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By Emilio Alpanseque

August 2012 Kung Fu Tai Chi Magazine pages 62-67



            Often described as a southern region adaptation of northern boxing styles, Choy Lee Fut is a comprehensive Chinese martial art system, deeply engraved in Shaolin traditions, that truly encompasses a full spectrum of theories and techniques from both northern and southern factions. This article provides a glimpse into the major hand techniques of the style while attempting to outline one of the most important principles behind them: the Bagua Hands.

            The Eight Trigrams symbol or Bagua is a fundamental philosophical concept in ancient China with correspondences in geomancy, astronomy, astrology, architecture, anatomy, and even aspects of your life! Within the Chan Family Choy Lee Fut, the style founded in 1836 by Cantonese martial artist Chan Heung, the Bagua is used to identify eight different directions in which techniques can be executed for attack and defense. In addition, there is an important principle which refers to the ability to quickly adapt and alternate angles of techniques that are applied from different angles, commonly known as the Bagua Hands. But before embarking on describing the scope of the Bagua Hands, it is necessary to elaborate on some of the basic terminology and theories of the style.       

Linear and Circular

            The hand techniques in Choy Lee Fut are usually grouped into linear and circular. Although all linear techniques require some combination of circular or even spiraling movement, techniques that travel along a straight line to the target are considered part of the first group. This includes the Eye Catching Punch (cheung ngarn chui), the Straight Body Blast (loi yum chui), the Knuckle Piercing Strike (charp chui), the Chopping Fist (pek chui), as well as certain palm strikes like the Horizontal Palm (charn jeung) and others. We all know that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line; therefore, if identical speeds are applied to a hand technique, the one that follows a straight line will reach its target sooner, apart from being also less visible to our opponents.

            The second group comprises wide and swinging angular techniques such as the Inward Sweeping Strike (sau chui), the Downward Back Fist Strike (gwa chui), the Downward Covering Strike (cup chui), the Upward Cannon Fist (pow chui) and many more. A circular motion may take longer to reach its target, but its whipping nature can generate a lot of speed and produce a greater impact when the puncher is grounded properly. Also, in a circular motion, one technique can lead into another without stopping or slowing down, allowing these movements to be used and combined in a large number of ways, making the Choy Lee Fut expert a very versatile fighter with his arms.

External and Internal

             Furthermore, Choy Lee Fut also classifies techniques as external or internal. The External Hands (gnoi lim sau) refer to all techniques that can be deployed at long range. Being at long range should not be overlooked since it is in fact the “bread and butter” of a Choy Lee Fut practitioner’s repertoire, which includes a long list of attacks combined with the trademark footwork of the style that allows covering great distance in a split second. Long-range striking usually is done with the arm fully extended, and the hand shapes used include the Tiger Fist (fu kune), which is a regular clenched fist, the Leopard Fist (pao kune), which involves folding the fist at the fore-knuckles and squeezing the thumb against the index finger, as well as various palm strikes and finger jabs.

            The Intenal Hands (noi lim sau) place emphasis on mid-and close range techniques. Mid-range may be defined when our target is closer than the length of an extended arm while short-range means direct infighting. Different shapes of fists, palms and “claws” are used, but also the forearms, elbows and even the shoulders for hitting, deflecting, parrying, pressing, and seizing. The grappling (kam na) techniques of the style are also included under this classification. Naturally, the arms do not require to be fully extended and a new hand shape called the Ginger Fist (geung chi chui)- a variation of the Leopard Fist that focuses all the striking energy on the middle finger only- is often used to contact or penetrate vital points and other soft tissues that require more accuracy.

Three Gates and Three Levels

            The Three Gates (sam mun) is a method for identifying three different areas of the human body lengthwise. The “upper gate” is considered to be from the top of the head to the center of the chest, the “middle gate” is from the center of the chest to the hips, and the “lower gate” is from the groin all the way down to the feet. The basic premise is that the position o f our hands, arms and legs can be seen as “doors” that open or close when attacking or defending, and that certain techniques aimed to cover or strike at a certain gate can leave others exposed. External Hands usually aim to strike through the upper and middle gates (head and torso), while Internal Hands may use any of the gates to attack.

            The Three Levels (sam gwaan) is used to identify three segments or joints of the practitioner’s arm (note: although sometimes translated as “gates,” this should not be confused with the Three Gates concept discussed above). The first level is the portion from the tip of the fingers to the wrist, the second level is the section from the wrist to the elbow (commonly known as Bridge Hand (kiu sau), and the third level is the section from the elbow to the shoulder. Each of the three levels of the arms is able to be used in specific functions and techniques for attack, defense and counterattack. External Hands as a rule make use of the first level while the Internal Hands may use any of the three levels.

