Simplicity in martial arts (and Choy Li Fut)

Master Tam Sam, founder of Buk Sing Choy Li Fut.

Recently I’ve been training a lot of a short drill-like form that Phil Duffy taught me years ago. It’s a little sequence that contains about 8 or 9 basic Choy Li Fut techniques (depending on how you count them) and runs in a loop so you can just keep doing it over and over. If you wanted a good introduction to Choy Li Fut, that’s it. There’s pretty much everything you need in there to get proficient at something that at least resembles Choy Li Fut. There are no complicated animal methods or anything too fancy, just practical blocks, deflections and strikes done in a CLF style and using the basic Choy Li Fut stances.

And then I started wondering about what it would be like if a person only ever practiced that little form, but drilled it intensely every day over and over and also spared the techniques for a year. I wonder how good you could get if you just did that? I think you’d actually get pretty good! You’d need other conditioning drills, of course, and stretches, but you’d definitely have the essence of something.

And that got me thinking about the whole concept of simplicity in martial arts. Quite often we make martial arts overly complicated, especially in Chinese internal styles. There are basics to master first – fundamental principles of body movement, posture and breathing, that all need to be coordinated together with the internal elements like mental intent, jin and calm focus, etc. Then there are long forms to master, and then other forms on top of that. And that’s not even touching on the techniques you need to master. And push hands and weapons forms. It just goes on and on. It’s like Tim Cartmell said in our recent podcast conversation (and I’m paraphrasing him here) “in some of these styles you do so much body work that you forget the other guy is actually going to throw a punch!”

The heavy sparring emphasis I’ve experienced in BJJ has taught me that martial techniques can’t be too complicated if they’re going to stand a chance of working when the rubber hits the road. A six move combo to sweep somebody, pass their guard and choke then out is pretty unlikely to work in sparring just the way you drilled it in practice because no plan survives contact with the enemy. What works in real life are techniques and strategies that hit that sweet spot somewhere between the level of “too dumb” and “too complicated”. Those sorts of techniques, drilled to become second nature, have a real chance of working when you need them to. That’s the simplicity you want to aspire to in martial arts, and to me that’s the real power of martial arts like Choy Li Fut – they have enough subtly to make them interesting, but not enough to make them too complicated and impractical.

When I get time over the weekend I’m going to film my little mini Choy Li Fut routine and put it in the Patron’s area, so you can check it out there.

Choy Li Fut mini form. Video available at patreon.com/taichinotebook

Tai Chi Notebook Podcast Episode 15 – Centre the Dragon: Tai Chi Talk with Ken Gullette and Graham Barlow

In this episode of the Tai Chi Notebook podcast I’m teaming up with Ken Gullette, to answer the kind of questions that Tai Chi teachers get asked all the time.

YouTube version for people who, er, like YouTube?

Ken is an all-round good guy and owner of the Internal Fighting Arts website where he teaches the arts of Xing Yi, Bagua and Tai Chi at a very reasonable monthly cost. Check him out at www.internalfightingarts.com

Ken is a Chen style guy, and I’m a Yang style guy so it’s no surprise we have slightly different views on a lot of different topics, but that’s part of the fun of it all.

And if you’d like to help out my podcast then you can now become a friend of the Tai Chi Notebook on Patreon. Head over to Patreon.com/taichinotebook and you’ll be able to get a downloadable version of the podcast as well as support my work and get exclusive articles.

If you’ve got any comments on what we say then send them in – we’d love to hear from you!

The Tai Chi Notebook Podcast, Episode 14: The Power of Buk Sing Choy Li Fut, with Phil Duffy

In this episode my guest is Phil Duffy, a senior student of Sifu Wan Kei-Ho from Hong Kong, who carries on a lineage of Northern Shaolin and Buk Sing Choy Li Fut from the famous masters Ku Yu Chang and Tam Sam.

Buk Sing is a much rarer sub style of Choy Li Fut that involves less long forms and more conditioning and drills, and it’s the same style of Choy Li Fut that I learned in the UK, so when I met Phil back in the 2000s we had a lot to talk about.

We’ve kept in touch over the years so it was good to catch up again for a chat.

