Kung Fu and Western Boxing

19 May

Quick quiz! What do Chan Tai-San, Huang Xiao-xia, Xia Bai-Hua, Wong Shun-Leung, Chu Kao-Lou, and a plethora of other Chinese martial artists all have in common? The answer is training in Western boxing. Western boxing, it has been the 800 lb. gorilla that has been sitting in the room for more than 150 years.


Recently I have seen a number of web sites claim that Western boxing was first introduced to China in the port city of Shanghai in the 1920’s. The fact the first Chinese language instruction manual in Western boxing, titled “The Technique of Western Boxing”, was published there during this period and the first public events pitting Chinese participants against Westerners also first appeared in this location might make this a tempting conclusion, but there is ample evidence to the contrary.


Chinese martial artists were exposed to Western boxing almost as soon as Europeans began making regular contact during the Qing Dynasty. We have an anecdotal account that the founder of Choy Lay Fut, Chan Heung, made comments on Western boxing and compared it to Chinese martial arts.


With this in mind, it is probably important to consider that the first Western boxing that Chinese martial artists observed was of the bare knuckle variety. It may not have had kicks or Qin Na (joint locks), but it certainly had striking techniques and throws which would have been familiar to these men. The two traditions were not as separate as today’s student probably now consider them, and Chinese martial arts were most certainly influenced by Western boxing!


For as long as I have practiced Chinese martial arts, I have had friends who found similarities between Western boxing and the internal art of Hsing Yi (Xing Yi). Again, we have anecdotal accounts that Chinese martial arts originally favored punches to the body almost to the total exclusion of strikes to the head. Certainly, Western boxing (and the Lion’s Roar teacher Wong Yan-Lam, but that is another blog) caused reconsideration of head punching as a combat tactic.


Of course, there were always those who resisted innovation, and particularly anything foreign. At one of the government sponsored Lei Tai competitions, Chu Kao-Lou placed second. Chu openly admitted he also trained in Western boxing, to which one of the Taiji masters who had been in the audience complained that Chu’s fighting style was not using Chinese Martial Arts at all! Chu’s brother, Chu Kao-Chen, challenged that Taiji master, who in response didn’t accept that challenge. Truly, nothing changes in the Wu Lin!


While Chan Tai-San’s training in Western boxing had long been known by his students, in 2006 one of my classmates traveled to Taishan county, Guangdong province to dig up more history. He returned with an interesting story on Chan Tai-San’s early introduction to Western boxing. My sifu had entered a competition with no previous Western boxing training and lost the match. His initial response was rather familiar; he blamed the gloves, he blamed the restrictive rules, and he wanted to challenge the person that had beaten him to a no rules fight. Then he reconsidered. He decided to train a little with the gloves and find what worked in that environment. His second match was not successful either, a bad referee did not control a break and my sifu was actually KO’ed when the referee was holding his hands! The fact he came back after THAT, and eventually won several regional events and incorporated boxing into his fighting method was what made Chan Tai-San unique, and a real fighter.


It does not take much research to find out that by the 1920’s, both Western boxing and Japanese Judo had made a huge impact on many Chinese martial artists. However, due to more modern nationalistic and style pride, many will now not openly admit to it! They in turn trained a generation of students who blindly follow the words of their teachers. In doing so, they deny truth and limit the opportunity for growth and advancement.

Lion’s Roar Martial Arts

Authentic Lama Pai, the art of Chan Tai San

Truth does not know “respect”

9 May

Truth is. Truth is independent of all other factors. Truth does not have considerations. Truth does not know “respect”. This means, as much as I may respect my teacher, it does not change the facts. It has no bearing on Truth.


My teacher may be a very skilled martial artist. He may be an accomplished fighter. The Truth may also be he has many failings as a human being. He may have given me incorrect information. He may have knowingly lied to me. All human beings have some orientation, many have actual agendas. If we embrace Truth, we must acknowledge all of this; the good and the bad. In fact, unless we take it all in, we limit our own view, our own growth.


I had a student who totally admired Mas Oyama. He watched a copy of the fictionalized film “Fighter in the Wind” (바람의 파이터). One day I was explaining this concept of Truth and used Mas Oyama as an example. My student got very upset, he said you have to “respect” such a famous teacher.


My student, in his youth, of course missed the point. Mas Oyama was obviously very skilled. It is without question that he trained many very skilled Karateka and fighters. Modern Japanese kickboxing and Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) both have direct links back to Mas Oyama and Kyokushinkai. Mas Oyama changed the face of modern Japanese martial arts.

Jon Bluming

Where Truth is concerned, none of those facts have anything to do with the reality that it is very likely that Mas Oyama did NOT engage in those many fights which have been attributed to him. Mas Oyama also spent considerable time in the Professional Wrestling and many of his marketing tactics came from that world. If you want more details on what I mean by this, google Jon Bluming….


