We had a brief discussion on the G+ Internal Martial Arts forum about a great video of force training at the Wudang mountain by Wudang Pai, an excellent kung fu school preserving and teaching arts practiced by Daoist sages at the Wudang Temple.
Video link: Wudang Gong Li Training
Here are my comments about the video:
A lovely video showing force training at one of the Wudang temple schools of martial arts. Back in the “old days,” kung fu students would have been doing similar exercises to develop their force and skills (“gong”) and strength (“li”) for hours at a time, perhaps for a few years, before being taught their first punch, kick, or other martial movement.
I liked the calligraphy in the beginning, a very popular amongst Daoist sages. I recognized all of two characters there, haha; Dao (“Way”) and Fa (“method”). If you’re swift, you can catch a glimpse as to calligraphy movements informing kung fu practice at about 3:20.
Quite unlike many martial arts schools that I’ve visited and trained in, despite the hard work these students are doing, there are plenty of smiles. That’s a good sign.
In response to what these exercises are all about and why they are special:
I’m unsure of exactly what lesson the master was trying to impart with the calligraphy; my own calligraphy teacher taught me the beginning of similar styles called “Running” style and “Grass” style calligraphy (basically “Chinese cursive”), both of which were popular amongst classical Daoists and scholars. The emphasis in both Running and Grass style is constant, never-ending motion that is uninhibited by over-thinking it. That exact same quality is considered a top level skill in both Taijiquan and Baguazhang, two of the signature Wudang arts (I’m unsure about Xingyiquan because I’ve never studied it in depth). A more direct lesson can be seen at about 3:17 where the master demonstrates the subtle “weaving” and “shaking” of his arms (a demonstration of “inch power” or “short power”) after flowing his arms in small circles.
I suppose it looks a little mundane on the surface (a bunch of guys holding and swinging bricks around, woo), but some of the principles behind the training exercises frankly astounded me. The folks towards the beginning with bricks are practicing what Shaolin Wahnam calls “Cloud Hands” (what Chen Taijiquan folks call Silk Reeling) which usually begins with what the man in black at about 0:24 is doing, sans bricks. Cloud Hands was the “essence” of both Zhang Sanfeng’s original Wudang 32 Pattern Long Fist (the predecessor to what folks call Taijiquan), used to develop a smooth energy flow to practice kung fu in constant flow, developing internal force, sensitivity, flexibility, strength, and mental clarity.
The bricks, in this case, are not the primary or first part of the exercise (otherwise they’d be using more bricks to enhance their muscular strength). These people all already have the skill of generating an energy flow and some internal force. For them, using the bricks is a way to enhance their training. Just as the muscles can be strengthened by loading them with weights, internal force and energy flow can be “exercised” with gradually added weight. This is often seen in Southern Shaolin schools with internal force, where advanced students practice sets while wearing iron and copper rings on their arms (though less advanced students not initiated into internal force training develop “lesser” and more localized force like Iron Arm). The bricks themselves provide a nice amount of feedback to ensure that one’s structure is correct when performing a movement (as seen about 1:47 with the fellow “swinging” the bricks up whilst rotating his waist).
The fellow in the background at 2:33 (the one dropping and catching the stone ball) is practicing force training for qin-na (often translated as “holds and grips,” special ways of gripping and striking vital points to subdue an opponent. It’s not often mentioned that Zhang Sanfeng, upon graduating from the Shaolin monastery, had mastered various arts, including qin-na and dian xue (respectively, the gripping and the striking of vital points).
The exercise at 5:00 is called “Three Star Hitting.” Different schools use it for different purposes. Many schools, especially Choi Li Fatt and Hoong Ka (Hung Gar) use it to condition their forearms to develop and test their Iron Arm. Most other schools just use it as a confirmation of their internal or external force. The folks here are performing a softer version of Three Star Hitting; not only are they testing one another’s force in the striking, but they are also testing their sensitivity; notice how their forearms just seem to glance or tap one another before they flick their arms to the next movement in the exercise. Most folks trying to develop an Iron Arm will smash their arms with greater force and waist/shoulder rotation than the fellows here.
Starting at about 6:00, you can see a fellow standing in the Three Circle Stance (also called the “Hugging a Tree” stance or “Holding the Cosmos” stance) with the master demonstrating strikes across the practitioner’s body. Stance training is itself the most important exercise in all kung fu to develop internal force, and different styles prefer different stances (Shaolin kung fu emphasizes the Horse Riding stance, Taijiquan the Three Circle Stance, Baguazhang the Green Dragon Stretches Claws stance, Xingyiquan the Three Body Posture, and so forth). Striking the person holding the stance serves at least two purposes: to test and confirm the practitioner’s internal force, concentration, and rooting ability; and to help spread the practitioner’s internal force across their body, which can eventually help develop force like Iron Shirt or Golden Bell (two of the most famous “protective force” arts whereby practitioners can sustain blows on their body and limbs with reduced or even no injury; advanced practitioners can actually injure people who hit them and don’t overcome their Iron Shirt or Golden Bell. The Taiwanese master of Baguazhang, Wang Shu Jin, was famous for breaking the wrists of people who tried punching his belly).
At about 6:31, the man in the black T-shirt who is lifting and lowering his palms is demonstrating a pattern called “Lifting Water.” It is seen at the beginning of almost all Taijiquan sets and is meant to generate an energy flow to use when demonstrating and practicing the set. When practiced many, many times, it is an excellent exercise for internal force and mental clarity. It is also one of the first training method used in most Golden Bell practitioners, especially in advanced Southern Shaolin kung fu.
I don’t know about you, but I consider internal force and arts like zhan zhuang (stance training), Golden Bell, Iron Shirt, Cloud Hands, and others to be pretty wonderful things.
Regarding the level of different skills:
I suppose I could have rephrased “top level skill” as “a skill exhibited by masters that differentiates them from beginners or intermediate students,” heh.
I suppose some examples of basic skills are things like being relaxed in solo practice, knowing basic hand patterns, and knowing the proper stances and footwork methods. At the higher end of “beginner” might be knowing and being able to perform the application of individual techniques in isolation.
I might call intermediate skills things like being able to put up a defense using the martial art techniques one has learnt in light to medium sparring, especially against one’s own martial art (naturally, one should have the most experience with the art one trains most consistently). Being able to practice in solo sets and applications with proper form, force, flow, and speed is something I would put here, too.
I’m not a master myself, so I can’t list every quality of a master, but the masters I’ve met all have incredible force (as well as control over how much force they exhibit, even in “no holds barred” sparring or real fighting), speed, perfect form (and they also know when to “discard” the form for a temporary advantage, which is different from not being able to use the correct form in the first place), and utter spontaneity in their movements (including the never-ending movement). They’ve moved from the level of responding to individual techniques or combinations with just techniques or combinations and on to using proper tactics and strategies relevant to the encounter at hand.
That’s just my opinion on the matter, though; I’m sure others can inform this discussion.