How an American Dancer Introduced Tai Chi to America

In 1954, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, a 51-year-old woman in loose, comfortable clothing moved through a series of movements. A crowd gathered amidst abstract paintings to watch her. With the grace of a dancer, she slowly raised and lowered her hands, shifted her weight from side to side, and bowed her head. Her face was calm and serene.

The woman’s name was Sophia Delza. She was a dancer of some renown in the world of modern dance. When she first performed solo at the Guild Theater in New York at age 27, the New York Times called it “a distinguished debut” that “revealed her as an artist of individuality and authority.”

Although the woman’s slow pace would have bored a concert hall audience, her practiced movements radiated power. She moved like a coiled spring, full of harnessed energy. To the MoMA audience in 1954, Delza’s demonstration was a novelty. Today, many Americans would instantly recognize that she was demonstrating tai chi, the Chinese martial art.

Americans often don’t think of tai chi, which is commonly practiced by senior citizens in public parks, as a martial art. Although many variations exist, tai chi fundamentally involves moving slowly and fluidly through postures with names like “The Snake Creeps Down” and “The Golden Cockerel Stands on One Leg.” Tai chi often looks more like slow yoga than judo or karate-two martial arts that involve kicking and grappling. For this reason, many people practice tai chi as a gentle exercise, without any interest in its martial component.

Photo by Jakub Haiun

Yet tai chi has been translated as “supreme ultimate fist” and “great extremes boxing.” As practitioners like Sophia Delza understood, tai chi’s slow pace represents control-not weakness. Mastering the movements allows devotees to develop strength, balance, and a unity between mind and action. This is useful for both longevity and self-defense-and tai chi training that involves sparring and weapons.

In the 1950s, Eastern martial arts, and particularly tai chi, were not well known. Sophia Delza’s 1954 performance at the Museum of Modern Art was likely the first public demonstration of tai chi in the United States. Delza had studied tai chi with a master of the Wu style while living in China. When she taught, demonstrated, and wrote about tai chi on her return to the United States, she was one of the first, if not the first, to do so extensively outside Chinese-American communities.

This makes Sophia Delza a pioneer of American tai chi. Although she never achieved the fame of martial arts legends like Bruce Lee, she is worth remembering. Like tai chi, she had a gentle side that hid a powerful will. Delza loved dance, wrote academically, and de-emphasized the martial applications of tai chi. She was also one tough lady: Although American women did not have the right to vote until Delza was 17-years-old, she engaged in radical politics that made her a federal person of interest, and burst through barriers to forge a career in dance and, ultimately, as a mother of American martial arts.

Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History

Long before Peggy Olson broke the glass ceiling at the Sterling Cooper ad agency in Mad Men, Sophia Delza lived the mantra “well-behaved women seldom make history.”

Delza was born in Brooklyn in 1903, an environment likely to produce an artist, but not a martial artist. She majored in the sciences at Hunter College, a women’s college, but pursued dance due to the influence of her older sister Elizabeth, who became a professional dancer and Sophia’s first dance teacher.

When Sophia followed her sister’s footsteps, she had to compete for a limited number of professional dance opportunities. She took a variety of jobs in plays and films until she triumphed with her successful solo performance at the Guild Theater in New York. When she next performed a series of original compositions, a New York Times reviewer praised her “strong feeling for visual line” and “general good taste.” Delza also developed a performance style that mixed monologues and dance, studied composition in Paris, and traveled to Mexico to study folk dances.

Her career was remarkable in an era when less than a third of women worked. It is downright daring when you consider that her work was very political-and that she kept at it despite the risk of rabid anti-communist backlash.

Delza did not study folk dance in Mexico merely out of artistic interest. According to scholar Ellen Graff, Delza associated with a close community of artists who supported socialist and communist causes. Delza studied folk dance to make a proletariat argument for embracing traditional dances by describing them as “mass dances” that could unite communities. When civil war broke out in Spain in 1936-and became a cause celebre among artists and intellectuals-Delza created and performed works that criticized the fascism of General Franco and raised money for the leftist forces in Spain that opposed him. Later in her life, Delza donated time in her dance studio to radical dance groups.

Today communism and socialism are only associated with the failings of the Soviet Union, but in the 1920s and 1930s, they represented progressive politics. The American Communist Party organized marches of tens of thousands to advocate for the unemployed. Nearly every intellectual, including George Orwell and Ernest Hemingway, admired or supported socialism.

The 1920s was also the beginning of the Red Scare and apocalyptic fears over the spread of communism in America. Both Sophia and her sister Elizabeth were the subjects of reports for the House Un-American Activities Committee, which investigated “disloyalty” and “subversive activities” among American citizens and leftist groups. Sophia’s brother Leo Hurwitz (Sophia had adopted Delza as a stage name), an award-winning documentary filmmaker, also appeared in the reports and was blacklisted by the film industry in the 1950s due to his political views.

This opposition to radical politics does not seem to have stopped Sophia or her siblings. In an interview, Sophia’s nephew explained that Sophia and his father Leo “felt… that they really could change the world.” The Communist Party in America, he continued, “spanned progressive causes like the desire to fight Fascism as it was growing in Europe, the growth of unions, the desire to stop people from being evicted from their houses, and the movement for racial justice.”East Meets West

In 1948, at age 45, Sophia Delza was married and moved to Shanghai with her husband, Cook Glassgold. China was recovering from its occupation during World War II, and Glassgold had a diplomatic posting as Director of International Refugee and Relief Operations. During the couple’s four year stay, however, Delza did much more than appear on her husband’s arm at official functions.

Delza engaged in a vigorous cultural exchange. She taught modern dance, which was novel in China, and studied and learned Chinese dance and theater. Her zeal for exploration changed her life during a trip to Beijing, where she discovered tai chi. Delza later wrote about the dramatic scene she stumbled upon at dawn in T’ai Mizo Park:

Dozens of people, young and old, were each doing his exercise, each clearly centered on himself. No outside sound of voice or instrument directed the movement. The slow, continuous flow of form and the impeccably even tempo seemed to come not only from some mastey within each one but also from the intrinsic nature of the action itself.

Delza was fascinated. “Looking amazingly light and stable at the same time,” she recalled, “each person’s movements seemed effortless.”

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In context, it seems obvious that a modern dancer would be one of the first outsiders to appreciate tai chi. When Delza described her “first unforgettable impression” of the Chinese Theater in Peking, she wrote, “The colorful creatures moved so quickly that it seemed the stage itself were revolving.” Her recollection of the next scene marvels at the same slow, graceful aspects that struck her when she saw tai chi:

A simple, elegant figure, entering from the upstage right corner, quietly took a deliberate pose. He balanced himself on one leg, and extended the other in easy lightness, head high. Then replacing his leg in slow motion, he moved diagonally across the stage with the restraint and simplicity and… grace of a fairy-tale god.

At the Beijing park that morning, Delza quickly realized that “it was not dance [she] was seeing.” Yet she wanted to know more. She was introduced to Ma Yueh-liang, a famed teacher of tai chi in the Wu style, and his wife Wu Ying-hua, his co-instructor. She convinced the couple to teach her, and took up regular practice.

As Ben Judkins notes in a blog post about Sophia Delza, this put her in the unique situation of receiving several years of training “directly from one of the most talented martial artists of his generation.” She came to appreciate how, in her words, maintaining “a consistently slow tempo” in tai chi “is an indication, not only that the body has acquired strength and control, but also that the mind is in harmony with the action.”

When Delza and her husband returned to New York in 1951, she had trained for years with a foremost authority on Wu tai chi, and knew more about the practice and philosophy of tai chi than almost any American.

Bringing Tai Chi to Manhattan

In the 1950s, the practice of Eastern martial arts existed in the United States, but it was not widespread.

Hundreds of thousands of mainly Chinese immigrants passed through San Francisco’s Angel Island from 1910 to 1940, bringing with them martial arts like tai chi and judo. American soldiers stationed in Japan after the war returned to open dojos. Gene Lebell-who is now a mixed martial artist famous for teaching Chuck Norris and allegedly choking out Steven Seagal until he soiled himself-won an amateur National Judo Championship held in the United States in 1954.

But Americans like Lebell-who learned Eastern martial arts despite being outsiders to Asian communities-were rarities. Choy Hok Pang, a well-known, early teacher of tai chi in 1940s America, taught almost entirely Chinese students until the 1960s. It was not until Bruce Lee and Hong Kong “kung fu” films exploded in popularity in the 1970s that Americans widely adopted martial arts training. Some casual histories of tai chi simply write that it was introduced to the United States in the 1970s.

When Delza returned to New York from China in 1951, it was in this environment in which martial arts, and particularly tai chi, were known but relatively unfamiliar outside Asian communities.

The cover of Sophia Delza’s book, the first tai chi book published in English

Delza acted as a cultural emissary on her return, lecturing, writing, and teaching tai chi and Chinese theatre. Ultimately tai chi became her main focus.

The initial response was modest. One early student at the tai chi school Delza opened in New York regretfully recalled that her classes were poorly attended. When Delza performed tai chi at the Museum of Modern Art, it was the first demonstration of its kind, but also seems to have been a minor event. The demonstration does not turn up in the MoMA’s archived schedules from 1954, and one author credits Delza with giving the first public demonstration of tai chi in the United States two years later at the United Nations.

This did not deter Delza, who kept teaching and writing. In 1961, she published the first English language book about tai chi. As the popularity of tai chi and martial arts increased in the 1960s, partially thanks to her efforts, she appeared on television and her tai chi school thrived.

Her influence can be seen in a 1960 Popular Mechanics article about tai chi that is unmistakably a trend piece. The author-who breathlessly writes that “In Shanghai, where matches have been held, no Western boxer has yet beaten a boxer who trained on T’ai Chi to get balance and power”-makes Sophia Delza the focus of his article. He notes that her television appearances result in hundreds of inquiries from around the country, and that her students include “stage and screen stars.” Another article from 1963 relates that tai chi schools are overflowing with more students than teachers like Sophia Delza can handle.

If Bruce Lee-who more than anyone popularized martial arts in America through karate competitions and action films-was a Hollywood blockbuster or comic book, then Sophia Delza was an art film or New Yorker article. Delza taught from a studio in Carnegie Hall, which members of the Actor’s Guild could attend for free, and instructed celebrities and famous actors. In a move that foreshadowed Americans’ adoption of yoga purely as an exercise, Delza de-emphasized the martial aspects of tai chi in favor of its health and concentration benefits. Yet she always retained her academic bent, writing about the philosophy and history of tai chi in journals and books.

Sophia Delza’s role was to be one of the first advocates for tai chi, and to translate it for a non Chinese-American audience. At a time when articles marvelled at an exercise that did not involve barbells, medicine balls, or even sweat, Delza told her students that “We in the West are apt to overexert ourselves in exercise and sports, believing that a hard, tense movement indicates strength.” In tai chi, she continued, true strength, energy, and balance comes from exercise that does not strain the muscles or leave one winded.

Delza also lamented that “Too often I am asked no question other than whether this or that movement will make one thin.” She challenged her American students to appreciate other benefits of exercise, including the mental challenge of perfecting the tai chi postures.

Despite her academic inclinations, Sophia Delza is remembered as a teacher more than a scholar. Today, former students leave warm comments on blog posts about Delza that praise her instruction. One man who studied with Delza when she was in her eighties remembered her as “a tough lady” who taught tai chi “the same way a ballet master would teach.”

In 1996, Sophia Delza passed away. It had been almost 50 years since she first saw tai chi performed at dawn in T’ai Mizo Park, and she had spent over three decades as an instructor. When Delza published her first book in 1961, she had to explain every aspect of tai chi. The year she died, the State University of New York Press published her final book on tai chi. By then, it was almost impossible to imagine an America where people did not know about tai chi or martial arts. Few people know it, but that is Sophia Delza’s legacy.

A guest post from www.udemy.com – We’re the world’s online learning marketplace, where 8 million+ students are taking courses in everything from programming to yoga to photography–and much, much more. Each of our 32,000+ courses is taught by an expert instructor, and every course is available on-demand, so students can learn at their own pace, on their own time, and on any device.

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Tibetan Sky Burial

by Kerrie Henderson

“Separation of the body and soul”

photo 1(2)This morning, in the hostel in Kangding a Chinese guy asked me whether I’d been to Sida or not. For a lot of young Chinese people it seems to be this years ‘In’ destination… “and did you see the ‘tianzang’ (i guess he didn’t know the right words in English…) ?… I really want to see…” I did, but at Sida I wasn’t that comfortable with it.

