Steel (or Iron) Fan

The Chinese have a saying regarding weapons, “The shorter it is – the more dangerous.  The more ordinary looking, the deadlier it is.”

This saying is perfectly appropriate for the steel fan.  The Chinese often turn ordinary household implements, like a pair of chopsticks, a wooden stool, a rice bowl, and even a pair of sandals into a deadly weapon.  It is considered a short weapon, about 14 inches long, very innocent looking, and not that much different to an everyday paper fan, except the ribs are made of stainless steel instead of bamboo strips, and the paper is replaced by toughened silk.  When carrying one unopened, no on can tell it is a weapon at all.  Even when opened, the fan itself looks quite ordinary and harmless.  However, in the hands of an expert, the innocent looking fan can be a lethal weapon.

The steel fan is quite a handy weapon to have, it is easy to carry and is inconspicuous.  When the weather is warm, you can use the fan to cool yourself and chase the flies away.  When you are in danger, you can use the steel fan as an effective weapon for self-defense because the ribs are made of steel.  You can use it to block and deflect much larger weapons by wrapping the fan against your forearm and turning it into an “iron bridge hand.”  You can use it for “chin na” (grappling) and you can use it for acupressure point striking.

When folded, the fan can be used like a short dagger to cut, to jab, and to slash.  When unfolded, the fan can be used like a spring-loaded knife  with sharpened ribs to stab, slice and spear your opponent.  Combine it with your body movement and footwork and you can turn the short fan into a long weapon by launching yourself at your opponent while throwing open the fan.  Thus, turning a soft implement into a hard weapon with a flick of your wrist.

You can also flick open the fan as a fake, as the action makes a loud noise that will distract your opponent’s attention while you kick or throw a punch elsewhere.  The open fan can work like a saw to slice with the tips of the ribs opened up into a semi-circle.  While the fan is open, you use the broad surface like a backhand slap against the face of your opponent.  It is indeed a very versatile weapon.

The fan is considered an “internal” weapon, because it uses the “soft” to overcome the “hard” and the short to overcome the long.  When using the fan;  “the mind must be coupled with the heart, the heart with the strength, the strength with the chi, the chi with the fan, the fan with the eyes, and skill with dexterity.”

10,000 Hours of Practice

There have been a number of studies and books written about groups and individuals who have mastered various disciplines such as singing, musical instruments, chess, various sports, martial arts, sculpture, painting, even mathematics and science.  They addressed the question, “Is world-class skill or “mastery” the result of innate talent or effort?”  The bulk of the studies conclude that natural “talent” matters very little in the long run when evaluating what it takes to master any given discipline.  Another conclusion is that roughly 10,000 hours of focused, deliberate practice is what’s necessary to acquire world class ability – otherwise known as “mastery”.

This theory of 10,000 hours of focused, hard training dedicated to consistent improvement certainly applies to developing mastery in kung fu.  Proper stances, punches, kicks, blocking and countering techniques are new and fun to learn at first and progress in martial arts typically comes quickly in the beginning.  This is when you are introduced to the various fundamental elements of training.  However, plateaus occur as you progress and  begin working on mastering what can be thought of as “small” details of the basics.  After learning what might be considered more advanced techniques, often times these fundamental elements of “basic” training often seem less interesting.  Unfortunately, this is sometimes when students become less enchanted with their training and look for something new to stimulate them.

Not enough can be said regarding the importance of truly mastering the fundamentals of kung fu.  The basics are the building blocks to advanced techniques as much as simple addition and subtraction are the building blocks to algebra.  When you learn new movements, place special attention on the fundamentals that are the basis of the movement.  As an example, a good side kick is required to develop a good hook kick or spinning side kick (both of which can be thought of as more advanced.)  Without a good side kick, it is impossible to develop the other two to a high degree.

