Shaolin White Crane Kung Fu is a rare system of self-defense which combines foot techniques, hand techniques and chin na (seizing and controlling). Although rare in the western world, the art is a famous fighting style in Southeast Asia. In fact, it is widely considered to be one of the ancestors of several traditional Okinawan Karate systems. It uses hands, feet, knees, elbows, shoulders and hips in its arsenal of striking techniques. The style is renowned, however, for its rapid hand techniques, its strikes executed in conjunction with grabs and its devastatingly effective pressure point attacks.
The founder of the style, Fang Chi-Niang, was a petite woman who lived in violent times. Most men were comparatively larger and more physically powerful than her. Moreover, body conditioning was, at the time, a much more important part of Kung Fu training than it is today. Enormous time and effort went into strengthening the arms, legs, torso, and even the skull. Fang Chi-Niang reasoned that certain vulnerable areas of the body could not be hardened or conditioned to resist injury. Powerful strikes to the temples, eyes, throat, solar plexus, floating ribs, kidneys, groin, knees, etc., could successfully debilitate even the most determined attacker. Consequently, attacking pressure point targets with specialized hand strikes became a trademark of White Crane.
White Crane combines defense and attack and uses both soft and hard power. It also emphasizes a firm yet evasive footwork. Shaolin White Crane Kung Fu stresses empty hand as well as weapons training, two-person sets, self-defense drills and free sparring. The style’s fierce pressure point attacks combined with rapid footwork and no nonsense approach make it a particularly effective, complete, and beautiful martial art.
The Fung Ying Chuan (Phoenix eye fist) is the basic White Crane fist technique. It is named for the slightly protruding index finger which resembles the eye of the legendary Phoenix. It is most useful for pressure point attacks, since it concentrates one’s entire power in a very small area, namely the second joint of the index finger. This means that power is extremely focused and that it tends to penetrate deeply. Although it is necessary to practice specific hand and finger strengthening exercises to effectively use the Phoenix eye fist, it is nevertheless considered a relatively easy technique to master. A second commonly used hand formation is Biao so, or Spear Hand. It is formed by completely straightening the fingers and thumb and keeping them held tightly against each other. It is used exclusively against the body’s weakest points, such as the eyes, throat or groin. Further hand formation used in Flying Crane include: edge of hand strikes, crane, eagle, tiger, and dragon claws. Most other hand movements either mimic a crane’s wings or resemble classical Southern Kung Fu systems hand techniques.
A good White Crane fighter can, amongst other things, sidestep and strike an opponent. This tactic is very effective in self-defense scenarios against a completely committed and possibly enraged adversary. It was not designed for the often tentative, forewarned and illusory nature of controlled sparring involving mutually consenting competitors. This brings us to a most important point: Authentic Chinese martial arts were created and evolved to be devastating self-defense systems. As society changes and evolves, however, many martial art systems have changed their fundamental nature and modified their training regimen. We can safely distinguish between those arts that have remained faithful to their tradition of all-or-nothing self-defense and those that have become martial sports. Both have something very special to offer to the public. There is, however, a great difference in approach.
I believe that most traditional Chinese martial arts focus upon forms, two-person exercises, weapon sets, body conditioning, internal exercises and free fighting. It is, in fact, quite a perversion of reality to suggest that traditional martial arts overemphasize forms training. After all, it is modern Wushu and other performance arts that do so.7 Traditional systems emphasize applications (Yong Fa). To do so, they must study a wide spectrum of subjects related to combat. They need to have a holistic approach to martial arts. This determined and comprehensive study of combat is what we call Kung Fu.
A unique feature of the White Crane system is the manner in which the many empty-hand and weapon forms are designed. The forms are comparatively short, and many of them are designed to be done as fighting sets with a partner. That is to say, the various blocks, counter-strikes, and joint locks in the second half of a given form make up the correct response to the various moves of the first half. Thus, one can familiarize oneself with the movements in solitary practice, and then test one’s understanding in a controlled-contact environment with a partner. This system ensures an organized approach to mastery of not only the individual movements, but also the fighting theory and real-world application of the form.
The same two-person set fighting paradigm is used for many of the weapons forms,8 beginning with White Crane’s famed Seven Star Staff (Chi Sing Guen). Along with the spear (Chiang), three-sectional staff (San jie guen), halberd or General Kwan’s Broadsword (Kwan Dao), cane (Gwaijian), Horse Cutter Broadsword (Jam Ma Dao), and the tiger fork (Fu Cha), there are several double weapons in traditional White Crane. These include the double iron rods (Swan jien) which are similar to Japanese sai, the double broadswords (Bai Her Dao), and the southern short swords (Nan Dao). Single weapons include: Single Broadsword (Dao), Straight sword (Dsien) and Fan (San Tse). There are over 80 empty hand forms in the Flying Crane style. Some are very short, others rather long. There are also a great many weapons forms.
