Sum Chien (Three Wars) – The Heart of Shaolin

This short, superficially simple routine is the core training exercise of not only Southern Shaolin kung fu but also many styles of Karate.  It must be one of the most widely practised yet least understood martial arts exercises and is still shrouded in mystery.  In this article I describe how, over the last 32 years, the mystery has unfolded to me personally.

Part 1: ‘If you take a bus, you should know when to get off!’.

When, as a teenager, I made the decision to commit myself to kung fu training I was buying into a dream.  A dream of ancient Masters who could tame bandits with a glance, of monasteries nestled in mist shrouded mountains, of Shaolin monks who could crack granite with their bare hands and of handsome, sharply suited, oriental hitmen who could kill with the lightest touch, leaving not a trace.  I didn’t really take up kung fu because I needed to learn to fight.  I knew that I needed to get better at fighting but I already had more experience than most people will gather in a lifetime.  The reality, however, is not quite what you might expect.  Cracking heads into damp grey pavements and ramming faces into dusty shop windows on cold, starlit nights is certainly exciting but it hardly counts as living the dream.  As a famous kung fu Master would say to me many years later ‘if you take a bus, you need to know when to get off’.  I always remember that quote!  To me, kung fu meant magical herbs, golden Buddhas, deep meditations, conversations with spirits and a whole world of untapped opportunity.  It was the stop where I wanted to get off the bus.

Thirty two years later I am still on that same kung fu journey and I have not been disappointed on a single count.  The path is not an easy one.  It started with a great deal of sweaty, painful physical work and progressed through a complete dismantling of my old self to build the new one.  Along the way I have watched spirit possession, lived amongst secret societies and cracked bricks with my fingertips.  I even had a face off with a god who guards the gates of hell in an incense scented Singapore backstreet, right in the middle of the red light district!  In the end, I have simply confirmed what I knew in my heart right from the outset: kung fu is a way to free the spirit from its self imposed chains, to live a better life and to unlock the full human potential.  It sounds great, but nothing comes without a price.  The Chinese words ‘kung fu’ translate more or less as ‘a man hard at work over a long time’.  If you want to unlock the full power of kung fu, it is not going to be easy: you are going to have to work, you are going to have to sacrifice and you are going to have to suffer – over a long time.  There really is no such thing as a free lunch.

My teacher, Master Tan, who is a direct line descendent of the Southern Shaolin tradition, was always careful to point out that there are many routes to the top and that no way is the only way.  The way we took was the one which is practised in the Southern part of Fukien province, know as Min Nam – South of the Min river.  Although the exact location of the Southern Shaolin Temple, (the one which was burned to the ground by the Ching army and thus inspired the greatest martial arts legend), is still a point of controversy it is accepted that it indeed lay within this ‘Min Nam’ area.  So it is fair to assume that the martial arts of this area – which are very unique in character – are the closest that remain to those of the legendary temple and its immortal warrior monks.  Although these arts have diverged into a number of different branches, they are linked together by the fact that they almost all centre their training around a short and superficially simple training routine called ‘Sum Chien’ meaning ‘three wars’ or ‘three battles’.  So for us, the hard work started with ‘Sum Chien’.  It has never finished.

I was told, from the outset, that Sum Chien was the key to our art.  Within it lay the true essence of the art and indeed if I was to master Sum Chien I would have mastered ninety percent of the art.  I didn’t understand.  So I just knuckled down and practised.  In all of the battles that we had back on the London streets, it had been a pretty good rule of thumb that the biggest, strongest most aggressive men had the advantage.  Kung fu Masters were different and that fascinated me.  Master Tan and his colleagues were mostly old, quiet, inoffensive and not at all physically imposing – at least in comparison to what I was used to.  And yet their skills could beat brute force.  I remember a time when I was still a very junior student and Master Tan asked me to punch him so that he could demonstrate how to bounce back the energy of a punch.  Being wary of the old Master I threw a very controlled punch towards him so as to be sure not to hurt him.  He gave me that withering look which I was soon to get used to.  ‘Iain, that was not a punch!  Don’t treat me like a fool, throw me a real punch.’  I had boxed for a few years and so as not to hack him off any more, snapped out a sharp left jab.  He caught it on his shoulder, rolled back with it until it ran out of energy, then flicked the energy that he had absorbed back down my extended arm to tip me off balance.  More than any other single incident, this is what sold it to me.  This was why I knuckled down and practised.  I had seen what was out there and I wanted a piece of it.  If that meant practising Sum Chien all day so be it.  Well, to a large extent it did mean practising sum chien all day!

