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Great Grandmaster Liu Yun-Qiao

Great Grandmaster Liu Yun Qiao

Founder of Wu-Tan and master of styles such as Bajiquan, Piguazhang and Baguazhang.
Grandmaster Kurt Wong

Grandmaster Kurt Wong

Our instructor's shifu teaches traditional guoshu in the city of Anchorage, Alaska.
Sifu Paolo Castaneda

Shifu Paolo Castaneda

Wu-Tan's proud tradition was brought to Oslo by Shifu Paolo Castaneda, head instructor at Oslo Wu-Tan.

Three Pillars of Chinese Martial Arts

Picture 1The Chinese martial arts have a long and rich history. Its effectiveness was revered amongst China’s ancient warriors. Even neighboring countries such as Japan, Okinawa, Korea, and Malaysia can trace their martial arts’ ancestry to China. Many ancient practitioners of Chinese martial arts worked hard to develop their trade as it meant survival for them, their family, and country. In order to develop their kung fu (skill), long hours were spent on forms, power generation, and usage training. These three pillars serve as the foundation of one’s skill within the Chinese martial arts.

In today’s society however, training is often incomplete. Many focus on forms training without power generation or usage training, degrading their skill to a performance art. Some focus on power generation without forms training. Without forms training, there is no vehicle for power generation. Many focus on merely fighting without a proper foundation in forms and power generation, which produce street fighters or kick boxers. There is nothing wrong with these things, but in order to truly be a practitioner of the Chinese martial arts, forms, power generation, and usages must all be trained effectively.

Form and Structure

In any martial arts, basics and forms practice are essential for progress and development of one’s skills. Training the body to move as one single unit takes time and effort to develop. Each Chinese martial arts system has its repertoire of basics to be mastered before one can go on to learn more advanced forms. Ji ben gong, or basics skills, is heavily emphasized throughout one’s training career. Jiben gong training consists of stance training, basic strikes, basic body-motion mechanics, basic energy generation, and basic lines. Among the most important of the jiben gong (basics) is stance training.

In order for any skyscraper to stand firm, it must have a strong and deep foundation. In kung fu, stance training sets the necessary foundation. Many schools of Chinese martial arts holds certain postures to develop leg strength and rooting power. Ma bu, or horse stance, is perhaps the most commonly stance held.

To assume the Ma bu position, the feet must be a little wider than shoulder’s length apart and parallel to each other. The knees in relation to the thighs are bent forward at a 90-degree angle, and are slightly facing inwards to relax the gua and to alleviate pressure. The arms are extended out and held in a relaxed manner. The fists are hollow and not stiff. The elbows and shoulders are dropped downwards to help with the sinking process. The chest should not protrude out nor should it be sunken in. The spine is straight all the way down to the tailbone. The crown of the head must be raised as if a string is holding up the head. The upper body must remain relaxed throughout the whole process.

Unlike popular movies where a student holds the stance position for many years before learning how to strike, one can learn single action drills to enhance stance training. The focus of this drill is the use of the waist, the shifting of one’s weight from one leg to the other to help in using the whole body, and of course, remaining relaxed yet fluid before the moment of impact. To truly have a sense of using the whole body, when practicing stationary strikes it is important to remember the following:

  • Feet and hands coordinate
  • Knee and elbows coordinate
  • Shoulder and hips coordinate

These three external co-ordinations will truly help the practitioner to use the body as a single unit. Punching in the Kung fu way is not from the arms alone, it comes from the ground up. All parts move and stop at the same time. Every part is connected to aid in delivering the strike. Understanding this will help to develop the necessary building blocks for power generation.

Dynamic moving is the next step, after single-action drills. A series of basic lines are performed to teach the basic strikes and footwork. Xingyi has the Wuxing Quan (5 element fist), Baji has Jing Gang Ba Shi (guardian immortal 8 postures), and Long Fist has Tan Tui (springing leg). The movements one learns are done in lines and are repeated on both left and right sides.This trains the body to be balanced and to instil good techniques on both sides of the body, not favouring one side over the other. Repetition is the key to developing skill at this level. Although to many students this type of training may seem boring and often useless, these basics are a necessary part of developing one’s kung fu. Without a foundation in these basics, learning forms will be merely a dance.

