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Shaolin Kung Fu: Seeking Out The Old Styles

This June I traveled to the town of Dengfeng, in Henan Province. Dengfeng is the main town just next to the famed Shaolin Temple. When you say the name Dengfeng, it conjures up images of hundreds of kids in grubby tracksuits jogging around concrete squares, or performing Wushu routines in perfect unison. While this stereotype is indeed correct, we shouldn’t ignore the fact that there is a wealth of traditional martial arts knowledge beneath the surface. I wasn’t here to watch children do somersaults, but to seek out the elder masters who preserve the old teachings of Shaolin Kung Fu.

Shaolin Kung FuNowadays Shaolin Kung Fu is stereotyped by the performances we often see on TV and social media: monks breaking metal bars over their heads, spinning in the air and landing in an “eagle pose” or contorting themselves in some weird stretch. However, this has very little to do with the Kung Fu that has been practiced at the temple and surrounding area since at least the Ming Dynasty. The first mention of the Shaolin monks practicing martial arts goes back to the Tang Dynasty, when 13 warrior monks helped the Tang emperor Taizong (Li Shi Min) overthrow a rebellion and secure the dynasty. However, no mention is made of what these monks actually practiced. The martial arts of the Shaolin monks were first widely documented in the Ming Dynasty, at this point it seems there was a focus on weapons, and then moving into the Qing (1644 onwards) was when hand to hand combat really gained popularity. If you want to know more about the development of Shaolin Kung Fu, I highly recommend the book The Shaolin Monastery by Meir Shahar. 

Shaolin Kung Fu is typically made up of the forms Xiao Hong Quan, Da Hong Quan, Tongbei Quan, Qixing Quan, Pao Quan, Luohan Quan and others depending on the specific lineage. Master Hu Zheng Sheng explained to me that it’s not that Shaolin Temple created any style of Kung Fu, rather the temple absorbed various styles from the surrounding areas. In ancient China, much like in medieval Europe, temples were a place where criminals, disgraced generals or failed rebel leaders could seek refuge, not only that but temples owned large swathes of land which they needed to protect from bandits and thieves. It’s only natural that this environment would be a breeding ground for fighting styles to emerge.

One interesting revelation I had from talking to the various masters was the crossover between the principles and theories of Xingyi/Xinyi and those of Shaolin Kung Fu. Each master in Dengfeng said that the core theories of Shaolin Kung Fu were the Six Harmonies, Four Extremities and Three Sections. What they are and how they are manifested did have some variation from teacher to teacher, but in general were the same. Technique-wise I saw a lot of crossovers between the moves found in the old Shaolin forms and those of Xinyi Liuhe. This is something I discovered when training with Josh last year, but became even more apparent on this trip.

And it is that which leads me onto Xinyiba. Xinyiba was explained by Hu Zheng Sheng to be the highest level of Shaolin Kung Fu. Now it has some similarities to Xinyi Liuhe but if differs in that it is not a system in itself, rather it is a concept of training your art in a more effficient way. Ba 把 in Kung Fu refers to a core technique, and all of the Ba are contained within the common Shaolin forms, although they take on different names and are somewhat hidden. Once a student reaches the relevant stage, the teacher will instruct the student on which techniques are Ba, and how to take them out of the form and train them. When training Xinyiba there are only a few movements, and each movement can contain several of these Ba. It’s disputed whether Shaolin Xinyiba or the Xinyi Liuhe practiced by Muslims came first, but we can be sure of the connection. The main difference is that Muslim Xinyi Liuhe is a stand alone system, and has a complete system of training, including the Ten Animal Forms and Si Ba among others. It is known that Ji Long Feng, who is credited as the founder of Xinyi/Xingyi spent time at Shaolin temple, and they say he taught his new empty hand system to the monks here, which he based off of spear methods. Interestingly, the Muslim people in nearby Luoyang who practice Xinyi Liuhe don’t recognise Ji Long Feng as the teacher of their style’s founder, Ma Xue Li, but instead say that Ma Xue Li was already an accomplished martial artist who went to spend ten years at Shaolin Temple, before returning to Luoyang and teaching a new art inside the Mosque to a small group.

