Meeting Ma - an interview with Ma Baoguo, Master of the Internal Arts - intervju med en av Levande Stillhets huvudlärare

Meeting Ma

- an interview with Ma Baoguo, Master of the Internal Arts

Like many Western Internal Martial Arts practitioners I...have a dream. Cheesy, but true. That dream has always been to meet someone who could actually use the Internal Arts at the level of the old myths, at the level of Yang Banhou or Yang Luchan, at the level of the old Chen-masters, at the level of the old Bagua before the turn of the 20th century… The real, complete, detailed down to the nuts-and-bolts Internal Martial Arts, not from a broken lineage, not from part Tai Chi part something else ”because we don´t have the information that made Tai Chi work as a real martial art”, not just for health. The real deal, the real, as the Americans say, McCoy.
I have never meet it before I met master Ma Baoguo, who currently lives in Newcastle, England. I have wanted to, dreamed of doing it, met people and hoped, gotten quite close…but never really seen it until now. All a very cheesy way to start an article, as I said at the beginning. Let´s be frank; if someone else wrote an article that started like this, I´d hang up on them very early on myself…

Meeting Ma

Meeting master Ma Baoguo is a down-to-earth experience – for about the first two minutes, before he starts moving. He´s short and stocky, with exceptionally soft and open hands and fingers, and a catching grin. He´s got a strong voice and clear eyes with a mischievous glint. Ma is a master of Hebei Xingyi, old Chen style Taiji and daoist qigong, a practitioner since the age of six and a student of some of the really old ones in the Internal Arts. He´s a martial artist through and through, something that usually scares people who know only the collapsed, slow Tai Chi for health available to most of us in the West.
Seeing him, let´s not go there yet. Later.
Over the past couple of years Master Ma has lived in Newcastle while his son, himself an accomplished martial artist, studied for his MBA at university. Ma himself started practicing, he tells me over tea, when he was six years old. It was a family system taught by his father and his uncles. When he reached the age, he enlisted as a marine in the chinese Marine Corps, and in the service he got the chance to study even more martial arts. He has been pleasantly surprised by the interest in chinese martial arts here in the West, but points out that there seem to be large gaps in the information available, which makes people practice some things that are both a waste of time and sometimes outright dangerous to their health.


Everything Ma teaches is based on chanzijing, ”silk reeling energy”, as it´s translated in the West. In actual fact it should be a part of all the Internal Martial Arts, but rarely is. The styles that specialize in it are Chen-style Tai Chi, some daoist styles, some Xingyi and some Baguazhang. Master Ma´s firm position is that without chanzijing you will never have power, nor the ability to change in a real fight, and he is very happy to prove his point to you at the drop of a hat. Nicely, of course. When Master Ma moves…yes, let´s go there now…you can for once see the old adage about moving as one unit: his entire body is completely connected, his hands, feet, legs, torso, elbows – everything is moving in spirals, most of which go in opposite directions simoultaneously at different levels of his body. Unless you are trained the same way yourself, you do not stand a chance of fighting it. He can be soft as real Tai Chi should be, soft yet powerful, and he can be so rooted and energetically hard that it´s impossible to move him – yet without an ounce of tension. He uses the four energies of the Internal Arts – peng, lu, ji, an, the fighting software of Tai Chi – in combinations and at a power that has to be felt to be believed. And his power is palpable. Standing in the same room as him you want to take a step back to give that power room not to hit you, preferably a step all the way out into the street to the bus home.

The three big facets of Taiji

”Morality,” says master Ma, ”is the first facet of Taijiquan. You have to be intelligent and clever to practice Taiji. Taiji also teaches you how to adapt to nature, along the old daoist lines of (ital.)ziran, following the natural flow. You can use Taiji in battle. A business-man can use it for his battles, a politician can use it in his, an everyday person can use it to battle their stress and ill-health. Taiji is based on the Daodejing, says Ma. ”If you want to study good Taiji, you first have to study the Daodejing.” This is the old Daoist classic that forms the basis of strategy and healing in China. Water is the base of everything – it seems very soft, and it flows, but it can be very strong. Morality is the first facet; health the second. ”You practice good Taiji, you have to practice qigong. ”To practice Taiji, you have to have a good,” he thumps his own chest, ”body”. Ma, like all other real internal arts masters, emphasizes that you need to get your body in shape first, then learn to fight. Without good health, you´ll never be able to really learn the martial arts. If you are soft you can keep on fighting, but if you are tense, you will be unable to do it for more than a very short time before you have spent both your mind, body and energy. At this point in the interview master Ma grabs the unlucky interpreter and starts showing him what happens if you tense up while fighting someone who can use Taiji. The small room is filled with laughter and the occasional gasp of pain. ”The more force you use,” the interpreter finally half translates, half realizes, ”the more pain you will get.” As always, master Ma lights up when he gets a chance to show the principles of what he loves the most.

Fighting behind a curtain

All the internal arts are based around the principle of fighting with jing, the refined version of qi, which takes a long time to create, but once you have it you have it till your old age. There is however many physical components to this as well; the old saying is that in the internal arts, you fight behind a curtain – the curtain being your skin. Hence, your opponent can´t see what you´re doing. One of the physical components is called chanzijing, ”silk reeling energy”. Chanzijing is a matter of spirals, but not just spirals; it is really a matter of continous loops of eights going to and fro from your lower dantian. It is a practice which has to be done very specifically and very carefully, otherwise the strong spiralling and pulling inside can cause health-problems both now and in the long run. The style with the most obvious chanzijing is the Chen-style of Taiji, but it should be in every style. Some styles have evolved to make it almost totally internal; unfortunately, a generation later, many of the students do not retain the information, and just do the physical movements without the internal left. ”If your chanzijing-practice is good,” says Ma, ”you can use small force and win over bigger force. You can become very good in combat. If you have chanzijing, you have power you can use everywhere, everywhere on your body can punch,” he says with a delighted smile. Once again he starts showing things on the poor interpreter and then on me. He also emphasizes that strong external boxing can hurt you on the skin, but real Taiji will hurt you inside your body. Soft force will always penetrate deeper than hard force. This is one of the classical reasons why the internal martial arts can hurt people who do ”packing”-exercises or Iron Shirt training.