“Swallowing” and “Spitting”

According to the descriptions passed down by Choy Lee Fut ancestors, two of the guiding principles behind executing hand techniques are “Swallowing” (tun) and “Spitting” (tol). Within this context, to swallow is to absorb an attack, which can be done by placing yourself in a position where an attack cannot reach you or by redirecting the energy of an attack down or away from you. Spitting, on the contrary, corresponds to invading or penetrating forward, launching a powerful attack to disable your opponent or to break his entire centerline and set up the finishing blows. As opposing forces, tun and tol complement each other as a kinetic pair.

            Typically, Choy Lee Fut practitioners stand in a classic Square Horse Stance (sei ping ma) with their torso turned to the side to automatically remain less vulnerable to attacks to their centerline, using the rear hand to guard the chin (upper gate), the front hand to cover the torso (middle gate) and the front leg to protect the groin (lower gate). Then, as they shift their body weight from the center to the back leg or vice versa, known as tun ma and tol ma respectively, they effectively apply the tun and tol principles, which will become even more deliberate as they make use of evasive and invasive footwork..

Traditions under a System

The Chan Family Choy Lee Fut offers structured learning, a system proven for decades and made available today by Master Chen Yongfa, the patrilineal descendant of the founder of the style. At the primary stage, students devote a significant amount of time learning techniques individually and in short combinations, which are also learned through routine practice. According to the previous definitions, the primary routines of the style including the Five Wheel Stance (ng lun ma), Five Wheel Fist (ng lun chui), Small Plum Flower Boxing (siu mui fa kune), Blocking the Tiger Boxing (jeet fu kune), Cross Pattern Continuous Hitting Boxing (sap ji kou da kune), among others, place a considerable amount of emphasis on combinations of the linear and circular External Hands that use the first and second levels for attack and defense.

            As practitioners advance and become more adept, they naturally progress to the secondary stage of the system which will introduce them to the Bagua principle. Intentionally, the secondary stage involves the practice of routines such as the Small Bagua Boxing (siu ba gua kune), Big Bagua Boxing (tai ba gua kune), Heart of Bagua Boxing (ba gua sam kune), Plum Blossom Bagua Boxing (mui fa ba gua kune), Righteous Strong Bagua Boxing (yi jong ba gua kune), and several others. The emphasis on less linear patterns is more evident in the Bagua routines, introducing the ability to attack and defend from new angles and to combine techniques differently, leading practitioners toward the discovery of the Bagua Hands.

Directional Changes: Why Angles Matter

            Although beginners stick closely to the way techniques are taught and prescribed within the routines, as they progress through their martial practice, each technique learned is then explored in a combat scenario so that they can start collecting their own interpretations on how each technique can be used in a real situation. For instance, a pek chui is usually executed straight down; however, when used in a real situation, it can also be performed at a 45 degree angle left to right or right to left defending on the opponents defensive position and stance. Soon, the will be able to apply the Bagua Hands principles to their punches, palms, bridges, elbows, and even kicks and knee strikes.

            Let’s use the basic combination of gwa chui- cheung ngarn- loi yum. This hitting pattern, very common in Choy Lee Fut, consists of a gwa chui executed with the lead hand aimed in a diagonal downward angle followed by cheung ngarn chui with the rear hand straight to the upper gate and a loi yum chui back with the lead hand to the middle gate. Very much akin to a jab in western boxing, the opening gwa chui works to measure the distance as well as to open the upper gate, but depending on our opponent’s reactions, we might need to quickly change our combination. We may follow instead with an Intercepting bridge (jeet kiu) with the rear hand to deflect and incoming attack coupled with a devastating cup chui with the lead hand in a diagonal downward angle. This flexibility is the scope of the Bagua Hands.

            From one of the many couplet-form poems available in Choy Lee Fut we learn that every practitioner must be “still as a mountain but move as an unleashed rabbit”. What this really means is that to become a proficient fighter our stances and footwork must be well grounded and our actions must be natural, free and lightning fast. The tools are all laid out within the system to ensure fluidity of movements, leaving little to no room for fixed and predictable patterns. The Bagua Hands principle makes available a plethora of directional changes and techniques that combine with each other in a natural and synergistic way, giving the Choy Lee Fut practitioner the upper hand in every situation.

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