As you continue your training, be cognizant of the skills and areas you are weak in – remember, everyone has strengths and weaknesses.  Improvement requires extra focus and attention on those skills that you are struggling with and/or are new to you.  Spend time before class starts or after class ends developing those weak portions of your practice.  Even better, spend time training on your own – outside of the school – working on what needs improvement.  Often it’s as simple as lowering your stances or having faster kicks with better form, but sometimes it can be as advanced as envisioning sparring scenarios and “what if’s” that might occur and shadow boxing to those scenarios.  Working on weaknesses can be difficult as our ego want quick fixes to our inadequacies.   However, this struggle for improvement is what breaks us through the inevitable plateaus.  This training is a very important part of the 10,000 hours.

For those wanting to master this art, training 3 hours/day, 6 days/week, for 10 years can roughly get you to mastery at 10,000 hours.  Training 2.5 hours/day, 5 days/week will take roughly 15 years to hit the 10,000 hours.  Training 2 hours/day, 5 days/week will get you to 10,000 hours in around 20 years.  This may sound like an awfully long period of time, but consider two things.  One, you are developing a world class skill and physical ability that can benefit you in a number of ways.  Two, you are hopefully enjoying your training.  Like most disciplines, more fun is had as your skills develop and become more advanced.

Not everyone needs to become a master, but consistent and diligent practice with an excellent instructor over a long period of time can make true mastery in kung fu a possibility for those willing to put in the time and effort.

Stretching

Stretching is an important part of Kung Fu training regardless of style.  Proper stretching will enable greater flexibility of movement and also help prevent damage to the body during hard training.  Contrary to popular believe, the best time to stretch is not at the beginning of a workout, but rather at the end, when the body is warmed up and a lot more pliable.  This is the time to focus on stretching areas of the body that retain tension and tightness.  On top of adding flexibility and reducing muscle soreness, this kind of stretching will make you feel great and likely help your sleep.

Please remember that stretching by itself is not a cure-all for problems in training.  Contrary to hype in modern martial arts, doing the splits and being extremely flexible doesn’t necessarily increase your martial skill.  In face, if stretching is done incorrectly, it can actually harm the body parts it was intended to help.  However, when stretching is done correctly – with care and consistency – it will greatly benefit a student’s training.

 

Internal Training

Internal training occurs solely through the practice of the empty hand and weapons forms and moves through three stages.  In the beginning, diligent and thorough practice of the forms with the correct postures and details of the techniques is required.  The second stage progresses beyond technique, as the forms are performed with swift coordination, precise timing, fluid rhythm, flowing momentum, and maximum focus.  Combining these qualities with an understanding of the techniques allows one to practice the forms as if one were encountering an opponent.  The final stage reaches the state of chuan, no chuan (technique, no technique), yi, no yi, (mind, no mind).  The Chinese maxim reads “from no yi shoots out true yi,” meaning that from thoughtlessness comes true meaning.  The internal practice follows the tradition of Zen rather than Taoist methods of consciously or willfully guiding the chi through special routes.  All one needs is a total commitment to the form without any mistakes or artificial feelings for the true unification of mind, body, and action to occur.

Kung Fu Brothers and Sisters

A major component of your training is the kung fu brothers and sisters you train with.  What they can teach you to do, or in some cases not to do, is vital to your progression.  Also, as you have no idea what size, body type, strength, speed, weight, fighting skill, etc. of a potential aggressor, it is extremely valuable to have many types and qualities of training partners to prepare for potential physical encounters outside of the kung fu school.  Those kung fu brothers and sisters closest to your rank and ability level are particularly important.  Should you train for years, these training partners will indeed be thought of as your kung fu “brothers and sisters”.

First, in the beginning of your training you must carefully observe the higher rank.   Who they are.  When they bow.  What they do.  How they do things.   Your body will not likely be able to copy or handle the physical training that is required of the higher rank, but that is to be expected.  While you are resting and they are training, focus on the little details that are likely common with the highest ranks and that may be lacking with the lower ranks.  As you progress and learn more, there will be less time to observe as you will have more to practice. Spend your rest time observing not only how the higher rank do things properly, but also how the lower rank might be lacking in certain areas.  Upon being one of the advanced students, you likely will have little down time to view the lower rank, but when you do it’s your responsibility to observe their weaknesses and help them either during or after class.

