Practicing one of the forms from the Six Harmonies style referenced in my interview with James Wu.
Practicing one of the forms from the Six Harmonies style referenced in my interview with James Wu.
The smaller [the weapon], the smarter it is.
This saying could be seen as a departure from the previous ones that have been considered here. Instead of talking about the body, rooting, moving, standing, the use of limbs, etc., the translation I’m proposing mentions weapons. How does that fit into Shen Fa – the study of body methods?
There are many reasons why weapons are integral to a study of traditional Chinese shen fa approaches, and I plan to explore more of these in future posts. But I can briefly offer two perspectives as to why studies of Chinese martial body methods are incomplete without looking at weapons.
The first is that when human beings are doing things that matter, such as building shelter, cooking food, or fighting for their lives and property, we make use of tools. Tools of violence are weapons. So let’s posit (at least for the sake of this discussion) that martial arts grew out of the historical need to protect, and that called for weapons use. Empty hand methods would merely be backups in an environment in which weapons were generally employed. Using a tool habituates the body to the movement requirements of using that tool effectively. So classical Chinese martial artists were primarily weapons users, who moved as weapons users, and this style of movement lends itself to how the empty hand movements are done.
Sometimes we hear the reverse – that one studies an empty hand art, and then uses weapons as merely extensions of the hands. But this does not take into account the different ways that the design of different weapons requires one to move. For example, one does not use a saw in the same way as one uses a hammer, or a chef’s knife! So treating all tools of violence (weapons) as equally the extensions of one’s empty hand movements is naive. From this perspective, without an understanding of how certain weapons are handled, we are missing a key ingredient of how the developers of our empty hand arts trained to move. Therefore, if we really want to be Chinese martial artists, even if we don’t expect to go into battle with sword and spear, we should train our bodies to move properly with at least some of these weapons (sometimes dependent on boxing style).
The second reason that discussion of – and hard practice with – weapons is of foundational importance to the study of Chinese martial body development is that it is simply excellent equipment training. I mean this in terms of exercise equipment like kettlebells, Indian clubs, stone locks, free weights, etc. Various styles of Chinese martial arts have developed exercises with weapons that are not meant to train someone in a fighting application, but to develop a quality of movement or body structure (this is also the same in may empty hand routines, that mix training body principles with actual combat moves, sometimes causing a lot of confusion with regard to usage). Long pole shaking, using over-sized or overly weighted swords, or simply extended or complex movements with potentially dangerous weapons are all examples of training methods that aid in the development of body skills for the execution of martial techniques, whether one is holding a weapon or not.
Now with that introduction, let’s look at the saying which appears at the top of this post:
The smaller [the weapon], the smarter it is.
Although it does not literally appear in the Chinese, I’ve inserted “the weapon” into this phrase, because it is generally understood in context for this phrase. Basically this saying argues that a small weapon with less reach and mass has to be “smart” in order to accomplish its mission. It will also necessarily be “smarter” than a larger weapon, which might have more force. To continue with the tool metaphor, a sledgehammer generates a huge amount of force that a finishing hammer cannot. However, a sledgehammer is “dumb” when you’re tapping in delicate decorative moulding to finish off a custom cabinet installation. A wolf’s tooth club or halberd would thus be “dumb” compared to a dagger or jian, which would be better suited to pinpoint attacks. Or a smallsword would be “smarter” than a battleaxe – though both can be lethal! Finesse in the usage of the tool is proportional to the amount of force required to move the tool.
Here’s the “kicker” – the same basic rule applies to empty hand technique! Think about it. Kicking with the whole flat of your foot has a different impact (and often more of a push) than a kick with just the heel. Or think about the application of a roundhouse kick that connects with the shin in comparison to a “sword fingers” attack. The former can knock someone down through sheer force, can break bones, and can easily knock someone out when applied to the head (they don’t have to be standing). The sword fingers cannot be employed effectively against someone’s skull, not matter how hard you condition your fingers. But the sword fingers can be aimed effectively at the eyes, throat or other precise, soft points on the body. This takes a lot more control – finesse – than a roundhouse to the torso.
When we train our bodies, when we train and employ techniques, when we choose what weapon to deploy (weather integral or supplementary to our bodies), we should be mindful of the amount of “intelligence” that weapon requires.
When and where were you born?
I was born at Tainan,Taiwan in 1954.
Is your family Taiwanese, or did they come after the Communists took over in China?
My family is Taiwanese.
What language did you speak at home?
I mostly speak Taiwanese, but sometimes speak Mandarin.
What other languages do you speak?
