Respecting the Root and Branching Out (my first published article)

Chan Heung

Image via Wikipedia

“To know the outcome, look to the root. Study the past to know the future.”

South Africa: a country of incredible beauty often over-shadowed by its much-publicised scenes of brutality and political unrest. It is land of magnificent landscapes that can be seen from miles around. Impressive rugged regions like the famous Valley of a Thousand Hills dwarf even the largest of equivalents in Britain, and its striking coastlines border the magnificent Indian Ocean. I visited this country in November with the express purpose of actually having a rest, but, as I am sure many of you can relate, that’s not easy when you are a martial artist.

It was here that I re-discovered the true beauty of martial arts in its most conventional and structured form. Looking back, I consider this a strange, but very enlightening part of my life. I began my original martial arts training 13 years ago with an eclectic style known as Sakiado, which combined US Kickboxing (a hybrid on its own) with UKTA Taekwondo. Aside from the bowing, basic etiquette, some Korean terminology, and the Dobok uniform worn by students, this was as far removed from traditional martial arts as you could get in the early 1990s. The style itself was only a few years old and the two systems it was adapted from hadn’t been established until after the 1950s. After obtaining my black belt in Sakiado I went on to train in both Kickboxing and Taekwondo where I obtained an instructor’s qualification in the former and a senior grade in the latter.

I was also lucky enough to have the World and European Champion, Israel Robert McKenzie (once referred to by A.G.K’s Michael Graham as “the last of the real fighters” in semi-contact competition), teach me the grace and efficiency of Freestyle Karate. I constantly experimented in other styles to find out what would work for me for self-defence, and what would look good for the martial arts stage act I was intended to perform. With this type of background and ambition, it seemed natural that I would always push for change and modernisation in my training.

Yet, here I was in South Africa learning two systems firmly connected to their origins. One had its beginnings in the religious Shaolin Temple while the other was a martial art born out of a tribal tradition. An even greater paradox was that these “old” styles were enjoying popularity in a part of the world where carjacking was commonplace. The advice regarding a self-defence situation was simple: if you draw your gun on an attacker, shoot.

Despite my arguments for progress and innovation, I believe that in order to love and appreciate the metaphorical flower, you should first respect its root. The traditional side of martial arts forms a foundation, but there is more to it than that. Sadly, this is a fact that is becoming progressively harder to accept by the MTV, fast food, and instant-shopping generations of the 21st century.

Long term dedication, patience, and constant re-discovery of the older systems is what Eduann Barnard, chairman of the ‘South African Wu Shu Federation’ and Chief Instructor of the ‘Choy Lay Fut Martial Arts Academy’, is all about. Eduann and the students of his school in Roodeport, Johannesburg, have a hugely successful tournament record. At the first ‘Friendly South African Wu Shu Federation Chinese Martial Arts Tournament’, Eduann’s students won medals in just about every category offered. The school covers a wide scope of training including full-contact sparring in San Da (and its western counterpart San Shao), which is being considered for inclusion in the 2008 Olympics. The school also taught ‘Bodidharma Eight Styles’ Chi Kung, handling various weapons, self-defence, Cantonese and Mandarin language courses, modern Wu Shu and, of course, Choy Lay Fut.Eduann Barnard and his Full Time Kwoon in Roodeport, J’burg

I attended the Roodeport School with the purpose of continuing my Wu Shu training, which I began at the excellent Bristol Wu Shu Academy run by Neil Genge. Neil, although a dedicated Wu Shu exponent and realistic modern practitioner, has never hidden his personal preference for traditional martial arts. He explained his partiality for this side of his training when Combat Magazine interviewed him in 1999. Neil argued that traditional styles are a lifelong dedication and that they can be practiced well into old age. In comparison, the ever-changing, flamboyant, competition Wu Shu tends to have a limited training lifespan. This appears to be the most obvious reason for someone to stay loyal to the root, but I have always pondered that there must be more to the “pure” styles than an absence of flashy techniques.

Eduann Barnard makes a convincing argument for lengthy study of the older forms. Like all good instructors, he is an ardent teacher of application and re-application of his chosen style’s pre-arranged movements. Eduann is also a realist, who cares little for the mystique of the martial arts. He revealed examples to me of the secret techniques contained within the forms in a very pragmatic way. China has a history of oppressive dictatorships, which banned the practice of martial arts, making it necessary to hide these secrets. Much like Brazilian Capoeria, Chinese martial arts were very often disguised as dances. Camouflage was needed to prevent rival schools from stealing techniques.