People are always seeking an external authority. They do so because it alleviates them of the responsibility of thinking and taking responsibility for action. “Respect” is a crutch; we use it to avoid asking difficult questions and pondering the significance of Truth. Martial arts is certainly not the only place this happens, but it happens frequently in our world.

Lama Pai Kung-Fu’s Fundamentals

1 May

The following is a re-print of an article I wrote which appeared in “Inside Kung Fu” magazine in the 1990’s

Traditionally, there have been many ways of differentiating the many systems of martial arts found in China. Sometimes they are divided into “internal” (Taiji, Ba Gua and Hsing Yi) and “external” (Hung Ga, Choy Lay Fut, Wing Chun, etc.) or classified as either northern or southern systems. Perhaps the most famous differentiation is between the Shaolin (Siu Lam in Cantonese) and Wu Tang (Mo Dang in Cantonese) traditions. The Shaolin tradition, further divided into the northern and southern, is suppossed to represents the martial arts practiced by Chinese Buddhists while the Wu Tang tradition issaid to represent the martial arts practiced by Taoists. However, there exists a third tradition of martial arts most Americans know little to nothing about. That tradition is the Lama school.


There have been numerous debates concerning the exact nature of the Lama school. While it has often been labeled “Tibetan”, it appears in many respects to be very Chinese. Furthermore, the martial arts that exists in what is modern Tibet in most respects do not resemble the Lama school as preserved in China. The truth is that Lama represents the vast tradition of Western Chinese martial arts. It represents the martial arts practiced in Tibet but also the martial arts practiced in Outer Mongolia, inner Mongolia, Qinghai, Sichuan, Yunnan, and Xinjiang provinces. It also represents the martial arts of Tibetans, Mongolians, Manchurians, Ethnic Han Chinese and a wide variety of minorities. What these very different groups have in common is a common faith, Tibetan Buddhism, better known as Lamaism. Therefore, the Lama school, Lama Pai, is named for its common religious influence, not its ethnic inspiration.


Lama Pai was founded in the Ming Dynasty by an ethnic Chinese who became a Buddhist Monk. He is known either as Ah Dat-Ta or the Dai-Dat Lama. Neither of these are real Chinese names and are Chinese approximations of this person’s Buddhist name. While we know very little about this person, we do know he was ethnically Chinese, a follower of Tibetan Buddhism, lived in Qinghai province and studied a wide variety of martial arts. These martial arts were Chinese, Tibetan, Mongolian and even Indian in origin and a good representation of the martial tradition in Western China.


Ah Dat-Ta’s system was originally known as “Lion’s Roar” and consisted of 8 fist strikes, 8 palm strikes, 8 elbow strikes, 8 finger strikes, 8 kicking techniques, 8 seizing (clawing) techniques, 8 stances and 8 stepping patterns. It included techniques derived from a wide variety of influences including Mongolian and Manchurian wrestling (Shuai Jiao), Northern and Western Chinese long arm and kicking techniques, and Tibetan and Indian close range hand techniques and evasive footwork. However, the more time it spent in China, the more “Chinese” the system became.


Presented here are the eight divisions. In most cases, techniques were never intended to be limited to these fundamentals. Instead, they were designed to preserve various basic principles from which other techniques could be derived. For example, in Lama Pai all straight punches are derived from Chyuhn Choih. However, when Lama Pai came into contact with other Chinese martial arts, straight punching techniques such as Chaap Choih were added to the basic punches within this category. The basic punch Paau Choih represents all techniques that rise up from a lower point, such as uppercuts. The basic punch Kahp Choih was also expanded to include Pek Choih (45 degree hammer fist) and Cham Choih (90 degree hammer fist).

The 8 fists strikes

chan tai san chyuhn choih solo
– Straight punch

chan tai san jyu geng paau choih
– Uppercut

– Overhand punch

– Horizontal backfist, with the thumb toward the sky

– 45 degree backfist strike, with palm toward the sky

jit choih 1
– Forearm strike

guaai mah lahp choih
– Hook punch

th pak yik paau
– Wing Flap

There are also;
The 8 palm strikes
The 8 elbow strikes
The 8 finger strikes
The 8 kicking techniques
The 8 seizing (clawing techniques)
The 8 Stances
The 8 footwork patterns

These eight divisions were then used to create three distinct “forms”, sometimes thought of as different levels or fighting theories. The three forms were “flying crane hands” (Fei Hok Sau), “Maitreya hands” (Neih Lahk Sau), and “Dou Lo hands”. Thus, the system was actually quite complex.

“Flying crane hands”
(Fei Hok Sau)
was devoted to all of the fundamental level fighting techniques of the system and was composed of both fist strikes and open hand techniques aimed at vital points, kicking and sweeping techniques, evasive footwork, and continuous circular striking combinations.

“Maitreya hands”
(Neih Lahk Sau)
was devoted to the advanced fighting techniques and was composed of seizing, holding and twisting techniques and a very specialized skill known as the “vein seizing hand”.