It took a long time and a lot of trips to Singapore to persuade Master Tan that I was really worth teaching.  In 1993 I won gold medal in a world kung fu championships held in the USA for demonstrating my weapon skills.  Around about this time he seemed to make up his mind that he was going to teach me properly.  So we went right back to the beginning and worked on stance.  We continued for a long time – many years in fact.  Stance, body posture, relaxation.  ‘Work on the basics.  Build a solid foundation.  To build a strong art you need a strong foundation.  Sink into your stance.  Extend your Chi into the Earth and grow roots.’  Gradually Sum Chien came to life.  I learned the body mechanics needed to overcome stronger opponents.  I learned breathing techniques to ‘supercharge’ internal organs with Chi.  I learned to store energy in different parts of the body and release it in an explosive burst.  I learned to sharpen my senses and develop a sixth sense, as Master Tan calls it.  I learned to use my eyes in ways that I had not even contemplated before.  I can describe to some of the secrets that Sum Chien holds but without the hard work you will never master them.

A lot of my most influential lessons took place in bustling Singapore coffee shops and hawker centres, (little markets made up of cooked food stalls).  The food was amazing.  We would sit on small plastic stools around battered formica tables amongst the smell of stir fries and cigarette smoke tucking into Hokkien noodles or maybe chilli stingray and he would say: ‘Iain.  Never forget that, at the most, the teacher can give you fifteen percent of the art.  The rest you have to get for yourself through practise and hard work.   I can show you the path but I can not walk it for you.’  As always, it was sound advice.  I will explain to you here some of what Sum Chien holds but to gain it for yourself you will need to do the hard work.

Part 2 – ‘To Master The Basics is to Master the Art’.


Our art is often described as a very simple one.  I tend to the opinion that it is simple on the surface but complex in its depth.  None the less its approach to defence is simple, based around a number of rock solid principles.  One of these is the importance of stability.  If you lose your balance you will be able to do little more than flail around until either you get your balance back or you fall.  Whilst flailing around you will be vulnerable since you have no defence.  Hence very often all that is needed to win is to be so stable in your stance that when you clash with someone else you remain rooted in your stance and send them flailing around at which point it is very easy to finish them.  Ours is an old art, left over from days when losing often meant dying.  Quick, sure wins were important.

So developing a stable stance is considered the first priority in our art.

Stability must be balanced against manoeuvrability and speed.  Very low, wide stances have great stability but are slow hence we use a fairly high stance.  We retain our stability through being totally relaxed and sinking our chi down through the soles of our feet into the Earth like the roots of a tree.  This stance is said to have been developed by the Sung Emperor who founded the Tai Chor Quan (Grand Ancestor Fist) art, the third of the five stages in development of the Southern Shaolin kung fu.  There are two important variations of this stance and different schools of the same art often choose to use the same one.  Cheng Kun Twee is the thousand katee (thousand pound) stance, so called because it has the strength to support a great weight.  In this stance the leg muscles are strongly tensed and the testicles pulled up hard.  Lok Twee Seng Kun means ‘growing roots into the Earth’.  It can be called the rooted stance.  In this stance the legs are totally relaxed and the weight is held up by the elasticity of the tendon resulting in a springy, suspension like effect.

Dropping your chi down through your feet leaves the upper body empty and relaxed so that strength can easily pass through.  Holding the ground firmly with your feet provides great leverage.  A solid stance is the foundation of a solid art.


A straight spine works like a straight axle around which the torso can pivot.  More to the point, when the spine is straightened the energy centres which are positioned along it are lined up, like magnets stuck to each other, to form a straight path connecting the Yang Chi of the Heavens with the Yin Chi of the Earth thus harnessing a very powerful energy.  Finally, a straight spine under the correct type of tension can be bent in one direction or another so as to hold energy then fire it out, like a Bow which has been stretched releasing its energy into an arrow.

A torso which pivots freely around a straight spine can redirect an opponent’s force with ease.  The straight spine is, in effect, the centre line which is often discussed in kung fu theory.

Lining up your energy centres allows you to draw on powerful chi but the spine must be upright as well as straight, so that the crown point really does point to heaven and the root point really does point to Earth.

Using the spine to hold and release energy is an advanced skill.  Many forms of the Shaolin white crane art use a very pronounced bending and straightening of the spine to release energy.  Our art uses small subtle movements but with correct timing and physical conditioning can produce the same degree of power although the movement remains very fast and hard to see or to feel and so is very hard to counter.

