, and if they did it was only parts of the system.  Many students spent a lifetime learning and did not receive the whole system.  This was reserved for maybe one or two students if any at all.  Several famous masters did not take any students at all, never passing their skills to anybody.  In earlier times this protected the system and helped retain some of the more refined techniques that were characteristic of the style.  One can imagine the obvious implications of such conservative practices.  The groups became smaller and smaller and the number of individuals that were highly skilled and knew the whole system became fewer.  This has caused some smaller branches to become threatened with being lost forever.  Our group, the Shi Pai Baiyuan Tongbei group is one such group. 

That is why we are putting forth such an effort to save the style and let people know what a great system it is.  Even to this day, many masters will not even let historians question them or see family records.  The style and many of its branches still remain secretive and closed to only select disciples.  I must say that I do not discuss this secretiveness as a way of making our system sound exotic or special in some way.  While I do believe it is a great system, I feel this extreme stance of being so conservative must be opened up a bit if we want the art to survive.  I feel by sharing the art and teaching openly, you bring talent and tremendous contribution to the art.  This in turn only strengthens the art and its skills and allowing others to enjoy it at the same time.
With my Gongfu Uncle Zhao Zeren

My Gongfu Uncle Lu Shengli showed me a throwing skill
My Gongfu Uncle Gu Yun showed me an unroot and disrupt skill
My Shifu Zhang Yun showed me a heavy punching skill
the body like a mace or steel whip.  The philosophy in fighting is direct, brutal and very clever only using the fastest and most efficient movements to end the fight.  The system is set up in such a way that it makes understanding the principles easy and easy to apply.  This is how it has gained the reputation of being so useful so soon in one's course of training.

The style has 4 distinct areas of focus that are used in fighting.  The first is fast hand techniques, which are used to stun the opponent.  They are not usually hard or overly powerful blows, but rather used to gain control.  It should be noted that with iron palm fast hand techniques become very powerful and can cause almost as much damage as other techniques.  An example of a fast hand technique might be like a poke to the eye, or a slapping block to the pressure points in the punching arm.  Hard and Heavy blows are slower but have tremendous force behind them.  The movements may even be larger or take more time to execute.  The end result is total devastation of the target or death.  If death or the end of the fight is not the end result, then the technique cannot be called a Hard and Heavy technique.  Usually a Fast Hand technique is used to stun the opponent and then is followed by a Hard and Heavy technique.  An example of this would be "Planting Punch" to the abdomen or a specialized Tongbei palm over the heart.  The third area is Disruption and Displacement and probably one of the most remarkable characteristics of the style.  This is the ability to uproot the opponent or disrupt his Qi or Shen.  It the beginning stages this may be done once contact or the technique has begun.  In more advanced stages, it occurs much sooner, gaining control almost immediately.  This can be just through disrupting his Shen or his timing before contact is even made.  It definitely should be part of every technique as when the opponent is in this state, he cannot strike back.

The 4th area is controlling and throwing.  This area is relatively new to the style of Tongbei in regards to its long history.  Some styles of Tongbei, depending on the region they were from, were influenced by Chinese Wrestling.  So many devastating throws, trips and controlling moves were integrated into the system.  In the pure, traditional Tongbei idea, grabbing for too long or throwing is considered slow and not efficient enough.  However, the techniques that have been incorporated have strong Tongbei principals of speed and efficiency built into them.  This makes the techniques very useful, easier to apply and devastating all in the spirit of Tongbei.  Many techniques have Fast Hand and Hard and Heavy Hand techniques in their design, making them very formidable and easier to use.

The other areas include, iron palm, weapons and a complete system of qigong for health and longevity from the Taoist disciplines.  If you consider all of these facets along with Tongbei's history and artistic and ape-like movements, I would say you have a great thing going.  I really admire this style and all it has to offer.

Wild Cat Springs On A Rat
Chris:  What do you want to achieve with Tongbei?  What would you like to see happen with the art?