Tongbeiquan is a traditional martial art from northern China. Tongbeiquan has a very long history and it’s impossible to know for certain exactly who the founder is or at what time it was created. The legendary origins of the style date back over 2000 years to the Warring States period of China (475-221 BCE).
There are written records from Song Dynasty (960-1279) boxing literature that refer to Han Tong as one of the 18 ancient masters, and an expert of Tongbeiquan. The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) scholar Huang Zongxi writes in his Essay of Southern Thunderbolts that Tongbeiquan was the best of all schools of boxing. Later his son Huang Baijia mentions Tongbeiquan and describes it as Changquan or long range boxing in the biography of his teacher Wang Zhengnan.
Some schools claim Chen Tuan (871-989) as the founder of the system. Chen Tuan was a legendary Daoist scholar who made important contributions to the development of Daoist philosophy and practice. He created the Taiji diagram that we use today, as well as qigong methods such as 12 sitting exercises and Shuigong Fa (sleeping qigong). He is said to have practiced boxing on Mount Hua Shan and to have been able to sleep for 100 days straight.
It’s important to note that originally the term Tongbei also referred to a way of training the body and a method of generating power as well as the specific martial art system. The word Tongbei in Chinese consists of two characters, Tong 通, which means to connect or “pass through”, and Bei 背, which is the back. Sometimes the character Bi 臂 is used instead meaning arm, and has the idea of connecting the arms through the back and shoulders. This kind of concept exists in other martial arts as well and is prominent for example in Chaquan or Taijiquan, although the refined body method of Tongbeiquan today is very specific and unique to the system. Also historically terms like Tongbi or Changquan were used to describe boxing in general making it difficult to ascertain exactly when the specific style we now know as Tongbeiquan developed.
Most Tongbei groups attribute the creation and original development of the style to a Daoist master by the name of Bei Shikou (also known as Yisan, Daoist name Dong Ling Zi), with the nickname Baiyuan (White Ape). This story is based on a popular folktale of Yuan Gong, a martial arts master of the spring and autumn era (around 500 BCE), who challenged a female swordsmaster named Yue Nu belonging to the Mo Jiao, or mysterious sect, and lost the fight. After his defeat Yuan Gong went off to live in seclusion in the forest wilderness. The story goes that through the years he developed long white hair and beard and when people saw him they started referring to him as Baiyuan Laoren (White Ape Old Man). In some versions of the story Yuan Gong is actually transformed into a white haired gibbon before fleeing into the forest. In this version he is believed to be an immortal ape who teaches his skill in secret. Today most schools of traditional Tongbeiquan include Baiyuan Laoren (Bei Shikou) in their lineage as founder of the system.
Although Tongbeiquan has a long history and has been famous since Ming Dynasty times, we don’t know much about its development or important figures until the early 1800’s. It was taught by Lu Yunqing, a Daoist master from Shandong province who had two disciples, Qi Xin and Shi Hongsheng. From then on Tongbeiquan split into two main groups, Qi family style and Shi family style (there are some different theories on how and when this split happened, in any case it’s clear, and most agree the two styles share a common root).
Qi Xin taught Tongbeiquan in his hometown in Gu An county in Hebei, together with his family boxing of Liu He Quan and spear methods. Later his son Qi Taichang made significant changes to the style (some say he also learned from his gongfu uncle Shi Hongsheng) and Qi family Tongbei separated into two distinct variations referred to as Lao Qi Pai (Old Qi Family Style) and Shao Qi Pai (Young Qi Family Style).
Shi Hongsheng was the first person to teach Tongbeiquan in Beijing. He reached a high level but was very conservative and for years he kept his skills close to himself and did not teach any students. Eventually he opened his door a little and took some disciples to inherit his art. The first was Zhang Wencheng. Only him and Ma Xiaohe is said to have passed on the complete system. Ma Xiaohe passed Tongbeiquan to Niu Jie (Ox Street) area in Beijing where many of the Hui people or Chinese muslims lived. This became the center for Shi style Tongbei in Beijing. The Hui people kept Tongbeiquan in high regard and guarded it closely. In Niu Jie area, Shuai Jiao (Chinese wrestling) was also very popular, and eventually this lead to many throwing and grappling skills becoming incorporated into Tongbeiquan curriculum.
Teachers of Tongbeiquan has throughout history been notoriously close kept and reluctant to pass on their knowledge. Many famous masters never taught in public or even in private and left no successors. Even when they did teach, students would have to demonstrate that they were diligent and clever enough to grasp the art, and they had to prove good morals and personality. Advanced methods would only be passed to a few students. Even though Tongbeiquan was famous as a very effective martial art, this kept the style from becoming widespread, it also ensured that the system was not watered down, but remained pure and the high level skills were retained and developed in depth.
From the turn of 20th century some Qi style masters started to teach publically, as a result the style became very popular and gained a large following. As Qi family Tongbei spread more forms were created and several subsystems developed. Today the large majority of Tongbei practitioners belong to Qi family or its branches.
Shi family groups kept to the traditional ways and remained conservative and closed in their transmission of the art. As a result they became known as Heiquan teachers. The meaning of Heiquan is twofold. One is that they practice in hidden, in a dark area where no one can see, the second is the techniques are too vicious in real fighting and cannot be taught openly.
From these two main branches Tongbeiquan was spread and eventually many sub branches and groups developed. Today there are many styles of Tongbei such as Wuxing, Wuyuan, Hongdong, Liangyi, Shaolin Tongbei, Pigua Tongbei etc. They all trace back to Shi family or Qi family.