Besides forms and two-person sets, students also condition their bodies and practice striking various training equipment. Several sensitivity or listening drills are alsoemphasized. For example, students often pair up and extend their arms so as to make them touch. From this position, they practice attacks and counter-attacks. Regular practice of this listening hands drill permits students to feel their opponent’s intentions and act accordingly. It also provides a safe and realistic forum from which to practice the application of their techniques. Free sparring is also introduced early on and is emphasized according to the individual’s wants, desires and skill level. Finally, advanced breathing exercises are taught on a one-on-one basis due to their nature.
History of Shaolin White Crane Kung fu
Before proceeding further, it is important to explain to readers that there are actually two martial art systems emanating from China that bear the name of White Crane: one originates in Tibet and the other in the southern coastal province of Fukien. Both arts are famous and have glorious histories of their own. This fact is mentioned in order to avoid confusing the public.
The history of the Fukienese White Crane Kung Fu has been passed down from master to student (father to son) for five generations. Although various accounts do exist, they all tell a similar tale. The history of White Crane Kung Fu as passed down within the Lee family is presented below.1
Fang Chi-Niang was born in Lei Chow Fu in the middle of the 18th century. Her father’s name was Fang Hui Sz and her mother’s name was Lee Pik Liung. Fang Hui Sz studied Kung Fu in the Shaolin temple at Nine Lotus Mountain, Ching Chiang district, Fukien (modern day Fujian) province. His wife and daughter lived at Lei Chow Fu. Since they were victimized by local landlords, it was decided to move away from the village. Eventually, they settled down in Ching Chu temple, on Ching Chea Mountain (Lei Chow Fu). One day, as Fang Chi-Niang was drying grain in front of the temple, she saw a huge crane come down from the roof and begin to eat. She decided to use a bamboo stick to chase away the intruder. Fang Chi-Niang was both curious and fearful of the crane. At first, she tried to strike its head but the bird was evasive. Then she attempted to hit the crane’s wings but it stepped to the side and used its claw to block the attack. When Fang Chi-Niang tried to poke the bird’s body with her staff, it moved back and used its beak to peck the bamboo. Fang Chi-Niang was surprised. She continued to use the techniques her father had taught her but her efforts were completely unsuccessful. Astonished by the crane’s skill, Fang Chi-Niang sought to practice with it on a daily basis. Fortunately, the crane obliged. This permitted Fang Chi-Niang to analyze and absorb the bird’s self-defense strategies. Eventually, she mastered the movements and spirit of the crane.2
During this period, Emperor Chien Lung ordered the destruction of the Southern Shaolin temple after having been informed of revolutionary activities on its grounds. Fang Hui-Sz was one of the few fortunate ones to escape the attack. He sought out his wife and daughter and they initially settled at Pik Chui Liang. Subsequently, Fang Hui-Sz moved to Sah Liang temple near Foochow, where he spent his spare time refining his daughter’s Shaolin Kung Fu. Fang Chi-Niang eventually mastered everything her father could teach her and chose to combine the crane’s spirit and movements with her Shaolin Kung Fu. She taught Kung Fu at Sah Liang temple to Weng Wing-Seng, Lee Fah-Sieng, Chang The-Cheng, and Ling Te-Sun. Weng was from Lei Chow Fu, Lee was from Chow Ann district, Chang was from Wing Chun district, and Ling was from Foochow. Weng and Lee taught many students at Kao Pei Cliff and set up a school there. Chang (nicknamed Nine Dots monk) settled at the White Crane temple and taught martial arts. Ling’s descendants moved to Taiwan. Lee passed his skills to his son Lee Mah-Saw. Lee Mah-Saw continued to set up schools and taught in Chow Ann district. Fang Chi-Niang’s teachings gave birth to different interpretations and four principal styles were developed: Flying Crane (Fei He), Eating Crane (Shi He) Screaming Crane (Ming He) and Sleeping Crane (Jan He or Su He). Later on, variations and combinations with other systems occurred which led to the creation of even more types of Fukienese White Crane.
At this point, it may be useful to debate whether the Fukienese White Crane arts are truly Shaolin systems or whether they represent a separate school. Since they were created outside the temple, many older generation White Crane masters do not consider their art to be a Shaolin art. This belief is compounded by the fact that White Crane focuses heavily upon soft power in the advanced stages. On the other hand, the founder did study from her father who was an accomplished Southern Shaolin practitioner. Consequently, it is difficult to resolve the debate as it is largely a question of perspective. Perhaps it is best to acknowledge the root of the art while simultaneously recognizing the founder’s unique contributions.
