Legendary Roots of White Crane Kung Fu

ith a true inheritor of a martial arts tradition that dates back many centuries. A Chinese friend of mine and martial arts master, Mr. Chi Ching Wei and I were on our way to visit the Nine Lotus Temple in Fujian Province located in southern China. This was part of a trip to China to make a documentary film called “In Search of Shaolin.” Mr. Chi said to me, “I‘ve noticed the white crane karate kata you perform. I have someone I’d like you to meet.”  We then took a side trip to Yong Chun Village birthplace of the white crane style. The buildings on the way to this village were a bizarre mixture of old and new. All the houses were made of stone. As the trees have all been harvested long ago. The countryside seemed ancient. Dotted by rice paddies, water buffalo, banana trees and bamboo. Villagers were working in the rice fields doing what they have done for centuries. I thought, “This is an ancient society.”

When we approached Yong Chun Village there was a large obelisk in the town square with massive cranes sculpted into it. I figured this must be the place. Mr. Chi explained to me that Yong Chun means continuous flow as in the continuous flow of a stream or river. Soon we arrived at Mr. Su Ying Han’s house for a visit and a workout. To my surprise we were meeting with the eleventh generation headmaster of the Yong Chun Village white crane style (See Bubishi Martial Art Spirit, Alexander & Penland, 1993). Mr. Ben Asuncion from Los angels who was part of our party served as interpreter. As soon as I walked into Mr. Su’s living room I knew I was in a special place. The walls were covered with paintings of cranes and old photos of past masters of this martial arts tradition. Mr. Su, who is a chiropractor by trade, greeted us and was very open and friendly. He was born in 1945 and in 1984 was appointed by the Chinese government as the head of the research society for Yong Chun Peiho (White Crane). In 1986 he was recognized as the senior master on Yong Chun White Crane Kung Fu. During his martial arts career he competed in many competitions and won numerous gold medals in national competition. He learned from Pan Lui Tang (1903-1976) who was born in Yong Chun Village and was the headmaster of the school.

Mr. Su offered me some tea as is the Chinese custom and we discussed the history of Yong Chun white crane and the other crane styles that have evolved from it. We compared techniques and forms. Interestingly, the forms and body conditioning drills of my white crane style of karate derived from Okinawa varied little from Mr. Su’s original Yong Chun village tradition. Although one aspect, which didn’t survive the style’s migration to Okinawa was the peculiar facial contortions required when performing their white crane forms. This devilish frown is somewhat disturbing if you aren’t prepared for it. It seems as though the orthodox way of demonstrating a form includes a facial contortion where the lips are retracted while tensing the facial and neck muscles with the eyes held wide open. My understanding of the reasoning behind this is twofold. One is to assume the look of a crane and the other is to frighten the opponent by assuming the “look of a beast ready to devour its prey.” I have seen this done in Okinawa before and thought it was an eccentricity of the fellow performing the kata. Mr. Iken Tokashiki of Gohakukai performs a very powerful tensho kata in which he uses this facial expression. He has also studied Yong Chun White Crane.

Later Mr. Su explained to me that white crane masters in the Chinese tradition are selective about whom they teach and that once selected students must adhere to the principles and philosophy of their school and headmaster. He said a student of the crane style has to have discipline and patience. He further stated, “We are talking about years not months!” Mr. Su also explained to me that the white crane style started in Yong Chun Village and was created by a woman named Fang Chi Liang. The style then migrated from Yong Chun Village to Fuzhou and then to Okinawa. A white crane master by the name of Iwah traveled to Okinawa and taught there in the 1860s. Later another white crane boxing master named Ryuryuko (Xie Zhongxiang, 1852-1930) taught several Okinawans in Fuzhou who later returned to the Ryukyu Islands and influenced styles such as Goju Ryu and Ryuei Ryu karate. Finally, he knew the exact history of a Chinese tea merchant named Gokenki (Wu [Wong] Hsien Huei, 1886-1940) who immigrated to Okinawa in 1910 and taught many Okinawans the white crane style that influenced numerous karate styles. Gokenki, who later changed his name to Yosekawa and took an Okinawan wife, taught the forms sam chien, nepai and paipuren. The white crane martial art village tradition dates back almost four hundred years and no doubt influenced the southern Shaolin fighting tradition as well.

After our meeting Mr. Su invited me outside to a courtyard in the back of his house for a training session. I noticed rubber pads on the trees. This is used for limb knocking or arm conditioning. In addition to using trees, they practice body conditioning or “limb knocking” as they call it by banging arms and legs together to toughen themselves. This is called wu zhi drill or five limbs drill. When I performed my kata for him he commented that he liked the forty-five degree shifts in my form and clearly saw the connection to his white crane style. He then performed an advanced form with a lot of yao in it. This is a move which uses an accentuated hip twist with a chop delivered horizontally about lower abdomen height. At the end of the form he delivered two quick slaps to his chest followed by a flicking motion with the wrist. He later explained that this was a distraction technique coupled with an attack using the fingers to flick the eyes. This movement is based on the flapping of a crane’s wing.

White Crane Techniques:

Mr. Su said you have to start with good basics and good stances. The stance used in the sam chien form is the basic front stance and it is called bu teng bu ba. This means parallel foot stance. The front foot is not turned inward as it is in Goju Ryu but rather it is kept front facing.  The stance is done with thirty percent of the weight on the forward leg and seventy percent on the rear leg. This is to facilitate front leg kicking. Mr. Su further explained that speed is the most important element in white crane kung fu. He said, ”If your hand speed is fast– so fast that you can’t see the shadow-your techniques can’t be blocked.” In addition, the white crane specialty kicking technique is the front snap kick. He said it has to be used in combination with the hand techniques. To be most effective the kick has to be fast but not hard. Quickness is more important. He said, “You must start with the hands first and then kick. Make sure you have groin protection first before you kick.” All kicks are done with the front leg, because this is faster. He said, “This way it is difficult to block.” A specialty combination used within Yong Chun Peiho is to front kick with the lead leg and then shuffle forward and kick again with the same leg.