Here we get into the differences between the various Choy Li Fut styles, how it’s different training martial arts in Asia compared to the west, and we talk about the key to it all, the ging (or jin)  –  that special type of soft power, that some people call Internal power – that the Chinese martial arts are famous for, and how it’s used in Choy Li Fut. We also talk about the famed Wing Chun / Choy Li Fut rivalry and how Choy Li Fut relates to other styles from the same area of China, like the older Hung Kuen style.

Support The Tai Chi Notebook and join our Patreon:

http://www.patreon.com/taichinotebook

N.B. Patrons get a downloadable version of the podcast MP3 file. (Regular podcast is streaming-only).

Links

Sifu Wan Kei-Ho webpage:

http://www.kungfuwan.com/eng_home.html

Episode link

Down, but not out? Kung Fu in Hong Kong

There’s a fascinating new interview with Daniel Amos about training Kung Fu in Hong Kong over at the excellent Kung Fu Tea blog. Daniel has been training in the same style of Kung Fu and living in Hong Kong since 1976.

The majority of the interview is about his academic research methods, but the last two questions are of most interest to Kung Fu practitioners and discuss the effects of globalisation that he’s observed on Kung Fu training over the last 45 years. The result seems to be a less “fighty” version of the arts being taught, and the breakup of the complex, interlocking social, cultural and religious weave of forces that made up martial arts in favour of a more easily packaged version that can be taught piecemeal.

The lack of sparring in modern Kung Fu houses is of course a cause for concern, however he says he believes that the knowledge is still there in young practitioners, particularly the children of Kung Fu masters, and could easily be revived in the future.

Have a good read of the answers to questions 6 and 7. Here’s a quote:

“Little sparing was occurring at Hong Kong martial houses in 2019, not only among those who practiced kungfu, but also in martial houses which taught martial arts styles developed in non-Chinese cultures. Students of western Muay Thai, for example, now probably the most popular martial arts practiced in Hong Kong, estimate that only ten percent of fellow learners do contact sparring.  The motivation of most is to get exercise, lose fat and stay in shape. 

During fieldwork between 2017-2019 among martial houses where kungfu was practiced, I witnessed only light, geriatric sparring, that performed by my kungfu brothers and me, all of us in our sixties and seventies, the eldest members of our brotherhood then still practicing.  Members of one of our brother martial houses were reported to be doing some limited sparring, but I did not witness it. In interviews with a variety of kungfu learners many complained that they’d like to do sparring, but it rarely or never happened in their martial house.       

Forty-five years earlier, if someone in Hong Kong wanted to learn one of the various kungfu fighting systems one usually needed to become a devout follower of a master, join his martial house, and enter into a complex socio-cultural system of loyalties and obligations. If one was loyal to the master, respected and followed the commands of more senior kungfu brothers and studied hard, one gained the opportunity to acquire knowledge and skills associated with the specific variety of Chinese martial arts taught by the master. To belong meant not only showing up at the martial house five or six times a week for intense practice, but also participating in the brotherhood’s ritual practices and religious observations.  

By 2021, economic globalization and cultural homogenization in Hong Kong has a meant that the corpus of complex Chinese kungfu knowledge and practices of many styles of kungfu have frequently been fractured into separate parts, turned into individual commodities, and sold on the open marketplace.  This has placed the consumer, the potential learner of kungfu skills, in the driver’s seat.  “

Daniel Amos

Read the full interview.

Podcast Ep 4: Discover the link between martial arts and Shamanism with Damon Smith

What is Shamanism? And how does it relate to martial arts? In this episode I catch up with my old, friend and teacher Damon Smith to answer some of these questions.

Damon is an incredibly experienced martial artist with a background in various Japanese and Chinese arts including Karate, Kempo, Xing Yi, Baji and Choy Lee Fut. And those are just a few of the arts he’s pursued to a very high level.

But despite being a great martial artist Damon’s true love has always been Shamanism.

And while he’s no stranger to banging a drum, Damon’s shamanism is not the hippy dippy sort of practice you might associate shamans with, instead it’s a very down to earth and practical art, much like the martial arts he does.

In this episode we talk about the link between martial arts and shamanism, and where the crossovers lie.

Is Chinese wrestling the root of all Chinese martial arts?