If you want to learn more, make sure to check out the series on Youtube which is being released weekly and if you would like to support future projects like this, and get access to unseen videos from this series and other previous ones, you can go to 

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Hakka Kung Fu of Lau Gar Gow (Liu Jia Jiao)

Hakka Fist

For me, one of the most interesting styles I came across on my Singapore trip was Lau Gar Gow, or Liu Jia Jiao in Mandarin. Lau Gar Gow literally means “the teachings of the Lau family”, and is an extremely rare style of Southern Fist practiced by the Hakka people.

The Hakka people (Kejia in Mandarin) are an ethnic minority found in Southern China, as well as in the Chinese diaspora throughout Southeast Asia. An offshoot of Han people, they are the descendants of northern Chinese who fled south in several waves throughout history due to wars or famines. They settled in a mountaineous triangle between Jiangxi, Fujian and Guangdong provinces, and became well known for their fortress-like villages, herbal medicines and martial arts. Hakka Fist

The style of Lau Gar Gow is extremely rare, and its unknown if anybody in China is still practicing it. As far as we know, there are only very small pockets of people in Singapore and Malaysia. In fact there are many family and village styles for which this is the case. Due to poverty, war and politics, many southern Chinese left their homeland in search of a better life in Southeast Asia, taking their martial arts with them.

In a future series, James Lee and I hope to travel around Southern China to find the roots of his Lau Gar Jow, as well as to see what other styles from Southeast Asia are still alive in some remote villages, and find out if and how they have evolved seperately. If you would like to support this and other upcoming projects, you can become a Patron here and get access to all kinds of exclusive content.

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Red Boat Opera Wing Chun (Ban Chung)

Ban Chun Wing Chun
Ip Man has almost become a household name now, yet even before the film franchise, the majority of people who practiced Wing Chun knew the name. However, there is much more to Wing Chun than just Ip Man, if you have read my previous posts you will know I have trained Yuen Kay San style when I was in Hong Kong around ten years ago. On this trip to Singapore I was lucky enough to be exposed to another rare branch, this time Ban Chung Wing Chun, which traces its origins to the Red Boat Opera Troupes of the late Qing Dynasty.
As you can see from the video, the most obvious difference is that rather than practicing the three forms: Siu Lim Tao, Chum Kiu and Biu Jee, this branch has one long form made of 108 moves. This whole form is called Siu Lim Tao, however the characters used for it are different. Commonly, the form will be called 小念头, meaning Little Intention/Idea, however in this branch they use 小练头, meaning Small Practice Form. Master Cho says this difference could arise due to the difference in regional dialects (even Cantonese varies greatly from region to region). I actually recall reading somewhere previously that Wing Chun originally had this one long form that was divided into three sections, and the three forms done today are a relatively recent creation.Ban Chun Wing Chun
The other major difference is that they don’t practice common Lok Sau (rolling hands) method of Chi Sau. Instead they use Huen Sau (circling hands), which looks a little more like Taiji Push Hands. I have also seen Vietnamese Wing Chun in particular use this method.
Ban Chung Wing Chun is a style which has a very close connection to the early Red Boat Opera Troupes. In fact the name, Ban Chung (班中) actually means “within the troupe”, meaning that Ban Chung was practiced on the boats. These boats carried performers of Cantonese opera around the many waterways of southern China, and were a convenient hideout for anti-Qing revolutionary groups. In fact, it can be said that the reason Wing Chun looks like it does is because of the lack of space to train on the boats, forcing them to adapt by minimalising their movements to fit in the small space. Ban Chung Wing Chun specifically traces back to Cho Shun, who was an apprentice on the boat and learnt from Yik Kam, a male who played the females role. Cho Shun later retired to his native Poon Yun village and began to teach his art there, where it later spread to Malayisa and Singapore.
Ban Chung Wing Chun is informally known as Cho Gar, or Cho Family, however, Cho Gar itself also contains Choy Lay Fut, Hung Gar and other styles. The focus of this interview was just on the Wing Chun aspects. If you want to contact the Cho Gar Ban Chung Wing Chun Association in Singapore, you can visit their facebook here. 
If you want to learn more about all the fascinating branches of Wing Chun out there, I highly recommend this book Complete Wing Chun.
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Visiting the Longjing Village to Try Authentic Green Tea