Second, having a mixed class (as our school does) provides a variety of different bodies to work with.  Children will be able to practice defending themselves from both younger and older children, as well as adults, which can be invaluable to their self-confidence and self-defense.  Women can defend themselves against other women and men.  All students benefit from training with students of various sizes, skills, strength, and speed.  Should a hulking giant grab your neck – you will be prepared.  Should you face someone with boxing skill – you won’t be surprised.  Ultimately, each student becomes aware of how to deal successfully with aggressors possessing superior height, weight, strength, and conceivably skill, although skill is what matters most as your training progresses.  For this reason, students should hope for a flourishing school with full classes.

Lastly, your kung fu brothers and sisters will be with you suffering through the hard practice and learning this very old and often complex art.  Together, you will share the pains that go along with this training and much like a military unit or sports team, there will be a camaraderie that develops into long-term friendships.

A Zen Story

Zen Master

Long ago, in the age of the Shogun, there lived in Japan an infamous young samurai.  Through many years of arduous training he had developed great strength.  Along with this strength, he had an uncanny ability to spot and exploit a weakness in his opponent’s form.  He would wait for his opponent to charge at him, thus revealing the weakness, and swiftly cut the aggressor down.  It was this talent that made him invincible.  He vanquished all who dared to fight him.  In his quest for a worthy opponent, he traveled from village to village and found that none could stand before his prowess.

One fateful day, he came to the village of a certain old master.  Skilled as this master was, he was known far and wide as one who possessed great wisdom.  The samurai challenged the master as soon as he saw him.  And much against the advice of his concerned students (who had heard the arrogant samurai who vanquished all), the master agreed to the duel.

As soon as they reached the appointed place, the samurai began to hurl vulgar insults at his senior.  He threw dirt and spit in the master’s face.  Seeing that this had no effect, the samurai spit out every obscenity he knew; all to get the master to show his hand.  He did this for hours.  And all this time the master stood there like a stone Buddha; his sword in his hand, his eyes expressionless, and every-so-ready.  Finally, the samurai found himself exhausted.  He gazed at the master with respect.  He humbly bowed and left, a much wiser man.

After the samurai had gone, the students asked the master about what they had seen.  “How did you defeat him without striking him?” one asked.  “Why did you endure such insolence?” another asked.  The old master smiled and replied, “If someone comes and gives you a gift and you do not receive it… to whom does the gift belong?”

The Way of the Mantis (part 3)

After five long years of solitude, Dushu reappeared before the Shaolin Temple gates.  He once again asked the monk on watch for an audience with the great Master Chang.  He was once again told that Master Chang had no business with him.  And so he waited.   At the end of three days, the temple gate opened and a young monk bade Dushu to follow him.  They came to the inner courtyard and there once again was Master Chang.

Dushu bowed saying, “I humbly thank you for your audience Master Chang.”

Master Change returned the bow and asked, “What is it I can do for you young man?”

“I still wish to become a student of the temple,” Dushu replied.

“You must still prove to me your power of discipline, and last time you could not even beat my lowest student,” said Master Chang.

“I have learned much since then,” replied Dushu.

“Very well then, I shall summon my lowest student once more.”

“I humbly beg that I many contest you myself master,” said Dushu.

Master Chang slowly studied Dushu saying, “You have at least learned humility and thus I shall grant you a challenge.  But after your first, it will be through, and you will never be allowed to challenge here again.”

Dushu nodded in acknowledgement.

They bowed to each other and to Master Chang’s small surprise, Dushu did not ragefully attack him.  So the two began to slowly circle each other.  Suddenly and with great skill, Master Chang struck out and was quickly blocked.  He struck again and again and each time, even though his blows were strong and well aimed, Dushu managed to block or parry them.  The bout went on for several hours until Dushu almost managed to throw Master Chang.  Then totally to the surprise of Dushu and the astonishment of the watching students, the great Master broke his stance and, putting his opened left hand over his fisted right hand, he gave Dushu the sign of repect.

“I do not know where or from whom you have learned this, but you have learned well.”

Dushu respectfully replied, “It is the way of the mantis, and I have learned it from nature.”

The Master accepted Dushu as a student.  Some years later he also became a great master, and the knowledge of the mantis became a part of the Way of the Shaolin Temple.

The End