Body Mechanics.

Relaxing and sinking into a stance keeps all of the joints intact.  This is essential for the efficient transmission of strength.

The stance is relatively short with the front foot only one foot’s length further forwards than the back.  It is narrow enough that the shoulders would just fit in the space between the feet.  Sixty percent of the weight is on the back foot.  The two feet are parallel and angled at about 30 degrees to front – the positioning which gives maximum stability.

The positioning of the arms is particularly important in securing mechanical advantage.  Once the shoulders are sunk down, the elbows are twisted in as far as possible and the wrists out as far as possible.  In this position the arm is so firm that it is almost impossible to move and it is an ideal position to deflect attacks past the body.  Holding the arm in this position is highly characteristic of most versions of the Sum Chien routine and a famous tactic in Chinese kung fu.

In fact the shoulders can be held in the middle position, swallowed into the back or let slip forwards.  In our Sum Chien  practise we avoid the forward position because it is too weak but use the middle position when throwing strength out and the back when drawing it in.

With a strong stance and back, adopting strong positioning for the arms completes the chain of strength, eliminating any weakness.  With these body mechanics we can overcome opponents who are much bigger and stronger than our selves.

As I mention this my mind is drawn to another of those principles which Master Tan likes so much to quote (there are a lot of them): ‘train for maximum strength but use the minimum.’  It pretty much speaks for its self.  There will always be someone out there who is bigger and stronger than you – so rely on technique rather than strength if you are going to stand a chance.  Having said that, a little bit of strength never hurts and physical training should never be ignored.

Part 3: Strength From Within  – The Hallmark Of Shaolin.

Internal Power.

There was a period, beginning at the close of the nineteen nineties, when I was writing a column for ‘Combat’ magazine and Master Tan took me around Singapore’s most prominent kung fu groups to interview their Masters.  He would translate since few of them spoke English.  Some resided in dusty medicine shops surrounded by bottles full of odd looking herbs and miscellaneous bits of animals.  Others were successful businessmen who we interviewed in their factories.  A lot were obviously underworld figures although they always had some sort of respectable front.  One thing that bound them together, though, was the fact that they all emphasised the same thing about genuine Shaolin kung fu: it was characterised by springy internal power.  In fact one thing that all agreed on (and let’s be clear, there were very few things that all this lot would agree on, many of them had been feuding for years) was that no matter what else you had, if you did not have springy power you did not have Shaolin kung fu – just a hollow, empty set of movements.  No wonder there is so much controversy about Shaolin kung fu these days.  A lot of the people that I see are indeed doing nothing more than a hollow, empty set of movements and I am not surprised that they come in for so much criticism.

Sum Chien is, in effect, the internal strength building exercise of Shaolin kung fu and, indeed, of those other arts which have adopted it.  Fortunately, once your stance posture and body mechanics are right, then with the help of a good teacher and a great deal of hard work most people are capable of developing springy internal strength.  If this doesn’t immediately grab you as being overly exciting, think of it this way – most people are capable of learning to perform Sum Chien properly with springy internal strength and thus master the defining skill of Shaolin kung fu.  To me that sounds pretty exciting!

There are a number of important components to internal strength.  One is the ability to store energy, usually in the tendon, and subsequently release it in an explosive burst.  Another is the ability to allow energy to pass through the body unrestricted.  Others are to send energy spiralling up from the feet and through the torso to be released into the arms and to amplify the energy each time that it passes a major skeletal joint – typically in the sequence ankle, knee, hip, spine, shoulder, elbow wrist.  Mastery involves getting all of these things to work smoothly together.

Internal strength then involves a great deal of skill as well as physical conditioning of the tendon.  The latter is essential so as to make the tendon sufficiently elastic to store energy when ‘stretched’ then release it efficiently.  Skill is developed through practise.  Elasticity is developed through regularly performing the right exercises.  Sum Chien training satisfies both criteria.  It is truly the path to internal power.

Strengthening Internal Organs.

If Sum Chien is performed with the right breathing methods the internal organs are greatly strengthened both in terms of their ability to perform their function and their ability to resist damage.  In this sense it may well be considered a form of iron shirt chi kung, although this name is more usually used to describe sets of breathing exercises aimed specifically at achieving this result.