The third and final division was known as “Dou Lo hands” and was named for a plant indigenous to India, whose seeds have a hard outer shell but a soft, cotton like, substance within it. “Dou Lo Sau” was devoted to internal aspects of the system such as vital point striking and the special “vein changing skill”. The needle in cotton hand set is derived from techniques of the “Dou Lo Sau” division.
After several generations, teachers of Lion’s Roar kung-fu created a number of hand sets named after the Lo Han (Buddhist Saints) and the Gam Gong (literally “diamond” but referring to Buddhist Guradians). Furthermore, once Lion’s Roar came to southern China its was renamed Lama Pai kung-fu and incorporated many techniques and ideas from Chinese martial arts. The original eight divisions, eight fundamentals in each division, and the three forms were gradually either forgotten or only explained to advanced students. If it were not for the recorded history left by earlier teachers, we may have never understood how Ah Dat-Ta developed the original Lion’s Roar kung-fu system.

Lama Pai Kung Fu striking techniques

23 Apr

The following is a re-print of an article I wrote which appeared in “Inside Kung Fu” magazine in the 1990’s

Lama Kung-Fu Striking Techniques By David A Ross

Today, some martial artists are also under the false impression that traditional striking techniques are no longer practical for self-defense and leave the attacker open to counter attack. This is unfortunate. The key is to learn the techniques correctly.

chan tai san jyu geng paau choih

The key to learning any technique is to learn its correct execution, its actually application and to undergo the training needed to perfect it. Repetition and making contact with focus mitts, heavy bags, sand bags, wooden dummies, etc. are essential to developing power. Learning when to use a specific technique is just as essential to making it work.


Lama Kung-Fu striking techniques include all those techniques which use parts of the upper body. Included in that arsenal are the fist, the palm, the fingers, the forearm, the elbow, the use of claw techniques, shouldering and the head butt. For this reason, martial artists of all styles could benefit from studying Lama Kung-Fu striking techniques.


Open to counterattack?

One of the most common criticisms of traditional striking techniques is that they leave the attacker open to counterattack. These critics ask why the other hand is often chambered on the waist or, in the case of many Kung-Fu styles, extended behind the body. the answer is that one must understand the true applications of these techniques or they will be unable to use them safely and effectively.
In Lama Kung-Fu, the lead hand often whips out in front of the body and then is extended behind the body while the rear hand strikes. The Lama Kung-Fu stylist appears an open target. However, they do not understand the application of the lead hand technique.

th jyu geng paau

The lead hand technique is used in response to an attack, something you obviously can’t see by simply watching a solo form. It is used to either grab or deflect that oncoming strike and to create an opening. Thus, the lead hand technique is controlling the attacker and the Lama Kung-Fu stylist is safe to launch his rear hand strike. He is striking with purpose and is in complete control of the situation.


Of course, there are times when one must initiate an attack. When the Lama Kung-Fu stylist is initiating an attack he holds his other fist close to his face, just as a Western boxer would. In this way he can attack but is protected from counterattack.

Fist strikes (Kyuhn Faat)

The urge to close the hand into a fist and use it as a weapon is one of man’s most basic instincts. For example, both the Chinese and the Ancient Greeks have independently created, well developed methods of using the closed fist. In China, Lama Kung-Fu is particularly famous for its continuous circular fist strikes and has some of the most powerful strikes found in any system. It is a fighting system well suited to someone wishing to develop stopping power.

gwa kahp

Among the basic fist techniques are a number that would be familiar to Western boxers. the system features straight punches (Chyuhn Choih), hooks (Gok Choih), uppercuts (Paau Choih), and overhand strikes (Kahp Choih). In addition, there are also a great number of fist techniques unique to the Lama Kung-Fu system including Pek Choih (chopping fist), Siu Kau Dah (small trapping strike), Bin Choih (whip strike), Pak Yik Paau (crane wing strike) and Gwa Choih (45 degree backfist).

Another unique aspect of Lama Kung-Fu fist strikes is that they are used to intercept and overcome other punches. For example, a powerful Bin Choih (whip strike) will deflect a jab and simultaneously strike the face.


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Lama Pai Kahm Na (Chin Na)

22 Apr

The following is a re-print of an article I wrote which appeared in “Inside Kung Fu” magazine in the 1990’s

Lama Kung-Fu “Kahm-Na” Techniques By David A Ross

A truly complete fighter must understand not only the strengths and applications of his various techniques but their limitations as well. Under certain circumstances, a particular technique can be the key to victory. Under different circumstances, that very same technique can mean certain defeat.
For example, you may have extremely powerful kicks and punches but you should never rely on striking techniques alone. In the average street fight, kicks and punches often don’t land exactly on target and there are always those exceptional individuals who are able to withstand tremendous amounts of punishment. Full body throws and takedowns can also be devastating but have similar limitations. Against a larger, stronger opponent who is struggling it is often difficult, if not impossible, to set up and complete a throw.

inside trip

For all these reasons, Kahm-Na is a necessary addition to any fighter’s arsenal. More commonly known by its Mandarin dialect pronunciation of “Chin-Na”, Kahm-Na is one of the four fundamental skills necessary for complete fighting mastery. It is an extremely broad term encompassing many different skills and techniques including joint manipulation, strangulation and specialized striking techniques aimed at soft targets on the body.