I’ve seen one before, 2-3 years ago whilst biking through Gansu province. A body was carried up a hill and a gathering of Tibetan relatives and lamas stood or sat watching. There were a few foreigners there too, but we all knew that our cameras were to be kept inside our bags. We stood watching for around an hour or so… in awe of the birds, their size, their grace and the way they sat on the hill silently, waiting for their turn to pick at the remains….

In Sida its very different. Around 12.00 a handful of drivers stood outside the hilltop hotel yell ‘去天葬吗 ?and Chinese tourists haggle over prices or ask around to find others to fill up their cars. Around 12.30 most of the cars have made their way down to the bottom of the monastery complex and are beeping at each other as they negotiate their way through the muddy bumpy truckstop village at the bottom. The beeping and racing continues as the cars go down the road, turn and go up a smaller narrower mountain road. Its raining but the car park is already half full and its hard to see the end of the line of cars still making their way up the mountain. There are already around a hundred or so tourists, all Chinese stood behind a rope when I arrive. A couple of lamas and nuns (maybe real… maybe tour guides dressed up… I’m really not sure now…) were telling people to stay behind the line and not to take photos of the body or of the people surrounding it. I pointed my camera at the birds, as awesome as I remembered sat waiting patiently on the top of the hillside, looking for the right moment to make their way further down.photo 2(2)

I have no idea when the ceremony started. There was a nun singing ‘o-mani…’ and lots of Chinese people talking. I guess the ceremony wasn’t quite what the Chinese were expecting as most had left within 1/2 an hour or so. I stayed watching the crowd thin, and staring at the line of vultures sat on the hill above me. I couldn’t help wondering why the the vultures were more interested in watching their friends than eating lunch, and then realised I was doing the same thing, not really watching the ceremony and the proceedings but the behaviour of the crowd, and the way the Chinese people reacted to what they were watching. There were a lot of ‘i’m very cold’ and ‘I’m hungry’ ‘s… There were people taking pictures of the birds squabbling over the body (the very thing the monks told them not too…. and, yeah I know I shouldn’t have taken 2 of the pics. here but my iPad doesnt have the same super sized zoom lenses that many of the Chinese photographers cameras do…) A few Tibetan people were gathered around the monument at the bottom, near the pit where the body and vultures were and a few more groups were scattered around the hillside sat quietly. I wondered what they thought about what they were seeing… their relatives death being turned into a macabre tourist attraction, and how westerners would react if a group of Chinese tourists turned up at a church burial wanting to watch when and how the coffin was lowered into the ground and to take pictures of it.  photo 3

I can’t help thinking that death and the ceremonies that surround it are a personal thing, for the families and friends of the person that died. In western culture funerals are usually sad events, but in other cultures (and sometimes in the west, but not often), they are happier occasions, a celebration of the deceased’s life… and that being invited to watch the ceremonies associated with it is a privilege, not something that people should expect to see when they go to a Tibetan tourist place.

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I wonder whether the monastery is deliberately encouraging the tourist crowds. The sky burial site has a large white monument and construction is underway to make it and the car park alongside it bigger. In Gansu, the ceremony and the place where it took place was simple, the surroundings natural. There was a weird beauty to the proceedings. In Sida there was nothing ‘natural’ about it. 10 minutes or so later when a young boy took my ipad off me to look at my photos I realised that the tour guide/nun had stopped singing and had disappeared. A few minutes later I saw her lead a group of people across the grass, one of the places where were told not to go. The people in her group were pointing their cameras at the vultures and the body below and no one was stopping them. By this time the crowd had thinned out. Horns were beeping as the cars were pushing past each other to make their way out of the car park. The vultures were still picking away or watching and waiting. I stayed a while longer, watching the birds, the snake of cars slowly making its way down the hillside and the small groups of Tibetans sitting in the distance. I couldn’t help wondering who were the vultures. I don’t think the monastery intended to promote this type of tourism, but now that seeing a 49 day old corpse being pulled apart by vultures is one of the latest ‘in’ things for Chinese tourists heading to Sida to see I don’t think it will be easy for them to control.

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But back to the story… I asked the guy why he wanted to go and see one. ‘because… because everybody talks about it. It sounds good. I really want to see. People say Sida is the best place to see it.’ ‘Maybe you should see it.’ I told him ‘It might make you think…’ but, judging by the group of tourists I watched 4 days ago… I doubt it.

The Tibetan sky-burials appear to have evolved from ancient practices of defleshing corpses as discovered in archeological finds in the region. These practices most likely came out of practical considerations, but they could also be related to more ceremonial practices similar to the suspected sky burial evidence found at Göbekli Tepe (11,500 years before present) and Stonehenge (4,500 years BP).[citation needed] Most of Tibet is above the tree line, and the scarcity of timber makes cremation economically unfeasible. Additionally, subsurface interment is difficult since the active layer is not more than a few centimetres deep, with solid rock or permafrost beneath the surface. (Wikipedia)

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The Brilliance of the Chinese Longsword

By Jonathan Bluestein

The purpose of this very long article is to familiarize readers with a uniquely Chinese weapon – the Miao Dao. During the 20th century, this sword has been pushed out the spotlight in favour of the much more popular Dao (Broadsword), Da Dao (Huge Broadsword), Guan Dao (a staff with a huge broadsword blade at its end), and the Jian (the Chinese straight, double-edged sword). Historically-speaking however, the Miao Dao was very popular on the Chinese battlefields, and nowadays it is regaining its popularity in various martial arts communities in China, south-east Asia and the West alike. The article shall first discuss the history of the sword, later its structure and utility, and at last its training methods, usage in the martial arts and the characteristics of it in fighting.

The weapon’s history and name

mingsworddrawing1678According to my teacher, master Zhou Jingxuan, the first Miao Dao date back to about the 5th century. It emerged around the time when round hilt guards first became widespread in Chinese sword design. It was known by many names throughout history. Originally it was mostly commonly referred to as simply ‘Chang Dao’ (長刀; Longsword). Later in the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1644 AD, 1644-1911 AD), it was plainly called ‘two-handed sword’. At that time, it was also commonly known as ‘Mao Dao’ (矛刀; Spear-sword). Another name for it over the centuries (beginning in the Song dynasty, 960 – 1279 AD) had been ‘Zhan Ma Dao’ (斩马刀) – Horse Cutting Sword. An appropriate name for a blade which is big, heavy and fearsome enough to cut down horses’ legs and stab them to death. This may sound archaic, but modern Miao Dao forms still feature movements which can be used for such horrendous purposes, and the weapon can be demonstrated to easily cut through the corpses of large animals (this I saw myself on Chinese documentaries, even when the cutting swords were held by only moderately-skilled individuals). The sword was also wielded by cavalrymen, and when used in that fashion it was most often utilized for stabbing (rather than hacking, cutting or slashing).

The modern name, ‘Miao Dao’ means ‘Sprout Sword’, and refers to the resemblance of a grounded sword (blade in ground and handle facing upwards) to that of some sprouts (such as sunflower sprouts). My teacher has told me that the reason the sword began to be called by this name was confusion in pronunciation, with ‘Miao Dao’ sounding similar to ‘Mao Dao’. This error persisted and the name stuck.

In the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD) there had lived a famous martial artist by the name of Cheng Chongdou (程冲斗 ; Also known as Cheng Zongyou 程宗猷). He was born around 1561 in Anhui province. He is said to have been called by a representative of the Chinese emperor to teach army troops in Tianjin when he was 62 years of age. Skilled with many weapons, he wrote a famous book about the usage of Miao Dao, titled ‘Dān Dāo Fǎ Xuǎn’ (单刀法选) – ‘Selected (most important) Techniques of the Single Sword’. In the book are also notably featured other weapons, such as a crossbow (being carried by the soldiers as he wields the Miao Dao) and a short dagger (which is depicted as been carried passively or thrown at an opponent). The image to the left is from his book.

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In the picture: An image from Cheng Chongdou’s book, Dān Dāo Fǎ Xuǎn. The book features a lot of illustrations of soldiers carrying crossbows, together or without a Miao Dao. As seen here, the crossbow took a whole-body effort and quite a lot of time to load, and could not have been used together with the Miao Dao. At the time, a popular tactic would have been to utilize projectile weaponry from a safe position or shelter, and resort to an all-out charge at the enemy once ammunition ran out. It is interesting that in this book, the soldiers are often both archers and infantrymen, while in European Medieval armies there would have been a greater distinction between the two fighting classes. It seems that the crossbow, being easier to shoot with than the bow, allowed for more versatility in its uses among the soldiers.

At around the same period (of Cheng Chongdou) had lived another very famous martial artist – General Qi Jiguang (November 12, 1528 – January 5, 1588). He holds a mythical position in Chinese military history and culture. During his lifetime and career, the Chinese army was busy fighting off Japanese pirates, and it is more than likely that at the time, Miao Dao and Katanas crossed blades on the battlefield. Indeed, in the 14th century painting below, dated before the time of Cheng Chongdou and Qi Jiguang,  we already see Japanese pirates (Wokou 倭寇) wielding what appears to be Katanas (this is also evident in other paintings of these pirates), and it is known that many of them were former Samurai (those who wish to read more about these pirates can do so here: http://www.nippon.com/en/features/c00101/ ). In any case, Qi Jiguang had also written a book about the Miao Dao, titled ‘Xīn Yǒu Dāo Fǎ’ (辛酉刀法). The words ‘Xīn Yǒu’ refer to the year the book was released in during the Ming dynasty (58th year of a 60 year cycle), and ‘Dāo Fǎ’ means ‘Sword Methods’. Together – ‘The Sword Methods of the 58th Year’. General Qi Jiguang also famously issued Miao Dao swords to many of his soldiers when fighting the Mongols. The Mongol front was far from that Qi Jiguang had with the Japan, which goes to shows the sword had proven much versatility in usage under different conditions and upon various terrains.

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In the beginning of the 20th century, master Guo Chengsheng (1866-1967) combined his extensive knowledge of Pigua Zhang (a Chinese martial art) with that he had of the Miao Dao, and created a second variation for the Miao Dao form (known as ‘Er Lu’ – Second Road), with the aid of his friend, master Ma Yingtu. Both the first (original) and second form are mostly closely associated with the techniques shown in Cheng Chongdou’s book, Dān Dāo Fǎ Xuǎn. Here is a video of my teacher, master Zhou Jingxuan, performing the Er Lu Miao Dao form:

My gongfu has descended from Guo Chensheng’s lineage:

Cheng Chongdou, Qi Jiguang and others in ancient times >>>>>>>>>>>>>  Mr. Yang (18th century) >>>> Xie Jinfen (18-19th centuries) >>> Liu Yuchun (19th century; instructor at the Nanking Central Martial Arts Academy. Was a master of Pigua, Tongbei and Miao Dao) >>> Guo Chengsheng (1866-1967) >>>  Guo Fengming >>> Pang Zhiqi & Wang Lianhe (20thcentury) >>> Zhou Jingxuan (in the video above) >>> Jonathan Bluestein.

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In the picture: Guo Changsheng’s son, Guo Ruixiang (born 1932), himself a famous master. Note the closeness of the blade to the thigh as it passes in a circular fashion near it – a trademark of Miao Dao movements. The Guo family still manufactures and sells their own Miao Dao.

Though Guo Changsheng’s teachings of the Miao Dao had been of traditional battlefield techniques, over time his forms spread across China, with the majority of people practicing them in altered versions, adhering to the mindset and framework of modern sports Wushu. Thus, it came to be that as in the past, relatively few people still practice the Miao Dao as originally intended.

Physical appearance and design

The sword which bears the greatest similarity to the Miao Dao in design is strangely the Japanese Katana. This must be an uncomfortable piece of truth for the Chinese and Japanese, a large percentage of whom had been seriously resenting each-other (for good reasons) over the last few centuries.

Some claim that the Miao Dao is the sword that inspired the creation of the Japanese Katana. This sounds reasonable given the fact that Japan had borrowed significant portions of its culture, art, philosophies and even its entire writing system from China. However, Katanas are evidenced to have existed in Japan already countless generations ago – from at least the 14th century (The abovementioned Ming Dynasty in which the Miao Dao became commonplace, was only established in 1364). This puts into question the former claim of native Chinese influence, and it is possible that there had been cross-influences in the development of both swords. Nonetheless, it is still claimed by some that the Miao Dao influenced the creation of the Katanas before that time, perhaps even as early as the Tang Dynasty (618–907 AD).

