形意拳/Xingyiquan

It’s very common for beginners to be confused about the name “Xingyiquan,” these days. Unfortunately, it’s nearly as common to find intermediate students who have no awareness of its deeper implications, as well. The short, two character compound “形意/Xingyi” encompasses subtle & profound ideas about the relationship between Mind & Body. As a summation of the concepts behind the method, it is tight & well-knit, just like style itself.

The vast majority of transliteration attempts take a similar approach: each of the three characters is treated individually & given a literal, direct translation. “形/Xing – Shape, Form”; “意/Yi – Thought, Intent”; “拳/Quan – Fist, Boxing Style”. An accurate, if unhelpful, translation is the result with this approach. “Shape Thought Fist,” or “Form Intent Fist,” are the best choices here & neither is very satisfying. Many people stop-gap this problem of accuracy without clarity by inserting an “and” between the first two characters. “Form & Intent Fist,” or “Form & Intent Boxing,” usually result from this choice.

This way of parsing out the characters gives the impression that the style has two main areas of focus: the “Form/Body” & the “Intent/Mind.” This impression comes at the expense of the total unity that is the actual core of Xingyi. Even in the early stages, when the only practice is standing in San Ti Shi, a student works toward unifying their inner & outer aspects.

But if instead you look at it as a name made up of a two character compound & a single character, then it starts to make much more sense. This parsing makes two words, “形意/Xingyi,” & “拳/Quan,”; it has the additional benefit of reinforcing the unified nature of the name. Since we’re already well aware that the subject of this discussion is a system of boxing, we can forget the final character.

形者,形象也。意者,心意也。
What is “Xing?” It is the physical form. What is “Yi?” It is the Xin‘s intention.

It seems like simple equation at first glance. “Form,” + “Intent,” = what, exactly? The above quote, from a text titled 形意說/Xingyi Shuo – Xingyi Theory, clearly illustrates the set up, namely the two single characters that form the compound. There has never been any disagreement, to my knowledge, on either the meaning or interpretation of these two characters. “Everyone knows what they mean,” so no one seems inclined to think beyond those basic conceptions.

But when viewed in light of the large number of two character compounds for important concepts, it becomes much more likely that Xingyi is such a compound, not a simple “A + B” string of simple ideas. Instead of the awkward “Form & Intent,” parsing, we use something closer to “Formed Intent,” as the concept presented.

形者式也,式在外人得而見之,意者志之所在也,意非形,人莫得而見之

The “形/Xing – Shape,” is the physical form. The form is what other people are able to see. The “意/Yi – Intent,” is in the will. Yi is not Xing, for there is no one who can see it.

形意玄義/Xingyi Xuan Yi – The Profound Meaning of “Xingyi”, an essay by 李劍秋 – Li Jianqiu from his book 形意拳術/Xingyi Quanshu – The Art Of Xingyi Boxing, opens with the above quote & using it in a similar manner as before. The difference here is the contrast between inner & outer is made explicit by the additional elements. Clearly, the individual characters are representative of that contrast.

An advantage longer texts such as this have is the ability to make the concepts under discussion clear, or at least more clear, than the shorter examples. Both texts state the Yi’s function of control & sensitivity, & the Xing’s nature of strength & motion. When combined with storing & accumulating Qi in the lower abdomen, the true potential, the true advantage, of practicing Xingyiquan is made apparent. In the words of Li Jianqiu: “the Qi is strong & direct, the Jing is bright, strong, & stern, & the expression is clear & bright.” By refining & building up the mutual interconnection between the Mind & Body both the quality of the Qi & the facility with which the Yi leads are greatly improved. And such an improved connection, a mutually responsive & interactive connection, is of great use in matters beyond mere boxing. The method can improve literally any activity, from general exercise to arts & crafts, by allowing a person to embody what they’ve created in their mind more easily & with more dexterity.

“Embodied Intent Boxing”

With these concepts in mind, a more apt transliteration for the Chinese “形意拳” is Embodied Intent Boxing. Both of the documents cited above emphasize the mutually corresponding & interconnected nature of the mind within & body without. Both emphasize the chain of procession from internal to external, from Mind to body. Both make the primacy of the mind, of the internal, quite clear as well.

Another advantage of this transliteration is the way it allows for the more elaborated, detailed concepts of Xingyi’s Theory to be linked back to the name. “Embodied Intent,” leaves the door open for later structural & meditative ideas as harmonizing or Threading Into One.

Many of the sayings & images common to the Xingyi School also become immediately more intelligible, more readily obvious, when starting from the assumption that the style aims to unite the internal Mind with the external Body, thus forging a state of unity wherein the Intention conceived of in the Mind is fully embodied & made real in the world: “Embodied Intent Boxing.”

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