Basic Kahm-Na techniques

1) Fun Gun (joint manipulation)
In Cantonese, “Fun” means to divide and “Gun” refers to connective tissues (i.e. both ligaments and tendons). Fun Gun refers to joint manipulation techniques achieved through twisting, pulling, and pushing. These actions cause the connective tissues to be stretched and/or separated and result in pain which can be used to convince an attacker to discontinue his attack. These are the most commonly seen and taught Kahm-Na techniques and can also be found in non-Chinese systems such as Jujitsu and Hapkido

2) Cho Gwat (bone breaking)
In Cantonese, “Cho” means placed wrongly and “Gwat” refers to bones. Together, “Cho Gwat” means placing the bone in an incorrect position.

3) Jaau Gun (muscle, tendon and/or ligament seizing)
This “Jaau” is pronounced exactly the same as the word for “claw” and is a verb referring to the use of the claw to seize or tear. Jaau Gun is related to Fun Gun because both cause the connective tissues to be stretched and/or separated and result in pain. However, Jaau Gun refers to those techniques in which the separation is accomplished by actually grabbing and using physical strength. For obvious reasons, Jaau Gun requires superior hand strength.

4) Baai Heih (strangulation)
In Cantonese, “Baai” means to seal and “Heih” refers to not only internal energy but the breath and the blood as well. Baai Heih involves depriving the opponent’s brain of blood and oxygen in order to render the opponent unconscious (i.e. strangulation). The simplest way to achieve this is to wrap either your arm or your leg around the opponent’s neck and to squeeze. However, it is also possible to seal the breath by using striking techniques. Strikes can be used to cause muscles in the rib cage to contract and thus prevent the opponent from inhaling. .


Practical application of Kahm-Na techniques

Obviously, you must be relatively close to your opponent in order to apply Kahm-Na techniques. It should also be pretty obvious that your opponent isn’t going to simply give you his arm and allow you to apply your technique. Kahm-Na techniques must be used in combination with kicking, punching, trapping and throwing techniques in order to be effective.

Kicking, punching and trapping allow you to close the distance safely and have the additional benefit of simultaneously “softening” your opponent. Once you are close to your opponent, there are a wide variety of options. First, you can attempt a full body throw. However, as discussed previously, full body throws are often difficult, if not impossible, to set up and complete. Partially completed throws may be followed by a Kahm-Na technique to end the confrontation. For example, a hip throw might be followed by the application of an arm bar or a double knee lift might be followed by a leg lock.


Because the use of Kahm-Na techniques was so common among fighters in traditional China, Lama Kung-Fu developed a wide variety of defenses against Kahm-Na techniques. Of course, one must first learn the many Kahm-Na techniques before one can learn their reversals. For this reason, students of Lama Kung-Fu learn a wide variety Kahm-Na techniques. In this way, they learn to be a complete fighter.


Understanding my method (Lion’s Roar martial arts)

12 Apr

“Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire.”
― Gustav Mahler


In order to understand my method, my thinking, I have provided a few statements here. However, as my thinking always evolves, as I am never the same person I was yesterday, of course these thoughts can change. But in a way that is precisely the point; martial arts is like a river, you never step in the same river twice. Martial arts is something living, it must continue to evolve or it becomes meaningless.


My method embraces both “fighting” and “health” or “physical culture”. It has never been, nor will it ever likely ever likely be an exclusive “either/or” proposition. I am identified widely for my success in training fighters, but I began my journey in the martial arts due to being deathly ill as a child (diagnosed with Leukemia at age six). Currently, my focus again in many ways has returned to using martial arts as health and corrective movement.


The essential foundation of my method, which allows for both of these divisions, is a strict adherence to always training with Truth. Truth transcends your style, system, tradition, lineage, teacher or school. You must embrace Truth regardless of the consequences. You must practice with Truth.


Most martial arts traditions have created a cult centering on the teacher. Disregard the teacher. In a minute, I will tell you why the very term is wrong! Disregard me, I am nothing but a clerk, a conduit; I have passed along information to the next generation. The messenger is not the message.


In reality, I can not really “teach” you anything. If I give you a laundry list of techniques, unless you understand them, can break them apart, put them back together and create your own technique, you have not really learned them. You have “borrowed them” from me and will likely soon “return them”. My job is to help you understand concepts, and help you along in the process of learning. I can help you, but ultimately I can not make you understand. I can only put you in front of the Truth.