I have also encountered claims that Cheng Chongdou, author of the Miao Dao book Dān Dāo Fǎ Xuǎn I mentioned earlier, was influenced by the Samurai school called Shin Kage Ryu (新陰流; ‘New Shadow School’), and that Qi Jiguang, author of the other Miao Dao book, Xīn Yǒu Dāo Fǎ, based his work upon a Japanese swordsmanship manual he acquired in battle. We cannot tell how much of this is true. In modern times, the body mechanics of traditional Koryu styles are extremely different to Chinese Miao Dao methods. Furthermore, the Katanas had always been shorter than the Miao Dao, and the substantial difference in both length and weight, as well as handle size, etc, makes for a very different wielding experience. Such things would be compared more thoroughly later in the article.

Another important point to consider is that Shin Kage Ryu was founded in the middle of the 16thcentury (when Qi Jiguang was already middle-aged and Cheng Chongdou was a child). This means that for this styles to have influenced any of the two, it ought to have become very influential and widespread within less than 30-40 years – so wide spread as to reach the shores of a different continent, wherein it would be used by several people and influence two major military figures in a foreign army.

While possible, this is unlikely. To add to this unlikelihood, Qi Jiguang’s book is said to have been written circa (1560) – around the time Shin Kage Ryu was founded, and at most not long afterwards. The comparisons drawn with Shin Kage Ryu seem to have been based on matching supposed similarities between written manuals, which is often a poor way to make such judgments, especially when the persons involved are self-taught on the art of sword wielding.

I was told, in confidence by a martial arts historian whom I trust, that there is in existence a decent and authentic Japanese drawing of a very (!) notable Japanese samurai, a founder of a known system, wearing Chinese armor of his period. This would be a very clear proof that Samurai warfare was influenced by Chinese methods. Unfortunately, I was sworn to refrain from revealing, in public or private, who is the person in question and what was his style, because this information has been handed out in trust and secrecy. Other records of Chinese influence over Japanese sword arts also exist.

In terms of metalworking, it is important to remember that Japan, unlike China, had always been scarce in natural resources, and especially high quality steel. This had forced Japanese swordsmiths to become more innovative in their art, and also significantly prolonged the time it took them to produce blades. These facts made the Katana a very prized weapon – the weapon of professional warriors (Samurai) and the aristocracy. Blades like the Miao Dao, on the other hand, could have been more readily made in China, and their commonality made them less valuable – financially, culturally, artistically and otherwise.

The entire cultural perception of these weapons varies significantly. This would soon be illustrated when comparing their innate structural attributes and physical form, but can already be witnessed by a keen eye in the pictures presented so far in the article. For instance – above in the first image in this article, we see a soldier throwing the sword in the air and catching it. This type of action is unheard of in Japanese Koryu arts as they are practiced today. Not to mention the fact that Miao Dao forms utilize classic stances from Chinese gong fu – Ma Bu, Gong Bu, Hou Bu, etc – which are not identical to those used in Japanese arts. With regard to the significance of the sword to its owner – the Japanese Samurai often considered the words to be ‘his soul’, and would bow to it before practice. That type of near-religious practice is not something a Chinese warrior would do. At least, it is not something the Chinese have kept in practice into modern times.

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In the picture: An image from Cheng Chongdou’s book, Dān Dāo Fǎ Xuǎn.

Historical documents teach us that Miao Dao were always fairly long – so long at times, that some varieties could not have been unsheathed single-handedly with ease when the scabbard is attached to the body, and to speed the process bearers would be aided in this action by their partner before or during combat. We see this in the picture above (though ironically, the swords featured in the image are in fact easily sheathable by a single person). At a greater length this would make sense, as the swords would be too long to be carried at the waist, and would have to be positioned on one’s back.

At that position, having a friend to do the drawing for your saves a lot of time. This was also common practice with Japanese Odachi.

Though Miao Dao lengths can vary greatly, one constant has been that they are always notably longer than most Japanese Katanas, and therefore not suitable for quick drawing and with a tendency for clumsiness at indoor fighting. Unlike the Chinese straight sword (Jian), these swords were not originally intended for dueling – they were first and foremost instruments war. This is important to remember for another reason. The Miao Dao’s greatest enemies on the battlefield were not other Miao Dao, but spears and staffs (AKA cut-off spears), because they had a significantly longer reach. The Miao Dao has the edge to cut through these weapons (and even harder objects), but that requires timing, skill and very specific angles. I shall go more into these things as the article progresses.

The length of the Miao Dao used in my lineage varies proportionally to the height and measurements of the practitioner. The handle should be anywhere between the length of one’s forearm and fist put together, and the distance between one’s elbow and the edge of the pinky finger. That is pretty long compared with a Katana’s handle, and has several purposes. First and most important, to make it easier to switch hand positions. Second, so a wider grip could be used – making for a more effective lever, and allowing for arms and shoulders to open more in movement (this is important for utilizing the structural mechanics of wielding a Miao Dao in the Pigua style). Interestingly, because the length of the handle reflects that of a person’s forearm and palm, and the grip slides along and changes all the time, training with the Miao Dao also coincidentally aids in learning to work with an opponent’s arm when empty-handed, teaching a certain type of sensitivity in this regard.

The height of the blade reflects utility of action. A characteristic Miao Dao technique which we use involves an upwards slashing with the sword, following the drawing of a large circle. To increase effectiveness and partially hide the sword from the opponent’s field of vision, the sword’s circle is drawn as close to one’s body as possible, passing very near to one’s legs (the unskilled can actually cut themselves). Given that the blade is in this sort of action almost perpendicular to the ground in the moment before the upward slashing maneuver, it ought to be short enough to avoid hitting the ground, yet long enough to maximize potential reach. For a person of modest height such as myself, at 170cm (5’7) tall this makes the length of Miao Dao most appropriate for me about 135cm (4’4).

Another member of your gongfu family, Etai, is about 196cm (6’4) tall, and his Miao Dao is proportionally longer.  Still, at the more common length of about 135cm (4’4), the Miao Dao is fairly close to the upper-end of longer Medieval Broadswords (~130cm) and is comparable with the length of traditional Claymores (120-140cm), while being smaller than most Greatswords (130-180cm).

Note that unlike their mistakenly stereotyped image, the ‘Chinese’ are not necessarily a short people at all (and respectively, their swords are not necessarily small!). Up north in Tianjin city where my teacher resides, many males exceed the height of 182cm (6’), and northwards to Tianjin people can be even bigger.

The length of the Miao Dao, though suggested as limiting at times in close quarters within walls, has of course the advantage of reach, and the latter is not limited to offense. With a shorter sword, when another weapon is aimed at one’s lower extremities, one is often forced to crouched in order to parry, or jump to avoid being hit or cut (as common in Katori Shinto Ryu). The Miao Dao is long enough to defend these parts without resorting to such methods, and the body can be used for other purposes instead (though forward leaping, as opposed to jumping in place, does exist in the practice of this sword).

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In the picture: A samurai with an Odachi.

Interestingly, the length of the Japanese Odachi (大太刀; Greatsword; also ‘O Katana’) tends to be the same as that of Miao Dao (sometimes much longer), though the former has never been nearly as popular as the Katana.   In the Heihan period (9th-12th century Japan), the Odachi were rather common, similar in length to the Miao Dao, and was likewise carried on one’s back (rather than at the waist like Katana), and often unsheafed by two people. The handle though always maintained reminiscence to the Katana, with a tight grip.

Despite the similarities in older samples, in many examples today we see that the Odachi’s blade is shorter and often more curved, and its handle longer, than those of the Miao Dao, which would call for significant changes in the way these two weapons are wielded. Both weapons were nonetheless used by cavalry. I speculate that the change in the Odachi’s design, as compared with the Miao Dao, may have been in order to save precious steel, and ease the forging process (which is challenging for extremely long swords using traditional Japanese methods). By lengthening the handle and shortening the blade, the swords still maintained its superior reach while on horseback. Also, a cavalryman has to change the reach of his weapon, but is often limited since when the horse is stationary, he cannot advance or retreat much. A longer handle, such as that of the Odachi, is useful for adjusting one’s fighting range in these conditions. The infantryman would benefit more from the Miao Dao’s design, which gives more blade at the expense of an extended hilt.

Odachi practice is very rare, but still survives among some Koryu schools in Japan. The Kôden Enshin ryu Ken-Pô school, for instace, still has people practicing with this weapon. Their Odachi is much larger than a standard Miao Dao, and its wielding appears vastly different. The length itself justify the different usage, more so than the weight, since it prevents the wielder from passing the blade close to the floor. While Miao Dao could potentially be used indoors at times, despite their clumsiness in such an environment, the Enshin ryu shinken are simply too long.

All that being said, there are Odachi which feature almost identical design to the Miao Dao. By the beginning to middle 17th century though, the Japanese governments forbade the production of blades above a certain length. From that century onwards the Odachi almost became extinct, and endured mostly as a religious artifact in various shrines as a symbolic prayer to gods for gods of war. Most of the original blades were either lost in time, purposely destroyed, or cut to length to fit the new laws.

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Japanese Odachi (from therionarms.com – a wonderful weapons shop)
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Miao Dao.
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In the picture: A classic old Chang Dao (‘longsword’). Examine the most notable differences: Existence of a large round pommel-ring. Different guard design. Handle cylindrical rather than elliptical. Blade becomes thicker towards the end. The top (unsharpened) part of the blade is thinner than in the Miao Dao.

For the Miao Dao, a greater length also equals a greater weight. It would be a mistake to simply compare the weight of two swords as it appears plainly on scales, though. It tells one nothing of their balance and handling. Most battlefield weapons, even the huge Chinese great spears, do not feel too ‘heavy’ when held in place or in one’s hands for a few moments. The weight of a weapon becomes significant only after one has trained with it for a while in a given session, and especially following its swinging with the true intent of causing harm.

A weight difference of mere 500 grams (17oz) can make for a huge difference when having to swing a weapon for a while with full force (because of the lever and momentum). This any Western Boxer knows well, as even heavy training gloves rarely weigh more than 470 grams (16oz). Katanas do not tend to exceed 900 grams (2.1lbs, 34Oz), while the Miao Dao can easily top 1400 grams (3.1lbs, 49Oz). There is therefore usually more than a 500 gram (17Oz) difference in weight between the two (comparison is for swords without the scabbard). The Japanese Odachi though can weigh as much as a Miao Dao and more.

What the Miao Dao earns in powerful momentum with its weight, it loses in agility to the swift katana. It takes much greater skill and strength to wield the Miao Dao as quickly and accurately as its Japanese counterpart. Knowing this, the Miao Dao is understandably less evasive and more confrontational, as due to its length and weight, it is more challenging for its wielder to bounce the blade around the opponent’s attacks. The latter option exists, but is favoured to a lesser degree.

Unlike its length, the general shape of Miao Dao tends to remain constant. The curve is slight, similar to classical katanas. One does not see overly-curved Miao Dao. Some Chang Dao variations exist which are completely straight. It would have been interesting to see a more curved Miao Dao, as such a novelty may come to combine the strategies of both this weapon and the Chinese Dao.

One interesting design choice for the Miao Dao is the handle material, which is most commonly mildly-smooth wood. This differs greatly from the traditional emphasis in the design of katana handles, which stresses a firm grip, with anti-sliding folds & crevices and usage of materials like leather, woven rope and dried stingray skin.

Here too we are hinted to the differing functionality of these swords. The Katana, which at its later development was mostly thought of as a dueling weapon, is meant to end a fight with one or two blows, requiring a firm grip for a single decisive action.

The Miao Dao, a battlefield weapon, assumes that if you remain alive, you would be fighting for quite some time, and would be changing your grip a lot throughout. It is also possible that in China, given that the greater part of the country does not border the ocean (more common in Japan), something like a stingray was not in the thoughts of many sword designers. But in any case, this is more of a functional choice.

Apart from the length of combat, the Chinese two-handed weapons in general tend to normally show more favour than their Japanese counterparts for a sliding of hands across the gripping surface (a preference also maintained with staffs and spears of all sizes). Our Miao Dao in particular, which is heavily influenced by staff techniques (and vice-versa), is fond of this mechanism. Too rugged a grip is therefore considered a limiting factor, and wood is a more forgiving material in this respect. Anyone who shall get a hold of a traditional, well-made Katana will feel that it is almost impossible to slide the grip like one could do with a staff, which is exactly what the makers of this sword intended. Perhaps, the grip may solve the riddle as to whether there had truly been a Japanese influence on Chinese methods. Wherein ancient Miao Dao techniques and body methods similar to what is being used today, it would have been impossible for it to have a grip like that of the Katana. The opposite is also true – if the grip was identical to that of modern Katanas, then the ancient Miao Dao could not have been used in the same fashion as it is utilized in modern times.