Grand-Master Lee Kiang-Ke: Bringing White Crane into the 20th Century
Historically, with the end of feudal social systems and the widespread use of firearms, advanced methods of combat are no longer an every day necessity. This fact of life, combined with the traditionally secretive nature of kung fu instruction, is contributing to the loss of an irreplaceable part of China’s cultural heritage. Many of the hundreds of different styles of kung fu are in danger of being lost or diluted to the point of extinction.
For practitioners of Fukien-style White Crane Kung Fu, the life of Grandmaster Lee Kiang-Ke (1903-1992) represents both a link to the past and window toward the future. To properly understand the reverence a martial artist has for his or her Grandmaster, it is necessary to view the martial art in its proper historical and cultural context. One important difference between the martial arts and other forms of physical activity is that martial arts can be practiced and enjoyed for a lifetime, and progress can be made at virtually any age. As such, many older masters are considered living treasures, due to the decades of accumulated knowledge, experience, and teaching expertise that they possess. Today, fewer and fewer people are willing to devote their lives to the study and teaching of martial arts as was done in the past. Because of this unfortunate reality, priceless martial knowledge often disappears forever upon the death of an elderly Grandmaster. This is especially true in the many styles of Chinese martial arts, where kung fu Shifus were secretive about their personal fighting art, and unwilling to disseminate it indiscriminately.
Fukien ShaolinWhite Crane Kung Fu is continuing to thrive, thanks to the enlightened thinking of one of its foremost proponents. Third-generation Grand-Master Lee Kiang-Ke was the single most influential person responsible for the preservation and dissemination of the flying crane system of Fukien White Crane. His choice to open to the public what had previously been a closed-door system ensured the survival of a most complete and devastating Chinese martial art system.
Grandmaster Lee Kiang-Ke started to learn Kung Fu from his father at the age of seven. After 10 years of arduous training, his father sent him away to live at a temple (Bai He An) where he furthered his martial knowledge under the instruction of a temple monk known as “Nine-dots Monk.” This temple specialized in the instruction of Fang Chi-Niang’s White Crane techniques. After four years of intensive study, the young master returned home to assist his father in teaching White Crane and in practicing herbal medicine. In time, he became the chief instructor and medical practitioner in his community. Later on, the Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist government) invited him to join the 49th Army Division as a medic. He ended up also teaching the soldiers the long handled broadsword (Da dao).
When his time of service was completed, he returned home and continued teaching martial arts and practicing medicine. Thereafter, Lee Kiang-Ke moved to Singapore where he stayed for six years. In an effort to escape the Japanese invasion forces, he then moved to Kuching, East Malaysia. Unfortunately, the Japanese invaded Malaysia soon after. Following the war, fellow martial artists invited him to open a club. He did so and named it the “Martial Heroes Association” (Woo Ing Tong)3. It prospered for many years. During this period, Malaysian society was quite rough-and-tumble. Polite tests of skill were fairly common. Less friendly challenges and outright life and death self-defense situations also occurred. Master Lee was famous amongst his peers for never losing a challenge.4 In 1963, he moved to the city of Sibu (also in the East Malaysian state of Sarawak). Eventually, he directed several schools in local communities including Kuching, Sibu, Sarikei, and Bintulu.
In 1967, the first South East Asian Kung Fu Tournament was held in Singapore. Lee Kiang-Ke’s Kung Fu brother, Lee Wen-Hung, came from China and competed. Lee Wen-Hung had studied with Lee Kiang-Ke under Lee Mah-Saw. Despite his somewhat advanced age, he won first place in combat. He then he settled in Singapore. In 1973, a White Crane student representing Sarawak (East Malaysia) went to compete in the third South East Asian Kung Fu Tournament where he won second place in combat.
