The quality of Kung Fu practice is rising, worldwide. Yet the race is on. The culture of Kung Fu, the meaning and the heart of the art is in danger. The loss of this is not, as some would say, the loss of an impractical, antiquated fighting art no longer valid. Rather it would be equivalent to the loss of a cultural treasure such as Opera, or Painting, Theater or Meditation. Kung Fu culture is the raft upon which 5000 years of practical knowledge, mythic concepts, Shamanism practices and psychological insights rides. It is a code, but not an unbreakable one. The training in this section isn't so much about the movements; we actually assume you already know them. Rather it is a compilation of those "little details" that are the answers loosening the cipher and Unlocking the Form

Unlocking the Form #6: The Staff as Master

I recently viewed a lecture by a major teacher on the art of Liuhebafa and its use of the wooden ball as an instrument of practice. He said, at the beginning of the lecture, that he had had four instructors in his life: one of which was the ball. I think the people in the audience chuckled a bit but actually the idea of an instrument as a teacher is a very common one in Chinese Kung Fu history. For instance, the staff is said to be a sifu. And that's the very first weapon you study. In fact most of the weapons, since the Ming dynasty, have slowly evolved into instruments of learning and away from their practical uses. Some weapons, such as the spear, retained their usage until quite recently; but most of them haven't. What people don't understand is that this process did not begin just when the British sailed their warships into Chinese harbors but was already long coming in Chinese history due to the gradual ascendency of cannon and other so-called “hot” weapons.

So, from a Kung Fu perspective, each weapon became a special course. The staff for instance, if we examine it closely, has some real attributes which are helpful for the beginning student. First of all, your hands are locked together. What that means is that you are taking the dominant right hand and letting the left hand coordinate with it immediately because they are holding onto the same instrument. Part of what makes the staff perfect for such fundamental movements is that the staff doesn't have any blades on it. So you may bang up your shins a lot and occasionally hit yourself on the back of the head but this particular teacher, though he will beat you, will never kill you.

The staff also encourages the shoulders to open a lot through its whirling actions. And, on a really basic level, it extends the personal, physical space of the performer. The staff is the first long weapon, even if it's sometimes only eyebrow height. And it gives the beginning student; who up to this time has been so concerned about kicking, punching and stepping; another area to play in.

The staff also begins the process, which too few instructors mention, of teaching footwork to the Kung Fu student. Of course the best way to learn footwork is to fight an opponent. But almost as good a method —if you know that's what you are doing— is to use a weapon. Let me take this to extremes. In the case of the saber the weapon is not so strong or so long that you have to abandon stances. In other words if you feel like being in a low horse while practicing with this weapon, saber will allow that. But you cannot be in a low horse while, let's say, twirling the 12 foot spear, unless its horizontal to the ground, because you can't roll it in a low stance: you have to stand up.

An even greater extreme is the steel whip. If you are good at the steel whip you use stances hardly at all; since the whip is constantly moving: you follow the whip. So, by the time you are at high level with weapons—I mean real weapons, I don't mean 12 ounce steel whips—you have to have gotten your footwork mastered so it matches where ever the whip goes. The same is true of the rope dart (the comet). So the staff is the simplest and most logical place to start because you can intertwine the stance work you've learned up to that point and the moves where you are in a stance one moment and then just walking while you whirl the staff, or a section where you jump and turn and all those things which encourage flexibility in footwork. In other words adapting to conditions which you can't always control.

Again, briefly talking of other weapons in this manner, the staff is considered to teach bi-lateral coordination. The spear teaches extension of energy: fa jing. The straight swords instructs the eyes, footwork and the use of light, intercepting energy. The saber teaches deep footwork, spinning, jumping and using the body itself as a backboard to feel the actions and whereabouts of the weapon. Those are the four classics. I add two more. Double weapons continue the idea of the staff by teaching coordination but also develop asymmetry between the arms. And the soft weapons teach you to adapt completely to the yielding action of the weapon: yielding to yielding as it were. Soft weapons add a randomizing factor. So those are the six categories, as I have them, of all possible hand held Kung Fu weapons. Then when you look at a weapon, such as a snake-tongued spear for instance, you always think of it as teaching the basic concepts of the spear with the addition of the serrated head. Or take the trident. It's a long weapon balanced so it has to twirl constantly. You just add that to normal long weapon attributes. And that's kind of the secret to Kung Fu weapons. But it's also the secret to extracting from each weapon whatever the information is in that weapon. Every weapon can be looked at as a kind of jing and the instrument for learning that kind of jing. And the set of patterns for what you need to know about that kind of jing is what we call a “form”.

Given the above comments I’d like to suggest a few of those “sifu” exercises. Expect them to be a little different, the kind you might have to repeat to master. If you’ve had some stick work before some of these may even challenge what you think of as your skills, but that’s Kung Fu isn’t it.

1. SLIDING: This is one of those exercises that almost looks casual but is truly amazing for increasing your skills. All you have to do is slide the staff while flipping it from side to side. The flipping actions of the hands is like clapping for a moment and turning them even so the right is on top then the left alternately. The goal here is to recondition the hands so you don’t grip the staff and choke it.

Kung Fu Staff Kung Fu Staff Kung Fu Staff
Key Points: Oh, I forgot to tell you. This seemingly easy movement has trouble spots. First, you can’t use your fingers. That’s right, you only make contact against your palms. The other idea is that if you if you learn the right hand actions try to gradually widen the distance between the hands further and further apart on each swing so you are ranging the length of the staff. Expect to drop it a lot. Don’t stand next to a window and try not to drive other people near you insane with the sound of clattering wood.

2. GUARDING: Stand with the staff pointing forward like a spear. The job here is the same as you might perform with your elbows, learning the outline of your own body. Keeping the one end pointing forward try these four blocks: inside upper, outside upper, inside lower and outside lower. The point is to learn, given the stick’s extra length, just what angle protects your body. As we said earlier this aids in extending your sense of awareness outside the limits of your skin. Having a partner poke past you through the four corners can be of great help in refining your blocks actions. (Note: it's true you don't actually block with the staff like this but the extension of your periphery in space is very important for this weapon).

Kung Fu Staff
Kung Fu Staff Kung Fu Staff
Kung Fu Staff Kung Fu Staff

3.POKING: Lastly we take a simple thrust. Sep up a target but a thin one. Poke out, at shoulder height, and snap into a nice strong bow stance. Not too hard, if you realize that the key is to aim with the front hand you’ll soon find yourself making a pretty good score. However, (notice there’s always a however in Kung Fu), the target must be at the absolute limit your stationary range (by this I mean don’t cheat with those little adjustment steps).

Kung Fu Staff Kung Fu Staff
Key points: People tend to not reach enough with the weapon at first. When you practice a long weapon like this: go long. Don't be afraid to fine accuracy at the very edge of your efforts.


Well, that’s it. Try these and see if your performance improves. At the minimum you will see what the staff can teach.

The director of Plum Publications, Ted Mancuso is also Head Instructor of the Academy of Martial Arts; Santa Cruz, California.









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