Many of the steps of the Sum Chien are performed with a very special type of breathing.  On the in breath the abdominal and pelvic cavities of the body are strongly compressed whilst the chest is strongly expanded.  Both the compression and the stretch store energy.  Whilst the breath is held, springy energy is released through the body and out to the hands then wound back in by moving the arms in a coiling motion.  When this stage is complete the compression on the lower body cavities is released allowing them to expand explosively, thus forcing air out and completing the cycle of breath.

The compression of the abdominal and pelvic cavities causes the fresh chi and oxygen absorbed with the in breath to be pressed, under pressure, into the organs within.  These organs effectively become ‘super charged’ with chi making them more resilient and better able to function.

When energy passes through the organs, it moves primarily through the tendonous sheaths which surround them – the organ sheaths.  In doing so it builds tone and elasticity into them.  This process works even better when the explosive expansion occurs on the out breath.  The organs are stretched.  This pulls on the organ sheaths and makes them progressively tougher and more elastic.

Most of our organs have little intrinsic strength.  Think of cutting up a kidney: once you are though the tough outer sheath, the inside is pretty runny.  The strength lies in the tendonous sheaths around the organs.  By training strength and elasticity into these sheaths we make them less likely to rupture and better able to hold the organs in shape / place and protect them.

Development of the internal organs should not be undervalued, let alone overlooked.  The external body relies on them to function properly.  In western sport we constantly see the same mistake being made – over development of the external body coupled with neglect of the internal body.  The demands placed on the under developed internal organs by the over developed muscles and unreasonable levels of exercise eventually cause the organs to give up under the strain.  We then hear people in their thirties saying that they are ‘past it’ and retiring from sport in favour of activities such as pool, darts or pint glass lifting.  In kung fu we never retire.  Exercises like Sum Chien keep us strong internally, even into old age.  Here lies true value.

Part 4: Unlocking Your Greatest Power: The Power Of Your Mind.

Training the Senses, Expanding Awareness.

This is one of the most powerful yet least understood aspects of Sum Chien training.  I was fortunate that it happened to be something on which Master Tan was particularly focussed.

When we practise we open our eyes, ears and nose as far as possible and place the tip of our tongue on a specific point.  This accentuates most of our senses.  The need to have our bodies, particularly our joints, positioned so precisely leads to hugely expanded body awareness and a greatly heightened ability to feel where each little part of the body is, what it is doing and whether it is transmitting strength correctly.  I am quite sure that this develops and expands the parts of the brain which deal with information gathering.

The first and most obvious benefit of heightening our senses is that we don’t get taken by surprise and have time to react intelligently.  The most dangerous attack is always the one that you did not see coming!  There is, however, a more interesting dimension to this.  In his teaching, Master Tan places great emphasis on the fact that accomplished masters develop a very strong ‘sixth sense’.  The secret to developing this, he says, lies in the way that you train your first five senses and the way to train these senses is through correct performance of Sum Chien.

Training of the eyes through Sum Chien is a complex topic which could no doubt fill a book on its own.  We train to expand our field of vision considerably so that we are seeing in an arc of at least one hundred and eighty degrees.  We also train to defocus our vision so that we pick up the slightest movement very quickly and see colours more vividly at the expense of picking out detail.  In the later stages of the training we are able to project chi through our eyes with surprising intensity.  Actually many people have an innate ability to do this, at least to some extent, hence the feeling of hairs standing up on the back of your neck when someone is looking at you and and expressions like ’looking daggers’ at someone.  To truly develop the ability, though, takes a lot of hard work.

Training the emotions.

Training the face during Sum Chien practise seems to have gone out of fashion a little. It is widely known that the old masters used to contort their face into a strange grimace when they practised but most of their surviving students are too embarrassed to do this so it has largely disappeared.  Even in countries like China, Malaysia and Taiwan it has stirred quite a lot of interest when I have pulled the old Sum Chien face whilst demonstrating my forms.  The most amusing comment came from the daughter of a distinguished Ngo Chor master who said that when I pulled that face I really reminded her of her father – despite the fact that her father was most certainly Chinese!

Why pull the face?  Well, there are a number of reasons, including opening up both the senses and the meridians and developing the tendon in the face and head.  The most interesting, though, is the effect it has on our emotional state.

We all appreciate that as our emotions change, so does our facial expression.  We associate different expressions with different emotions: happy, sad, angry etc.  What most people completely miss, and I don’t know why, is that it works the other way as well.  If you purposely make a happy face and hold it, you start to feel happier, if you purposely put on a sad face you start to feel sad and so on.  This is strong hint as to how you can begin to take control over your emotions.  If you want to see a real master in action, search the internet for pictures of the famous Shaolin monk Sek Koh Sam demonstrating the expressions of the 18 Lohons!