Transformations….martial arts gets you in shape (if you do it right)

8 Apr

These days, a lot of martial arts programs talk about transformation. That is, in this day and age, less people are interested in “fighting” and a lot more are interested in health and fitness. There is certainly a long history of martial arts training improving health. I stand here myself as living testimony; taking up martial arts after being diagnosed with Leukemia at age six. But in this blog what I am going to ask is, can you really deliver? Or is it all just talk?

EJ before and after

Between 1994 and 2009 I focussed most of my efforts on practical application, i.e. I trained a lot of fighters who won a lot of events and titles. That isn’t to say that along the way I didn’t help a lot of “regular people” achieve their fitness goals. But I think that most people who met me during this period would have associated me more with “fighting”. For a lot of reasons, I have gradually shifted the focus of my efforts since 2010.


I know that a lot of people see the results that we publicize and flat out do not believe them. But they are 100% accurate and true. And usually the people involved confirm it. Check us out at our FACEBOOK fan page for example.

fan page pic 1

Now, here is one of the things I find interesting. While maybe the focus seems so different, the training is really NOT that different. I still focus a lot on strong basics and my students still throw very mean kicks and punches.


Which, as always, returns me to my mantra which is “train with TRUTH”. I still teach very strong basics, inherited from my traditional Chinese martial arts background. I mix it freely with an open mind that lets me absorb and integrate advances in our understanding of how our body works and how we can best train our body.

Jackie before after

So my “old complaint” remains just as relevant as it ever has, when you try to “water down” a martial art you NEVER achieve success. You cheapen the product, fail to get results and damage your own integrity.

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A military history of Chinese martial arts

3 Apr

Chinese martial arts can never truly escape history and politics. The term “Wu Shu” (武術) has been avoided by most traditional Chinese martial artists because of its association with the contemporary Wu Shu movement based in Mainland China. While the initial movement was based upon traditional teachings and in many ways similar to the Kuoshu (國術) program the Nationalists (KMT) had engaged in during the Republican period, the contemporary Wu Shu movement’s association with Communism was enough reason for many to avoid the term. As contemporary Wu Shu became more and more performance based, it indeed merited some differentiation.


For our purposes, we will put aside these more modern issues and remember that “Wu Shu” (武術) as a term meaning “martial arts” first appeared in the early sixth century during the Liang Dynasty (502-557 CE) (Lorge p 10). It also appears later in Ming Dynasty sources. It is instructive to remember that the character “Wu” (武) means “military” and that the character “Shu” (術) can mean “skill”, “method” or “tactic”. The term “martial arts” unfortunately for many has some preconceived baggage attached to it, but discussing “military skills”, “military methods” and/or “military tactics” brings us more quickly to the reality of the matter. “Wu Shu” (武術) in China has been subject to both internal and external forces and has responded to those forces in a myriad of ways, but when we speak of origins, we must never forget that originally “martial arts” were military skills with practical application in warfare.


As Peter A. Lorge so eloquently states, “these arts are the developed physical practices of armed and unarmed combat, which must be understood primarily as military skills.” (Lorge p i). The idea that Buddhist monks, Shaolin or otherwise, and Daoist priests, Wudang or otherwise, had any major role in the origins of Chinese martial arts is a popular fiction but has no basis in reality. That is not to say there were no martial arts at Shaolin or other Buddhist monasteries. Buddhist monks and Daoist priests, just like the rest of Chinese society, acquired for their own particular use existing military skills that had been developed and used on the battlefield. Martial arts were widespread throughout general society, most frequently spread by men who had been trained in the military and then returned to regular life.


The “Book of Rites” dating from the Zhou dynasty (1046 BC–256 BC) refers to “Jiao Li” (角力), a form of combat wrestling. The “Han Dynasty Historical Bibliographies” indicate that by the Former Han period (206 BCE – 8 CE), “Shou Bo” (手搏) or empty hand methods differentiated from wrestling (i.e. striking) and specifically for combat as opposed to sport, had been practiced and developed to the point that training manuals had been published. “Shou Bo” is categorized as one of the four military skills under the major heading “Military Writings”. Based on the bibliographical listing; these four military skills included archery, fencing, “Shou Bo”, and an ancient game of football (“Cu Ju” 蹴鞠) for agility.


That certain wrestling, kicking and striking tactics accompanied military training in weaponry should be of no surprise to anyone with even a passing knowledge of military history. However, they must be understood as ancillary to such battlefield and weapon training. The Han bibliographies describe “Shou Bo” as training “to practice hand and foot movements, facilitate the use of weapons, and organize for victory in offense or defense”. In other words, their role was as a foundation for developing weapons skills such as sword and polled weapons such as the spear and halberd.


Even during the Ming Dynasty, as empty hand fighting traditions flourished, General Qi Jiguang’s “New Book on Military Efficiency” relegated empty hand training to helping conscripts become strong and confident soldiers. General Qi’s introduction stated “the fist methods do not seem to concern themselves with the arts of great warfare; nevertheless, to move the hands and feet actively and to work habitually the limbs and body constitutes the gateway to beginning study and entering the art”. The discussion of empty hand training was even removed from some editions, perhaps due to fears that their proper role would not be understood.