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In the picture: Classic Katana hilt designs. All three show a favouring of a firm grip over maneuverability of the palm across the hilt. Notice the beautiful carvings intertwined with the rope. These are never found on traditional Miao Dao, even though the Chinese are no strangers to the art of miniature carving, and such wondrous items are still extremely popular in Chinese markets today.

The blunt upper section of the blade (‘Mune’ in Japanese) is often thicker than in Katanas, and sometimes rounded. This is no arbitrary choice. This part of the sword is commonly used to strike down an enemy, parry his weapon or even break it. When using the Miao Dao in this fashion, it can resemble a medium staff in its mechanics. Unlike with European swords, a pommel at the butt of the handle is uncommon nowadays (attribute shared with Katanas), but may have been more common in the past. Metal rings are sometimes present instead, but are actually detrimental to the appropriate execution of some techniques as they make the gripping of the tip of the hilt more cumbersome.

Generally speaking, the Chinese seem to have not considered their Miao Dao as fine works of art.

Most of them are plain and boring in appearance – nothing like the colorful and alluring Japanese Katanas. The Hada (grain of the blade) is most often absent. The Tsuba (hand guard) is dull and uniform, and has no holes in it or carvings on it. At most it may match in colour the butt of the sheath and that of the handle. The sheath itself is tied with a simple rope and bears little decoration, if any.

Here is not an artistic sculpting in wood and steel or the carbonized soul of the warrior. Here is found a metal instrument for the sole purpose of killing.

From the standpoint of medieval European swordsmanship, the Chinese and Japanese hand guards may seem too small or even poorly designed. But it is their size and circular shape which allows them to support well the top section of the upper gripping palm, and serve as pivoting point to lean against when maneuvering the blade. A cross-shaped guard like that of a Claymore, Greatsword or Broadsword may be more efficient in stopping an incoming blade, but offers less of a pivoting lean, and can possibly interfere with some Miao Dao techniques that require tight angular shifting of the hands and blade. It is therefore a matter of give and take – some functionality is always lost for another useful trait.

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Methods of training

The Miao Dao is primarily practiced either with solo movements and combinations or with a long form. Usually, one would learn the solo drills first, then the form, and after a period of training the form diligently will also carefully practice applications with fellow students. Sparring is exceedingly dangerous to attempt, even with wooden swords. A weapon whose original purpose was to cut through horses with heavy and powerful strikes is not akin in its movements to a Kendo Shinai, which seeks to score points and is constantly probing around like a housefly looking for sugar. I am not familiar with fixed partner drills with the Miao Dao, although with wooden version is it easy to adapt the common staff and spear ‘push-hands-like’ drills to be used with this weapon.

Like other Pigua movement forms (Tau Lu), the Miao Dao form is geared towards the 1 and a half minute mark, when practiced at full speed; emphasizing solid anaerobic endurance and a very rapid pace. The form as demonstrated by master Zhou earlier in the article lasted some 65 seconds, rather than 90, since he purposely omitted a few movements along the way, and had performed it faster than most people can.

The length of this form is characteristic of Chinese martial arts, but not so of Japanese (including Samurai) arts. Its intensity reflects the needs and calling of warfare, while the shorter kata practiced in Japanese Koryu styles mirror the reality of life and death duels with swords, engaged by professionals, in which the victor is usually decided more quickly. These are of course generalizations, and there are many exceptions. However, we still see that the originators and inheritors of the arts had differing fighting concepts in mind.
Though traditionally the way to practice the Miao Dao form is at either ‘walking speed’ or as one would fight in combat (90~ seconds per repetition), I personally believe that the practitioner can greatly benefit from very slow and intentional practice. Because of my background in Xing Yi Quan, I take care to practice almost everything I know at a rate which would put the common turtle to sleep. A long form such as that used with the Miao Dao can easily be stretched to over 4 minutes. Experience has taught me that this is the best method for gaining a deeper understanding and true control of whichever movement in the martial arts one chooses to practice.

The Japanese schools have traditionally been keen on cutting practices for the testing of blades. Once, the Samurai would volunteer to cut the heads and limbs of criminals (dead or alive), or simply find a good opportunity to kill someone. Later, it became more common (to this day) that Japanese schools would test their blades against rolled-up tatami mats or bamboo – both said to mimic well the feeling and difficulty of cutting through human flesh and bone. The cutting in itself is a science in the Japanese schools, which is taught to perfection, and concerns many minute details of execution and post-cutting examination. I am not aware of similarly organized ‘testing protocols’ in the Chinese arts (or with the Miao Dao for that matter), though the Chinese would also occasionally test blades by cutting through bamboo like the Japanese (tatami mats are uncommon in China). I was informed, however, that shifu Scott M. Rodell has written a book on the subject, titled ‘A Practical Guide to Test Cutting for Historical Swordsmanship’, and perhaps he has researched the matter more thoroughly.

Characteristics of practice and application

Generally speaking, the Miao Dao is a distinctly Chinese weapon. The stances used in training and fighting are classical stances from traditional Chinese martial arts, with no exceptions. The basic frontal-cutting stance is neither Gong Bu (Bow Stance) or Ma Bu (Horse Stance), but a stance in which the most of the weight is on the rear leg. Several variations could be used. I favour Xing Yi’s San Ti stance (70% of weigh on rear leg, rear foot at 30-45 degrees, front foot pointing straight ahead). Other use Baji Quan’s 60-40 stance, with both feet on the same line and pointing at 45 degrees. When charging at full speed, the stance is often shifted into Hou Bu (Monkey Stance), with most of the weight on the front leg, and about 10% of it on the rear foot, which is either at the back or should-width apart from the other.

Why are these stances important? Because when charging with the Miao Dao, the front foot would move first, the legs would cross very close to each other, and the stepping would be springy and agile. To allow for this mechanism, which is identical to ‘Chicken Stepping’ in Xing Yi Quan (not to confuse with the same name in XinYi LiuHe Quan), the rear leg should be ‘charged’ with weight, and the front leg ‘empty’ enough to advance comfortably from a stationary position. Then when no longer stationary, it Is easier throwing the weight from leg to leg, using Hou Bu. In other words – charging instantly with the Miao Dao is difficult to do when one has a 50-50 weight distribution between the legs (Ma Bu) or when most of the weight is on the front leg and one is using a long frontal stance (Gong Bu). The same advantage is used for withdrawal of one’s leading foot and evasion when another weapon has targeted one’s front leg.

Nonetheless, from said positions, it is also common to lean the weight forward momentarily in order to increase one’s reach with the sword and be able to stab or cut a retreating or evading opponent.

This would be seen later down the article in the description of the movement ‘Dian’.

Ma Bu is also used, but primarily when the blade is transitioning and slashing from side to side with very specific techniques. I have seen practitioners on internet videos standing in ‘ma bu’ with their toes pointing sideways. That is a Karate ‘Sumo Stance’, or ‘Shiko Dachi’. A correct Ma Bu has both feet parallel. In the case of the Miao Dao, the width of this stance reflects more the needs of the moment – it is less important, in the context of the form itself, how low the stance is (though a lower Ma Bu in training is always favourable in terms of developing good skills).

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In the picture: My teacher, master Zhou Jingxuan, in a ‘ready’ stance. He is slightly leaning forward as this is a part of a demonstration for a particular technique which immediately followed.

I once read an article in which a person stated, when comparing Japanese Katana and Western Rapier fencing: “A long lunge (with a rapier) can strike a lethal hit from well outside the effective distance of a man with a long cutting sword”. This is not the case with the Miao Dao, which not only contains in its arsenal the affective combination of the Gong Bu stance and thrusting, also has the advantage of a very long handle to aid these mechanics and drive the blade well into its target. Then again, without solid prior foundations in empty-handed stance work, it would be difficult to hold a low and stable ‘lunge’ position with a weapon as heavy as this.

The Miao Dao’s blade is more flexible than it seems. It takes well to vibration, and those skilled in issuing power from a short range (cun fa jin) can use this skill to an extent with the Miao Dao. This is useful when the Miao Dao clashes and is pressed against another weapon for more than a second. Then after gaining an advantage through sensitivity, a sudden issuing of explosive power, to which is added a small circular movement, would send the opponent’s weapon flying far enough to allow an opening for stabbing, cutting or slashing. The blade can also effectively parry sideways with explosive power issued into it, and those trained with the Chinese large spear would feel at home with such a technique.

The Miao Dao in my lineage has a very close relationship with the eyebrow-level staff (Qi Mei Gun). As the name suggests, the staff is matched to the height of the practitioner’s eyebrows. In Pigua it is better known by the name of its form – Feng Mo Gun – ‘Crazy Demon Staff’. The Miao Dao is nearly as long as this staff, and the height of both is limited just to the extent of preventing them from touching the ground while rotating them next to one’s body, whilst still keeping an effective range.

The two weapons share so many similarities, that after 2 years of practicing Feng Mo Gun well (and quite a few years of practicing Xing Yi spear prior), I was able to learn and practice ‘decently’ the Miao basics and form within a single week. The mechanics are that similar.

Both staff and sword carry the ‘whipping’ flavor of Pigua into their movements. These objects may be solid, but the body which wields them is pliable and agile. It is interestingly easier to ‘whip’ with a weapon than with only one’s body, as the added weight at the edge pulls on one’s limbs, forcing the body to be thrown. Therefore, Pigua features a rare scenario in which, at least in my opinion, its weapons practice is easier and less physically demanding than its empty-handed practice. With the latter, one does not have a weight to counter the whip, so all of one’s core muscles have to work extra-hard to control the abundant momentum.

These common whipping mechanics also mean that the Miao Dao works through the Pigua principle of “a pearl in a jar”. It is said that the power manifestation in Pigua should be like the continuous flowing motion of a pearl spinning in a jar. This is a very interesting concept, which sets Pigua apart from other arts. In Taiji Quan, it can be said that one uses listening power (Ting Jin) in order to sense a weakness in the opponent’s structure. In Xing Yi Quan, the practitioner can use subtle circles, vibrations and explosive powers in order to shock the opponent and penetrate his defenses. In Aikido, one attempts to unite with the momentum of his opponent, blend with it, and then lead it. Pigua is much more violent. It is like a tornado. It generates an immense momentum, passes through the opponent, and sweeps everything it touches with big swinging, coiling attacks. The momentum keeps rolling, and this is a theme in all Pigua movements and forms, including the Miao Dao’s. With the sword in hand, the practitioner would use the added weight as a guide for his body, and follow the momentum of the sword into the next movement.

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In the pictures:  Master Ma Juxiang (马俊祥), student of Guo Ruixiang (son of Guo Changsheng), demonstrating the flowing momentum of Pigua in the Miao Dao form.

Sometimes, the Miao Dao would be extended further to slash or stab with just one arm holding it. This helps speed one’s momentum and gain some distance, and reveals an interesting aspect of Miao Dao gongfu – that it can in fact be wielded single-handedly with many of its techniques. The two-handed grip simply provides more power and stability when the sword makes contact.

In both Feng Mo Gun and Miao Dao, the hands are ‘alive’ – switching positions and places quite a lot and often. The rear of one’s palm is also used for stabilizing the handle, as well as rotating it. Because the Feng Mo Gun is a single piece of wood, the hands commonly slide along much of its length. While using the Miao Dao, the hands usually move along a much smaller cross section. The rotation of the handle often feels like rotating a volleyball in one’s hands. The handle itself is a straight line, but it is constantly drawing circle, as if it had been a bridge between two opposing sides within a ball.

These medium-sized rotations lend themselves well to people who have practiced Internal martial arts, who may find this sword’s mechanics easier to comprehend than others.

In Japnese Koryu styles, it is more common than with the Miao Dao to step off the line of attack. This works well for the Miao Dao two when fighting against a slower weapon, such a big spear.

