The Chinese fighting arts popularly known as Wushu, Kung Fu or Gong Fu have transformed and evolved over ages since the time of Bodhidharma. Varied are the arts, their theories and applications along with the training methods and discipline required to transform one’s mental and physical being.
Chinese martial arts can be mainly classified into northern vs. southern, or young vs. old person’s arts. Another classification is that of the centerline fighting arts – which is the main topic of our discussion today.
Northern vs. southern: The north of China is mostly made up of high mountainous regions populated by tall and strong people. Hence their fighting arts stressed the importance of high and powerful kicks, wider and lower stances and rigorous training methods. Their fist movements are long and dramatic – as seen in Northern Shaolin, Long Fist, Eagle Claw and Monkey-style Kung Fu. All are exceptionally graceful when performed by a master and have deadly applications.
On the other hand, the marshy paddy fields of southern China are populated by relatively shorter framed people. Hence the arts developed there focused more on the use of hands over feet and narrow stances to avoid losing foothold on slippery ground. Shorter ‘bridge’ or connecting arm movements are typical of southern Chinese Kung Fu styles like Chow Gar Praying Mantis, Hung Gar and Choy Li Fut which are equally effective in their applications when compared to the northern styles.
(Note: Name “X” + Gar means X Family’s Kung Fu).
Young person vs. old person’s fighting arts: Both northern & southern Chinese fighting arts can be classified either as ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ styles or young vs. old person’s fighting arts. In general, arts whose training methods are based on defeating the opponent using superior strength and skill can be termed as hard styles, which typically depend on developing strong bones and muscles to generate strength. In other words, the training methods and output for such styles are best demonstrated by an average healthy young man. These arts include the various Shaolin styles, Eagle Claws, Hung Gar Kung Fu and Choy Li Fut. Once the training commences the effects are evident, but these need to be maintained by regular conditioning to maintain high standards of fighting skills.
Conversely an alternative approach evolved which can rightly be termed as soft art or old person’s art – meaning that even elderly people or small-framed individuals can apply these techniques to ward off physical attacks. Created out of intricate knowledge of the chi or pranic energy, meridians and deep breathing methods, the soft arts harness the power of tendons and unify the body and mind to stay fit for long, with fight skills that are meant to last till a ripe old age. The most popular of these are Tai Chi, Bagua or the lesser known Xing Yi and Lui He Ba Fa. All have very fluid motions and are widely practiced by women and elderly people right up to a very old age.
Centerline Arts: A group of masters across southern China developed a unique set of fighting skills which can be collectively classified as centerline arts. Developed by masters who were already adepts at various fighting arts, the centerline arts changed the perspective on effectiveness and efficiency in practical combat. Taught only to the most trusted disciples of arts brought a higher level of refinement to getting devastating output with more and more efficient input of energy and effort
- Bak Mei (White Eye Brow),
- Chow Gar Praying Mantis,
- Chuka Shaolin Pheonix Eye Fist and
- Wing Chun
The combination of a deeper and broader understanding of body mechanics, Chi Gung and an analytical approach all helped to create a highly effective group of fighting arts which did not depend on the practitioner’s age, sex or physical prowess. These advanced and refined martial arts concepts were highly guarded secrets as they could make a life and death difference to the practitioner.
All the centerline arts mentioned below have their own set of Chi Gung and so-called ‘iron palm’ and body exercises which gives them a well-grounded approach to pugilism.
Bak Mei or White Eyebrow: A Taoist priest known as Bak Mei, popularly depicted like the white-haired Kung Fu master in the movie Kill Bill Vol. 1, is said to have created this art.
Relatively less well-known, this art has around 18 forms which cover both empty hand and weapons applications. Bak Mei also has its own wooden dummy form, as well as characteristic Fa Jing or explosive energy which multiples the attack power directed at its own list of Dim Mak targets.
Chow Gar Praying Mantis: Adapted from the fighting skills of the predatory insect knowing as praying mantis, the Chow family’s Mantis-style Kung Fu has 10 forms with its own version of wooden dummy form.
Special training methods to develop tendon tearing and gripping power of the mantis claw is combined with unique rib bone exercises, which create and iron cage protecting. Chow Gar Praying Mantis also has its unique Dim Mak theory which utilizes the Mantis Claw Chin Na or tendon paralyzing grip.
Chuka Shaolin Phoenix Eye Fist: The least known centerline fighting art developed in the Hakka community of southern China has its main weapon – the Phoenix Eye Fist. The fist (made much like a karate fist) has the bent index finger protruding forward to attack the dim mak points across the centerline. These attacks are similar to chain punching the opponent’s center.
This fighting art has around 10 forms and its own unique conditioning method for training the deadly and effective Phoenix Eye Fist technique.
Wing Chun Fist: The most popular among the centerline arts today, Wing Chun is also the most compact art with only 4 empty hand forms and 2 weapons forms. The most unique feature of Wing Chun Kung Fu is that its forms are not simply a set pattern of attacks and defense like a traditional Kung Fu form or karate kata. Instead, Wing chun forms are made up of an unrelated sequence of movements which can be used independently or in combination with both hands and feet. The complete range of the applications generated by these movements is dependent on the depth of the proper understanding of the movements by the practitioner, which evolves with further practice. Most movements can be used to attack or defend depending on the opponent’s moves and can be used in ambidextrous combinations for simultaneous attack and defense.
Wing Chun has cherry-picked the most effective –and efficient – movements of Shaolin Kung Fu and other Chinese martial arts, progressively arranged with the centerline theory always as the guiding philosophy. In brief, economy of motion and utilizing one’s powers efficiently to produce highly devastating results is the clearly stated goal of Wing Chun Kung Fu. Due to its unique and highly effective techniques and strategies, this centerline art has captured the imagination of successive new generations of practitioners towards a game-changing view to martial arts and life itself.