I speak English.
How old were you when you first started learning martial arts? Where was this?
I first started learning martial arts at the age of six from my grandfather, but not seriously, though.
What was your grandfather’s name and what form of martial arts did he teach you?
My grandfather’s name was 黃錫 (Huáng Xī) and he taught me 太祖拳 (Tàizǔquán).
Why did you start learning traditional Chinese martial arts?
Many people practiced Chinese martial arts in the park (but not any more), and they attracted me to learn.
You teach Six Harmonies Fist and also Praying Mantis Fist. What was your first style and who was the teacher?
Actually my first style is Tai Chi and my teacher is 張海穎 (Zhāng Hǎiyǐng).
When did you start learning the other style and who was your teacher for that?
I started learning Six Harmonies from Master 陳卒 (Chén Zú) when I was in college. Not long after, I started learning Praying Mantis from Master 施政忠 (Shī Zhèngzhōng), then studied both in the same period of time.
What is the difference between the Xiamen style of Six Harmonies and the Praying Mantis from Shandong?
The way of letting out strength is different. Six Harmonies uses arms’ strength directly. Mantis mostly twists waist to put out strength. And also stances are different.
Do they work together or do you have to keep the Northern and the Southern separate?
They don’t work together. But it’s easier to get strength from practicing Six Harmonies. And from my experience that strength would benefit Mantis style.
Why did you end up learning these two styles?
I see the beauty of them and fall in love with them. The beauty-grace, ancient flavor, technique, formula, body mechanics,—— and so on.
Have you learned any other styles? If so, which ones and do you teach them?
I’ll stick to these two styles and have no time for others. Maybe I’ll practice Tai Chi when I am very old.
What is your motivation for continuing to practice the traditional Chinese martial arts?
Chinese martial arts have qualities both in martial and in arts.
How much time do you spend training in a week? How long every day?
I don’t count how much time I practice. But I try not to miss a day.
If a student wants to become strong through practicing Chinese martial arts, how much time does he need to train every day?
Don’t set a time frame. Practice more when you are free, otherwise less. The journey of Kung-Fu never ends. Don’t rush to be strong. Be patient.
Although different, Six Harmonies and Praying Mantis are both very physical styles – do they both have health benefits?
Yes, they both have health benefits. But don’t over-practice them to hurt your body.
How effective are each of these two styles for self defense?
That depends on how good the practitioner is.
How much emphasis do you place on health versus self defense in martial arts practice?
Fifty-fifty. Both of them are important to our life.
Are some practices just for health while others are for self defense?
All the moves in forms could be used for self defense.
What is the single most important characteristic of a student in the martial arts?
Respect. Respect yourself, your teacher and all good people.
How important is a good teacher in the traditional Chinese martial arts?
Without a good teacher, you’ll never learn the real traditional Chinese martial arts.
Do you think that traditional Chinese martial arts will continue in the future? What are the obstacles?
I don’t know if traditional Chinese martial arts will continue in the future. I hope more people with right attitudes ( not looking for flashy movements), will come to learn.
How would you compare the martial arts found in Taiwan today with those from mainland China?
Actually most Kung-Fu were from Mainland China. Some styles came to Taiwan long before the others. But I’m not so sure.
How are Chinese martial arts students in America?
I had some good students when I was there. Paul is my first student and also my nephew. Both Carlos and Bret are good, too.
What is your philosophy of martial arts practice?
Competing with yourself.
If you were to tell the world just one thing about your martial arts, what would it be?
Welcome to the world of Kung-Fu.
Is there anything else you would like to share concerning traditional Chinese martial arts?
Traditional Kung-Fu will lead you to a healthy and interesting life. And it will keep you interested for your whole life.
Some of my silat students asked to try a little cross training in Praying Mantis. This is some footage of them learning the first movements of the first form in Shen Fa Society’s Praying Mantis curriculum. I thought it was a good opportunity to show a couple of ways that basics are taught and drilled in the context of learning a form.
When hardness is contained in softness, attacks are unstoppable.
When hardness does not contain softness, it cannot be maintained.
In many ways, all movements are a balance between hard and soft. The human body itself has hard bones and soft tissue. When the body moves, that mixture of hard and soft is the mass that is accelerated to deliver force.
Movement requires that we encase our hardness in our softness. On a very basic level, if we tense up all of our muscles we will be unable to move – at least not with any speed or range. One can stand stock still in a fully locked and tensed position and learn how to take hard hits to various parts of the body. But, as the quote framing this post says, this cannot be maintained. One, it is physically exhausting and punishing. Two, it will not put you in a strategic position to come out of an attack safely. It would, at best, buy you time.