The ‘Sum Chien expression’ is difficult to describe.  I have heard the eyes likened to those of a tiger or of the monk Tat Moh (Boddhidharma) who, according to legend, cut off his own eyelids to prevent him from falling asleep during his nine year meditation.  The only thing to which I have heard the whole face compared is the visage of a demon.  Not a perfect comparison but close.  It carries with it a unique emotion, with all of the sense wide open, chi lifted and expanded, energy levels high and intention focussed to a needle sharp point.  Quite certainly this is not a state which we should maintain for very long at all.  It is, however, pretty useful in an emergency and between the face and the emotion, a lot of attackers are likely to be put off before even starting!

It is really important to understand that when we practise our Sum Chien we do not just go through the motions.  We transform our emotional state, alter our senses and journey into a different world, just for a little while.

Speaking with the Body.

Life is largely about how we interact with others.  Psychologists tell us that only 7% of what we communicate is through our words compared to 55% through our body language.  That is a lot of body language!  An upright posture with the chest slightly raised, in other words the posture which we train in Sum Chien, communicates strength and a high social status.  Relaxation communicates confidence.  Then there is quality of eye contact!  One of the things that this body language says is ‘be very wary of attacking me, I am not someone you should upset’.  One of the functions of martial arts is to arm you with the weapons of self defence.  Your body language should be the first one that people encounter.  If you have studied Sun Tzu’s ‘Art of War’ and similar treatise on strategy, you will appreciate that the best general wins without having to fight.  Unfortunately a coin has two sides: slouched body posture, tension and failure to make eye contact are invitations for someone with a more dominant self image to pick on you.  Genuinely confident people don’t need to but people trying to reinforce their own confidence will often seek to do so by proving to themselves that they can dominate others.

As I mentioned above, emotion has a physical base.  The posture that we adopt will rapidly affect this.  As Sum Chien training reshapes our posture, our feelings and our confidence are reshaped with it.  This is massively important!

The process of reshaping your self is a great deal quicker that you might think.  I remember one student who came to me very tired and run down.  Through training Sum Chien, we achieved such a dramatic change that I found it hard to believe that I was dealing with the same person and had to consciously keep connecting the ‘old one’ with the ‘new one’.  Part of the reason why the change seemed so dramatic was that it happened in about three weeks!

Now for very best piece of news.  Your body posture and body language make a huge difference to how attractive you are.  And you have near total control over them.  Want to be more attractive?  Train your Sun Chien.  If Sum Chien training did nothing else for you, this alone would make it worth while.

Strengthening Intention.

The strength of our actions is proportional to the strength of our intention.  Intention leads chi and chi leads strength.  To put it in very easily understood terms, if you are going to act half heartedly, don’t bother!

Every minute action that we perform as part of our Sum Chien practise is done with total concentration and total commitment.  We practise to make this second nature.  In particular staring to infinity, regardless of any obstacles in our path, helps to strengthen our intention and lead our chi as far forwards as possible since chi follows concentration and our concentration follows our gaze.

Part 5: Raising Consciousness, Gaining Enlightenment.

Circulating the microcosmic orbit.

The most basic circulation of Chi around our bodies is the Microcosmic orbit or Microcosm.  Essentially it flows up the back and down the front.  When we inhale, Chi rises.  When we exhale it falls.  Before we emit power, we breathe in deeply and lift a great quantity of Chi to our heads, energising our minds and our senses.  Once our action is complete, we exhale and drop our chi down again to the lower Tan Tien which is its resting point.  At the moment of expelling power, we have a body full of chi, like a ball which has been inflated fully and is therefore elastic and able to bounce

Holding a straight back makes a strong circulation of the microcosmic orbit far easier

As we draw chi up to our head we activate the energy centres at our crown and third eye points, not to mention our brain, pituitary and pineal glands and eyes, ears, nose.  It is really important to drop this chi down again afterwards so as not to accumulate to much chi in the head – doing so causes insanity and has been the undoing of a number of self taught kung fu ‘masters’

Properly circulating the microcosmic orbit has massive benefits, at first in terms of health and at a more advanced level in terms of enlightenment.  It is not easy though and takes both practice and patience.

Tapping in to the Energy of the Universe.