While records differentiating specific empty hand methods may be fascinating for the modern martial artist, in the larger picture we must still understand that the traditions we have inherited originated as military training. They only later evolved into what we now understand as martial arts as they filtered into the general population. Until approximately the Ming Dynasty, when empty hand training flourished and distinct methods emerged, the history of Chinese martial arts is inseparable from Chinese military history.

The Waring States Period was characterized by widespread conflict which had militarized the whole population. In the absence of professional armies, civilians were trained in military methods, experienced combat first hand, and then returned home with this experience and skills. Men experienced and skilled in violence were numerous and others could acquire from them similar training. It was a reality that could not be easily reversed, and subsequent dynasties failed to learn the lessons of the Waring States Period.

The Waring States Period had introduced the sword into warfare, and under the Qin it became a favorite weapon. With the sword came “Knights-errant”, men with martial skills who were not bound to a single authority. In their best light, they were seen as men who used violence to avenge wrongs and insults. In more common practice, they were mercenaries and assassins without restraints whose skills could be bought. The second legacy of the Waring States Period was the establishment of a sub-culture based upon skill in violence.


The Qin dynasty, despite its relatively short reign, introduced the ideas of centralization that characterized the Imperial period of Chinese history. The Qin introduced a professional army with career generals, and the military became a new profession with new opportunities. Men sought training in martial arts in order to make a living as a professional soldier. Other men were able to establish themselves as trainers in these skills, able to be hired by those seeking advancement. This became particularly true with the establishment of the military examination system.


Although there were imperial exams as early as the Han dynasty, the examination system became the major path to career advancement only in the mid-Tang dynasty. Specialized military exams for the selection of army officers were held at the local, provincial and national levels. Military candidates were expected to be familiar with the same Confucian texts as civil examination candidates, plus military texts such as Sun Tzu. Then, of course, there were demonstrations of martial skills and of physical strength.


As should be expected, horsemanship and archery were of great importance during military exams. The local exams were administered by district magistrates and required the candidates to shoot three arrows while riding a horse past a target in the shape of a person. A perfect score was three successful hits, a good score two hits, and one hit earned a pass. The candidate failed if he made no hits or fell from his horse. These aspects of the military exams remained relatively constant over time. However, during the Ming Dynasty, a critical time in the emergence and development of the empty hand systems, we know that candidates were tested on skills more familiar to modern martial artists; the spear, straight sword, saber, and unarmed combat.

halberd lifting

It is worth noting that as the candidate advanced, there was a greater importance attributed to demonstrations of physical strength. The national exams, conducted in the presence of the emperor, included bending the 120-catty bow, maneuvering the 120-catty halberd and lifting 300-catty weights (one catty equals 1.1023 pounds). Since, the Waring States Period, demonstrations of physical strength were believed to have a direct relationship with martial prowess and this belief would continue for most of Chinese martial arts history. There is a definite logic to this; stronger men have advantages in wrestling and striking, could better bear the wearing of armor, and could even shoot arrows farther. We should reconsider this when we turn our attention to the so-called “internal” schools (Nei Jia Quan) that appear in the Qing Dynasty.


Let us for a moment turn our attention to the general Yue Fei (1103–1141 CE). A famous and respected historical figure, Yue Fei he has also been attributed as the founder of several martial arts including Xingyi Quan, Eagle Claw and Yue Jia Quan. There is virtually no reliable evidence linking him to these or any other empty hand martial art, but that several traditions have claimed him should be no surprise at all. Foundation myths cannot be taken as literal history, but they are instructive in what they suggest; how these martial artists viewed themselves, who they wanted to be associated with, and as a reflection of their own experiences.

Yue Fei’s biography provides us with both some solid historical facts while also suggesting less directly the relationship between military training and civilian martial arts practice. The Chronicle of Yue (宋岳鄂王年譜) says that despite being literate, young Yue Fei chose the military path because there had never been any tradition of full-fledged Confucian civil service in his family history. The boy’s maternal grandfather paid for his military training by hiring Chen Guang (陳廣) to teach the eleven-year-old how to wield the Chinese spear. Then a local knight-errant named Zhou Tong (周同) was brought in to continue Yue’s military training in archery and military tactics after he had quickly mastered the spear by the age of thirteen.