Against smaller weapons though, while the Miao Dao can be evasive like the, it prefers a head-on collision with small circles used to divert, rather than going around the blade of the other person. This preference, which involves sticking to the opponent’s weapon, is more characteristic of Chinese martial arts, and shows Pigua’s inclination to ‘roll’ one’s momentum unto another like an overbearing wave. It is enabled by the weapon’s heavier weight and greater length, and also due to its use of sophisticated body mechanics (‘shen fa’) and the Dan Tian. Sticking to the opponent’s weapon, especially the spear, with one’s Miao Dao, is meant to reach the body while keeping the opponent ‘in check’, and preferably cutting his fingers on the way. This is demonstrated nicely in the following three images, featuring my teacher, master Zhou Jingxuan:

Page 19Tui Dao (pushing) 3Tui Dao (pushing) 4-2

Along with sticking, other characteristic techniques are sideways slashing – usually diagonal and not horizontal, and upward or downward cutting, with the weapon passing very close to one’s body and centerline. When coming up from below, this assures the opponent would have a more difficult time assessing the incoming sword’s distance and length, as it seems to be a part of your own body. Whichever technique one may use, the sword does not ‘stop’ at the target or slightly past it, buy continues with its momentum for what may be otherwise considered ‘an overkill’. This requires that the practitioner be able to recycle large-scale momentum shifts – something which Pigua’s empty-handed practice develops.

Along with sticking, other characteristic techniques are sideways slashing – usually diagonal and not horizontal, and upward or downward cutting, with the weapon passing very close to one’s body and centerline. When coming up from below, this assures the opponent would have a more difficult time assessing the incoming sword’s distance and length, as it seems to be a part of your own body. Whichever technique one may use, the sword does not ‘stop’ at the target or slightly past it, buy continues with its momentum for what may be otherwise considered ‘an overkill’. This requires that the practitioner be able to recycle large-scale momentum shifts – something which Pigua’s empty-handed practice develops.

Along with sticking, other characteristic techniques are sideways slashing – usually diagonal and not horizontal, and upward or downward cutting, with the weapon passing very close to one’s body and centerline. When coming up from below, this assures the opponent would have a more difficult time assessing the incoming sword’s distance and length, as it seems to be a part of your own body. Whichever technique one may use, the sword does not ‘stop’ at the target or slightly past it, buy continues with its momentum for what may be otherwise considered ‘an overkill’. This requires that the practitioner be able to recycle large-scale momentum shifts – something which Pigua’s empty-handed practice develops.

Along with sticking, other characteristic techniques are sideways slashing – usually diagonal and not horizontal, and upward or downward cutting, with the weapon passing very close to one’s body and centerline. When coming up from below, this assures the opponent would have a more difficult time assessing the incoming sword’s distance and length, as it seems to be a part of your own body. Whichever technique one may use, the sword does not ‘stop’ at the target or slightly past it, buy continues with its momentum for what may be otherwise considered ‘an overkill’. This requires that the practitioner be able to recycle large-scale momentum shifts – something which Pigua’s empty-handed practice develops.

Wing Chun’s notion of “the fastest way between two points is a straight line” does not apply to the Miao Dao (and neither to Pigua Zhang for that matter). This weapon excels at cutting and slashing more so than stabbing, and requires angular momentum. All of its techniques involve circles (stabbing included), which are more commonly large, and the weapon is always in a process of drawing a curve of one kind or another.

In the video:  Master Zhou is showing how Pigua ‘Gua’, or ‘Hanging power’, can be used with the Miao Dao to entangle an incoming weapon’s momentum with one’s own.

Fighting methods

It is impossible and uncalled for to specify here all of the actual methods, so I would only be writing of a few of them in order that readers could gain some perspective.

One very common technique is Dian (点). It means ‘to Dot’ – like the action of using a brush to abruptly and gracefully place a dot on a canvas while reaching from afar. It has the feeling of trying to shoot a basketball into a very far hoop, with one’s entire body and intention extending from within towards the target, sending the power through the back. The hands send a wave which travels through the spine in a very noticeable manner (unlike its more refined variation in arts like Southern Mantis, Xing Yi and Bagua). The wave snaps at the tip of the blade like a whip, with the final ‘snap’ provided for by the rear palm, which grabs the end of the handle.

Below is shown one variation of Dian, with Zhou shifu leaning his weight unto the front leg. Another variation would be to go into an empty stance (most of the weight on the rear leg) while leaning over and above. The latter variation is very reminiscent of empty-handed movements in Pigua and Tongbei.

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Another trademark Miao Dao technique is ‘Pi Dao’ (劈刀), or ‘Axing Dao’. It can at times be performed very similarly to how one would execute the same movement with a spear, though the range of motion with the Miao Dao tends to be larger. The technique calls for a forward-downward cutting, like Xing Yi’s Pi Quan. Before the chopping, one may use an upward-backward motion for deflecting and lifting up and away the opponent’s weapon (Tiao  挑), which is followed by the forward-downward cutting.

There are generally at least 4 possible ways to use this. The chopping motion can be with either the blunt or sharp side of the blade. The deflection can be without flipping the blade (which sticks to the opponent’s weapon and keeps it close), or with a fast twisting of the Miao Dao, which tends to bounce the opponent’s weapon away. It is interesting to note in this respect that the Miao Dao can be used to smack someone without killing them.

Pi Dao 1 Pi Dao 2 Pi Dao 3 (using the spine of the sword) Pi Dao 4 (using the spine of the sword)

In one online video demonstration I saw a Miao Dao wielder holding the sword with one hand, using the other hand to parry and stick to the opponent’s thrusting spear, and then stabbing with the Miao Dao. Needless to say, that person recreated his knowledge of Miao Dao wielding from books. It makes no sense to try and manipulate a spear with a hand, when you are already holding a weapon which is supposed to be sharp enough to cut through most spears, and is at the least heavy enough to slam it away, or stick to it effectively. An attempt to manipulate a spear with one hand, while the opponent is grasping it with two hands, can easily lead to the opponents sliding the spear into one’s body, or across one’s arm or palm, stabbing or cutting them in the process. The same people who had produced that video where also demonstrating techniques in which one evades the spear with the body, and then advances to strike with the Miao Dao. That in turn is a misunderstanding of Spear mechanics. The spear can be drawn back just as quickly as it was thrust forwards, and one has to keep the Miao Dao ‘checking’ the spear by being nearby to it or sticking (unless one is already very close to the opponent.

Conclusion

The Miao Dao is a sophisticated weapon in terms of the body mechanics and stepping methods utilized with it. Yet it is surprisingly straight forward and simple in its actual application, if its wielder has the skills for using it. Its brutality and decisive nature in action make the finesse and lightness of the Chinese straight sword blush in their relative femininity; its strength and expansive cuts put fear in the hearts of those who stand before it – even when these are merely students of a friendly teacher in a cooperative setting. It provides a very interesting counter-balance to the school of thought in European swordsmanship, and embodies in it much of the cultural and physical traits of Chinese martial arts. Its practice is a blessing, for it hones the senses, improves one’s perception of combat, aids in developing a truly whipping body and limbs, and is overall a delight and much fun to play with. May the chance come upon you, do not miss training with this exceptional instrument of warfare past, which had made a great impact on China’s martial history.

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Wherein you liked this article, please support its author –  take a look at shifu Bluestein’s ground-breaking book – Research of Martial Arts.

Shifu Jonathan Bluestein is the head of the Tianjin Martial Arts Academy, and teaches Xing Yi Quan and Pigua Zhang in Israel. He is also a martial arts author and researcher. His list of published articles, most available for free reading with links (and on this blog), can be found at the following link:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Jonathan.bluestein#Articles_I_published_outside_of_Wikipedia_.28On_Martial_Arts.29

If you liked this article, please ‘like’ the page of shifu Bluestein’s school on Facebook:

https://www.facebook.com/tianjinacademy

For those interested in studying Miao Dao from a qualified teacher, do visit the official website of Shifu Bluestein’s instructor, Master Zhou Jingxuan:  http://swz.weebly.com

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All rights of this article are and the pictures within it are reserved to Jonathan Bluestein ©. No part of this article may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission, in writing, from Jonathan Bluestein. Jonathan may be contacted directly via email:  jonathan.bluestein@gmail.com .

Kung Fu in Thailand: Back to Centre

It’s Saturday, my last rest day at Nam Yang this trip as I depart for Chiang Mai on Wednesday for a few days R & R before returning to Canada. Life is good here. I’ve made gains in strength, flexibility and sleeping patterns, learning so many new martial arts principles and practices of Shaolin Kung Fu while generally centring myself. I’d like to devote this entry mainly to the theme of centring, which relates directly to my back injury and overall goal for coming here.

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I had concluded my previous entry with a discussion of how the intensive training, about 8 hours a day, had re-stimulated my back injury. A disc herniation on the right hand side of my lower lumbar spine was exasperated by the large number of flexion activities performed many times a day, often held for periods of a time. I was trying to be positive about it but feeling pretty down. I got up the next day at about 5:30 am and went down for our morning Chi Kung session at 6. I’d not woken up with that much back pain in years. By the time we got into the Chi Kung practice I was in a downward spiral and going through a lot emotions. As we moved into the stepping meditation I began to calm my mind and bring focus to the practice. Master Iain passed by and reminded me to drop my tailbone; this helps root one’s stance and sink the Chi, accompanied by engaging muscles around the lower Dantien. Doing this automatically brings me back to centre, of which a major benefit seemed to be an immediate relieving of pressure on my back.

I practiced this process of dropping the tailbone, grounding the stance and coming back to my centre many times. I did this not just in our Kung Fu practice but continuously throughout the day. Not only was it improving my Kung Fu stance and helping relieve back pain, it brought a general awareness to my posture and state of mind. This process of coming back to my centre has become a mindfulness practice for me and is something I shall carry forward into my life. I used to do a lot of this at one time. In my twenties I became certified as a fitness instructor integrating Yoga and meditation with some Chi Kung into what I called the “Whole Fitness Workout”, which I taught into my thirties. I often used to tuck under my tailbone and pull in my lower Dantien. It developed a keen awareness of my physical movement centre building good muscle tone in my lower abdomen. I pretty much let that go after injuring my back; it was all I could do just to keep standing and walking for a couple years. Going through this back injury re-stimulation and healing process at Nam Yang I’ve become aware of some unhealthy postural habits on which I will have to work. I think I unconsciously started getting more of a curve back in my lumbar spine to protect my back against flexion, which seems to have been accompanied by a loosening of the musculature and loss of tone in my lower abdomen. I had started noticing this recently at the gym (too much mirror gazing?) when checking form and was wondering about it; with my centring mindfulness practice the awareness has come together. It took years to create this situation but hopefully not so long to correct and maintain it. Even sitting here now I must be reminding myself self to lower the tailbone and maintain my centre.

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Me doing a slash and block with my favorite Tan Tao (broadsword) flanked by the two great Nagas (Dragons) in front of Nam Yang’s Buddha House.

Maintaining one’s centre, like many of the principle lessons in our Kung Fu practice has numerous applications for life. Indeed, coming into and maintaining my centre was an overarching goal I had shared with Sifu Iain in my initial contact email inquiring about the possibility of training at Nam Yang. “As a goal at Nam Yang I would love to leave with a set of basic fundamentals to carry forward in my personal practice…(and) am especially interested in cultivating a state of mind conducive to maintaining my centre and living graciously amidst the challenges of this beautiful, troubled world.” It’s amazing how things can come together and somewhat blows my mind just reading this. I think the trick for me will be to keep up with this mindfulness practice even when I’m not in pain. I recall Master Iain’s teaching that with this work you can change your life, “You can change who you are.” The word “Kung Fu” is made up of two characters. I understand that the first character for “Kung” means something like “hard work” or “skillful training”; the second character for “Fu” refers to “time spent”. So “Kung Fu” might be translated as “time spent in hard work or skillful training”. Master Iain often quotes his Sifu, Master Tan. One of his most repeated aphorisms is that the secret to learning Kung Fu involves two things: first start, then don’t stop.

Master Iain mentioned at tea that while many other martial arts teach mechanics and techniques, Shaolin Kung Fu teaches principles. The lesson of maintaining my centre fits very well with this philosophy. Like with any other Kung Fu skill, I know mastering the lesson of maintaining my centre will take time and effort to change my life, but it will be time well spent. I’m already feeling the benefits, both in terms of my Kung Fu and my back. Of course along with maintaining my centre I have been modifying activities that involve flexion; yet I have been able to perform most of the others with vigour. It’s been two days since the flare up of my herniated disc and I’m feeling so much better; in the past that much pain would have taken a lot longer to settle down. Another factor to which I attribute this quick turn around is the strength and flexibility I have built up from the waist down since starting the training. These are also principles and practices that I will take with me.

the other is doing the broadsword salute with Moon behind.
Doing the broadsword salute with Moon behind.

