In the history of Chinese martial arts, long fist is a style of major influence and power. In the curriculum of my own schools, it also plays a major role. We teach two long fist branches: jia men and mei hua. Due to the way traditional wushu was handed down in older times, training structures were never clearly composed or documented. Yet, a basic pathway does exist which can be traced within these systems.
Jia men chang quan
Our jia men chang quan system ("Islamic style," named for the the Chinese Muslim ethnic minority community from which it originated) contains three forms, in contrast to other systems with ten or more. The training begins with the tan tui (springing leg). Tan tui very clearly teaches students the fundamental grammar of kung fu movements, postures, techniques, and mindset. It introduces a variety of punches, palm strikes, kicks, and blocks. Repetition of attack/defense combinations and evenness of balance --each movement is practiced on both right and left sides-- are also built into this form, ensuring that students receive a thorough grounding in the essential building blocks of kung fu.
Learn one movement, and you probably have learned ten. For example, students work hard to achieve proper alignment and structure in the first movement of tan tui's line one. Later on, they might study sword. Thrust forward with the weapon instead of the bare fist and turn the rear fist into sword fingers: the basic posture is already their old friend. The high block fist or palm placed above and to the front of the head that often accompanies a saber sweep is found in line five of tan tui. And placement of arms in the taiji quan movement called "fen jiao" is practiced in both lines seven and eight. You do not have to relearn anything you struggled to master in chang quan, if you take up weapons or branch out to other styles. In fact, long fist gives students a jump-start into the new training.
After tan tui, students progress to the pao quan (cannon fist). This form is long, challenging, and eats up space. It often changes directions and covers lots of ground; the movements themselves are also more complicated and somehow larger, occupying more of the air around our bodies. Where tan tui moves in lines, pao quan movements are more squarish.
Movements in the third form, cha quan, are more rounded, curved, and continuous. Many are not as sharply defined as pao quan's. They are ambiguous, complex, and very rich: filled with potential for multiple attacks and defense.
Mei hua chang quan
Our mei hua ("mei flower") chang quan system also uses three forms. The first is the mai fu quan, which means "insidious" or "ambush" fist. This implies something is hiding or under cover. Indeed, an important factor in the mai fu training is the placement of rear hooks, which must be carried away from the body and angled correctly. The form contains approximately twelve postures with hooks, each conveniently having a different stance, angle, and arm placement. These varied positions provide students with an ideal opportunity to practice posture training, an exercise both physical and internal, and an important element of all kung fu systems. Mai fu students hold each hooked posture, counting their breaths, and sinking their internal energy.
The second form, si ci tang (cross form), pushes students to confront movement, energy, attention, and intention simultaneously to opposite angles. Its movements feel strange; they do not always progress in ways that seem logical. It is intentionally constructed to force the development of minor muscles and infrequently used joints and tendons. Mentally, it tries teaching us to send awareness and power to all different directions.
Following on the mai fu and si ci levels of practice, the tai zhu form then teaches students to issue short power. Some movements are only half-way or just not very long --unlike the previous training, all fists don't have to return back to the waist. More chan si jing ability is also needed to make the tai zhu good.
Our job is to clarify the
training purpose of these long fist forms. Our mission is to decode
the traditional forms, reveal the meaning hidden within, and share this
with our students at a pace and gradient of difficulty appropriate for
their levels. Therefore, in our curriculum students are corrected in
a systematized step-by-step manner and each form has three levels of
practice and requirements.
I personally don't know any style that prepares students for weapons better than long fist. Earlier I discussed one reason for this, but there's an additional factor at work here. The more specialized a style is, the more limited its ability to contribute to weapons practice. One that focuses mainly on the legs won't give students much preparation for the sword. A style emphasizing palm strikes is compatible with the saber, but how about spear, whose basic nature and flavor are thrusting?
In my curriculum, by the time students begin weapons, they have approached the intermediate levels. At this point, the basic groundwork has been laid and, though each weapon has its own challenges, students find the classes are lighter in feeling and very enjoyable.
Longfist's Secret Weapon
There's another reason why I like to promote long fist, and why it is especially good for children. Long fist training is set up, from the very beginning, to challenge and expand the student's mind.
There are many types of fitness exercises and sports floating around the world today --not only western exercise but also other kung fu styles. We have hundreds of choices. But the element of mental development is missing from many of them. After all, when barbarians suddenly invade the neighboring provinces, you don't have the luxury of in-depth training for your troops. In this case, speedy, selective training --physical conditioning and a few workable techniques-- are the main items on the menu.
Long fist is much, much more than a physical activity. But its beautifully integrated mental training is not obvious to the eye nor, at first, to the mind. In fact, unless pointed out by their teachers, students rarely recognize and appreciate it until they are advanced enough to face and understand the challenges of high level practice.
Mental training is found everywhere and its scope is wide. To illustrate, let's take a look at one important aspect of the mind: focus.
Uni-directional focus is virtually universal among students. They channel all their attention towards what goes on in front of them, especially when delivering an arm or leg attack, with very little awareness of the environment to their sides and backs. This tendency is evident even at more advanced levels when, for instance, students lose awareness of everything but their partner in two-person practice.
A very common long fist antidote is already placed within the first movement of the tan tui: the student is asked to step out and punch while sending the second fist in line to the back of the body. Already, things are not so comfortable. Moreover, when students advance in skill, they will be required to place the rear fist precisely at ear level, forcing them not only to pay some attention to what's behind them but also to achieve accuracy in opposite directions at the same time. No, this is not some exotic usage, whereby students learn how to knock out two opponents, a shorter one in front and a taller one in back, at the same time. This is mental training, and it can be found in movements throughout all the long fist forms.