In preparing for a military career, we see that Yue Fei trained first as a civilian by hiring private, independent martial arts instructors. By this period, it appears that this was already a common practice and there were many such instructors available for hire. Yue Fei’s biography does not mention him learning empty hand martial arts as a child, but martial researcher Stanley Henning states “[Yue] almost certainly did practice some form of bare handed fighting as a basic foundation for use of weapons.”

gwan and stone

The classical biography also refers to his second instructor, Zhou Tong, as a “knight-errant” with all the potential baggage such a title entailed. Compare this with later martial arts traditions, which have attempted to link Zhou Tong to the fabled Shaolin temple. Lily Lau has stated that “Ngok Fei (sic) inherited this set of techniques from Chow Tong (sic) in (sic) Shaolin”. Shum Leung’s book The Secrets of Eagle Claw Kung Fu not only links Zhou Tong to Shaolin but explicitly states that Yue Fei studied in the temple; “… the Shaolin Monastery where Ngok Fei (sic) had studied with Jow Tong (sic) years before”. This is a familiar tactic in Qing dynasty martial arts circles, to claim affiliation with a respected, perhaps famous, figure and also engage in a bit of creative historical revision to clean up any possible conflicts in the quest to legitimate these emerging traditions.

Chinese martial arts originated in the military, and during all time periods soldiers, former soldiers and militia constituted the vast majority of its practitioners. Martial artists identified with and wanted to be associated with the famous and respected general. Meir Shahar notes that mention of Yue Fei in the second preface to the “Sinew Changing Classic” published in 1624 “spurred a wave of allusions to the patriotic hero in later military literature”. As he reemerged in the public’s awareness, it is natural that many would claim association. Shahar continues, “By the eighteenth century, Yue Fei had been credited with the inventions of Xingyi Quan”.


Competition to claim Yue Fei as part of one’s linage evolved in predictable ways. While it wasn’t possible to disprove that Yue Fei may have created Eagle Claw, it was just as easily possible to claim that it was training only for his enlisted soldiers. The so-called “internal school” could claim that Yue Fei’s officers learned his more refined art, Xingyi Quan! Say anything often enough and for many it becomes “fact”, Yang Jwing Ming has repeated in several forums that “Yue, Fei created for his troops two new styles. The first, which he created out of external, was Eagle Claw”.

However, a more careful reading of the various martial arts legends suggests an even more tantalizing possibility; a common ancestor! According to the Eagle Claw tradition, the original 108 Qin Na tactics (一百零八擒拿) derive almost directly from the Zhou Tong method which was called “Elephant Stepping”. Unlike the contemporary Eagle Claw, it was generally devoid of high kicks or acrobatics. As the name perhaps suggests, it was an aggressive method with firm, rooted stepping. In this context, reading what the system was supposed to have appeared like in its original form, it does not seem that far afield of the Xingyi Quan method. All of which is to say, they could have theoretically descended from the same method, thought it remains highly unlikely that method was at all linked to Yue Fei!

Straight punching the Chan Tai-San way…. Lion’s Roar Martial Arts

27 Mar

The straight punch, known as “Chyuhn Kyuhn” (穿拳) or the “penetrating punch”, is one of the most fundamental strikes in the late Chan Tai-San’s method. In fact, the very first time I ever saw Chan Tai-San fight, it was the only strike he used! We were in the Chan Family Association on Bayard Street one night when someone came in to challenge Chan Tai-San. With a single “Chyuhn Kyuhn” aimed at the solar plexus, the matter was resolved in Chan Tai-San’s favor.

chan tai san chyuhn choih solo

In the late Chan Tai-San’s method, all the basic techniques were initially learned from a side stance (横弓步) using the “wheel body” (車身). This method teaches the student how to use the hips and shoulders to generate power, teaching the proper coordination and integration of the entire body.


The straight punch, extended from the side stance, is also perhaps the most easily recognizable manifestation of the strategic concept of “stretch the arms out while keeping the body away” (手去身離). That is, the preferred strategy is to strike from a position where it is difficult for my opponent to counter strike.

center line lama pai

For some beginning students, the side stance can be confusing; they throw their punches from the hip and not directly. It is important to learn that even from the side stance, the strike travels on the center line. In fact, it DOMINATES THE CENTER LINE. Chan Tai-San taught to use the punch to “cut the bridge” and “intercept” as a counter strike.



To learn how to use the center line and control it, we say that for punches to the face you begin your strike in front of your nose and for strikes to the body you begin your strike in front of your own solar plexus.

The straight punch from the side stance can also be used to “slip” or evade and counter punch.


We were also taught three essential ideas to keep in mind when using the straight punch. First, you must concentrate your intent (yi) upon the fist and the selected target. The nose, the throat, the solar plexus, the liver and the spleen are all potential targets.

th chyuhn choih

Second, you must focus upon the connection of the entire body, that is total body integration. The line “backward” from the fist, to the elbow, to the shoulder, to the hip, to the knee to the ankle and then to the ground.

guaai mah lahp choih

The third consideration, directly related to the second, is how the power travels through this connection; from the floor, to the ankle, to the knee, to the hip, to the shoulder, through the elbow and into the strike.

Learn more about Chan Tai-San’s Lion’s Roar method in the book “Lion’s Roar Martial Arts” (click)

A concise (and troubling) history of the term “internal” (Nei Jia)

23 Mar

Frequently, I lament the fact we can not travel back in time. I am a historian by training, and I suppose every historian in a way is trying to help everyone travel back in time. Where Chinese martial arts are concerned, the ability to reconstruct the past would be quite a service, a service to help clean up the clap-trap of myth, fantasy and fake history that has accumulated in the community.


