Exploring Luihebafa: The Five Characters Secret

Liuhebafa, translated as “six harmonies and eight methods,” is a traditional Chinese martial art known for the diversity of movements, softness and internal strength. “Your intent moves like a fearsome tiger,” we read in The Five Characters Secret, a classical text on liuhebafa. “Your qi [vital internal energy] moves calmly like a gentle young lady.”[i]

Liuhebafa is also called Water Boxing or Water Style -- and not only because of its flowing movements. It is said that the way in which people practice liuhebafa can be compared to the three states of water. When they meet force with force (liuhebafa is not always soft and fluid), they become hard as ice. When they flow with the opponent’s force, they are like a powerful river. When they avoid force altogether, they move like a cloud. The greater a person’s skill, the closer he or she is to the state of cloud.[ii]

In its reliance on qi, liuhebafa is similar to taiji (the art that I am most familiar with). Both were created during the late Ming dynasty (the 16th-17th centuries). Both were originally kept secret. However, while taiji has evolved into one of the most popular martial arts, liuhebafa has retained an aura of mystery. In the first half of the 20th century, master Wu Yihui started teaching it in public, but on a limited scale. And even in our days, much of liuhebafa is taught to the indoor students only.[iii]

Despite these restrictions, there has been recently an increased flow of information on liuhebafa, even though this information looks rather scant as compared to the avalanche of writings on taiji. It is my hope that this article, focused on the annotated translation of The Five Characters Secret by Paul Dillon,[iv] will shed additional light on the nature of this rare and powerful martial art. Part one will discuss the six internal harmonies lying at the heart of liuhebafa. Part two will examine some training methods, foot stances, and hand movements.

Part 1 – Six Internal Harmonies

It is generally believed that The Five Characters Secret was written in the 16th century by Daoist Li Dongfeng who based it on a much older manuscript attributed to Chen Tuan. It is said that Li Dongfeng found Chen’s manuscript in a mountain cave, during one of his travels. After having carefully studied this treatise, Li Dongfeng composed his own text. Its opening stanza contains five characters: mind (xin), intent (yi), root (ben), without (wu), method (fa). This may be read as “mind/intent is the root of no method” or, as Paul Dillon suggests, “mind/intent is the basis of methodlessness.”[v] A possible explanation of this apparently enigmatic statement can be found in Li Dongfeng’s stanzas on the internal harmonies, or combinations.

Mind, Intent, Qi

The first three harmonies involve Daoist concepts of xin (mind), yi (intent), and qi (vital internal energy). Body harmonizes with mind --- writes Li Dongfeng -- the mind harmonizes with intent, and the intent combines with qi.[vi]

This should sound familiar to most taiji practitioners. The same concepts are used in The Taijiquan Classics and other foundational taiji writings.[vii] The word “mind” in this context is generally used with reference to all our thoughts and emotions, while “intent” refers to the trained, attentive, and purposeful aspect of mind. As for qi, as already mentioned, it is defined as vital internal energy. People inherit it from their parents and absorb it from their surroundings. It is believed that the ability to sense and direct qi is what distinguishes the internal martial arts, such as taiji or liuhebafa, from the external ones, for example, karate or judo.

Qi and Spirit

So far, the philosophical underpinnings of liuhebafa and taiji seem to have been rather similar. But then something interesting happens. Instead of connecting qi to physical movement (the way it is usually done in taiji), Li Dongfeng introduces another Daoist notion, spirit (shen). Qi, according to his fourth and fifths harmonies, should be first transformed into spirit so that it would be spirit, not qi, that informs our physical movements. Why? What has spirit to do with it? As it turns out, a lot.

In the Chinese qigong tradition, spirit (shen) is described as an overarching force that governs body and mind.[viii] A better English translation would be probably “consciousness” or, in the context of Daoist philosophy, a “spiritual consciousness.” Indeed, not only does spirit inform people’s thoughts and actions but, with proper training, it can bring these into harmony with the surrounding forces, the forces of universe.

The transformation of qi into spirit occurs in the middle dantian, and especially in the lower portion of it, around the solar plexus. This area is known as the “yellow court” (huanting). In the medical qigong tradition, it is often seen as a microcosmic replica of the universe, with the yang and yin polarities emerging from and returning to it.[ix] Because of this, the middle dantian is deemed to be extremely important in liuhebafa. “By placing your attention on the solar plexus… and consciously stretching and contracting the diaphragm -- writes Dillon -- you enhance your ability to effectively issue force through any part of your body.”[x] It should be added, of course, that the middle dantian training should start only after an extensive period of work with the lower dantian.

Emptiness as Natural State

The sixth and last harmony is “movement combines with emptiness.”[xi] Hmm… Emptiness? Emptiness is a central concept in Mahayana Buddhism represented in East Asia by mostly the Chan/Zen school. It conveys the idea of an absence of separate identities and a fundamental interdependence of all things.

