Kung Fu: Tantui, the Essence of Northern Shaolin

Tantui, also called “Pond Kicks” or “Springing Kicks,” is a style of Northern Shaolin kung fu. When the phrase “Northern Kicks, Southern Fists” is mentioned, it most often references Tantui for “Northern Kicks.” As expected from its name, Tantui is well known for its various kicking techniques. Interestingly, Tantui was developed by China’s Muslim community, the Hui people. Its roots are in the Cha Quan style (named for Cha Shrig Mir, the Hui community’s martial arts patriarch), and which later underwent modifications until it became the Tantui known today. Tantui is said to hold the essence of Northern Shaolin. In fact, the Jing Wu (“Essence of Martial Arts”) school, founded by Huo Yuan Jia (played by Jet Li in Fearless) required that all aspiring martial artists master Tantui before moving on to learning other sets and styles. A popular saying says, “If your Tantui is good, your kung fu will be good.” Personally, I feel that, “If your basics like stances and footwork are good, your kung fu will be good.”

The Northern styles of kung fu are often called Chang Quan (“Long Fist”) or Long Quan (named after the Long River) because its sets are generally practiced in long, continuous sequences, even at the basic level, as opposed to staccato and discrete movements. This is one of the strengths of the Northern styles: a continuous sequence of patterns is very effective at overwhelming the defense of someone used to fighting only at the level of individual techniques.

The continuously flowing nature of such practice is also excellent for developing proper breathing, stamina, and continuity of attack. With the proper skills of generating energy flow and exploding force, someone practicing in this manner can derive internal force from his set and sequence training without auxiliary force training methods such as Iron Palm or Abdominal Breathing. This “Flow” method of training, as my grandmaster calls it, is a characteristic form of force training in styles such as Tantui, Xingyiquan, Baguazhang, and Taijiquan. This does not mean that the Northern styles lack spread and depth in their force training, however. Many practitioners of the Northern styles, especially Eagle Claw, Praying Mantis, and many Tantui exponents, practice a set known as the Eighteen Lohan Art for internal force and agility.

Tantui’s primary set is composed of eight, ten, or twelve sequences, depending on one’s lineage. Traditionally, the exponent moves along a straight line to one side, practicing movements of one sequence before turning around and returning to their original position until all sequences are completed. These sequences are often called the “roads” of Tantui, and each has a characteristic kicking technique and strategy. Many practitioners will say they practice “Eight Road Tantui,” “Ten Road Tantui,” or “Twelve Road Tantui,” depending on how many sequences are in their set. Shaolin Wahnam practiced a “Twelve Road” set, which my grandmaster taught in 2010. Many excellent videos showing the training, application, and philosophy of Tantui can be seen here.

While the classical set is excellent for training proper form, flow, and force, it does not necessarily train combat skills such as timing, spacing, and threat. My sigung thus composed a short combat sequence to go along with each classical Tantui sequence to put into practice the tactics and strategies of that sequence. The sequences themselves are put into application sets named for the poise pattern used (for instance, the first set is named Second Brother Asks the Way). The first set deals with the essence of Tantui fighting movements, especially swinging attacks, long range strikes, and No Shadow Kicks. The second set, Lift Lantern Lead Way, focuses on locks, felling, elbows, and knee strikes (very useful for fighting Muai Thai boxers). The third set, Actor-Warrior Appears on Stage, has many feints, locks, and fells. The fourth set, Second Brother Lifts Cauldron, has much in the way of pressing attacks, felling, and maneuvering to an opponent’s back. It also includes the famous continuous flying kicks of Tantui.

Tantui demonstrated by a Jing Wu practitioner. Her movements are very clear, and her flexibility is excellent. Her movements are a little staccato, however, which is very common in demonstrators who do not necessarily fight with their kung fu movements.

My grandmaster (the man in the yellow Mandarin suit) demonstrating to Master Michael Chow some applications of Tantui. It highlights the continuity of attack for which Tantui is famous, as well as how vulnerable one’s vital points can be without proper stances.

Grandmaster Han Ching-Tan demonstrating his “Ten Road Tantui.” Note the solidity of his stances and agility of his kicks. His agility and flexibility are a very different thing than the lady in the first clip. While the lady in the first clip has excellent flexibility for flexibility’s sake, Grandmaster Han Ching-Tan has more “functional” agility, I might say. He does not exhibit the same extreme flexibility shown by the lady, but his movements from stance to stance are flowing and solid, and his form shows that his vitals are well-covered by his stance.


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