As I mentioned earlier, when we adopt the straight Sum Chien posture we connect our crown point (Pei Hue) with the Yang Chi of the Heavens and our root point (Hue Yin) with the yin chi of the Earth.  Sum Chien training also typically begins with a sequence of movements which include one which thrusts the hands down towards the Earth, often called ‘Two Pillars Piercing The Earth’ one which points the palms to the Heavens, often called ‘The Fairy Displaying Her Flowers’, (it probably sounds better in Chinese than in English).  These techniques form powerful connections with the Chi of Heaven and Earth at the beginning of the practise.

Sum Chien almost always concludes with a repetition of ‘Two Pillars Piercing The Earth’.  As I mentioned above, it is vital not to let Chi accumulate in your head but to return it to your lower Tan Tien.  Thrusting the hands downwards at the end of the routine helps to achieve this, especially when followed by a powerful exhalation from the Tan Tien.

Expanding Consciousness.This takes us right back to the start, to where it all began with Boddhidharma teaching the monks.  Why?  Why teach fighting arts to monks?  Because monks are seeking enlightenment and to find it requires a massive raising and expanding of consciousness and the most proven way to achieve that is through certain types of martial arts training, notably the type which Boddhidharma introduced to Shaolin!  This training is the essence of realkung fu.

I have already described how we train our bodies to adopt precisely the right posture, alignment and mechanics.  To do this requires us to be aware of exactly how each joint is positioned and to hold it in exactly the correct way.  We have to hold the right tension I our tendon and the right pressure in our internal organs.  We even have to be aware of what all of our senses are telling us, of our emotions and our intention.  For beginners this is completely impossible!  It takes very many years to develop the brain to a level where it can be aware of so many things at once.  In fact to master Sum Chien we have to completely rewire and upgrade our nervous systems and our brains.  Here lies one of the greatest advantages of our training.  By developing our minds like this we pave the way to raising our consciousness.  We are able to see the world more clearly, make realisations about its true nature and easily work out the answers that had always eluded us.

This, perhaps, is the ultimate in our training – discovery of the truth!

When we take up training Chinese Kung Fu we embark on a journey which has no end.  As the Buddha said ‘to travel well is better than to arrive’.  As we continue to train we continue to grow, continue to gain new insights and new experience.  Not all of us will develop in the same way but the only ones who fail are those who give up.

If I had not encountered Master Tan and taken up training Sum Chien and Chinese martial arts who knows where I would be now.  But as I sit looking out at the mountains as the clouds blow slowly across them, smell the rain on the grass and listen to the chanting from the local temples I feel that all the hard work has been worth it.

I believe that Sum Chien still has a lot to teach me and am looking forward to continuing the journey.  The hard work never stops, the learning continues, the wonders never cease.

Part 6: The Origin of Sum Chien Training And How It Has Since Developed.

Some Background Information.

To me, what is most important about Sum Chien training is its huge potential to change our lives for the best.  Hence discussing this first.  To benefit from it we do not need to know about its history but, as humans, a knowledge of our background and culture and just where we fit into it is important to us.  It gives us roots, it gives us a sense of perspective.  So here, in the second part of this article, I will discuss these aspects of Sum Chien training.

Origins Sum Chien.

Unfortunately there are not, as far as I know, any written records of the Sum Chien’s beginnings.  Based on the fact that all of the ‘Min Nam’ arts seem to practise Sum Chien I guess that it dates back to the southern Shaolin temple and represents the culmination of many years practise and refinement by generations of monks.  It almost certainly has its origins in the ‘Muscle – Tendon Changing Classic’ and ‘Brain Marrow Washing Classic’, the legendary treatises of Boddhidharma, the Shaolin founder.

Cultural Identity.

Chinese kung fu has developed in such a way that it is interwoven with Chinese tradition, cultures and beliefs.

As part of the Shaolin branch of kung fu Sum Chien definitely has its origins in Buddhism.  Having said this many of the associations in which it is now practised incorporate Taoism and Confucianism into their practises.  It is very difficult to draw clear boundaries between them and they are certainly not mutually exclusive.

Numerology is and always will be incredibly important in Chinese thinking.  Three is a powerful number in Chinese numerology and three steps forward and three steps back are a defining characteristic of Sum Chien.  After the burning of the Southern Shaolin Temple by the Ching government, when the Kung Fu was kept alive only by the secret societies dedicated to overthrowing the Ching and restoring the previous Ming dynasty, Sum Chien was described as ‘three steps forward to overthrow the Ching, three steps backwards to restore the Ming’.  The triad of Heaven, Earth and Man, which is as important in Chinese cosmology as it is in Chi Kung, was very significant to the secret societies and is the origin of the name by which they are known in the west – triads.