Grandmaster Lee Kiang Ke retired in 1978 leaving his son, Shifu Lee Joo-Chian, the leadership of the head school in Sibu, East Malaysia. Master Lee Joo-Chian’s own training reveals the hard work needed to acquire some real skill (Kung Fu). Like his father, he started training at the age of seven. Classes were generally two and a half hours long. As the climate is hot and humid, warming up time was very brief. Students practiced forms for a half hour without any break. Thereafter, they briefly rested and recommenced their training of forms and basic moves for another half hour. Two-person forms were then practiced for another half hour followed by conditioning drills or weapons training. Finally, the last half hour was reserved for free sparring practice. The young Lee Joo Chian followed this grueling schedule three times a day, six days per week! Morning class was at 4.30 A.M. Then the children went off to school. Upon his return, Lee Joo Chian helped teach the afternoon class. Around eight in the evening, Lee and his sisters trained once again. Master Lee likes to remind people that there was little television in those days.5
Benefits of Training
Shifu Bernard believes it is a regrettable fact that many young people no longer engage in regular exercise. It is perhaps no accident that some of the most common ailments of modern life include back pain, hypertension, high stress levels, and insomnia, all conditions that exercise has been proven to alleviate. Training in a traditional Kung Fu school permits people to train their minds and bodies, develop real self-defense skills and preserve some link to martial tradition, folklore and culture. Furthermore, the confidence one gains from knowing real self-defense skill filters through all aspects of that person’s life thereby providing access to a more relaxed and pleasurable lifestyle.
Making a habit of regular exercise can be a difficult task. A learning activity like Shaolin White Crane Kung Fu, in which there are always new skills to master, can prevent boredom from setting in. Furthermore, in this age of short-lived trends, some fads don’t even last long enough to prove their long-term value or even their safety. The roots of Kung Fu go back over a thousand years, and many instructors retain a high level of fitness into their sixties, seventies, and even eighties. They are living proof that Kung Fu movements, when properly practiced, are at the very least, safe, and most likely, highly beneficial.
Fukien Shaolin White Crane Kung Fu today
Although the Flying Crane style is relatively rare, it and other Fukienese Kung Fu styles have made their influence known in other ways. For example, the link between Fukienese Kung Fu and Okinawan Karate is undeniable. It is also known that in the late nineteenth century, the founder of Goju Ryu Karate came to Foochow, in Fukien province, and studied several styles including White Crane and southern Praying Mantis.
One of the foremost proponents of the system in North America is Shifu Lorne Bernard, based in Montreal. He began his studies with a student of Grandmaster Lee, Shifu Augustine Ngu, who immigrated to Canada in 1977. Shifu Ngu now operates a large Kung Fu academy in Mississauga, Ontario. Shifu Bernard travels to Malaysia on a regular basis to learn from the various White Crane masters both in and out of the Lee family. He has also arranged for the system’s present leader, Shifu Lee Joo Chian, to travel to Canada and teach for an extended period of time on several occasions. Access to such highly skilled practitioners permitted Shifu Bernard to gain a deep understanding of the theories and finer points within the art.
In addition to teaching at two schools in the Montreal region, Shifu Bernard has arranged for White Crane to be taught at two major universities in Montreal (Concordia University and Univerité du Québec à Montréal). Shifu Bernard has also trained several instructors, thus ensuring the continued growth and expansion of the White Crane system. A good teacher, in any field, understands that the vitality of a teaching institution can be gauged by the quality of its students. As such, a skilled martial arts instructor takes pride in helping students achieve new heights of proficiency.
1 This account was given to Shifu Lorne Bernard by Grandmaster Lee Kiang-Ke during his first trip to the Orient in 1989. There are several accounts of the origins of Fukien White Crane Kung Fu. Fortunately, they are all quite similar in that they generally refer to the incident with the crane, and the fact that Fang Chi-Niang eventually became extremely skilled in martial arts.
2 It is noteworthy that in Grand-Master Lee’s account, the crane was interpreted as being the personification of a god descended from the heavens and determined to teach Fang Chi-Niang martial arts.
3 It is noteworthy that the name “Wu Ing Tong” was actually the original name of one of the Lee family’s Herbal stores in Chow An, Fukien province.
4 His prowess was generally explained by his incredible speed of execution.
5 This is his subtle way of criticizing those who waste countless hours fixed at the television screen.
6 Furthermore I would argue that some of the supposedly combat-oriented “no-nonsense” systems are guilty of underemphasizing forms practice.
7 Wushu literally means martial arts. Chinese martial arts have also been referred to by many other names including Guo shu, Chuan shu, Kung fu and Chuan Tao to name a few. Many family styles will refer to their art as Chuan Tao. Although the use of the term “Wushu” is actually correct, its use in the Western world is undermined by the fact that it is too closely associated with the contemporary martial arts being promulgated by the mainland Chinese government.
8 Some people may question the validity of training so many varied weapons in the modern age. Shifu Bernard always point out that if one is familiar with so many weapons, then anything in that person’s reach can be skillfully used in self-defense. He also points out the many other values of traditional weapons training including: better understanding of footwork patterns, of the finality of strikes, cardiovascular and strength training, etc. Besides, most students focus on a few weapons as they may not have the time that professionals have.