I had checked the weather for Canmore back home and was -30; meanwhile I’ve training here in +35. A 65 degree difference, wow! I got a ride into town on one of the scooters which is the standard means of transport and finally got to amble down “Walking Street” on my own in Pai. Walking Street is a Thai phenomenon and a must see for tourists. Starting around 6 p.m. the street is lit up and packed with a cacophony of street vendors and performers, bars and taverns, discos, restaurants, tea shops and a myriad of nightlife in a carnivalesque atmosphere, replete with red light district in some of the larger cities. This happens pretty much every night, but one of the most famous is the Sunday Night Market in Chiang Mai. I was there but couldn’t get up the juice to go when I first arrived. The one in Pai is no where near as big, but wonderful, even magical. There are so many brilliant artists and artisans selling their wares it can be a little overwhelming: a genius every block. Moreover, the Thai people are so wonderful, beautiful and patient, it really is very touching, and oh boy can they cook! I must have had fresh banana or banana-coconut shake at every vendor. Another special aspect in Pai is its proximity to the local hill tribes. You see a lot of tribal culture and crafts for different peoples like the Karen, Lahu, Lisu and Hmong, each with a distinct language and culture, many of whom are fleeing violence and persecution in the surrounding region. They are agriculturalists and hunters; I was hunting for gifts to bring home and scored big time! I won’t go into the details and spoil a surprise but I did pick up a gorgeous Hmong shoulder bag for 250 Baht, which is about 8 and a half dollars Canadian. It was made from the recycled clothes of a high ranking family, the likes of which are not being made so much anymore.

Anyhow, we train early in the morning and I shall have to try and sleep through the throbbing music echoing off the hills. I have three days of training left and really want to make the most of it! More to say, but for now it’s good night.

Much Love and warmth from Thailand!

by David Lertzman

David Lertzman Ph.D. is the Assistant Professor of Environmental Management and Sustainable Development PI: Energy Indigenous Environment Interface Research Program, Haskayne School of Business, University of Calgary.

This blog entry is part of a series of blogs David Lertzman wrote for StudyMartialArts.Org detailing his experiences training at Nam Yang Shaolin Kung Fu Retreat. If you’re interested in visiting this school book your place here and get an exclusive discount  Nam Yang Shaolin Kung Fu Retreat.

Things Chinese People Say

Once you arrive in China and meet a few locals it won’t be long before this clip from TMD Shanghai make all too much sense. It’s a light hearted look at some of things I guarantee you who find yourself hearing when you visit the Middle Kingdom. During my 6 years in China I’ve heard and witnessed a lot. Here are some of my favorite questions I’ve been asked during that time. Where are you from?Ài’ěrlán. Ah, Yīngguó! Do you know how to use chopsticks? What’s your favorite color? Do you like Chinese food? How much do they pay you?

“When in China the Chinese inquisition will get you and won’t give up.”

Do you play tai chi? Do you like KTV? Why you not married? Do you like Chinese girl? Whatever you do embrace the inquisitiveness and have fun.

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This is a fun post inspired by TMD Shanghai and onlinethatsmag.com by David Kelly CEO and Director of www.StudyMartialArts.Org – An adventure travel company specializing in Martial Arts.

Kung Fu in Thailand Days 8, 9, 10: Bits of Gold

It’s Wednesday, our rest day, and lots has happened: Sum Chien, Shuan Yang and sword. Every day I feel like I making gains, training harder with greater awareness. I’m starting to self-correct on a lot of little but important details. I love the lifestyle here and find myself thriving, waking up early and training all day constantly trying to better oneself. Yesterday I trained for 9 hours! I’m learning so much and it’s just grand! The more I learn the more I realize how little I know and it feels good.
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We had a great sword workshop with Sifu. Watching Master Iain move with the sword is an honour and beautiful to behold. Listening to him speak is enlightening: picking up the bits of gold dropping from his mouth. I’ll share a couple examples related to sword, one which is more about technique and the other more about life. For example, teaching a slash with the Tan Dao broadsword using a stick, Sifu demonstrated the technique for getting power using the whole body. People launched into it using their sticks to practice the technique. After a couple of minutes he stopped us. “Right, ok people love the Nunchakus, why?”. Everybody agreed but did not provide the answer he was looking for. “It’s because you can get lots of power”, he explained, “but it’s hard to control.” He then told the story from years ago of a friend who had practiced with the Nunchakus. Nunchaku is a weapon with two pieces of wood attached by a chain popularized by Bruce Lee in his famous movie, “Fists of Fury”. So his friend had brought his Nunchakus to a party to show off. After having a few he went at the demonstration which involves spinning the Nunchakus rapidly through the air then wrapping them around the body and catching the end of the stick under one’s arm. When people who have not achieved mastery do this they invariably wind up hitting themselves in the back of the head, which is exactly what is friend did almost nocking himself out. “Very hard to control”. Master Iain explained that you can do the same thing using your body; even with a stick one can generate great power but it’s much easier to control. He then demonstrated drawing the stick across his torso using his whole body to slash with the stick in a mighty whiplike fashion. “So imagine that the stick is like the end of the Nunchaku and your joint is the chain, but you can still control it.” Furthermore, you have more than one joint to swing off: wrist, elbow, shoulder. Each joint that you can bring into play generates more power. Sifu then demonstrated further how one can bring into play the lower body for the slash as well, drawing up Chi from the ground through one’s whole body and out the stick, or sword.

We had further sword instruction the next morning. It’s amazing to watch Master Iain move; it’s beautiful and terrifying when he holds the sword and always inspiring. He gave us a combination to practice rolling the sword around the back and drawing it over the shoulder in a whole body slashing motion followed by a step with the right foot coming up on the cat stance with most of the weight on our back foot drawing the sword and front leg close in tight to the body then springing outwards in an explosive lunge. I was doing it over and over losing myself in this awesome series of moves and the full body feeling elicited when he stopped us again. “Right”, he said, “everyone come round.” The he spoke about putting one’s character in the moves. Perhaps he had not quite seen what he wanted to in observing us practice, perhaps he was just taking it to the next level; however, this theme had come up in other sessions and not just from Master Iain. Eddie has often commented that people really needing to their whole being into the move, the punch, the hand position, the step, whatever Kung Fu move one is doing, really put your full force, your Chi into it, DO IT! There is an obvious life lesson here that can be applied to anything in life. Of course, there is a place when learning something like a position for the foot in a certain step or stance, a sequence of moves or transition, a certain placement or position of the hands. When it comes to doing actually doing the move, you really have to put your spirit into it. Master Iain continued with the teaching saying that when you do it this way you can change your life, change who you are. He then demonstrated a half hearted, somewhat awkward version of the short sword sequence we had been given to practice. “This is the movement of a clumsy person”, he stated. You may think of yourself as a clumsy person and behave as a clumsy person. When you really apply yourself to the moves, to learning and practicing them properly putting your character into it with the full force of your spirit, you will no longer be a clumsy person. You can change who you are.

In reflecting on the above teaching it comes to me that one must do this authentically. If you one doesn’t really know the move, then how can you fully infuse the movements with your character? Clearly one has to have something into which to put one’s spirit. Yet, it also seems to me that my ego could come into play. I may want to see myself as a great swordsman, a Kung Fu master. Well, at my age and with all my commitments this is unlikely to happen. So somewhere between authentically aspiring to become something I’m not and my self-deluded ego, there must be some kind of truth. To me, this is where having a master comes into play, having a proper role model. So my next question would be, what do I do? I will have been here for two weeks and have only begun to scratch the surface, yet even still what I know is precious to me. So now I must practice what I have learned, and I must develop and listen to the Inner Master. I raised this new found wisdom with Master Iain who provided supportive affirmation and added, “Right, well of course there the internet.” He has a website and many YouTube videos which run through various sequences. Plus, there is a memory stick made available for free copy to students training at Nam Yang which contains numerous instructional videos and various articles by Masters Iain and Tan along with other supplemental materials. I intend to use these to continue my training back home in Canada.

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Another powerful experience with some deep teachings occurred when Eddie was helping another student who had sustained serious abdominal injuries. Without going into any detail on the circumstances, I will try to convey what I learned. We were discussing bringing awareness to one’s centre. The term often used in Kung Fu is Dantien. There are three major Dantiens: the lower Dantien, about three finger widths below the navel; next is the middle Dantien associated with the thymus gland at the level of the heart; and the upper Dantien located at the brow, the “third eye” associated with the pineal gland. Dantien is “a like sea of energy” and often called an “energy centre”. When people refer to, “the Dantien”, “your Dantien”, or “your centre”, they’re usually referring to the lower Dantien. This is one’s physical centre from where one finds balance and movements occur. We are constantly reminded to be aware of this place, holding our centre, moving from it and bringing down our Chi grounding into it. Eddie shared that one’s “true centre” is actually inside at the very centre of your being. “Your centre is where your first cell originated inside your mother; that point from which you come, this is your centre. It doesn’t matter whether you can feel it or not, or where you move your mind; your centre is your centre.” He added that for a woman who has had a baby it’s easier to go back to that place. This was a profound idea for me and ties into what may be the biggest lesson I will take away from this retreat. This will be the subject for an upcoming post but starts with what I share below.

For the first time in a couple years I have been experiencing sciatic pain down my right leg. I know this well having struggled with disc injuries for years. The first episode was a ruptured disc in my early forties. The radiology report was dramatic, “disc material extruded and mobile” accompanied by some minor stenosis and a bulging disc. With physio, active release chiropractic and lots of core strength it cleared up in about a year. After some years I let go of the core strength, got macho and wound up with a major disc herniation. This episode lasted 3-4 years and never fully went away. The first year and a half was brutal; constant pain, I couldn’t stand up longer than a minute past noon. It started to settle down but I was physically and emotionally vulnerable. Far less active I became depressed and gained about 25 pounds. It seemed never ending. I got back into Chi Kung having practiced it throughout my late 20s and 30’s and combined with meditative walking began a slow crawl of the hole. I showed up to the Kung Fu Retreat with my back in the best shape it’s been in years. Sometimes I get a little bit of sciatic pain if I’ve been up for a long time, like when travelling long distances or teaching my Wilderness Retreat for long hours but it usually goes away when I wake up.

I experienced the sciatic back pain as a major set-back. I told Eddie that I had been doing so well. I was feeling so much stronger and more flexible, I was really getting into the training and starting to make real gains. He stopped me. “No”, he said, “you are stronger and more flexible, and you are making gains. Now you have to figure out how to adapt to this changing situation”. That’s the kind of thing I tell my students. It was masterfully done and had a big impact. Eddie suggested I inform Master Iain who directed me to adjust any of the moves I was doing or simply not do anything I felt would aggravate the symptoms. I thanked him and explained that when I introduce new exercises or physical activities I try to do so one at a time and systematically gage the impact. Here I have introduced so many new activities from stretching to strength training to kicking that it’s hard to say whether it would be due to a specific move or just all of it together. I told him I intended to keep training but that I would monitor it closely and make any major or minor adjustment I felt necessary. I believe the cumulative effect of everything together is impacting my back; however, more specifically I felt it must be related to flexion, of which we do quite a bit, particularly in the stretching and some of the Chi Kung activities. Thus I need to modify all such movements and generally take everything down a notch. One thing I did notice was that applying some of the Kung Fu training directions I had been given from Master Iain, particularly sinking my tailbone and holding my centre, seemed to ease some of the pulling from back down my leg. I practiced this and it seemed to help.

That night we had a special activity. The full moon is considered the height of the moon’s yin phase so at midnight on the full moon the practitioners at Nam Yang go out to the training ground to do the Chi Kung sequence usually done every morning at 6 am followed by the Shuang Yang. It’s not yet ful moon but Master Iain is leaving on Friday for some months so we did the activity together. I only did a mild version of the Chi Kung without flexion. The high point was after most people went to bed. I was privileged to see for the first time Master Iain perform all 66 movements of the Shuang Yang. Recall the Shuang Yang is the Shaolin soft martial art which some believe to be the origin of Tai Chi. It took him abut 15-20 minutes. It was so beautiful; in the sleepy late evening light beneath the stays with the half moon glowing above the Shuang Yang sequence had a remarkably dreamy quality to it. I went to bed with a sore back and bruised ego trying very hard to stay positive and see what I would be able to accomplish the next day. I have more to share on this and how the healing process unfolds, but this will have to be in my next entry.

