Broadsword? Kwan dao? Nine-sectional whip chain? Tiger? Snake? Dragon? It’s a candy store and we are all wide-eyed, drooling, kids.
One look at the weapon rack in our school and most martial artists draw in a quick, deep breath. “Wow.” That’s the first word that is usually spoken, often followed by, “Holy cow.” Others do not speak at all. They just walk up and down the entire length of the 45- to 50-foot wall where I display many of the weapons that have been a very fortunate and integral part of my 40+ years of study in the Chinese martial arts. In fact, many of these weapons were hand picked or custom made in China on various personal study tours. A few, exceptionally hand-crafted pieces were customized for or with me by my SiFu, SiGung Kwong Wing Lam.
Like many martial artists, my interests – dare I say desires – were piqued by classic Shaw Brothers Chinese Kung Fu movies in the late 1960s. I could watch Alexander Fu Sheng, Liu Kar Lueng, and his brother Chia Hui Liu, aka Gordon Liu (three of my favorite Shaw Brothers’actors) for hours… movie after movie. I will admit that there were times I would watch the same movie over and over again in a single setting. One might surmise I was enthralled – not only with watching these icons in action, but certainly with the idea that I, too, could learn these same things.
In the 1970s, I became friends with SiFu Brendan Lai, who was an internationally renowned Seven Star Praying Mantis Grandmaster. Unquestionably, Brendan and his wife, Esther, were invaluable friends in my martial journey. At the time, he owned one of the largest, if not the largest, martial arts supply companies in North America; directly or indirectly, he knew almost everyone in the traditional Chinese martial arts world. When I was interested in working with the hookswords, Brendan arranged for me to work with SiFu Adam Hsu; then rope dart with SiFu Ji, Hing Li; hooksword and spear combat set with SiFu Jiang, Hao Quan; puh dao with SiFu Xu, Bo Ran, and the list goes on. They were not simply practitioners of these specific arts, but rather top SiFu in their respective systems.
Eventually, I became a student, and subsequently a disciple, of SiFu Kwong Wing Lam. He taught me the empty hand and weapons forms of Northern ShaoLin, Ha Say Fu and Canton Hung Gar, Tai Chi and BaGua. Later still during extended study trips to China, I would, through several associates there, arrange to study with Chinese masters who often possessed knowledge of very rare or unique systems and weapons such as ShaoLin DaMo crutch, BaJi meteor hammer, Emei judge’s pens and Tai Yi Tai Chi whisk and straight sword. Many empty hand systems were also studied, as well as an increased effort at mastering the art of QiGong, the Taoist arts of WuDang, and specifically, TaiYi. I have truly been blessed with such rare and unique opportunities.
Consequently, there are a plethora of forms – empty hand, weapons, internal energy, and QiGong trainings from the “old” Chinese Martial arts world – that I gladly teach to any serious student. These pieces are often “in addition” to specific curriculums in the school. Students study a chosen path, move through the respective levels therein, and are also offered the opportunity to study electives. After finishing a level of training in any of the chosen curriculum, students may ask to learn any piece that is taught. If they want to work with a spear, a monk’s spade, a hoe, the DaMo cane… whatever moves them… I will make it happen. When students work hard and show sincere curiosity, I will enthusiastically indulge them.
When taught correctly, new or different material will only enhance a student’s progress. Understanding the external and internal harmonies of movement and energy is essential to any style of martial training. The Tao Te Ching tells us, “The shape changes, but not the form.” Core concepts and principles are the same, but everyone is different in strength, stamina, endurance, flexibility and balance. We are also different in personality, character and temperament. Some may be more physically strong with a very straightforward, tiger-like essence, while another may be more acrobatic and mischievous like the monkey. Likewise, weapons reflect inherent preferences and natural tendencies, but the only way to know is to learn, engage, experience.
The depth and breadth of the Chinese martial arts allow an individual to try many avenues on the path to who they are. Ideally, we must all find ourselves. In so doing, we discover which system, which weapon, and even which specific techniques best work for us. No one masters all of the movements of a particular system; learning all of the techniques, you eventually pinpoint which ones are best suited to you. There will always be those that just do not work well for you, but there will also be others that seem to be a natural fit. These then become the techniques that work regardless of the type of attack you are facing. Finding “your technique,” however, can only happen after you have religiously dedicated yourself to the training necessary to experience and know not only the movements, but more importantly, yourself within them.
Students considering an elective often choose based on what has impressed them as they have watched others: They love to watch their SiJie perform the Tiger piece, or they are simply mesmerized by their SiHing’s monk’s spade. But many times, they come to realize that a particular piece is “not them” at all, and that other forms or weapons are better matches for their strength, flexibility, temperament and personality. Thus, knowing yourself first is essential. Having the opportunity to find yourself in and through options can be very helpful, but one must be careful to not become a “jack-of-all-trades” and “master-of-none.”
The Tao explains that, “Work is done, then forgotten; therefore it lasts forever.” This was an insight that the late Bruce Lee tried to share: Find what works for you. In other words, do not get caught up in the forms you have learned; instead, train them, drill them, become one with them. Ultimately, you and the technique will become one, and the movements will become natural and second nature.
When first learning, there is a great deal of cognitive energy employed in the process. Thinking is necessary. Once learned, though, we need to be able to turn off the thinking… we need to practice until we can “forget” learning. This is when the movement lasts forever. Muscle memory is powerful; fortunately and unfortunately, practice makes permanent. If you are not practicing correctly, or if you are practicing techniques that just won’t work as well as others, you will not be able to maximize the potential you have in your development. This is where I feel that many of Bruce Lee’s successive followers missed the lesson. If you haven’t used the forms to learn the varied options to an aggression, and learned them well, how can you know what to release, and what to keep and make “perfect” through disciplined practice? As an example, in the movie The Master Killer, Gordon Liu’s Gee Sim was trying to defeat his senior instructor’s butterfly knives in combat. He tried weapon after weapon until he found a three-sectional staff. It was only then he knew success. Letting go of the other weapons and failed attempts while retaining the knowledge and experience from the training, he was able to use the three-sectional staff in a natural, instinctive, and effective manner.
So, what is my favorite animal? Weapon? These are questions I am often asked. Throughout my years of study, I would say the preferences have changed. When I am studying the crane, I am in love with the crane; when I am studying the dragon, I am in love with the dragon. That love is what enables you to connect as you must to really learn the piece; you must put your entire self into it. The same can be said for each weapon. Well, maybe not the three-sectional wooden staff, but that is a whole story in and of itself. Broad brush stroke… a look over time… I would say I connect most naturally with the Tiger. As for weapons, at one time it was a real toss-up between several. I have always had an affinity for the staff and the butterfly knives, and there were many years where I just loved the steel whips: three, five, seven, and nine sectional. In the last five to 10 years, I have grown fonder of the straight sword. I am also very in love with Tai Yi Tai Chi. What will it be next year? Five years from now… who can say? The Chinese martial arts are living and growing energies. We, as human beings, are also living and growing energies. I need to continue to learn. I need to continue to grow. I am not the same man I was 10 years ago. I will not be the same man 10 years from now.
My advice to you: Do not be afraid to try different treats in the candy store. If you can, try as many as possible. Love each. Learn each. Find yourself. Find what resonates naturally, and intimately, with you. Let go of fear. Experience. Grow. Live.