Mr. Su has twenty hand forms in his art of peiho or white crane and a number of weapon forms as well. The basic hand form is called sam chien and is considered to be the mother of all forms. It means three battles or three conflicts and is often equated to mean the unification of body, mind and spirit. The sam chien form is quite simple, it moves forward with three steps and then backwards with three steps. According to Mr. Su it is easy to learn but difficult to master. It develops the entire body and it helps you maintain balance. I noticed when his students performed a form or set each move was done with full power. Obviously this is an important element in their style. Additionally, each form starts with the basic sam chien movement.

During my visit with Mr. Su I noticed there was more than a coincidental similarity to certain karate principles. For instance, Yong Chun white crane sam chien form teaches that your head must be held erect, back straight and the shoulder has to be down when punching. Basically, this means having your shoulder locked down by contracting the lat muscles and deltoids. This is exactly the same as karate. Also, when punching one must withdraw the opposite hand with equal force as the punching hand. Sound familiar? The foot is held so that the heel and the ball of the foot grip the surface without using the toes to sustain the grip and the buttocks is tightened. Stepping is performed by either sliding or stepping, lifting the foot like a crane. Mr. Su also told me that in the old days they used to put bricks down on the ground and practice stepping. If your footwork was not precise you would miss stepping on top of a brick and you would lose your balance. These simplistic yet efficient training methods date back centuries in this ancient village and to Fang Chi Liang’s time. A time when fighting prowess meant survival. It was a time when out of necessity a young maiden learned fighting methods from an unassuming yet elegant animal–the white crane.

Visiting grand master Su Ying Han was an enlightening experience. It was a real pleasure to spend time with this pleasant man and to learn more about the legendary roots of white crane kung fu. I hope to return to Yong Chun Village soon to learn more and train with a legendary grand master and the highest authority on white crane kung fu, Mr. Su Ying Han.

About the author: George W. Alexander, Ph.D. is a ninth-degree black belt and president of the International Shorin Ryu Karate Kobudo Federation and Okinawa Hakutsuru Kenpo Association. He is the author of Okinawa: Island of Karate, The Bubishi Martial Art Spirit, The Japanese Martial Arts Dictionary and Warrior Jujitsu. To contact him write to ISKKF Honbu Dojo, 180 Yellow Jacket Drive, Reliance, TN. 37369. Or email to  alexyama@mindspring.com

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White Crane Folklore

The folklore of China indicates that a woman established the white crane or peiho style.  One version of this legend states that her name was Fang Chi Liang.  When she was a young girl, she was very rough and was known as a tomboy. She practiced Tai zu, a form of kung fu with her father.  Her father had been betrayed by the local townspeople in a battle over the control of their village and was seriously injured.  When Fang Chi Liang heard of what had taken place and what had happened to her father, she became very angry and vowed to take revenge.

She realized that being a woman without strong enough kung fu, she did not have the means to avenge her father. Then one day, as she was lying in her room thinking of her father and what had happened to him, she was distracted by a disturbance outside.  Suddenly, she heard a loud screeching noise from the yard.

Fang sprang to her feet and rushed to the window just in time to see two large white cranes fighting furiously.  She watched intently as they battled each other.  She paid close attention to their movements.  As they fought, they jumped up and down, spreading and flapping their wings.  They pecked and poked at each other with their long beaks.

Fang finally ran outside and picked up a long bamboo pole lying there.  She swung the pole at the birds, trying to drive them away.  Each time she swung the pole at one of the cranes, it merely dodged her swing by retreating backward while lifting one leg.  Then the cranes immediately charged forward at Fang, flapping their wings furiously.  She then tried to poke or thrust at them using the pole as a spear.  The cranes simply jumped to the side each time and pecked at the pole.

Eventually, Fang became tired and gave up.  The cranes simply flew away.  As she sat resting in her yard trying to catch her breath, she pondered her experience with the cranes.  She thought for some time about what had taken place.  After long hours of meditation, she came to realize that if a human being could fight in the same way as the cranes, especially herself, than she could avenge her father.

For the next three years, Fang practiced daily and thought of only what the cranes had done in battle.  She realized the value of yielding to the force of strength.  She also recognized the natural law of constant change in battle, of strong changing to yielding, and yielding changing to strong (Yin and Yang, opposing negative and positive forces in nature). Fang came to understand the combative value and efficiency of continuous movement in blocking and countering.  After she gained this knowledge and developed the skill and courage to use it, she avenged herself and her father. She became the heroine of Yong Chun Village and the teacher of the White Crane Fist Style.

The legend of Fang Chi Liang and the beginning of the white crane style is a pleasant story and believable in many respects.  Regardless of folklore, the white crane or Hakutsuru style as it is called in Japanese did come to Okinawa and was blended with Okinawan karate in numerous ways.  Oral traditions of Okinawa indicate Chinese immigrants brought the style to Kumermura, a suburb of Naha, Okinawa as early as the 1600’s and taught it to the native Okinawans. Additionally, the white crane style in Fujian Province China continued to evolve throughout its long history there. It eventually developed into five different crane styles, Flying Crane, Jumping Crane, Sleeping Crane, Feeding Crane and Whooping Crane.

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