Life is movement. This is true both in terms of health and in terms of self defense.
Movement requires softness. The power to deliver unstoppable attacks requires that there be hardness contained within the softness. Hitting someone with a wet noodle doesn’t do much more than insult them (or make them laugh).
This is one of the distinctions between qigong for health and the martial arts. Martial arts cannot be completely soft when it comes to the moment of impact.
But there are different kinds of hardness that different martial artists can develop:
The hardness of bone is somewhat self explanatory, but certain styles use particular conditioning methods to stress the bones and make them stronger. In some cases they go so far as to hit the bones into increasingly hard materials to the point of punching steel plates in order to turn the bones into punishing tools. This method does work, but can leave the fighter crippled in his old age. The hardness without softness cannot be maintained.
The hardness of muscle refers to the building up of the muscles through resistance training and the coordinated tensing and relaxing of these muscles at various stages of movement. This is the next level up in terms of sophistication in developing the necessary hardness for martial application. One risk of this method lies in the psychological comfort and apparent safety of being tensed. Some practitioners and some styles move deeply into the tension training and loose the ability to fully relax into movements and structures. The tension eats away at the softness, limiting power and range.
The hardness of structure is a strategy by which the practitioner supports the power of bone with the power of muscle, but attempts to do so at a minimum. We let the structure of the human body determine our movement patterns and static positions. The static positions (stances) are the endpoints of our applications, and thus represent a body organization that directs power through the frame in specific directions. Our muscles are soft in movement, but only tense enough when delivering power to organize and support the structure through which the technique is applied. As much of the force is the result of careful deployment of the body’s structure against an opponent, tendons (connecting muscle to bone) and ligaments (connecting bone to bone) come to play a greater role in this strategy than in the pure hardness of muscle approach.
The hardness of energy is the highest level of the hardness of structure approach. Muscular movement is refined to the point that it outwardly appears completely soft. And yet tremendous force can be applied to objects or people. Because the structure is well developed and supported by minimal expenditure of muscular tension (which is always necessary, however), and the tendons and ligaments have come to support the structure (which eases the role of the muscles), movements can be faster and more accurate. More acceleration is thus applied to a finely tempered hardness. Thus the body manifests nuanced, relaxed, sustainable, and surprising power against an opponent.
“When hardness is contained in softness, attacks are unstoppable.”
In our practice of Six Harmonies Boxing (六合拳 – Liùhé Quán) we use iron rings as conditioning tools. We had a batch made locally and this video is a playful look at part of the forging process used on the rings and on ourselves.
Softly prepare to strike hard!
More literally this phrase can be translated as: “Softly gather qi, solidly strike.”
There are two primary ways this phrase can be interpreted in martial arts. The first pertains to training, while the second refers to a combat situation.
In training it is advisable to nurture your body. Abusing your body in the pursuit of greater flexibility, resilience or power can lead to training injuries that will haunt your later years, set your learning back in the short term, and may render you handicapped if faced with a self defense situation on the way back from training. This seems like common sense, yet there are countless numbers of people who engage in damaging practices while supposedly bettering their bodies and their art. Training softly to gather your energy will build your capabilities while also nurturing your body. Don’t worry – there is a lot of work and sweat involved in “softly gathering qi.”
In addition to engaging in non-destructive body cultivation techniques, the softly gathering energy perspective teaches a connected sense of the body’s structure and movement. Too often in the tensed frenzy of running through techniques, we neglect to listen thoroughly to our bodies. When we slow down and relax it offers the potential for somatic introspection. This is also true for all styles that are typically performed quickly and “with power” – the so-called “external” or “hard” styles. Once we learn the lessons of our bodies as they move through the forms of our systems, we are then able to truly release the power of the movements when we speed up into application speed.
This leads us to the second area of interpretation for the phrase under consideration in this post – combat. “Softly gather qi, solidly strike” can also serve as a reminder not to telegraph either movements or intention. Fighters read intention and can sometimes read a few steps of intention into the future, like a chess player predicting his opponents series of moves. Attacking your opponent when he is preparing for an attack is an excellent strategy which requires the reading of his intention. Strikes delivered during your opponent’s preparation are safer to launch and have a greater effect than when he is in purely defensive mode. Softly gathering your qi is a method of masking your intentions. Internally this means masking your intention and the subtle reorganization of your body for your next movement. Externally this means that your movements should be initiated without any windup. When your movements are obscure, and you have softly gathered your qi, you deliver a solid attack.