Among a couple hundred Chinese martial art styles, it's a pretty safe bet to say that long fist (chang quan) is the largest style of them all. Now, if you count heads based only on the name "chang quan," you are likely to lose your bet. But as a matter of fact, as a matter of reality, long fist is truly the largest.
Some styles in this family are actually called "chang quan:" tai zhu chang quan (tai zhu long fist), jia men chang quan (Islamic style long fist), mei hua chang quan (mei flower long fist), and so forth. Others have totally different names, but still are long fist: for instance, mizong quan (lost track style) and even taiji quan (grand ultimate style). Yes, taiji quan is chang quan.
Long fist technique is rooted in ancient Chinese philosophy. Its theory emerged from China's traditional wisdom. Long fist fighting techniques, based upon this theory, evolved over centuries of trial and error: private bouts, skirmishes to defend family, employers, and villages, and the bloody battlefields of war.
Chinese martial arts has a huge number of impressive fighting styles. Some are quite unique, many are superb. What makes long fist stand out among them, what makes it unique is the balance and even development of its techniques and its versatility in fighting situations.
Does it emphasize arm or leg techniques? Long fist develops both.
How about long-range, midrange, or short-range fighting? Where is its strong point? Not a relevant question: long fist uses all of them.
Does it specialize in palm strikes? No, long fist uses fist, palm, elbow, shoulder, torso: everything and everywhere.
Which method of power-issuing does it employ? Long fist uses all possible ways.
Does long fist's fighting strategy call for initiating the first strike or waiting for the opponent to attack before responding? Long fist uses all different fighting strategies. And very importantly, the fighting plan must never be pre-designed.
Equal Opportunity Training
We might conclude, from looking at its theoretical-philosophical basis, all-inclusive range of fighting techniques, and flexible approach to handling situations, that a long fist training program—from its basic beginnings through the most advanced levels—has to be evenly composed and very well-balanced. And this is true. This is the fundamental personality of long fist.
In actual combat, long fist asks us to use every part of the body to deliver a multitude of different blocks and attacks. It does not overly emphasize any one special technique. In contrast, bagua zhang uses the zhang (palm); likewise for pigua zhang. Praying mantis techniques center around the forearm, wrist, and fingers; eagle claw also uses lots of wrist & fingers. Mantis and eagle claw are styles that employ grabbing-seizing techniques a great deal. Chou zhao style (chou zhao men) uses lots of kicks. Di gong men specializes in ground techniques. Baji quan uses a certain way to issue power. Tong bei style teaches specific ways to deliver the fist strikes, making use of all the different areas of the human fist.
All of them are excellent styles, and all have definite specializations.
Long fist, however, went to the opposite direction. You could say that long fist provides "equal opportunity" training for the entire human person. Its more generalized approach is quite comprehensive and develops the student's abilities in a more even manner. It prepares its practitioners to face any situation with an arsenal of different techniques at their disposal.
Looking at it from this point of view, we can see how many kung fu styles grew out of long fist. Long fist is like a mother to northern Chinese martial art styles. All of her children carry characteristics inherited from the mother, yet each has its own personality, interests, and abilities. Each picked a certain area or perhaps several techniques from long fist and developed them fully, in many cases pushing them to a very high level.
Long fist's well rounded training makes it an excellent choice to start out one's kung fu training. It gives its students a solid, basic foundation in kung fu—the building blocks necessary for the highest martial art levels. In contrast, there are major risks to beginning one's kung fu training in a specialized style. Assume that I have a strong attraction to bagua zhang. I am serious about my kung fu and spend years practicing bagua, only to find down the road that I have no future with this style. Instead, my talents lie in xing-i quan. What a waste! All my time and effort in bagua do not transfer over to this new style. I must begin all over.
Perhaps I am naturally gifted and have a bright kung fu future. I begin my training with a very specialized style. I practice hard and do very well. Later, if I wish to switch to another style, I will encounter big problems. When I practice my new style, the old techniques and flavor show through in all my movements. My progress is slow and the shift extremely difficult. In the end, my original style might well be the only one in which I can excel. Long fist won't present this kind of problem.
When a child starts practicing kung fu, it's almost impossible to know where his potential lies or how good he can be. In the field of music, for example, we may see that a child has great ability. But will he be a composer, conductor, a vocalist, master the cello? Will she become a professional, a talented amateur, a world-class performer? Most often, we first steer children to the piano and later on, support their interest in other instruments such as drums, or fields such as film score composition or musical analysis.
Long fist can somehow be compared to the piano: students may choose to specialize in it or not but no matter what they eventually do in music, it will help them a great deal. Long fist is an ideal path for fledgling kung fu students.
This is an era of specialization. Every field imaginable—medicine, computers, and so forth—is filled with specialists. Moreover, everyone is in such a great hurry. Therefore, many people today will automatically consider this lack a weakness in long fist. I myself don't agree—especially in view of modern times.