Longjing is without a doubt China’s best known green tea and it is grown by the side of the West Lake in Hangzhou, just a few minutes drive from General Yue Fei’s tomb that I wrote about in my last post. I decided to visit the Longjing village to try the tea at its source, as well as to hopefully visit some plantations.

longjing villageI arrived at the Weng Family Village, one of fours villages in the Longjing village area which produces the authentic tea. Walking through the village its immediately apparent the wealth here; for a Chinese village the houses are built incredibly well, and there were expensive cars parked outside every one. Towards the top of the village is a well, the sign explained that it was the original Dragon Well, from which Longjing takes its name (longjing means dragon well in Chinese). Several old women sat on a bench next to the well, and as soon as I approached they got out their buckets, asking me if I wanted to wash my hands and face with the water. Nothing comes free in this world, and it seemed odd how pushy they were offering these buckets “for free”, so I politely refused them. They then started pestering me to go and buy tea at one of their shops. I left, and continued to stroll, hoping to find a decent shop where I could try the local tea without being pestered.

I was in luck, I chose one quiet looking shop at random, and this old lady was sitting inside with a sweet smile. She invited me to try some tea, and I could immediately tell she was different. It turned out that she was a member of the Weng family, and had been growing tea for generations. Her husband was the tea master, and she was in charge of running the shop. She also told me I was smart for not touching the well, as althought it was the real Dragon Well, the water inside was currently polluted as so many people had moved into the village and built substandard bathrooms that essentially pumped sewage straight into it! These were the same people pestering visitors at the well in question!

I tried her green tea, as well as a Longjing black tea…. something I never even knew existed! It was really good though; a light and fresh black tea, very different to your normal Chinese blacks. Anyway, I will leave it there, and let you enjoy the video of my trip there.

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The Tomb of General Yue Fei – Hangzhou

Yue Fei

Hangzhou, in Zhejiang province, is only a 90 minute journey by high-speed train from Shanghai, and the city centre doesn’t feel a whole lot different. What is different, however, is the amount of culture and history surrounding the West Lake. Of particular interest to martial artists, as well as patriotic Chinese, is the tomb of General Yue Fei.

Yue Fei was a general in the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1179). The Song Dynasty was a period of strong cultural developments but very weak military. The emperors were focused mostly on pursuing art and poetry, and neglected the defense of their borders. As a result, they were constantly plagued by raids from nomadic horseback peoples from the north. One such group, the Jurchen, grew to great strength and eventually sacked the capital of Kaifeng (in today’s Henan province), claiming it as their own and setting up the Jin Dynasty. The Song court fled south, and set up their new capital in Hangzhou. In fact, the Jurchen are the very same people who founded China’s last Dynasty, the Qing, after renaming themselves the Manchu hundreds of years later.

Yue FeiYue Fei was a native of Henan province, and made it his lifelong ambition to retake his homeland from the northern Barbarians. At a young age he began his martial arts training by learning archery and the 18 weapons from legendary figure Zhou Tong. He later learnt and mastered the spear, which became his speciality from Cheng Guang. It was this spear technique that, according to legend, influenced him to create an empty hand fighting style, known as Xinyi-Liuhe Quan. This style was based on Liuhe (six harmonies), which in essence meant the body moving in unity, much as you would move wielding a spear. How much of this is fact, and how much is pure myth is pretty much impossible to ascertain. But what we can take from this, is that as many modern martial arts styles claim descendancy from his original technique, he was a figure worthy of martial artists admiration. I put this down to his efforts to fight the Jurchen, a notion which many creators of contemporary martial arts could empathise with, growing up under the Manchu rule where Han were considered second class citizens.

Yue Fei was eventually betrayed by a group of people, led by Qin Hui, and wrongly sentenced to death. In front of his grave you can see several bronze statues of these traitors, forever cursed to kneel in front in a gesture of begging forgiveness. It’s normal for Chinese visitors to the tomb to spit on the statues or wave their hands and curse them. Something which there are now signs up asking tourists not to engage in.

Yue Fei was post-humously pardoned, and this large temple and tomb was set up for him by a later emperor. Since that time, its been customary for both martial artists and patriotic Chinese to come to Hangzhou to pay their respects to the general, as did I on my recent trip to Hangzhou.