An interesting video has surfaced that links the guard postures used in Shuai Jiao (Chinese Wrestling) with postures in various Chinese martial arts. The premise of the video is that Shuai Jiao is the root of all the Chinese martial styles. The text accompanying the video says:

“Guards in traditional Chinese wrestling are meant to favor certain fighting techniques and strategies. Since Shuai Jiao is very ancient and there are precise references in these guards to the styles that exist today, traditional wrestling is at the roots of Chinese styles. My Master Yuan Zumou has clearly stated this for over thirty years. In Shuai Jiao these attitudes are not aesthetic, but are used in real combat. I have put the captions of the styles I know or of those that maestro Li Baoru (Beijing, late 80s) mentions in the video.”

It’s an interesting theory, but unfortunately I can’t agree with such a blanket statement as “traditional wrestling is at the roots of Chinese styles“. Was it a strong influence on all Chinese styles? Yes, of course. But calling it the root of all styles is a bit strong for me. Some styles developed entirely from military practices, and a lot of styles have no wrestling component at all, or have their roots in weapons usage.

I can certainly see postures in the video that resemble Tai Chi – particularly the “White Stork Cools Wings” posture and another guard that looks a little like the “Wave Hands Like Clouds”. But we only have two arms and two legs – inevitably there are going to be similarities between postures found in different martial arts. That alone doesn’t confirm a genuine historial link. Influences betweewn marital arts can flow in both directions, too. So it’s quite possible that wrestling has been influenced by local village styles. And even things that are not necessarily combat arts, like xìqǔ, can have an influence on them.

I’d also have to take issue with the statement that “In Shuai Jiao these attitudes are not aesthetic, but are used in real combat.” Let’s not even get into the idea of what “real combat” is (Shuai Jiao matches have rules, after all) but it’s a simple fact that Shuai Jiao was enjoyed in the royal court in the Ching Dynasty (and probably all the dynasties before it) as a kind of entertainment for the nobles. The same thing happened in the Japanese royal court with Sumo, just as medieval kings in Europe enjoyed watching martial games like jousting and fencing. And obviously wrestling is still enjoyed as a kind of popular entertainment in America and Mexico today.

But let’s turn our attention to the contend of the video. A lot of the guards being demonstrated look quite showy to me – as if they were designed to impress an audience, particularly the Wave Hands Like Clouds style guard, where the practitioner seems to deliberately trip over his own legs.

But I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Ever since modern Wu Shu put the emphasis on gymnastic ability over practicality, people have been searching for this false dichotomy between performance and practicality in historical martial arts, too. It’s almost like a real martial art isn’t allowed to have any ‘fun’ aspects to it. In reality, and with several historical examples, a martial art can be both a serious, practical tool for combat, and something that can be performed for social, entertainment and cultural reasons all at the same time.

Choy Li Fut schools often perform lion dance, and that doesn’t mean their kung fu won’t work in a fight. Similarly, I would contend that Shuai Jiao can be used as a form of entertainment and a practical method of self defence. Just like almost all Chinese martial arts can.

Lineage Queens

If I had a pound for every time I’ve heard a Chinese martial artist start to explain the history of their style in a way that means, by sheer coincidence, that their particular lineage is the most special and authentic example of all the different branches of their style, then I’d be as rich as a relative of a Conservative MP in 2020 with no previous experience of procuring PPE equipment.

So, what’s going on here? Obviously not every single Chinese martial artist you talk to can have the ultimate lineage of a style, so one of two things is happening here. Either, you’ve just happened to bump into that one guy on the planet who has the best version of this style known to mankind… Or, like most human beings, the person talking lacks the self awareness to see that they are parroting a line they’ve been sold, and that they’re now selling to you. Everybody likes to think that they are doing the real thing, and that means, that all the other people who do their martial art a bit differently to them therefore can’t also be doing the real thing. As a side note, I think the elaborate and fanciful origin stories of most Chinese martial arts serve a similar purpose – to make the students confident that their style is somehow better than the others.

The most recent example of this phenomina I’ve listened to was in an episode of a podcast featuring a Chen style lineage holder talking about why his style is the best. The whole episode is essentially about who has the real Chen style lineage – the Beijing Chen group or the Village Chen group. I don’t do Chen style myself, and don’t really have any desire to either, so I don’t have a dog in the fight, but listening to the long, convoluted reasoning he used to explain exactly why his lineage is better than the others, I do wonder if he’s ever stopped to listen to himself?