For now I bid everyone a very wonderful goodnight, or good morning for those on the other side of Mother Earth.

Love and Blessings,

by David Lertzman

David Lertzman Ph.D. is the Assistant Professor of Environmental Management and Sustainable Development PI: Energy Indigenous Environment Interface Research Program, Haskayne School of Business, University of Calgary.

This blog entry is part of a series of blogs David Lertzman wrote for StudyMartialArts.Org detailing his experiences training at Nam Yang Shaolin Kung Fu Retreat. If you’re interested in visiting this school book your place here and get an exclusive discount  Nam Yang Shaolin Kung Fu Retreat.

Training At Kunyu Mountain Shaolin Kung Fu School

‘The following is a short diary from a student who studied at Kunyu Mountain Shaolin Kung Fu Academy during the October holidays. In this short blog he breaks down each days training. ‘

At Kunyu Shan you have a choice of doing one of the Shaolin martial arts styles, Wing Chun or Bagua. I chose Shaolin with Shifu Gao.

Kunyu Mountain
Monday:

Tai Chi starting at 6.00am, this is optional but highly recommended. Afterwards you do Qi Gong for 20 minutes followed by breakfast.

Breakfast consists of rice / sweet rice porridge, rice bread, bread, and eggs. You can take your pick of everything. I recommend bringing (or buying once you’ve arrived) some honey / jam / peanut butter to put on the bread. As this bread is served with every meal so you can always eat this.

After breakfast you have about hour to relax, then “Line up”. You meet with your master, then go on the morning run with your group, around 1km at a pretty decent pace. You loop back to the compound and begin training immediately.

You’ll warm up, then start learning shaolin basics for 1.5 hours (kicks, punches, stances, flying elbows, the lot). This is reasonably intense.

30 minutes break.

After the break you’ll go straight into learning “forms” for 1.5 hours. This is reasonably relaxed.

Lunch – this consists of a buffet of 2 vegetable based dishes, and one meat based dish. You can take the amount you want of each. The food isn’t too great, but it’s not too bad either. Some days are better than other, for example one day you get steamed meat dumplings, and another chicken on a stick and potato wedges.

I normally took a nap after lunch until 14.00. Second line up is at 14.30.

Finally, run the same 1km, then straight into Sanda training for 1.5 hours. This generally involves reasonably high intensity drills, basics, and pad work. There is very little practise sparring, so if you’re into competitive fighting, I recommend Muay Thai or somewhere else.

Finally you’ll have dinner, which is extremely similar to the lunch. Again, I recommend bringing something to put on bread for afterwards.

After this you can do what you like, some extra training, table tennis, watch a movie, take a shower, etc. (There is no time to shower in the morning, and hot water is only turned on in the evening for 3-4 hours.)

The structure of the rest of the week is the same, the only difference being what you studying during the three lesson periods of the day.

Tuesday:

Tai Chi

Conditioning – Partner up and get punched in the stomach, pectorals, shoulders, lats, floating ribs, kicks to the inside and outside of the thighs. Then high intensity punch bag work without gloves, which absolutely shredded my knuckles and they’re only just starting to heal now 1.5 weeks later.

Power training – Reasonably standard anaerobic training, sprints, bear crawls, bunny hops, hopping, planking, v-sits, etc.

Wednesday:

Tai Chi

Acrobatics – Jumping kicks, forward rolls, backward rolls, forward break-falls, backward break-falls, side break-falls, etc. Some of the backward break-falls are very difficult at first, and if you mess them up you will end up hitting your head / winding yourself. But once you get them, they’re relatively painless. This whole lesson is conducted on top of large reasonably firm padded matts. (The same matts used in the Sanda ring).

Forms.

Sanda.

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Tai Chi

Shaolin Basics.

Rest

Power Stretching – some risk of getting injured during this, but it seems that the Shifu’s are starting to understand this now, and they were reasonably nice about it. Apparently they used to push people way too far during power stretching, but I found this to be okay. But I’m also reasonably flexible to start with from years of Tae Kwon Do training. The worst part was holding a specific shoulder stretch for 3 minutes, for two sets, with threats if anyone failed of whole group punishment.

Friday:

Tai Chi

Shaolin Basics

Ring Sparring – During this period everyone gets together to watch people sparring in the Sanda ring. If your Shifu has given you permission you may seek someone to spar against and get into the ring. Generally, with the exception of a couple individuals who have cleared sparred before, the level of sparring was quite poor. I believe this is because as I previously stated, there is a lack of any practise sparring. You learn all the techniques, but this is not enough in my opinion.

Mountain Stair Climb – This involves a leisurely walk up one of the mountains to a temple. You then have to run up and down it as many times as you can in 1.5 hours. Make sure you don’t overdo it on this, running down 300 odd stairs will literally destroy your knees – so at the very least take it very slow on the way down, then power on the way up.

Conclusion

The training was very physically intensive, from what I’ve written it may not sound it, but even lessons like “Shaolin basic’s” is relentless – constant jumping, shouting, powerful techniques, etc. My main advice is that the fitter you are before you come to Kunyu the more you’ll be able to enjoy it!

P.s. The Shifu’s dish out punishment with large 5-6 foot staffs. I didn’t see it happen whilst I was there, but if you break the rules you will get staffed. And they don’t hold back.

by Steve Hoult

Steve Hoult was a StudyMartialArts.Org student who went to Kunyu Shan for a week during October. For a full and more independent reviews of the school visit the StudyMartialArts.Org website. When you book your training do it through the StudyMartialArts.Org for discounts, extra service and a welcome pack full of language learning materials and martial arts information.

Kung Fu in Thailand Days 6-7: Breakdown

Greetings,

Well if my last entry was about breakthrough, this was one would have to be about breakdown, but I’ll come to that later. Yesterday was Saturday, a rest day. I had Thai Massage in the morning, not excruciating for the most part this time, but she did discover an area in my shoulder which was pretty crazy to have worked on. I felt great afterwards and went down to the training area for some solo work, practiced staff form then sword, the Tan Dao, Chinese Sabre or Broadsword. After using the stick I got permission to practice with a real sword. I wound up selecting the real, real sword. Let me explain. They have practice swords which are real swords, but with a blunt steel blade and considerably lighter. The real, real sword has an edge which could cut: it isn’t particularly sharp not having been honed for a while but is a serviceable blade. The main thing is the weight; it’s much heavier than the practice sword I’d previously used. Using the real sword is almost as much difference from the practice sword as is the practice sword from the stick; using it very much ground-truthed the whole experience. This applies not just to the matter of strength conditioning but in being able to perform properly the form.

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On our day-off we go into the town of Pai for supper (amazing Thai food!!) and eat ourselves silly. Before going down I had a chat with Eddie about teaching and learning dynamics. He shared that he gets concerned when a master doesn’t correct him. “A master won’t correct you for two reasons”, he commented. One is because he doesn’t think it’s worthwhile and the other is because you’ve got it so perfect you don’t need it, “and I know that’s not the case”. So when the Master corrects it’s because he cares, and even more importantly, he thinks you care. This means that you’ve taken the corrections and applied them, so it’s worth correcting again and again, going deeper into whatever you’re learning. There is also the matter of attitude. Some people don’t take well to corrections, or shall I say, the act of being corrected. The process of being corrected is something I’ve experienced many times with Native elders. When they are correcting you, they are doing it because they care and it is a sign that they see you as trainable. Another thing Eddie mentioned was quite interesting to me. He said that, from his perspective, when one comes to Nam Yang you don’t pay for the teaching and the training; you pay for the accommodations, the food and services. The training is always there, it’s part of a way life and it is up to the student to enter in and make the most of it for themselves. The the more you try and the harder you train the more will be given to you and the more you will gain. The onus is on you.

Today was a great day; it was the best day yet! In fact, things just keep getting better here every day. I’ve still got 8 days left and already I’m feeling somewhat apprehensive about leaving. We worked in the group and I worked alone on sword and staff adding to the sequence of moves in my forms. We worked some very cool activities for strengthening and technique development in partners I can’t wait to bring home for Julian and Sarah. We got into practicing the most intense combat moves yet, so much fun!! I love this stuff and always feel especially honoured when Master Iain picks me to demonstrate the move: block me, lock me, throw me to the floor. I was especially honoured today when he cracked me on the nose. It wasn’t really that hard but it was a good square shot which elicited an audible pop. He felt so badly about. We were demonstrating a move which required me to come in with a grapple; Sifu seemed to want me to come in with some energy so I did. Either I came in too hard or he misjudged the distance or perhaps a bit of both but I think he felt worse than I did. I told him it was easy to misjudge the distance of such a target given my nose is probably a little closer than most others, I mean hey, that’s what makes me handsome in Thailand! Sifu asked several times throughout the session if I was ok. I glowed a little like Rudolph for a while but it doesn’t hurt at all anymore. Whenever we sit down for mid-session tea, Sifu pours the tea and asks, “Now, are there any questions about Kung Fu”. It’s really a special time of day. Today our youngest in the group asked about Nam Yang’s code of conduct, or Ethos. It’s a fantastic document and communicates very effectively the principles of loyalty, respect, equality, responsibility, brother/sisterhood, family, diligence and selflessness which distinguish Nam Yang, its Masters and Instructors. Here’s an excerpt, “Joining Nam Yang Pugilistic Association means becoming part of an ancient tradition dating back to Tat Moh (Bodhidharma), the Shaolin Founder, about 1500 years ago.” This brings me to the breakdown I had mentioned at the outset.

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I got up extra early this morning and went to meditate in the Buddha House. It was locked so I set up under the stars between the two Nagas (Dragons) out front (see picture attached). Afterwards I went down to where we begin our day’s activities in the open training area under the stars. We went through all the various Chi Kung exercises and moved into the stepping meditation. Afterwards we entered the Shuan Yang Sun Frost White Crane soft martial art form. I started sinking in to the movements, but of course was making mistakes, and Sifu came to correct me. Each move, of which I believe there are 66 though they all flow together, has a name. To help me understand the move he was correcting Sifu shared its name, “Goddess Pan Gu Opens Heaven: the Beginning of Heaven and Earth”. As I moved into the form it hit me how deep and vast is this tradition; there’s so much here and I’ll never even come close to learning it: 1,500 years of perfecting practice handed down from master to student, layer upon layer upon layer of art and science, technique and form. One must start young to really learn this and practice all your life; here I am almost 53 years old and just beginning with a two week intensive surrounded by these young fellows signed up for weeks and months at a time. What have I been doing with myself all these years? Goddess Pan Gu opened Heaven and I cracked open: I felt like I was falling, being swallowed into an abyss knowledge, wisdom, diligence and subtlety. Under northern Thailand’s pre-dawn light tears streaming down my face, pulling my elbows together, rolling back the shoulders, stretching out my hands until the wrists stabbed with pain, sinking down in the stance, rooting into the earth, drawing up Chi I cracked open, grieved for all the things I’d never know or learn, all the lost opportunity, and opened deeper to the form.

Time for sleep and I wish you all the best,

by David Lertzman

David Lertzman Ph.D. is the Assistant Professor of Environmental Management and Sustainable Development PI: Energy Indigenous Environment Interface Research Program, Haskayne School of Business, University of Calgary.

This blog entry is part of a series of blogs David Lertzman wrote for StudyMartialArts.Org detailing his experiences training at Nam Yang Shaolin Kung Fu Retreat. If you’re interested in visiting this school book your place here and get an exclusive discount  Nam Yang Shaolin Kung Fu Retreat.

 

Kung Fu in Thailand Days 4-5: Breakthrough

Greetings,

Sore all over, did I mention sore all over? Between the fall I took in Chiang Mai, the Kung Fu exercises, incessant stretching and traditonal Thai massage, I’m sore all over…sore in places I can’t even reach, and others I shall not mention. That was how I felt last night, yet in the few short days I’ve been here at Nam Yang I’m already feeling myself so much more flexible and strong, especially from the waist down.