In the old days, a narrowed focus and speedy improvement were practical necessities. Not everyone who practiced martial arts had any love for them. Many had no real future in kung fu. It wasn't at all a question of talent, a burning interest, or a desire to achieve. You were a farmer who labored from dawn to dusk; there was a need for defense and you simply had to learn. You wanted to know just enough to effectively protect yourself and your village and the quicker your training progressed, the better. Social necessity, then, was one of the prime motivators in the development of specialized martial art styles.
Today the situation is altogether different. Given modern needs, the evenly balanced, comprehensive training for both body and mind is a shining treasure long fist offers to the contemporary person. This is an excellent style for us to practice and use throughout our entire lives. It is also an ideal way to begin our training, even if we later switch to other styles. If we switch, we won't have wasted our time, efforts, or hopes for our kung fu futures. And our experience with long fist will make us beneficiaries of the many valuable gifts it gives to ourselves personally and to our society.
Long fist is known for its proud and courageous spirit which clearly can be seen in its forms: the postures are dramatic and expansive; the movements are complex and elegant. They are very beautiful to watch. When performed by a high-level practitioner, an additional depth and power shine through. Unfortunately, these positive attributes have also helped foster some wrong ideas about this art.
There is a tremendous amount of valuable training buried within long fist's many forms. Of course nowadays it's well known that the old masters deliberately withheld important training and disguised real usage. Most students were given a form to learn, then another, and another, with no clue as to what they were really supposed to be practicing. Only a select few received the full training in secrecy. Without this understanding, there was no way to digest the true content of the training. It's no wonder people came to the conclusion that the more forms you learned, the higher your kung fu would be. Chasing forms is one of the reasons the level of contemporary martial arts is so low. Unhappily, practicing this way alone will make the road to mastery extremely difficult for anyone, no matter how talented.
There are several other important misconceptions people have about long fist. Many think that with its wide-open movements, it may be a good exercise but it lacks the mental training that Chinese martial arts are known for. Or it's purely an external style, shallow and solely physical. Others consider it just a pretty dance, filled with fancy movements that are beautiful to watch but useless in combat—if your real interest is martial arts, you'd be better off studying something else.
Nothing could be further from the truth!
Certainly long fist itself must share the blame for these misconceptions because it's possible the old masters held back too much of the art. It's so easy to look back in history and pass judgment on them but in actuality, no one today can really say what the correct dosage should have been. What we can say is that because of this practice, some of the art has been lost.
People may wonder whether long fist's generalized focus ends up diluting its own power and diffusing the fighting ability of its practitioners. Is it less intense and effective than styles with a specific focus? Not at all! But it's quite true that talented students of specialized styles can reach a high level in a shorter amount of time, compared to their long fist counterparts. In general, it is easier to achieve success by focusing on one or a few techniques than by working to make every technique equally good.
For this reason, dedicated and capable long fist students have quite often been known to lose matches to other stylists with less training. Needless to say, this has demoralized many a promising student and also supported the misconception that long fist can't be used to fight. When long fist students receive incomplete training, then all the criticisms about this style are true. But it shouldn't end up like this. With full and correct training, delivered within a systematized, efficient, modern program, students can follow the system step by step to reach the highest levels. When the real chang quan can be fully performed, when the practitioner has matured in his art, the actual fighting level is very high and deserves the utmost respect.
Ability and character
To fully understand the training you have to know the usage. And let me mention again, for security reasons, usage was hidden. The long fist family had a different attitude and approach to its students: the emphasis was on improving the student as a whole person, not just teaching how to punch and kick others. Over years of training, the sifu put his students through many covert tests of ability and character. Only when he had complete confidence in you, would he reveal the real heart of the art, teach the missing links that previously had been withheld in your training, and show you the usage. After all, in ancient times he and his entire family would be executed if you went off to commit crimes against the state.
What does it really mean to say that the usage is hidden? How could you practice the cha quan form for years, know each movement so well you could perform it in your sleep, and not know its usage? Anyone can see that a punch is an attack. The circular sweep your other arm made before the punch is easily a block. This high strike you're about to deliver—your opponent better guard his nose! That forward kick—an attack to a target in front of you, and all of those circles your arms made as you were kicking, well they kind of protect your own face and besides, they look really beautiful. No big deal—you don't have to strain very hard to explain the usage.
But pay attention: very importantly, we all must understand that this interpretation is quite elementary. In long fist forms, usage that is obvious to the eye and easily interpreted is lower level. Long fist has very high usage; its movements contain much, much more.
When I was in high school, I myself began to study long fist. The training was often puzzling to me. Why did my teacher insist that my palms be held in a precise way when I was really practicing my kicks? And when I sparred with my classmates, the results were totally unpredictable and inconsistent. So I moved on to other styles that were more understandable and useful to me in winning my fights. It was only much later, as an adult with many years of hard training and martial arts exploration under my belt, that I realized long fist is not at all useless. Its techniques are very very high, and the strange demands made by its training suddenly made sense. Without them, it would be virtually impossible to attain the full potential of this art.
Fortunately, there is no longer any need to hold back information and techniques. What we know we can share with people comfortably, without guilt.
To this day, I still practice long fist. It is central to the training program in my schools. I continue to actively promote this style, sharing its true meaning and value with my fellow martial artists.