South African Choy Lay Fut in the year 2000Choy Lay Fut was a style developed through times of much political upheaval and prejudice in China. I couldn’t help but see a parallel between old China and modern-day South Africa. However, this time it was being used to bring different cultures together rather than as a patriotic self-defence system.

So, instead of continuing my Nan Chuan Southern Wu Shu forms that Neil had begun with me before I left England and Eduann’s students actively competed in, I found myself immersed in the 165 year-old style of Choy Lay Fut. I know it is not exactly ancient, but out of all the styles that modified the techniques of the Shaolin Temple, this system has one of the firmest and most respectful roots to its heritage. This, no doubt, has to do with its founder, Chan Heung. Heung was a patriot who fought as part of a rebel militia who opposed the British during the Opium wars in China. He was also a devout Buddhist who learned the nucleus of his style from the famous hermit monk, Choy Fook.

At face value, Choy Lay Fut is a combination of Hung Gar and Chinese boxing skills taught to Chan Heung by the incredible northern stylist Lee Yau Shan, as well as the training Heung acquired from Choy Fook. It also pays much homage to the teachings of the Shaolin Temple. This can be seen in such forms as the White Crane, which has its origins in the Tibetan Monasteries, and the Buddha Palm style. Jeong Hung-Sing, Chan Heung’s most famous student, learned the latter system from another hermit monk, Ching Choe Woe Serng (Green Grass Monk), and added it to the style. Therefore, it is named Choy after Choy Fook, Lay or Li (or Lee in Northern China) after Lee Yau Shan, and Fut (“Buddha” in Chinese) in honour of the martial art’s religious influence.

The school of Choy Lay Fut Eduann teaches is Hung Sing Choy Lay Fut, as practiced by the ‘World Lee Koon Hung Choy Lay Fut Association’ and taught by its owner Master Lee Koon Hung. This style comes from Jeong Hung-Sing’s (one of Heung’s outstanding students) lineage, after he branched out from Chan Heung to found his own school.

Training in Choy Lay Fut conditions you considerably. This style is generally regarded as a southern style and much of its basic principles are similar to its southern base of Hung Gar. However, its fast footwork and aerial kicks owe a lot to Lee Yau Shan’s northern style influence. The low stances and fast transitions effectively worked my lower body as well as strengthened and stretched my legs very efficiently. When this training is coupled with the system’s combination of isometric tension exercises, explosive twitch-muscle powered strikes, and distinctive sweeping, swinging and smashing attacks, you feel a highly effective all round body work-out.

My first training session with Eduann lasted for four hours during which, I learned the intermediate form Sil Morh Fah Kuen, or Plum Flower Fist. Over and over Eduann took me through the set, teaching me assertive stamping-into stances, rebel militia influenced sound effects and long-range strikes. The form centres around one single combination of blocks and strikes and I found the form repeatedly returning to this set of moves, often taking different variations on them.

The school of Choy Lay Fut uses techniques from five main animals; tiger, crane, leopard, snake and dragon. I found each one of these in Sil Morh Fah Kuen. Eduann told me that the movements of these five animals are found in most of Choy Lay Fut’s forms, and they are not just limited to those creatures. Movements from the entire original eighteen animals found in Hindu India (probably the birthplace of Shaolin) are also included in the forms.

Eduann’s students, and in particular regular gold medal winner Thomas Herman, drilled me continuously. A testament to their teacher, the students were obviously very dedicated, but not inflexible in their approach to the martial arts. We freely exchanged techniques from our differently styled backgrounds; therefore, the atmosphere at the school not only inspired hard work, but it was also very relaxed and informal. Eduann, a student of classical philosophy, is a great believer in developing Kung Fu’s creative side. On my next and final session I was to learn more about this side of his personality.