Subsequent routines in the Hokkien arts such as white crane, tai chor and ngo chor often feature sequences of eight movements, eight being connected with the Pa Gua or octagon.  In fact in old style Shaolin kung fu the routines stick to using a maximum of eight directions, representing the octagon.  Routines which involve moving in all 8 directions are reserved at least until the intermediate stages of the training, though.

Different Forms, Styles and Versions of the Sum Chien.

Sum Chien training is practised in more or less all of the martial arts styles from Fukien China and by most traditional styles of Karate, (which is now more or less acknowledged as having originated from Fukienese kung fu, specifically the branch from North of the Min River).  Since these styles of martial art have now spread world wide, so has training in Sum Chien.  As the real power of Sum Chien is gradually understood it is likely to increase dramatically in its popularity and spread even further.

Many people are extremely confused by the huge variation between the Sum Chien exercises performed by different groups.  This confusion is understandable since most people fail to understand Sum Chien training.  They look at the external movements and assume that they are some sort of collection of fighting techniques.  When they look at different styles whose external movements are different they can not see how what they are seeing can be the same routine.  Since you have now read this far through my article, you will already have understood the real truth about Sum Chien: although its movements are indeed useful for defence, much of its value lies in how it trains the mind, the emotions, the breath, the internal organs etc.  If the correct training principles are followed then many different variations in the external movements are still capable of achieving the same results.  Through history kung fu masters have famously taken advantage of this by teaching the real depth of their arts only to students who are trustworthy, of good character and intelligent enough to be able to understand.  Those not so favoured were still taught the same movements and failed to realise that the key teachings were missing.  This is the subtlety of true kung fu.

Why is there such a confusing array of different variations of what is, essentially, a short form?  Having researched into this and, in the process, interviewed many old and distinguished kung fu masters I believe the answer to be as follows.

Before kung fu spread overseas it was not commercialised and most groups were fairly small and local.  Routines were not standardised to anything like what is usually seen today – indeed most masters prided themselves on performing their own ‘personalised’ versions of their art.  Hence there were almost as many variations as there were teachers, even within a school.  Kung fu was very much a living art and was expressed very personally by each practitioner.  The idea of standardisation had not really occurred to most of them.  Depth, quality, strong principles, effectiveness – these were what was important.

Unfortunately, the true depth and meaning of Shaolin Kung Fu is beyond the grasp of the majority of people and probably always has been.  So there have always been plenty of people around who, although they have learned good kung fu from a good teacher have not understood it and are just teaching their students to copy the external movements without any substance or depth.  To these people and all who learn from them the different versions of the Sum Chien routine will seen totally incomprehensible.  Indeed they will not even appear to be the same routine.  Further to this, even the best teachers are likely to place emphasis on different aspects of Sum Chien training, for example, on internal movement of energy as opposed to external expression of strength.  So the fact that different people perform differently does not mean that they are performing wrongly.  Ultimately, the better that you understand true Sum Chien training, the less difference that you will see between various outward expressions and the more similarity you will see between principle and methods.

Part 7: ‘Some Questions Answered’. 

What Special Breathing Methods Are Used In Sum Chien Training?

The special breathing which characterises Sum Chien training is certainly a very powerful form of Chi Kung and is the subject of much interest and discussion.  It is important to note that, at least in the form of the Sum Chien that I have been taught, breath is held in whilst strength is thrown out.  Only after a forceful action has been completed is the breath released.  There are a number of reasons for this.  The simplest one is that Chi, which more or less equates to breath, fuels our actions.  When we take a deep breath we fill up with fresh, vibrant chi.  We retain this Chi in our bodies to fuel our action.  Only when the action is complete and the energy spent should we release the Chi.  Breath is often released in a powerful, explosive burst issuing right from the lower Tan Tien – centre of our body’s energy.  As it leaves our bodies it makes a sound like a lion’s roar or a cockerel’s crow.  The sound, though, is simply a by-product of the breathing technique.

Some modern systems like to issue shouts or Chi Ai (Qi Ai) during their routines, rather like strength athletes as they lift weights or hurl shot puts.  From a traditional Chi Kung perspective, this may be OK for one single burst of strength but it drains the body of energy and robs it of strength after.  We never shout as we execute a technique.  We expel our breath only after we finish.

