Groundwork of Chinese Martial Arts and Wan Laisheng
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.
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
(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.
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 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.
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 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
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.
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
Turtle" or "make-believe" styles of Chinese martial
by Bill Chen, http://www.nardis.com