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Today was a day of break throughs: meditation stepping, punching, weapons and stretching. On a student’s first morning, each is given a very simple pattern of three steps, first on one side then the other, as a meditative walking sequence which forms a basis for part of the Shuan Yang Sun Frost White Crane. I should put “simple” in quotes! It’s just three steps to one side and back, then three to the other and back. Sounds pretty easy right? It took me three mornings just to be able to do the stepping sequence, but it felt so good when I got it as then one can start sinking into the meditation focusing on all the little details: turning and placement of the foot, gripping the ground and rooting down, angle of the knee, direction of the hips, repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat. Moving through and starting to naturalize these details takes one into the meditation. The meditative walking and Shuan Yang are part of Southern Shaolin Kung Fu’s gentler or soft martial arts, yet the awareness built in these practices really helped me with the punching. I finally started to understand, meaning to get in my body, the pattern of step, grip the ground with your foot, sink down and punch. The result was immediate and obvious: way more focussed power yet far less effort and force required to throw the punch. Recall we are throwing these punches repeatedly into a hanging sand-filled cloth bag. Sifu had said it’s not about swinging the bag but in making a dent. For me there’s also a certain sound which accompanies a proper punch, it’s a kind of pop thud as you hit squarely the sack sending your Chi into its centre. When you grip the ground with your foot you draw Chi from the earth up through your body and send it out your arm into the target: step, grip, sink, punch; step, grip, sink, punch; step, grip, sink, punch, repeat…in getting this I worked exclusively on my left, my weaker side.

In weapon’s today I had a breakthrough with the staff. The break through was that I started being able to do it! By doing it, I mean that I started being able to move comfortably with the staff in the provided sequence and pick up the new combinations of steps and strikes which build cumulatively in the form. The form is the sequence of all the moves put together. The staff form has a very cool salutation at the beginning where you bow and then salute the staff, raising your Chi and sending it into the stick. The actual sequence then begins with kicking the bottom of the staff up and into your other hand moving into a series of strikes, steps, blocks, lunges and thrusts. The staff is a 6 foot, hard wood stick, rather heavy and quite longer then I’m used to. It is the original weapon for which the Shaolin are famous having defeated armies of both infantry and cavalry with just the staff as their weapon. Staff translates directly into spear and other really cool long bladed weapons like the Horse Cutting Knife, which is like a staff with a long, wide, curved sword on the end. The fluid, swirling sequence with Horse Cutting Knife is quite beautiful. I was also back on the stick for my sword practice having to learn new steps and patterns which would translate back in the next session, if I get them correct, to the real sword. I drilled with series of swirling figure 8 slashes upwards then downwards walking forward and back in very small steps. We doubled the number of moves I have, which can now translate to when I have a real sword back in my hand.

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Along with the weapons the big highlight today was working with Eddie. Eddie is the young man who is Sifu Iain’s top student and instructor at Nam Yang in the Thailand retreat centre. Eddie has a powerful life story. As with too many young people today, he had wound up on the streets using heavy drugs and really down and out. Through a series of events Eddie wound up at the Shaolin Temple in London where the head Master took him in letting him sleep on the floor. It’s now been ten years of intensive Kung Fu training for Eddie, travelling to different countries training with some of the top Sifus in the world. At Nam Yang Eddie has found his place and will be taking over for Sifu Iain when he leaves, a huge nod of confidence and respect. Eddie is a specialist in Chin Na at which he is quite expert having spent 2-3 years of study with a world renowned Chin Na master in California. Chin Na is the art of joint locking. It literally means Chin – to seize or catch, and Na – to hold or control. The old Shaolin Masters spent many, many years developing the art of Chin Na which contains hundreds of moves all based on achieving the perfect angle, pressure and leverage to seize an opponent and control them with joint locks. The session was amazing and a great deal of fun getting seized and put to the ground ground with exquisite and graceful agony! Eddie’s workout was also quite a bit more aggressive on the strength training than that to which we had become accustomed with Master Iain. I’m the oldest student here and I was proud to be able to keep up in good form with all the exercises and repetitions except one where I had to drop out a couple reps before the end. I think my back and wanting to prevent the old disc injury slowed me on that one but it was probably wise counsel. Oh, the other break through: flexibility. Before I injured my back I had done a good bit of Yoga and one of the postures on which I had worked quite a bit was the forward bend. Years ago I used to be able to stand and bend over putting my hands flat on the ground; however, since blowing out my discs I have done very little forward flexion, of which there is a lot going on here. As I learned in Yoga, you can’t just bend over but must keep your legs straight and, most importantly, your back flat to avoid any undue pressure on the lower spine. Yesterday in Eddie’s class I managed to achieve this, and it was glorious. It took me a long time to get there but I believe my Yogini teacher and dear friend Sheri would have approved the form.

IMG_0871Before closing I’d like to share one more breakthrough which I had not counted, yet is likely the most important: a personal development breakthrough somewhat humbling, yet empowering. When I first inquired about training at Nam Yang I was looking to leave closer to the end of January and train for a week to ten days. I was so thrilled when Master Iain replied that he would be here at that time but would have to depart Thailand at the end of the first week of February leaving the school with his capable head student and instructor, Eddie. When the better priced ticket came up I changed my timing to leave earlier and maximize my time with the Sifu. That gave me a few extra days on the other side which I decided to put into Muay Thai, or Thai Boxing for which the country is famous. I located what seemed to be the perfect place just north of Chiang May, another residential martial arts academy called Muay Sangha that blends ancient and modern Muay Thai with some other forms. I got really excited about training there for four days before my respite of several days doing nothing in Chiang Mai – a required component under Sarah’s direct orders – before coming back home to Canada. I was really disappointed when Kru Pedro, the Master of Muay Sangha, told me this was not enough time but graciously invited me for tea and exhibition to his studio. I re-worked and re-worked my schedule to create the minimum one-week required for acceptance at Muay Sangha. Now, after having spent time here at Nam Yang and getting to work with Eddie, who is also my weapons instructor, I have made the decision to stay here the few extra days to deepen and anchor my learning in this mindful, monastic environment. I will be honoured to train with Eddie when Sifu leaves and take up Kru Pedro’s kind offer for tea following up on his suggestion to come for training the next time I am in Thailand…yes, there will be a next time, hopefully with my family, Sarah and Glen.

Peace and Chok Dee (Good Luck in Thai).
by David Lertzman

David Lertzman Ph.D. is the Assistant Professor of Environmental Management and Sustainable Development PI: Energy Indigenous Environment Interface Research Program, Haskayne School of Business, University of Calgary.

This blog entry is part of a series of blogs David Lertzman wrote for StudyMartialArts.Org detailing his experiences training at Nam Yang Shaolin Kung Fu Retreat. If you’re interested in visiting this school book your place here and get an exclusive discount  Nam Yang Shaolin Kung Fu Retreat.

The Origins and Lineage of Shaolin Wugulun Kung fu

Shaolin ChanWuYi and Wugulun Heritage

The origins of Shaolin ChanWuYi and Wugulun Kung Fu date back to the sixth century. When Bodhidharma, who is credited with bringing Buddhism from India to China, settled in Shaolin there was already a Buddhist temple there.

While sitting for nine years in a cave behind the temple, Bodhidharma developed Zen Buddhism which he introduced to China and which later spread to Japan and the rest of the world. Needing some form of exercise to maintain the health of his own and his disciples’ bodies, he developed a series of movements or exercises designed to promote health and fitness – based often on the movements of birds and animals they observed around them — and at the same time to deepen the practice of meditation. Herbs from the mountainside were collected and used for healing.

Master Wu Gulun

Due to China’s turbulent history, the Shaolin Temple, with its highly skilled fighting monks, was sometimes in favour with ruling dynasties, sometimes not. It was destroyed and rebuilt a number of times. Around 1870 it was again in disfavour with the rulers of the Qing dynasty and the temple was in imminent danger of being destroyed yet again. The Temple Master instructed one of his foremost monks, Wu Gulun, to leave the temple and carry the traditions of the Shaolin culture with him to preserve them. He had, however, first to fulfill a rule of the Temple: that anyone leaving the temple should fight and vanquish all the monks to prove his strength and suitability to cope with the secular world he was entering. As the top Kung fu student, Wu Gulun easily achieved this feat and disappeared into the mountains to live in an isolated village, Bai Yu Gou, where he continued to practice and preserve the secrets of the Shaolin heritage.

c8df10f3-cf64-4f99-9a69-367091de563e-orgMaster Wu Shanlin

As he needed to be able to pass on this knowledge he married and had a son, Wu Shanlin, to whom he taught all the ancient secrets. Master Wu Shanlin became the second Grandmaster of the Wugulun lineage. Continuing to live in the small village, Wu Shanlin married and had two sons, Wu You De and Wu Tian You. To them and also his nephew, Qiao Hei Bao, and a young orphaned student, Zhang Qing He, he passed on the traditions.

Wu Tian You had a son who sadly died when he was quite young. This son was Master Wu Nanfang’s father. From an early age Wu Nanfang studied with his great grandfather, Wu Shanlin, then with Qiao Hei Bao and Wu You De and later Zhang Qing He. He is thus the direct descendent and inheritor of the Shaolin ChanWuYi and Wugulun tradition.

The 1920’s in China was a period of huge unrest and turmoil. In 1928 a general, Shi You Shan, was looking at the Shaolin temple as a possible source of resistance and danger so he sent one of his underlings there to try to gauge just what kind of a threat the fighting monks posed. The underling asked who the best fighter was as he wanted to fight him and see how strong he was. He was told that actually the best fighter, Wu Shanlin, was not in the Temple but in an isolated village in the mountains. The underling found Wu Shanlin and challenged him to fight with his sword. So powerful was Wu Shanlin’s qi that he paralyzed the man’s sword arm with just a look and a shout, causing the sword to fall uselessly to the ground.

Within two days of Shi You Shan hearing about this incident, he decided the Temple was indeed a threat and destroyed it almost totally.

As Master Wu Gulun’s greatest desire was that the Shaolin tradition should be returned to the Shaolin Temple when the time was right, Wu Shanlin returned to the devastated Temple with his son, Wu Tian You, with the intention of helping to rebuild it and restore the traditions and heritage which he had been preserving. He found to his dismay, however, that the monks were demoralized by the defeat, and most decided to either return to a secular life or join the army. The remaining few were men of poor character and Wu Shanlin felt he could not pass on his knowledge to them as it might be used wrongly, maybe to hurt people rather than to rebuild the Temple. He stayed for three years, teaching a few basic Wugulun kung fu moves, but then returned to his village to wait for a more auspicious time. Many current kung fu teachers claim that they know the original kung fu forms from their teachers who had practiced under Wu Shanlin. In reality they know only a few very basic forms.

Master Zhang Qing He

Zhang Qing He, the third Grandmaster, was an orphan who was rescued and looked after by the monk, Chun Quan, in a small temple on the Luoyang side of Song Mountain. Chun Quan sent him to study with Master Wu Shanlin when he was about twenty years old. Zhang Qing He also qualified as a doctor and was in fact better known for his medical skills than for his kung fu.

In about 1988 Master Zhang Qinghe came to live at the Shaolin Temple to treat his beloved Buddhist Master who was very ill. There he came into contact with a young monk, Dejian, who was studying and teaching at the Temple. Dejian started training in the Wugulun Kung fu style with him. In 1990,Master Zhang Qing He requested Wu Nanfang, who was teaching Wugulun Kung fu nearby to come and introduce Dejian to Wu Nanfang. They are brothers, because they are fellow apprentices of one and the same master.

img_51241Master Wu Nanfang and Master Dejian

This was an historic meeting as it is these two masters, Wu Nanfang and Dejian who, after the death of Master Zhang Qing He in 2004, are currently concerned with the preserving and passing on of the Shaolin Wugulun Kung Fu tradition — Master Dejian from the San Huang Zhai Monastery and Master Wu Nanfang from the Shaolin Wugulun Kung fu Academy.

Information courtesy of the Shaolin Wugulun Kung fu Academy.

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“If you would like to study at the Shaolin Wugulun Kung Fu Academy or would like to find out more information about the kind of training you can expect at the school click the link above. It is my opinion that this school is one of the very few authentic Shaolin Schools left in China and is definitely worth considering if you wish to study authentic Shaolin martial arts. Lately, I’ve been somewhat disillusioned with some of the training and also the managerial practices I’ve witnessed at some of the other more popular Shaolin International Kung Fu Schools in China. Maybe its time for a change a return to the roots of Shaolin with more focus on self discipline and quiet meditation rather than the flash and high flying kicks of the modern perversion we see so often. A perversion that turns poor young ambitions Shaolin masters into business men who scramble over westerners for money with little thought to the detriment they are doing to the name of Shaolin and China as a destination for martial arts.” – David Kelly