The final level of Form and Structure training is learning the forms of one’s respective system. Forms training are a necessary component in the arena of Chinese martial arts. Forms develop speed, timing, combinations, footwork, and endurance. Forms also help the practitioner to understand the essence or “flavor” of the system. All Chinese martial arts styles have a certain way of moving the body in a certain rhythm. By practicing the forms regularly, you are training the body to move in a way that is characteristic to the style (shen fa). When proper shen fa is ingrained into the body, the practitioner moves in a more skilful manner in combat.

 

Power Generation

Picture 2 Often to determine if the practitioner is able to use his kung fu, the amount of power one can generate is a very important factor within the Chinese martial arts. Effective delivery of power must be trained. In order to understand power generation, it is essential to recognize two important jing’s (energies).

Chan Su jing, or silk reeling energy, is perhaps the most essential of jings. Chan Su jing is spiraling movement, which allow for the use of the whole body. With coiling and uncoiling movements, the body is able to gain length in striking within a shorter amount of distance.Chan Su jing can be compared to a screw drilling through a surface. Like the screw, one’s strike can be compared to a screw that spirals into the surface. Another advantage of this method is that the spiral movements allow for the muscles to relax and to release tension.Chan Su jing is the means where one can effectively reach their opponent and to aid fa jing.


Fa jing, or explosive power, is the bread and butter of Northern Chinese martial arts. Fa jing can be compared to a bomb dropping on to a target and, once it lands, explodes out in all directions. In order to be effective in combat, a practitioner’s strike must have enough stopping power to finish the fight. When the practitioner issues a strike, the muscles are relaxed to ensure that the speed of the strike is not hindered. At the moment of impact, everything is tightened to issue fa jing, and at completion the practitioner immediately relaxes.

Often, those who are new to the Chinese martial arts search for “secret” or “esoteric” exercises to magically transform themselves into invincible warriors. There is nothing magical to power issuing. In fact, development of power can be found within the jiben gong. When basic body coordination and proper structure are acquired, applying the above jing practice is then focused within the jiben gong. Through diligent practice of stance training, stationary strikes, and basic lines, the practitioner has developed the understanding of the whole body and can apply the principles of Chan Su jing and Fa jing. Other systems incorporate weapons training to further understand power issuing. For instance, in Baji, Xing Yi, and Tai Ji, the use of the Da Qiang (long spear) is utilized. The Da Qiang helps the practitioner to issue Chan Su jing and Fa jing past the fist and to the tip of the spear. This allows for the practitioner’s empty hand strikes to penetrate the attacker, thus creating the necessary stopping power to finish the fight.

 

Usages

It is said that 80% of one’s training should be spent on training the body and 20% on fighting. Training the body takes a great deal of time and effort to develop. If one trains purely on the fighting component, one is no different than a street fighter. To be a skilled martial artist, forms training and development of power are necessary. Once a firm foundation in forms and power issuing is set, then usages can be taught.

The ability to stick and listen to an attacker is an important bridge to combat. Many styles incorporate two man sensitivity drills to develop sticking and listening skills. Taiji push hands is the most common way of practicing these energies. Other styles like Wing Chun also have similar drills. There are several skills that should be sensitivity drills. First, once body contact is made, listen to the opponent’s intent through their movement. Next, stick to the attacker without loosing contact to follow and divert. Also, when appropriate, use softness to neutralize an attacker’s forceful strike. It is important to also be “song” (relaxed) when applying these concepts. Song is neither weak, nor stiff; it is somewhere in between. You have to be soft enough to listen to an attacker’s intent. Yet you must also have form so your defense is not compromised. This way you can apply the old adage “4 ounces is used to move a mountain.”

Many systems include pre-arranged two man sets (sequences of movements) in order to develop the practitioner’s taste of contact. These two man sets are meant for developing a sense of confidence for the practitioner. Of course an attacker will not attack you with a set of pre-arranged strikes. Still, two man sets can also help in developing good reflexes and confidence in one self.