Those who practice the so called “internal arts” (Nei Jia Quan) of Taiji, Hsing Yi and Bagua might be rather confused if they stepped into a time machine and exited in mid 19th century China. These so called “internal arts” were in fact popular among those who used these methods for fighting. There was probably very little discussion of Daoist philosophy or health maintenance. More importantly, they would not call what they do “internal” (Nei Jia Quan) and would have no idea what you were talking about!


The association of the term “internal” (Nei Jia) with these arts is easy to pinpoint. In 1894, Chen Tinghua, Liu Dekuan, Li Cunyi and Liu Wei Xiang found their methods shared many common points and created a group which adopted the name “Nei Jia Quan.” The problem? The term “Nei Jia Quan” had already been established and had a complex background story. Were Chen, Liu, Li and Liu aware of the pre-existing “Nei Jia Quan” and it’s background? That is a matter still subject to debate. That the general public associated (“confused”) the three arts of Taiji, Hsing Yi and Bagua with the original Nei Jia Quan is NOT subject to debate.


The first recorded reference to “internal” in relationship to Chinese martial arts is “the Epitaph for Wang Zhengnan” (1669), composed by Huang Zongxi (1610-1695 A.D.). This work also introduces the claim that Zhang Sanfeng as the founder of “Nei Jia Pai”. However, it must be noted that the “epitaph” does NOT link this Nei Jia Pai to any of the three current “internal systems”.


Huang Zongxi’s son, Huang Baijia, was apparently a student of Wang’s and subsequently published the manual “Nei Jia Quan” in 1676. The manual demonstrates a method with little in common with the current “internal” arts but expands upon the Daoist origins of the book’s particular “Nei Jia Quan” and again links it to Wu Dang mountain. Despite the fact neither the “Epitaph” nor the manual connect this “Nei Jia Pai” to the current “internal” arts, and there is nothing at all to document or confirm this story of Zhang Sanfeng or Wu Dang (and in all likelihood it was just a story to boost the credibility of the art), the general public neither questioned Huang’s pseduo-history NOR made a distinction between Huang’s “Nei Jia Quan” and the NEW 1894 group using the same name. Thus, the public incorrectly associated the three arts of Taiji, Hsing Yi and Bagua with Zhang Sanfeng, Daoism and Wu Dang.


There is even more to this story, as historians such as Stanley E. Henning and Peter Lorge have both suggested alternate understandings of the original “Nei Jia” references. Henning addresses the improbability of Zhang Sanfeng as a martial arts originator; outlining the Zhang Sanfeng legend as having three phases:

Phase I: (prior to 1669) merely claims that Zhang was a Taoist immortal
Phase II (after 1669) claims that Zhang originated the “internal” school of boxing
Phase III (post 1900) claims that Zhang originated Taijiquan.

Henning notes that the Zhang Sanfeng legend evolved during the Ming period (1368-1644), based on the close association of early Ming rulers with Daoism. Emperor Chengzu spent considerable funds to reconstruct war-torn monasteries on Mount Wu Dang, and Emperor Yingzong canonized the elusive Zhang in 1459. However, throughout this formative phase of the Zhang Sanfeng legend there is no mention of Zhang’s involvement with martial arts.


So how did Zhang become associated with “internal” martial arts and eventually Taiji? Henning refers to the “the Epitaph for Wang Zhengnan” (1669) as rather “the ultimate act of political defiance through literature” and suggests the real significance of this piece at the time lay not so much in its reference to boxing but in its anti-Manchu symbolism.


Huang Zongxi (1610-1695) is a figure of which we can say many things with certainty. He had participated in the Southern Ming resistance and was anti-Manchu. As Huang was a noted historian, the Manchu had hoped Huang would assist in writing the official imperial Ming history, but Huang refused. Instead he composed “Epitaph for Wang Zhengnan” extolling an individual who had fought against the Manchus, attributing Wang’s martial art to the Daoists whom the Ming emperors had favored.


As Peter Lorge argues, no Han Chinese in Qing imperial China could openly criticize the Manchu, but you COULD critique the “foreign” religion of Buddhism. Daoism, of course originated in China and was distinctly Chinese. Furthermore, consider the concept of “internal”, the man who appears weak but with “internal power” is actually stronger than the muscled barbarian. This contrasted the apparently weak China, compared to the apparently strong steppe warriors of the Manchu. “In reality” the weak was actually STRONGER and BETTER than the “external” who appeared strong. Thus, rather than serious martial arts history, it is veiled political commentary. Perhaps this is why Huang even included a disclaimer as to the accuracy of the content of the Epitaph. He never intended for it to be taken literally, yet 100 years later it was taken just that way and in many sectors continues to be embraced as gospel.


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