I returned to the school over a week later. I’d had time to run through the first half of the form while also enjoying the beautiful South African beach of Umhlanga, and I was looking forward to completing the rest. This time, however, Eduann began showing me the applications rather than just reiterating the movements before progressing onto the rest of the set. We concentrated on the core combination of the Plum Flower Fist until he was confident I performed the moves correctly. Then he came at me with a punching combination of his own! I instinctively blocked and swept the strikes away, coming back with the Choy Lay Fut swinging punch movement. Suddenly, I really felt the genuine relevance of these traditional movements. They were also remarkably easy to adapt to a western-style boxing combination. I couldn’t help thinking back to my childhood when I watched the training scenes from “The Karate Kid.” I now felt a similar sense of revelation as “Daniel-san” had felt when he realized that the constant repetitive movements he used to perform his mentor’s chores had an ulterior purpose.

I had certainly executed applications before, but for some reason I had been concentrating more on the actual form rather than its efficiency back in Roodeport. This was probably a by-product of having been involved in performing martial arts routines to please paying spectators. Much like the competition Wu Shu, my moves had been shortened to increase speed and fluidity.Jamie Clubb performing a movement from the Plum Flower Fist Form

From this point, Eduann showed me further variants on the techniques in the form. It was at this time that I learned of the secret techniques of Kung Fu previously mentioned. To risk a cliché, there truly was a lot more to this than originally met the eye. Apart from veiling martial moves in dance, the system had far more complex deceptions. Shuai Chiao and Chin Na, the Chinese systems of wrestling and joint-manipulation, found their way into a lot of Choy Lay Fut. Techniques which look like ducking and low kicking can be turned, with little or no alteration, into jamming, unbalancing, and sweeping combinations. I believe this is part of the wonderment that keeps the practice of the traditional Chinese systems so popular. It’s also why so many Wu Shu exponents like Neil Genge and Eduann Barnard continue to return to the original styles.

With South Africa’s reputation for violence (Johannesburg holds a higher murder rate than any capitol city in the world) it is not hard to believe that Eduann has had his fair share of real-life self-defence situations. Bearing in mind that the success of most confrontations in South Africa is decided over a gun, you can imagine a pretty no-nonsense approach to hand-to-hand combat. Surprisingly, Eduann is a humble, well-mannered, and welcoming individual. He possesses considerable knowledge of his chosen style’s history and culture.

He is also not naïve in ways of business. Eduann has his schools’ and other martial arts clubs’ uniforms made under his own label called ‘Young Forest Martial Arts Gear’ and he runs his own martial arts shop as well. Eduann’s students are always polite and helpful, and his full-time Kung Fu school is open six days a week for twelve hours each day. The school reflects the warm family feeling often associated with, but not always seen in the Chinese style schools. Students come to the school every day to train for hours on end and they are all of various ages, sexes, and races. In a land that has most of its violent politics stemming from a background of segregation and clashes of native cultures, it gives you a sense of pride as a martial artist, to see a member of our community setting such a well executed example. There are 72 schools in South Africa associated with the ‘South African Wu Shu Federation’ and the interest continues to grow. With this sort of attitude given by Eduann, the Federation’s chairman, you can understand why.

As martial artists we can also further learn from Eduann’s will to help any interested student inquiring about training. He couldn’t have been more helpful to me. He would not give up until I completed an intricate and lengthy form.

To give an example of a truly traditional martial art that is practiced today is not an easy task. Some purists might not consider Choy Lay Fut as a completely traditional system. After all, it was a hybrid style that was adapted and modernised for its time. Since that time, breakaway factions have formed and it now has different lineages because of instructors who added to the style. Understandably, Eduann and other Sifus like him are not restricted or bound to the 1830′s. They too moulded Choy Lay Fut to accommodate their times while still staying true to its historical beginnings.Traditional Zulu Culture

However, some old ways die-hard and others seem to go from strength to strength. Take for example the ways of the dominant tribe in Kwa-Zulu, Natal: the famous Zulus. These people have consistently shown their fighting efficiency even when armed with weapons that the rest of the so-called ‘First World’ would consider primitive. Both modern-equipped Boer and English armies suffered in the 19th century from underestimating the highly organised tactician and war-strategist Shaka-Zulu, king of the Zulus. To this day, the traditional weapons of this race are used even when coming up against modern firearms. The recent brutal riots in the mid 1990′s between the Zulu IFP supporters and the ANC (Nelson Mandela’s party) have shown us just how effectively these “primitive” weapons can be used.

