Zhang Yimou and the Principle of the Small circle

By Rien Bul

You might have heard of the ‘small circle’ styles of internal (Nei Ja) Kung Fu. In the so called ‘internal’ styles and styles that are related to them this phrase is sometimes used to describe a practitioner's level of skill. Nowadays there is even ‘small circle Jiu Jitsu’. But the phrase is better used in describing the styles for which it was originally invented, like there are Tai Ji Quan and Weng Shun Kuen. Compared with other styles like Aikido and aforementioned ‘Small Circle Jiu Jitsu’, Weng Shun Kuen stands out as the most ‘small circle’ of them all.

The general opinion on Tai Ji Quan is that it ditinguishes itself by the slow pace at which the forms are performed. This is nothing but a huge misconception. When one first starts to learn Wudang Weng Shun Kuen at one of our schools, Sil Lum Tao in particular, one is taught to move very slow at first. When the student has advanced, the pace is beeing sped up. This way it is easier for both pupil and teacher to detect and correct mistakes. Doing Tai Ji Quan forms slowly (as were it nothing more than Qi Gong without a martial aspect to it) has only first come into fashion at the beginning of the twentieth century. And then mostly with people who hadn't learned the martial application of the style. Therefore it is highly probable that all Tai Ji Quan you have ever seen demonstrated didn't surpass an advanced-beginner's level. Personally I have never seen a Tai Ji Quan form performed at a master's-level at a public demonstration.

But not only is a form performed faster as the level of skill progresses; the movements of a true master also get smaller. A master adheres to the principles that make the techniques function. It is just that at advanced levels of skill large movements are no longer necessary. Large movements are gradually replaced by an intellectual understanding of the principles that makes the techniques function. It may sound somewhat paradoxically, but true comprehension can only be cultivated by lots of training and repeating techniques (drilling). Therefore there must be a certain kind of ‘balance’ between physical skill and cerebral insight. Coinciding these two is sometimes called ‘enlightenment’.

Wudang Weng Shun Kuen, now, is a ‘small circle’ style at heart. This is because it was only trained by Shaolin's and (in a later period) Wudang's most advanced masters. It was decided that a candidate no longer first had to go through a process of first learning Monkey, Dragon, Tiger and Leopard-forms for years, before advancing to the secret Snake and Crane-forms. The masters found the most simplified techniques they had come up with to be the most advanced and effective. At the height of its cultivation the complete Snake and Crane style was made up of a bare minimum of 36 movements.

But an expert will notice above all that the Wudang Weng Shun Kuen style was obviously a small circle style from the very beginning. This is unique to this particular style. Tai Ji Quan, for comparison, starts out with wide, large movements and only the greatest masters eventually reach the small circle level. At present masters of this level are nearly extinct. Jiu Jitsu contains seizing- and holding techniques that resemble those in Aikido and Chi Sim Weng Chun Kuen. But it is obvious that even the latter are the large circle versions of the techniques. For a Wudang Weng Shun Kuen practitioner, on the other hand, a much smaller and far simpler movement is sufficient to achieve the same result. By adhering to the principle of 'economy of movement' he saves valuable energy.

Only in Wudang Weng Shun Kuen the beginner learns to apply the ‘small circle’ from his first lesson on. The difference between the implementation of these techniques of a relative beginner and a master is that the master needs even smaller movement than the student. This is because with the master the level of skill, the insight in the principles that make the technique function and the application of Fa Jing (inner energy applied in a martial context) have all merged into one. In China it has been public knowledge for centuries that it is hardly detectable just how a master of an ‘internal’ style overcomes an antagonist. If possible, the antagonist himself has still less an idea of what just happened to him!

I noticed that film director Zhang Yimou in an interview concerning his latest movie ‘Hero’ showed a remarkable insight in the idea of the ‘small circle’. I cite: “What fascinates me personally about Kung Fu, is the subtlety of it all. First you see people simply fight each other. But as their adaptness increases, their movements become smaller. And at the highest level, when two Kung Fu masters face each other, they hardly move or touch each other anymore. At that level it isn't about killing each other anymore. What is left is a duel of the heart and mind. Kung Fu has become pure art.”