This is obviously a very superficial look at a very complex breathing method but to explain it properly would take a much longer article than this one.

Teaching Methods.

Questions sometimes arise as to how Sum Chien is taught in different schools and whether it is still taught now the same way as it was in ‘the old days’.

It is a well known fact that no two teachers teach in quite the same way.  It is  much lesser know fact that good teachers never teach any two students the same way.  Every student is different.  Good teachers direct their teaching so as to best get through to each individual.  There is no standard way to teach Sum Chien.  There are, however, a few teaching strategies which are worth commenting on.

Order of Teaching.

In the many kung fu systems which base their training around Sum Chien this form is usually learned first as it is considered to contain the most important basics.  In karate it is often not taught until 4th or 5th dan  level as it is considered such a valuable form.  Both approaches have their merits.

Pace of Teaching.

The best method of teaching is almost universally agreed to be slowly.  As none of the techniques can be performed without a proper stance, training pretty much has to begin with stance work.  One of the older teachers at our club had to train his horse riding stance every evening for two years before he was even taught to take a step forwards, never mind perform any hand techniques!  Needless to say, with a foundation like this his kung fu is awesome.

I do not know of anyone who still teaches this slowly.  The pace of life has changed beyond comprehension.  None the less, to build high you need strong foundations and that means repetitive drilling in the fundamentals such as stance, posture, relaxation, joint alignment, concentration etc.  Rome was not built in a day.  The need for repetition  has not changed.  At some point in their training, a student has to put in the hard work.

Progression in Training.

One of the weirdest things about Sum Chien training is that the better you get at it, the harder it becomes and the less you can do of it!  Western style exercise is exactly the opposite: the more you practise, say, press ups the more you will be able to do.  With Sum Chien training, the better that you get at it, the deeper you work your body – right into the internal organs, right into every tendon, every  piece of connective tissue,  nothing is left out.  For this reason it becomes progressively more exhausting.  Beginners are often told to repeat their Sum Chien 100 times a day.  This works fine at first but at some point the student will come back to the teacher and say something like ‘Master, I am getting completely exhausted by this’.  The usual response is something like ‘OK, that means that you are making progress.  Cut it down to 50 times a day’.  This pattern continues with gradual reductions in the number of repetitions until, at very advanced stages of the training, three a day may suffice.

Who Can Learn Sum Chien?

I suppose that the simple answer to this question is ‘anyone who can find a teacher willing to teach them and who has the physical and mental capacity to learn and perform’.  Having said this, only a tiny fraction of the people who attempt to learn Sum Chien really master it.  This is down to the fact that teachers who can teach to the highest level are extremely rare and also to the fact that only the most intelligent students will really understand and even then only after many years of very diligent practise.

With the advent of the internet, information is now much easier to come by which means that finding a teacher is becoming increasingly easy.  Ironically, finding the time to practice is becoming increasingly hard!

Is Sum Chien an Internal or External Form?

Master Tan often tells the story of the boy who is determined to be the first to climb the highest mountain that can be seen from the village.  He spends many days battling his way up the steep slopes, pushing through the bushes and sometimes having to drop to is hands and knees to negotiate the rocks.  As he finally approaches the summit he is dismayed to see that from many other directions other boys re approaching just as close.  There is more than one way to climb a mountain but whichever route you take you will still arrive at the same destination.  Whether you chose the internal route with your kung fu or the external, you will still end up doing the same thing!

As to whether to describe this form as internal or external, if done properly it should work a person equally hard on the inside as on the outside and hence is a balance of internal and external, like balanced yin and yang.  This is the pinnacle of the Shaolin art.  Of course if not done properly it is likely to be entirely external as well as a complete waste of time.

Where Does Sum Chien Fit Into Shaolin?

As I said earlier, in more or less all of the different styles of Kung Fu from the Min Nam region, which I believe to be the closest in existence to the original Southern Shaolin, Sum Chien is the basic training routine and usually the first one taught.  In my opinion it is the heart and soul of Southern Shaolin.  It does not appear in Northern Shaolin.


Master Tan often says that ‘to master Sum Chien is to master the art’.  As usual, he is somewhat understating the case.  If you can master Sum Chien you are one of a very small elite, a select few who can genuinely claim to be direct line descendants of Tat Moh, the Shaolin founder – I respect you greatly!


Iain Armstrong, Chief Instructor Nam Yang Pugilistic Association UK, two times world kung fu champion.

If you would like further information on Sifu Iain’s Armstrong’s full-time school in Thailand visit









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