Pius Ngubo is an experienced practitioner in the Zulu martial art of Noma Ukushaya Induku or Zulu Stick Fighting, and he has won many of their full-contact competitions. Pius is also a black belt in Kyokushinkai Karate, Masatatsu Oyama’s famously tough style, featuring full-contact knockdown sparring tournaments where participants wear little protective padding. He also runs his own family show called ‘Madlinsimba,’ which features acrobatics and clowning. He also includes his own martial arts act that includes fire-eating, walking over mounted light-bulbs without breaking them, bending a bar on his throat, and an incredible display of strength where he lifts an engine block up by his teeth!

Much like Eduann, Pius is also a humble, polite, and very helpful individual who is eager to share his knowledge with an interested fellow martial artist. So, as well as engaging in a little empty-handed freestyle sparring with me, he taught me the Zulu’s native martial art of Noma Ukushaya Induku. I have trained in the Filipino style, Escrima, and the Chinese Shaolin double sticks, so I’m used to the co-ordination required for dual weapon practice; however, this style differs tremendously to its Asian counter-parts. For one thing, Noma Ukushaya Induku uses two lightweight sticks (ours were cut from tree branches that very day!). One is four feet long and the other measures half that size, whereas both the Escrima rattan canes and the Chinese double sticks are equal in length.

The chief difference I noticed was the way the sticks were used. In both Escrima and the Chinese forms, the sticks in the front and rear hands work in a similar motion to one another, acting as both blocking and attacking instruments. In Noma Ukushaya Induku, the long stick held at the front blocks and defends, with the fighter holding it in the centre, and the rear-hand shorter stick is an attacking tool used for stabbing and slashing at an opponent. Most strikes were aimed at the head or legs, particularly the knees. The combat effectiveness of aiming for these two targets is obvious; the intelligent sensors are in the head (sight, hearing, smell and, of course, the brain) and pain to the knee has been scientifically proven to be the most intense.

Like the aforementioned eastern styles, the sticks are replacements for deadlier weapons. Escrima’s stick fighting can be traced back to the Muslim Filipinos known as the Moros, who fought with a machete-type weapon (called a bolo) used simultaneously with a dagger. The Chinese double sticks are interchangeable with their double broad swords, clubs, dragon hooks, and butterfly knives. Noma Ukushaya Induku uses its lead stick as a shield and its rear as a club. This weapon is known as an isaGila or more commonly as the Knobkerrie. Noma Ukushaya Induku originated as a form of duelling used to settle disputes. Here, combatants would use either the two sticks or a small shield and club. The rules prohibited stabbing, although this was not apparent in the training Pius gave me! Traditionally, the bout ended when blood was drawn – a rule I’m thankful he didn’t enforce! Noma Ukushaya Induku

The Zulus use this style of fighting when engaged in close-quarter combat during battle. Shaka-Zulu revolutionised his army’s tactics with the invention of the short spear called an iXhwa – so named because of the sound it made going in and out of an enemy’s body. The iXhwa solved the problem created by the long throwing spears (isiPhapla), which were often used up early on when the Zulu army rushed into battle. The warriors also used a type of fighting stick more suited for war than domestic disputes. The weapons were known as umTshisa and were traditionally tapered to a point at one end and sharpened into a chisel shape at the other.

I left South Africa with a refreshing new insight into the traditional side of martial arts. It is a land of contrasts – on the cutting edge of technology, yet deeply rooted in its past. It is also a land where most people carry guns, but the use of age-old weapons is a common sight in the all too frequent outbursts of violence. Above all though, it is a land of hot weather and massive stretches of landscape ideally suited to build the physical education of its people. Sport is a popular activity in South Africa and it is a perfect place to practice martial arts forms and spar outside during the long days. We, as Europeans, hear a lot about the country’s political problems, but no one ever really gets any kind of idea what South Africa is really like until you visit. The different sides, tribes, cultures, races or whatever label you want to apply, have valid arguments that cannot be easily negotiated. I did learn one thing from looking at the country as an outsider, and that was to keep an open mind. It is a lesson that we as martial artists of any style and as human beings of any background would do well to remember.

I would like to thank Sifu Eduann Barnard and Pius Ngubo for their time and giving me such a welcoming introduction to the styles that are very close to their hearts. I would also like to extend my thanks to my cousin Jim Stockley of the Natal Lion Park for his instruction on firearms self-defence.