The appearance of a Buddhist concept in Li Dongfeng’s treatise should not come as a surprise. While in Europe the Catholics and Protestants were at each other’s throats, in China the Daoists and Buddhists were engaged in a productive intellectual exchange. In effect, during the Ming dynasty (the time when Li Dongfeng was working on his Five Characters Secret) the imperial government proclaimed the unity of China’s three main religious-philosophical systems: Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism.[xii] A result was that in China the originally Indian concept of emptiness became often associated with the Daoist notion of natural state, a state in which people are one with their environment. It is probably this unity with the environment that Li Dongfeng had in mind when he was writing about “no method,” or “methodlessness.” If one truly knows emptiness or natural state -- he seems to say -- one does not need to use any artificial devices. He or she will move effortlessly and effectively, in tandem with the natural forces. This, no doubt, is a tall order for any practitioner. But, mercifully, Li Dongfeng also offers some more practical, down-to-earth advice on the liuhebafa training.

Part 2 - Eight Methods and Foot/Hand Positions

The second half of the word liuhebafa means “eight methods.” Li Dongfeng’s treatise mentions eight internal and eight external methods, sixteen altogether. Some of them look similar to those used in taiji. Lifting the top of the head, for example, sinking qi into the bones, differentiating between the empty and the full, following and sticking to the opponent – all these points can be found in both taiji and liuhebafa texts. But, as we shall see, there are also subtle differences and variations.

Opening and Closing

One of the most important methods in liuhebafa is that of opening and closing. It creates something like a pulsation, with the solar plexus as the focal point. The opening is accompanied by a release of power from the middle dantian. The closing is associated with a collection of qi in the lower dantian and its subsequent rise to the middle dantian. Mastering the opening and closing from the middle dantian requires a lot of training. Indeed, liuhebafa practitioners are advised to practice them first in a standing posture, and only after a certain period of time proceed to the more advanced practice of issuing power in movement.

As in taiji, the collection of qi in liuhebafa seems to be associated with the circular or curved motions. By contrast, the release of power takes place on the straight line. In fact, both The Taijiquan Classics and The Five Characters Secret use the same image -- a bow and an arrow -- to illustrate this point. “Just as strength is stored in the curve of a bow -- read Li Dongfeng’s 33rd and 34th stanzas – so do you store strength in the curves of your body. Issue your strength like an arrow, direct and straight.”[xiii]

Rising and Falling

A related method is rising and the falling. It refers to a type of breathing, but it may also apply to the level of stances. In liuhebafa, the level of stances (low, medium, high) changes more frequently than what we usually find in taiji. The result is a continuous rolling motion, reminiscent of that of a dragon. “Like water -- writes Dillon -- you can rise up to the heights or seek the lower places…. Like dragon, you can undulate up or down or turn back powerfully upon yourself.” [xiv]

An example in Helen Liang’s liuhebafa form would be a movement called Blue Dragon Stretches Its Claws. It involves first falling into a low crouching posture and then rising up high. This movement is followed by another one, called Lotus Seat of Nine Levels. It includes a series of low stances (at nine different levels if we are to believe the name) leading to a medium-level strike.[xv]

Holding Back and Concealing the Intentions

Not only does the level of stances in liuhebafa change all the time, but the pace, or speed, changes a lot too. Like some taiji forms, liuhebafa can be performed either slow or fast. Moreover, the movement can be interrupted by prolonged moments of stillness. It is plausible that these moments of stillness have to do with another liuhebafa method, the method of holding back.

Holding back (staying still) has various useful functions. It allows one, for example, to properly assess the situation and gather internal energy before throwing oneself into action. “When he rushes to attack, I am quiet and calmly wait,” reads Li Dongfeng’s 29th stanza. It may also help one conceal his or her intentions. Indeed, concealment (also used in taiji pushing hands) is cited by Li Dongfeng as still another, related method.[xvi] Interestingly, Helen Liang’s liuhebafa form has a movement called Feign Attack to the West, Attack to the East. [xvii] In this case, one first distracts the opponent by ostensibly getting ready for a right-hand strike in one direction, but then abruptly changes the technique and strikes with the left hand in the opposite direction.

