Hsing I ~ on the Form of the Mind

Hsing I, as an expression of Mandarin Chinese, does not readily translate into English, which is hardly surprising as, in my experience, neither is it readily understood by speakers of the language – at lease in a general sense. But perhaps its very shadow of meaning gives us a clue to its nature.

For first it is there, and present; then it is gone, and past. It is entirely direct, yet may take any direction. It may pre-empt, or abide: lighten or darken.

It is the deep, formless form of the essential mind.

Hsing I Ch’uan would appear therefore to be remote, intractable, not freely giving up of itself; yet this is not so. We can approach it, and we must, utilizing the practical patterns, Forms, and meditations so beloved of the Chinese martial artists. Foremost amongst these is a command and physical understanding of wu-hsing: the five elements, or activities – mutually arising, and being – mutually falling away, and departing.

And the key to wu-hsing, holding the combination to this five-piece lock, is to be discovered in the movement and still-standing of the san-ti posture.

Rise and drill, turn-over, and fall.

Of three in unity: san-ti, where ‘three’ makes firm the principles and art of Hsing I practice.

Earth Mind-Heart Heaven
Chicken leg Dragon body Bear shoulder
Balance Natural speed Power

The taking of the posture is prescribed, practised and repeated with smooth, internal deliberateness: rise and drill, turn-over, and split – where the moving apart of the hands resembles the tearing of silk tissue; the stepping to the line being sure-footed, full, and accurate; the body in settling finding dynamic, balanced asymmetry.

All is clear.

The meditation of san-ti develops natural strength, and is fully sensible of its inherent power. It is the body and mind rendered together in awareness, drawn with the keenness of a bow.

The form of the mind is traceless, matchless – unseen as night.

Born of san-ti, Hsing I makes its Forms from the five principle active elements: wu-hsing. These are archetypes and as such have an innate purity, even austerity. The patterns of the Forms, too, are imbued with this spirit of natural simplicity.

Differing from the Forms of Tai Chi, which proceed from stillness into eight directions, employing a silk-smooth slowness to develop awareness and skill; different also from the Forms of Pa Kua which progress from and through its Eight Changes to spiral with fluidity around a steady centre. Hsing I leaves these beautiful subtleties alone. Instead it assumes the perfect modesty of a walk – albeit at a pace – directly forward, from here to another ‘here’: an unswerving Line, or seam of practice. We may turn on the line, we may cross over it, we may retreat, rise or sink upon it; it is always present, has no convergence, no finity.

In this particular our study finds a twin in the Ch’an teaching of ‘one-pointedness’, in which no destination or nirvana is prefigured, but where the essential mind has entered into the Way; actions flowing from it with effortless power, effortless truth. In like manner Hsing I proceeds forward from the mind, directly.

Nothing is mapped. Line becomes landscape.

wu-hsing element & organ action
p’i ch’uan metal (lung) splitting fist
tsuan ch’uan water (kidney) drilling fist
peng ch’uan wood (liver) crushing fist
pao ch’uan fire (heart) cannon fist
heng ch’uan earth (spleen) crossing fist


For each element, generated from san-ti, skill of application will be rewarded in careful repetition. However, we should be wary of ‘slogging’ at the Forms in an attempt to develop speed and power. Speed, for example, found through these means may start out fast, but will arrive late, with power stymied, unable properly to release.

Likewise it is believed that right-minded training in the Hsing I will bring chi-health to the internal organs, whereas detriment to the body and spirit will surely follow carelessness.

So, take time. Take heed. It must be natural. In our practice there can be no restive hurry.

Let our practice be cleansing as rain – at dawn, at dusk.

Hsing I makes a demand upon us that is, in practice and application, substantially different from that of the traditional Yang family Tai Chi Ch’uan, and it may not at the start be easy to accommodate.

It is the principle of intuitive, pre-emptive, intercepting: splitting apart, necessarily striking to disable.

Above all else, Hsing I is an art of assertion.

So it is perhaps natural for those of us unused to the fighting arts to stumble at this threshold; in the modern world, in practical terms, we seldom have to defend our very lives. Yet this is a threshold we must cross, and cross spontaneously – tzu jan – if  we are to develop a proper martial skill.

Here is an approach – one of displacement – which may assist us as we deepen our study. Contemplate this: other than yours, whose life would you stand by, if you had to, and defend physically? You may at first find it less equivocating to bring forth a life-preserving right-mindedness – one that permits assertive action- where your most loved is at stake. In this way, developed through the meditation of training, a hesitant ego is removed, putting the heart and essential mind directly in touch with each other. And here is Hsing I: we pass through, leaving the threshold of ambivalence in shadow behind us. In the words of an ancient Ch’an expression of meditation:

Where the false mind stops, reality appears.