"Tunnel vision" is a variant of uni-directional focus, too exclusive and condensed. Attention is narrowed to a specific area, such as an opponent's advancing fist or the student's own leg as it's preparing to kick. When we kick in long fist, we must still place our arms front and back and in the exact position. In tan tui's line four, after kicking, students are required to deliver a forward strike while stepping into a back-weighted 60/40 stance. These requirements make the movements more difficult physically and cause mental distraction. This distraction is a tool to open up doors in the mind and enlarge the mental ability of adults and youth alike.
Long fist is filled with movements that require both arms and legs to perform a variety of things at the same time. Moreover, they are usually large, expansive movements, so inconvenient because they must keep their size even when performed quickly. And each limb has a different distance to travel before reaching end-point. Students are thus guided to command a wider amount of space and learn to deliver multiple techniques at the same time.
As students progress into intermediate and advanced levels, they also learn to shift their attention to unusual areas of the body. When punching, beginning students automatically put their attention on the arm and fist what pathway it will take, speed, wrist alignment, the target, etc. As higher level students start to make friends with integrated, whole-body movement, they must learn to shift their focus to the torso, spine, pelvis, and rooted leg. Long fist's large, complicated movements, which must be performed with precision, sharpen this challenge.
Jumping ahead to the highest levels, mental training guides practitioners along a path leading to multi-dimensional awareness. This affects one's sense of both space and time. Can the practitioner keenly focus on the opponent and simultaneously maintain a powerful expanded awareness that gives command of the three-dimensional space surrounding him? When the opponent attacks, is the practitioner's response part of a longer-term strategy that can shift immediately to another according to the opponent's next moves?
Applications for life
It would be untrue to say that a narrowed, intense focus is never OK. For a martial artist, it can be a fatal error but for researchers, accountants, technicians, and in many other professions, no problem! How, then, can long fist's mental training be of special benefit to people in their daily lives and, by extension, society?
Colleagues and friends of mine in the field of education have all noticed a general shift in students over the last twenty years or so. Among other things, attention spans have shrunk alarmingly. Youngsters are too easily distracted. Many, adults included, have difficulty handling more than one thing at a time. They become discouraged too soon --if they can't learn something quickly and easily, they get "bored" or simply quit and take up a different activity.
To keep their students' attention on the subject, teachers are finding that they need to entertain and amuse them, to make things "fun." Short-term gratification and short-term thinking are hallmarks of the modern mindset.
Thankfully, there always are exceptions and true, we should also keep in mind that ageless historical cliché of older generations who are so dissatisfied, even horrified, with the way the younger generations decide to live their lives. However, after working with students from many cultures all over the world, I've noticed the same trends.
Adults have been affected too, though perhaps for different reasons. Most adults are very overworked and under extreme pressures in many areas of their lives. They often come to class distracted and mentally exhausted. Our era is one of unprecedented, lightning-fast technological advances. It's only natural that our culture and its individuals reflect the dark, as well as light, side of our technological revolution. And this is where long fist can help our society so powerfully.
Long fist gives people valuable grounding and enhances all mental capabilities. From the very be-ginning, students are encouraged to relax their minds and bodies. The training, in a step-by-step manner, both intensifies and widens focus, and lengthens the attention span. Movements are set up gradually to split one's attention to two, and then more areas at once. Mind and body are trained in a way that students can learn to issue one, two, and then multiple techniques at once; and juggle one, two, and multiple strategies, shifting instantaneously as the need arises. To do this, practitioners must have awareness and command both of themselves and their environment as it is in the moment. And can they remain calm even in the face of pressure and pain from an overwhelming attack by a powerful opponent?
Real kung fu flows seamlessly and thrives in the midst of contradiction. The training embedded in the highest long fist forms pushes and pulls at us, reforming our minds and bodies to live and function at this level.
Developing leadership abilities is one of the more potent marketing tools used by martial arts schools. And rightly so. As youngsters gain more skills, advance to levels where they learn to lead practice groups and call out the moves, feel pride in their achievements, and become role models for newer students, a much needed confidence can replace shyness and fear. (By the way, a school with excellent coaching can also teach overly cocky or aggressive children the value of teamwork and pride in the accomplishments of their peers.)
Long fist's training goes giant steps beyond this. Ultimately it has the means to build minds with the capacity and special abilities required at the highest level of leadership: generals, CEO's, and heads of state.
These leaders, generals for instance, must have a working understanding of the entire operation of their forces and the enemy's --understanding to the degree that allows them effectively to evaluate the data given them by their officers and intelligence sources, assess the status quo, and set a course of action. They must process and absorb an enormous amount of data. Their decisions are based on a wide range of factors, as diverse as budgets, religion, weather projections, and the quirks of their senior officers. Yet they must be able to rise above detail, using all the data and the many variables as a platform that informs and supports their grasp of the "big picture," in order to create an overall winning plan (backup plans not excluded) and the short-term means to reach the goal.
This is long fist territory: the detached overview that commands, simultaneously, both the specifics and larger issues of a situation. This is the viewpoint from which long-term strategy and complex, high-level techniques can be implemented-- in combat and in life.
Long fist is like water. Compared to wine or cafe lattes, it is tasteless. Yet, though we can survive without our fine wines, we cannot live without water. Water can be found everywhere; it's a part of almost everything --even our bodies. We might say that water is not of itself specialized. It's formless, taking the shape of its containers-- the banks of a river, the glass in your hand. But it is not weak: the awesome Grand Canyon was carved into the ground by water, and no one will argue with the power contained within our oceans.
Long fist has all the versatility and power of water. Let's treasure this art through our own hard practice and insure its preservation by sharing it with the next generation as fully and accurately as we can.