Picture 3 San shou (unbounded hands) are also very important to help understand the usages of the forms. In this level of training, the forms are taken apart to train on the individual usages of the actions. The usages can be categorized as Da (striking), Ti (kicks), Shuai (wrestling), and Na (controlling). Within the forms, the applications of these skills are found. Usages are not merely to just block and strike. Rather, there are many options for the practitioner to use when applying one’s art. In san shou training, practicing these four skills develops a well-rounded practitioner.

Practice in San Shou should be done slowly first and the two practitioners must cooperate with one another to help build an understanding of the usage. When practicing San Shou, one must remember to practice the same body movement requirements that are taught within the forms. Again, use of the whole body is emphasized. Also practicing slowly allows the usage to be internalized into the body to help the practitioner to apply the usages in a natural manner.

After working on single action usages, the speed of the attacks can be increased and with more power. The practitioner has built the confidence at this stage to apply the usage effortlessly. Counters to the usages can also be applied at this stage. This will allow the practitioner to figure out how to overcome a counter. Most likely, an opponent will not stand still. He will react and he will counter. No usage is 100% fool proof. It is good to be prepared with options in such situations.

Now that the practitioner has learned the usages of their respective style, attacks can be made randomly. This is an important step in the process of building a bridge to sparring. This allows the practitioner to develop timing, the ability to change and cope with various situations. The San Shou training no longer becomes pre-arranged and now becomes closer to an actual confrontation.

Sparring is the final ingredient to the usage training. It is important in sparring to apply the methods of training discussed in this article. Depending on a practitioner’s preference, safety gear can be used such as gloves, shin and foot protectors, headgear, etc. When sparring with a partner, one should apply the four basic types of usages (Da, Ti, Shuai, Na).

While sparring, it is common for the practitioner to “Ask.” Asking is when the practitioner would apply a strike to see the opponent’s reaction and also to make contact. Fighting at a distance can be dangerous as you do not know how good your opponent is nor can you apply listening skills without contact. Appling the concept of asking will allow a bridge to be made to the attacker.

Intensity in sparring should also be considered. How much power are the opponents to use? The ability to take strong hits is an important factor in fighting. If you do not know pain, how can you deal with pain when an actual combative situation occurs? On the other hand, if full power is applied at an early stage, how can one apply sound technique? Sparring should not end up a kickboxing match; rather the goal must be to apply the principles of one’s style. Of course, safety should still be observed.

With this in mind, sparring is still not actual fighting. Fighting has neither boundaries nor safety restrictions. Your attacker will not pull any punches. Also in a real fight, you are not sure if there is more than one attacker. Sparring is only a tool. With the above training regimen, the practitioner is now well equipped to apply what he has learn in a more spontaneous way. Sparring can help to build timing, reaction, the ability to take a hit, and the ability to apply all that has been learned. San Shou training helps the practitioner to cope with various situations. This will equip one to be ready if ever an actual confrontation arises. Stance training helps to maintain a calm mind during violent situations. Forms training equip you with the tools to survive. Power generation allows for you to have the necessary stopping power in combative situation. In a fight, all of your previous training will come into play and will serve you when it is needed. It is not a fast solution, but a step-by-step fashion, which will ensure that the principles will be applied in a combative situation.

 

Conclusion

The step-by-step training of Chinese martial arts takes time and a great deal of patience. In order to develop skill and to truly excel, there can be no shortcuts. Without the forms training, there is no structure in strikes. Without power generation, the form is empty. Without usage training, there is no confidence in one’s skills. These three factors go hand in hand and a practitioner must not neglect any of them. “Rome was not built in a day,” and neither is a practitioner of Chinese martial arts. If it were easy, then everybody would be an expert. It takes a special person who is dedicated and patient to truly benefit from the training regimen of Chinese martial arts. If today’s practitioners are able to undergo the above steps, then the skills of China’s ancient masters can be achieved.

Article was originally published in Inside Kung Fu Magazine, May 2007.

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