Martial arts styles are essentially brands, and everybody involved is selling you their particular brand in one way or another, whether they realise it or not. This is a cynical view to take on martial arts, I agree, but I think it’s also historically accurate. Martial arts styles only appeared in China the age of commercialism when people realised that it was possible to make money teaching them. Before that different styles didn’t necessarily have different names, or names at all. Once you could make money teaching it was necessary to differentiate your particular style from others, otherwise, how would you attract students?

I don’t mean to single out the Chen style guy – he’s not alone by a long stretch – but it seems to me that all Chinese martial artists have some version of the same story they tell themselves about why their lineage is the most special, unique or authentic. Heck, I used to be one of those guys myself!

This is usually the point where my very wise Polish BJJ friend taps me on the shoulder and reminds me with his usual Spartan brevity that the only reason lineage becomes important is because the art has died and nobody is using it to fight with any more.

Again, that sounds a bit harsh, but he could well be right. BJJ is a brand like any other martial arts, and very marketing heavy, but in BJJ circles people don’t tend to care about lineage in the way they do in Chinese martial arts because the art has a healthy competiton culture. Nobody would say things like, “This is not the real Rio De Janeiro style of jiujitsu”. They’d just get laughed out of town for saying that. In BJJ, if you can make a technique work in training, or even better, in competition, then it’s valid. There is no need for any other type of validation. If it works, it works. You are expected to add to it and innovate. I really like that. Sure, there are a few branches of the BJJ tree that venerate the original self-defence orientated teachings of Helio Gracie as if they were written in stone, and refuse to modernise for fear of losing their street effectiveness, but they’re not that big a deal in the great scheme of things. The rest of the BJJ world carefully steps around them so they can carry on living in the 1930s without affecting anybody else. It’s not a big problem.

Lineage is real. It exists. But surely, what matters more is what we can actually do with the art?

My question is always, “does it work?” If it does, I’m interested.

Suspended from above. Bringing a sense of lightness to your Tai Chi.

One admonition from Yang Cheng Fu’s 10 important points, that has become something of a law in Tai Chi Chuan, is to ‘keep the head suspended, as if from above’. In the Tai Chi Classics it also states “Stand like a perfectly balanced scale and move like a turning wheel”, whilst also saying, “Don’t lean in any direction; suddenly appear, suddenly disappear.

These quotes have produced all sorts of controversies in the Yang style side of the Tai Chi universe. If you look at ChengFu’s student Cheng ManChing, who did so much to popularise Tai Chi in the West, you can see that he changed his form to truly embody this principle of suspending the head and standing like a perfectly balanced scale. In a forward posture, Cheng ManChing kept his head, neck and back vertical in relation to the ground at all times. He allowed no forward incline at all. To stay vertical he softened his back knee a bit, which removed the straight line from the heel to the head, producing a much softer posture than his teacher, Yang Cheng-Fu, exhibited.

Whereas, if you look at pictures of Yang Cheng-Fu in a similar forward posture you can clearly see that he holds his head in the same vertical alignment, but holds his back with a slight forward incline. He keeps his back leg straighter, forming a straight line from his back heel to his head, meaning that his posture is slightly harder than Cheng ManChings, and he exerts more of a forward pressure.

Both of these approaches can be seen as interpreting the advice to not “lean in any direction” differently. The situation becomes even more confusing when you look at the Wu style of Tai Chi Chuan, derived from the version of the form practiced by ChengFu’s peer Wu Jianquan. Wu holds an even more inclined position, which keeps the head vertical, but often seems to break the line at the hip, so that the back heel is no longer in a straight line all the way to the head. Being of Manchu heritage, Wu Jianquan had a shuai-jiao background. He was taught martial arts by his father who was a student of Yang LuChan and also a cavalry officer and imperial palace guard, as he was, so a change in his preference for grappling techniques could very well account for the changes in his version of the form.

I used to ponder these discrepancies a lot, but these days I have become more interested in the relation of the back (including the neck) to the hands and arms, regardless of its orientation in the vertical plane. When we lift and use our arms our tendency is to bend the top of our spine and drop the head forwards, a fact that can be proved each and every time you type on a laptop. The next time you’re sitting at a laptop observe what happens when you start to type. Notice that your head wants to move towards your focus of attention, the object you are interacting with.

Recently I was watching an excellent performance by a child doing Bak Sing Choy Li Fut, filmed in the 1960s. Young children doing martial arts can be great teachers because they effortlessly keep their posture as they move. It is only as we become adults that we seem to lose this ability.