The 40-60 Stance and Elemental Fists

Indeed, changing again and again the direction of action is characteristic of liuhebafa. These changes are facilitated by the so-called 40-60 stance, not often used in taiji forms, but amply taken advantage of in the taiji pushing hands. As the name suggests, only 40 percent of the weight in this case is on the front leg, while the remaining 60 is on the back foot (stanza 59 in Li Dongfeng’s text). This stance has a considerable tactical advantage. It gives one a strong root in the back leg, while freeing the front foot and the arms for action. In fact, Yang Jwing-Ming describes the 40-60 stance as one of the most versatile stances in martial arts.[xviii]

As for the hand movements, liuhebafa permits grappling (qinna) which is usually frowned upon in taiji. There is also training in the elemental fists, or hand motions. One of the most typical seems to be the motion known as splitting. The hands in this case move in circles on one of the three planes: transverse (horizontal), coronal (vertical, separating front from back) or sagittal (also vertical, but separating left from right). [xix]

These circling motions, as suggested earlier, help one collecting qi. The subsequent discharge of power requires a different technique, for example, the crushing fist. This technique involves a simultaneous forward and backward movement, such as in Helen Liang’s “Close the Gate and Push the Moon.[xx] Its efficacy may be explained with reference to one of Newton’s most oft-cited laws: “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction,” something that many taiji players may have experienced in their own practice.

By Way of Conclusion

Taiji and liuhebafa have much in common, but each also has its own characteristics. In liuhebafa, the opening and closing from the middle dantian, a quick succession of low and high postures, the slow or fast pace of movements in combination with moments of stillness, concealing intentions, changing directions, and using the 40-60 stance are probably some of the most typical visible features. It is worth keeping in mind, though, that some of these features can be found – perhaps less often and in a different interpretation—in some older taiji styles, such as Chen or Old Yang. Indeed, it is safe to say that learning liuhebafa gives one a better understanding of taijiquan.

But what about Li Dongfeng’s secret of methodlessness? Here, I would like to quote the 13th-century Zen Master Dogen. He writes about the “undivided” activity of birth (life), a notion that seems to be akin to the concept of natural state. As a metaphor, he uses the image of riding a boat, one of those small boats used in medieval Japan. “You raise the sail and row with the oar … At such a moment, there is nothing but the world of the boat … Your body and mind and the environs together are all the undivided activity of the boat. The entire earth and the entire sky are both the undivided activity of the boat.” At moments like this, he says, riding a boat is nothing but you, and you are nothing but riding.[xxi] It goes, of course, without saying that, for a pleasant trip, one should know how to use the sail and the ore.

_ _ _

[i] Paul Dillon, Liuhebafa: Five Character Secret: Chinese Classics, Translations, Commentary. YMAA, 2003.

[ii] Paul Roberts, “An Introduction to Liuhebafaquan,” Journal of Chinese Martial Studies, Winter 2011, p.47.

[iii] One of them is, now a grandmaster, Mok Kei Fai, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=amW7hi-m7IU&t=5s. At some point he was a disciple of Chen Yiren who, in turn, had been student of Wu Yihui (Roberts, Op.Cit, p.44). See also master Helen Liang’s performance at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eulhiYEegus. Helen Liang is the eldest daughter of grandmaster Shou Yu Liang.

[iv] Dillon, Op.Cit.

[v] Dillon, p.15.

[vi] Dillon, pp.30-31.

[vii] Barbara Davis, The Taijiquan Classics, Blue Snake Book, 2004; Yang Jwing-Ming, Tai Chi Secrets of the Yang Style, YMAA, 2001.

[viii] See, for example, Eric Brand, “On the Concept of Shen (Spirit) in Chinese Medicine,” https://www.goldenneedleonline.com/library/2010/10/07/on-the-concept-of-shen-spirit-in-chinese-medicine/

[ix] Jerry Alan Johnson, “Dantians,” http://www.ichikung.com/html/dantians.php. See also Jerry Alan Johnson, Chinese Medical Qigong Therapy, Vol. 1: Energetic Anatomy and Physiology, https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/2023160.Chinese_Medical_Qigong_Therapy_Volume_1

[x] Dillon, p.71.

[xi] Dillon, p.31.

[xii] Timothy Brook, “Rethinking Syncretism: The Unity of the Three Teachings and Their Joint Worship in China” Journal of Chinese Religions, 1993, 21:2, http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1179/073776993805307448

[xiii] Dillon, p.58.

[xiv] Dillon, p.114.

[xv] Helen Liang, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eulhiYEegus. Yun Yinsen calls these movements Green Dragon Stretches Out Its Claws and Turn the Dan (Elixir Pill) Nine Times, https://www.susanamatthews.com/GeorgeXu/MasterYun_broch_F_otl.pdf

[xvi] Dillon, p. 40.

[xvii] Helen Liang, Op.Cit. Yin Yinsen calls this movement Feint East, Strike West, Yun Yinsen, Op. Cit.

[xviii] Yang, JwingMing, Taiji Sword: Classical Yang Style,YMAA, 1999, p.24.

[xix] Nomura Akihito, “Liuhebafa Chuan – The 4th Internal Art,” https://www.scribd.com/document/77570583/Liuhebafa-Chuan-The-4th-Internal-Art-English-Version.

[xx] Helen Liang, Op.Cit.

[xxi] Moon in a Dewdrop: Writings of Zen Master Dogen, edited by Kazuaki Tanahashi, North Point Press, 1985, p.85.

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