GROUNDWORK OF CHINESE MARTIAL ARTS

AND WAN LAI SHENG

by

Bill Chen


In the process of learning effectively, it is often necessary to know the contents of the subject and the steps involved. The lack of standards in Chinese martial arts complicates the learning process and often leads to ineffective learning. I write this article with the hope that it can serve martial arts enthusiasts as a generic road map to Chinese martial arts. Although my personal experience in Chinese martial arts is not enough to qualify me for such an undertaking, I have drawn on the benefits of my personal acquaintance with qualified masters and my collection of classical Chinese martial arts manuals to assist in providing this information. One of the earlier books in my collection that I often revisit is the late master Wan Laishen's Wushu Hui Zun (or The Root of Martial Arts). The focus of this revisit is based on the book's first point in section two, chapter one entitled "The Real Meaning of Chinese Martial Arts." In this section he brings convergence in various styles of Chinese martial arts by cutting through superficialities. He discusses concisely the essence in attitude, mental and physical training of Chinese martial arts. I believe the road map he drew can lead to effective learning.

About Master Wan Laishen

Wan Laishen, born in 1903, already was a well-known fighter in the 1920's. He was appointed to lead the government-sponsored martial arts centers in Guangdong and Guangxi provinces after outstanding achievement in the first national martial arts contest in 1928. He also served as martial arts head officer in Henan province's Chinese military establishment in the 1930's and 40's. One of the more famous disciples of the great masters Du Xinwu and Liu Ginren, he was well-known for lightning speed and powerful fingers in the Chinese martial arts arena some sixty years ago. Later in life, he practiced Chinese medicine. Having graduated from and lectured in the College of Agriculture of Beijing University (the Chinese equivalent of Harvard), Wan possessed the ideal Chinese martial virtues of civility, intelligence and discipline.

Wushu Hui Zun, originally published in 1927, covers different facets of Chinese martial arts. In addition to basics, it also covers horse riding and caring in military environment; swimming and rescuing, martial arts education, medicine, meditation and chanting. Although his core training was Shaolin Wai-Twal's [I don't know the proper romanization for this term though Wan was probably best known as an inheritor of Du Xinwu's "Natural" school of boxing. TWC] Liu-He style, he later learned other styles during his travels across the country and gave credit to over ten masters as being his teachers. He approaches martial arts at the root and from a practical perspective. He promoted the techniques of individual styles without engaging in separatist rhetoric. He passed away several years ago in China.

On the Purpose of Martial Arts

Wan Laishen believed martial arts is primarily for improving health and prolonging life. He said, "...no matter how good one's skill is, one should not compete to satisfy ego." He also emphasized that an essential part of attaining advanced skills is to objectively try one's skills with fellow practitioners possessing advanced skills and good virtues.

Wan said there are ten fundamental physical skills. They are: hands, eyes, body, methods, stepping, shoulders, elbows, wrists, hips and knees. Since hands, shoulders, elbows, eyes, hips, wrists and knees are self-explanatory, I will concentrate on body, methods and stepping.

Body (forms) training develop one's spontaneous flows in body movements. Different styles tend to design different movement flows as a way to program certain desired habitual body movements into practitioners. To achieve this spontaneous body movement, Wan states one needs to practice each form at least one thousand times to receive any benefits. The frequency of practice necessary in working the designed flows into one's spontaneous flows suggests that foundation practice should be limited to a few forms that are designed to focus on certain movement traits.

As we observe Taiji, Xingyi, Bagua, Shaolin, Long Fist, Praying Mantis, etc. we can see their distinct approaches to developing body habits. The success of this training only means the practitioner is programmed to move with certain habitual movement flows. It is not singularly representative of martial arts as it is a subset of total martial arts training.

Methods (Techniques)

Methods always involve leverage. Real Chinese martial arts methods involve using the minimum amount of force to achieve maximum results, regardless of whether the method is qinna, striking vital points, suai jiao, etc. This is one area where many disciplines and styles converge. To successfully use methods, one needs to know the inner workings of special techniques within each system which usually involve raw techniques combined with psychology, timing, trained strength and specific knowledge of physiology.

Frequently methods are taught no differently than forms (i.e. the next secret form is...), yet, we all know without the training of certain "jings", Taiji's eight core techniques, Xingyi's five core techniques, Bagua's eight palms, etc. cannot work. Even with the support of "jings", without special basic training prescribed in individual systems, practitioners may only be able to demonstrate a technique but will not able to utilize them in real situations. Methods cannot be learned without frequent physical engagements. Higher levels of martial arts accomplishment can only be attained through perpetual engagement with higher level martial artists. As Wan wrote in his book, "True knowledge of methods rests on real experience." This is one of the points that separate martial arts theorists from true martial artists. Failure to understand the core methods of any single style often lead practitioners wander about, mimicking numerous forms and styles without in-depth understanding of basics.

Stepping

Stepping has its root in stance training. One who has weak stances cannot move with stability and maneuverability. Although I have seen many quality martial arts organizations teaching actual stepping techniques, most schools I have seen either treat this as non-essential basic training or do not know the existence of stepping techniques. Seven years ago, knowing the existence of stepping training but ignorant of its effectiveness, I had the fortunate opportunity to experience the effectiveness of stepping techniques demonstrated by Liang Shouyu in combat applications. He asserts that stepping techniques are essential in developing traditional martial arts fighting skills. He also points out that different forms of stepping can be observed in other competitive arts such as fencing and boxing.

The Chinese did not develop these stepping techniques to satisfy certain curriculum. Stepping was developed through necessity. These techniques used to be guarded with secrecy but even though they may be more commonly taught these days, it seems that modern students no longer have the time and patience to learn them.

On Practicing Mental Skills

The three things are "Jing", "Qi", "Shen". The key is to nurture the mental stability to anchor oneself to make good judgments. Fear, anxiety, egotism and other unstable emotions can undermine all physical training. Although Wan did not explain the meanings of "Jing", "Qi" and "Shen" in Wushu Hui Zun, in the book Shaolin Liu-He Style, published in 1984, a group of his students explain that "Jing" refers to the bodily fluids that nurture one's body, "Qi" is the energy that powers one's body and "Shen" is the mental capacity that directs one's actions. The book asserts that the development of the three interlocking elements strengthens the life force.

Conclusion

Probably like most enthusiasts, I spent the most part of my once youthful life searching aimlessly for the key to Chinese martial arts. I believe that students of martial arts can effectively find qualified instructors and learn effectively by knowing the common groundwork of Chinese martial arts. Often martial arts fads and separatist bickering detract beginner enthusiasts from the potential long term reward of having a broad world view and a focused training. Teachers should retain students not on the grounds of superiority of the styles but on the grounds of well-thought-out training programs that meet the criteria of logical martial arts development. Wan Laishen asserts that there is no such thing as one superior style, but there are countless superior practitioners from almost any styles throughout history. I think it is fair and proper to say styles do not guarantee to make a master out of a person, rather it is usually masters who make styles famous.

Three key elements pre-determine the success of a martial arts student. The first is the intelligence and persistence of the student. Second, an environment that promotes exchange of quality knowledge and quality physical interactions. Third, a skilled martial arts teacher who can teach. Much admirable effort have been made to standardize Chinese martial arts by various instructors and organizations in the U.S. My personal belief is that until quality and purposeful training programs in Chinese martial arts are instituted and made abundant in the U.S. market, standardization will be meaningless and the current market will continue to nudge instructors to teach "Ninja Turtle" or "make-believe" styles of Chinese martial arts.



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Notes: I edited the article and worked to consistently use Pinyin romanization in the article. TWC



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