Search for the video “Old Kung Fu Footage in Hong Kong in the 1960’s” on YouTube and you’ll see what I mean. Watch the good posture he keeps throughout – his back remains still in relation to the movement of his arms allowing his neck to stay extended and space and awareness to be present.

This is what I think is being asked for in Yang Cheng-Fu’s writings and the Tai Chi Classics, not mere fussing about how vertical a posture is. What is required is the freedom to move our arms, but to keep our back still, and maintain our head and neck relationship without falling into the trap of bending towards the object of our attention.

But how do we train this? Here’s something simple you can try. Get a 4-pint carton of milk out of the fridge and swing it in a figure of 8 in front of you. Now do it again and notice how you head wants to be pulled forward. Resist the pull and feel the work done by the neck and back muscles to prevent it from happening. It shouldn’t feel like they’re straining, but they should feel active.

You can do the same thing with a heavy sword, of course, if you want to look more like a traditional martial artist, and less like a deranged milk man. And once you get a feeling for it you can try it without a heavy object, in which case it becomes more like a silk reeling exercise, or you can try and keep the same feeling when you do the Tai Chi form. In which case it doesn’t look like anything.

Obviously, when you are standing still, or sitting, in meditation you can achieve the same relationship of the torso, neck, head and arms but with even less use of muscle to maintain the position. Initially at least. If you try standing in a Zhan Zhuang posture with your arms extended for a few minutes you’ll start to feel your neck and shoulder muscles tighten. This is where you need to work on relaxing them, yet maintaining your posture. You need to let the weight of the upper body rest on the lower body, and flow down into the ground through the centre of the foot, or through the sitting bones if you are seated.

A human head is quite heavy, at around 5KG, which is a lot more than a typical bowling ball weighs. If the head moves forward of the hips too far then we have to start using a lot of muscle to hold it up. In a way, the neck being tense, or feeling tired, after we’ve been doing an activity is a warning sign that we’re not using our body to the best of our ability. If we can maintain the relaxed, neutral, position of the neck through movement, then the weight of the head is transfered down to the ground through our frame instead. Our breathing will be better, and we won’t lose that sense of lightness and ease that the kid in the Choy Li Fut video from the 1960s so effortlessly demonstrates.

Finally, his idea of keeping an open relationship between the head, neck, back and arms raises a few good questions when applied to martial arts. What springs first to my mind is, should you have your head in that position to fight? I’d say probably not – you want to tuck your chin in a bit more when you fight, for obvious reasons, but the real question is how you tuck your chin. The idea of the extended neck that you’re training by working on your posture can be transferred into the way you tuck your chin. Dropping the head towards the opponent has all the same disadvantages we’ve outlined above when applied to martial arts, and will inhibit the free movement of your arms, so critical to fluid punching, not to mention making you more hittable.

So, keep your head up, as people say to you when you’re looking down. Walk lightly, smile brightly!

Kung Fu work out with David Rogers

Michael Rook posted about an online course in Hap Gar that’s starting in January, so I thought I’d check it out and had a go with one of the free videos as my morning workout. The teacher is David Rogers of Rising Crane, and the workout is a nice, not too heavy, way to start your day while learning some Kung Fu. Plus it’s free, so give it a go! I really enjoyed it. After a warm up you’ll work on the first 5 basic punches of Hop Gar and some stances.

Richard is a teacher of Tai Chi and Hap Gar Kung Fu through the Rising Crane. David only takes one or two student groups a year for online learning, and it’s a very interactive, personalised training session so a whole group can move through it together, getting feedback as they go.

Registration is open for the next 7 days at Rising Crane Kung Fu Virtual Academy. He also has a Rising Crane Tai Chi Virtual Academy course starting this year as well.

I haven’t done Hap Gar before, but I’ve done a lot of Choy Lee Fut, and to my eyes there appears to be very little difference between the two. Hap Gar looks like a version of Choy Lee Fut to me, even the same names are used for the moves, so it was great to experience a Kung Fu style I was already familiar with, but from a slightly different perspective. I also liked his thoughts on fighting strategy for these long range styles that he gives at the end, around the 35 minute mark, plus I liked his thoughts on MMA.

That is one mean looking crane. Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com