The master´s teachers

While a cat is mewing in the backyard for the neighbours to let it in, and while Mrs. Ma is cooking lunch in the kitchen, we start talking about master Ma´s own teachers. Because, rare as the statement is in the ego-bound Internal Arts sub-culture, Ma repeatedly states that there are people more skilled than him. It is a statement to shock anyone who´s seen what he can do. After the family´s own system, he started with Taiji in his teens. Back then he didn´t realize how effective it was for fighting. At university he met Xingyi-master Shang Ji. Here he was taught the five elements, the core practice of Xingyi, and Shang Ji paid especially close attention to basic training. As Shang Ji was an associate professor, most of their tranining was done in the evenings, in his spare time. The Xingyi-master himself loved (ital.)zuanquan, the water fist, and tiger, monkey and dragon from the Xingyi Twelve Animal sets. After this, Ma met his Chen-style teacher, master Wang Changhai, classmate of current Chen lineage holder Chen Xiaowang. Wang mainly taught the hybrid form of Hunyuan Taiji, which master Ma now is one of the few people authorised to teach. Wang was also very good at push hands, and he liked to teach the lock- and anti-lock techniques that all chanzijing gives rise to. He also taught a 32 Elbow-form which deepened all the usages of the elbow in Taiji. Ma´s final teacher was master Guo Shenghai, a daoist fighting man whom no-one really new the whole story about. In his youth, master Guo wanted to be a monk and studied internal styles from Emei. ”He had a very high level of combat skill,” explains Ma, ”and part of that was his expertise in dianxue, point striking.” Guo taught single-movement exercises and simple exercises solely based around principles of movement and energy; forms he saw as waste of time. Guo didn´t like to teach people, but master Ma saved his life in a very dangerous incident, and after that the master started teaching him. Among the things he taught was dianxue, but also a lot of very old training skills that now are almost extinct.

Bianhua - change

It´s partly Guo´s teaching that saturates master Ma´s own with it´s strong Daoist component. Ma himself is a pure, practical martial artist. When he teaches he is very clear and very precise in every minute little detail, and just as precise on what works and what doesn´t work in real life combat. He will often show you a technique with its requisite energy, while showing you the three other versions of it that work less well, and then explain why they don´t. What he emphasizes is always bianhua, change. Without an ability to change, he says, nothing works in real life combat. In his view, chanzijing is the physical skill that will maximize your ability to change, and he always teaches in the fashion of ”Yes, this is the basic movement, but, ah, xiao bienhua – small change! – and this happens instead, and it looks like this…” And his ability to change is horrifyingly fast, especially up close and in contact, since he seems able to change from every millimeter of his body with full power and total connection – a martial artist´s dream and an opponent´s nightmare.

Taiji, Xingyi, and how to hurt people or not

One of my early, treasured phrases when meeting Ma was this: ”With Taiji, I can hurt you very easily. But, ha, with Taiji, I can not hurt you very easily too!” said with a mischievous grin. It is this neutral centerpoint that is the zenith of old martial arts, and which so very very few people ever seek and even fewer ever reach. Ma teaches both Xingyi and Taiji. To most people they inhabit the opposite sides of the spectrum, but when master Ma teaches them, they come closer. That said, his Xingyi is Hebei Xingyi, known for already being a mix of Taijiquan, Xingyi and Baguazhang. ”In Xingyi,” he says, ”the main thing is to relax.” A statement that rarely squares with how Xingyi is taught here in the West. ”The second thing is to use your mind to lead the force. You always want to use your whole body to attack, and then eat the opponents space. Shang Ji´s way of teaching,” he adds, ”was that you should always regard your opponent as just a piece of grass you are going through.” ”With Taiji, the main points are two: follow, and change. And to always use small force to overcome any bigger force. Physically speaking, many Taiji masters do not seem strong, and their peng – their ward-off abilities - can be deceptively soft, but they still have the power to really fight.” Whichever style he teaches, Ma teaches spirals and arcs, and explosive power but never hard power. He will always be neutralizing at the same time as he is applying force, and prefers to use the whiplike force that accentuates the pullback part of the whip, something that creates horrendous damage if really used.

Final words

Master Ma Baoguo is a rarity, at least among the internal arts-teachers in the West. He is humble, highly skilled, and he still practices four hours a day, even after forty years of training. Many teachers - but to be fair, both East and West - practice less and less over the years, preferring to rest on their laurels instead of still researching and being curious about the possibilities. With such a cheesy introduction to such high skill, I feel complied to let master Ma add his final words of advice to any readers. ”Taiji belongs to the people of the whole world. This is a good time, because Taiji is spreading to people from all cultures all over the world. No matter what culture, people have the same goal: how to have good morality, how to have good health, and how to have self-defence ability. Those three points are the essence of Taiji.”

Daniel Skyle © 2005. Daniel Skyle is a freelance writer and Internal Arts teacher based in Sweden.