Natural Traditional Chinese Martial Arts articles by Sal Canzonieri
This was my 28th article, 8th for Kung Fu Wushu Qigong magazine, it is about Beggar's Style Kung Fu.
|Kung Fu Qigong Magazine
(c) 1997 KungFuMagazine.com, reprinted by permission.
Beggar's Style Kung Fu
by Salvatore Canzonieri
Beggar's Style kung fu is one of China's more unusual martial arts. Also known as the wanderer's or vagabond's style, its interesting and varied history spans many centuries and many provinces
The so-called Beggar's style of Kung Fu is one of China's more unusual martial arts. It has a very interesting and varied history that spans many centuries and many provinces. The style is also known by the names of Wanderer's and Vagabond School/Style. As the name implies, it is a martial art that is practiced primarily among China's wandering beggar's population, who form a loose knit society that is found all over China. They are theequivalent to the infamous "Gypsies" of Europe, sharing the same transientlifestyle and sometimes "shady" practices.
The people of this "society" earn their living primarily by entertaining crowds of people with astonishing feats of acrobatics, magic tricks, and displays of Qi Gung prowess. They also sell herbal medicines, heal the sick and injured, perform exorcisms, break bad luck spells, make love potions, and do fortune telling. Sometimes they do burglaries, pick pocketing, and other forms of thievery. The feats of the Beggars are often legendary, as they thrill the crowds in the streets of China's major cities with their skills and magic.
Often, these Beggars found themselves in perilous situations. To protect themselves in their wanderings, they also practiced martial arts, which was composed of a mixture of Northern and Southern style techniques of Chinese martial arts. Over time, the Beggar's style came to be a blend of techniques from all over China that were very direct and severe in their application. More often than not, the style was used in life or death situations, especially since mercenaries and revolutionaries were recruited from the Beggar's ranks. The Beggar's are very secretive of their style and it is very difficult to learn the style's devastating moves if one is not a member of one of their sects.
Various Beggars joined themselves into sects to help take care of one another or to carry out some clandestine acts for the cause of good or evil. Many different sects were formed by the Beggars, some were politically motivated to help some group or another come into power, others were motivated by more selfish motives and were centered around thievery. Other Beggar's sects were associated with the occult aspects of Taoism. These types of sects are very strange and are divided into two main schools, the Orthodox and the Demoniac (also called the Sorcerous). The Orthodox school practices martial arts, magic, and healing for the good of others. On the other hand, the Demoniac school practices such things for more negative reasons. The two schools never intermingle, followers of one will never practice those of the other.
During the period of the Warring States (over two hundred years between 403 BC and 221 BC), China was divided into many sub-kingdoms as the various members of the nobility fought against each other in a struggle for supremacy. Over 230 battles were fought during this time period, both large and small. As life became very turbulent for the people of the countryside, various philosophers arose to help find a way to deal with the times. Many new ideologies arose, each with a number of followers: Confucianism, Taoism, Mohism, Legalism, and others. Different classes of society took to one or the other of these schools of thought.
One large class of people, the Military, took after the teachings and philosophy of Sun Wu and Wu Chi, who wrote "Sun Tze's Arts of War" and "Wu Tze's Arts of War", respectively. Sun Wu was a famous general and Wu Chi was the prime minister of the state of Ch'u. Their books discussed military strategy for armies (and soldiers), fighting skills, climate forecasting skills, geography analysis skills, and psychological analysis skills. The theories of both works were studied thoroughly and over time many remarkable skills and ideas were advanced and developed from them.
The fighting techniques that came from these ancient books were used by many people throughout the land, especially the peasants and the poor. These techniques were spread from the exclusive domain of the nobility to those of the lower classes by the famous Knights Errant, who traveled China in the distant past like "Robin Hood" figures, aiding those in need. These techniques are often called the Core Techniques, because they are repeatedly seen as the foundational techniques that are in common to almost all of China's traditional martial arts styles. This is because their simplicity, effectiveness, and ease of use make them very practical for many self defense applications.
Today, many Chinese martial arts styles still exhibit these core techniques that were developed in the war books. The Sun Bin (developed by a famous general and grandson to Sun Wu) and the Shuai Chiao styles originated during this time period and are mostly composed of the core techniques. Since the techniques were developed for the Military, they were very efficient and effective in the severity with which they were applied.
These early devastating fighting techniques are thought to be one of the roots of the Beggars Style, being passed down generation by generation. By the Beggar's Style's absorption of only the most severe core techniques of various Chinese martial arts styles, both the Military and Beggar's styles share a similar austere look and practical approach to ruthlessly overwhelming an opponent. Thus, the core techniques of both styles are very similar, not only in execution but intent.
Another root to the Beggar's style is their various interpretations of Taoism. By the time of the Western Han Dynasty (about 206 BC to 7 AD), Emperor Wen promoted the philosophy of Taoism, which was founded by Lao-Tse and Chuang-Tse. Born out of the Warring States era, as a philosophy, Taoism discussed the principles of leading a peaceful life by discarding all human desires and worries. Taoism looked to the regular cyclic patterns exhibited in nature and in the universe and implied that humanity was merely a part of these regular cycles. Thus, one should be content by simply being and shouldn't unnaturally strive to make things happen, instead one should become one with the cyclings of life.
Over time, as people investigated these various natural cycles and occurrences, they were able to also discover the chemical changes that took place in the world, such as the smelting of minerals, and changes that occurred in the human body. Gradually, the basis for this knowledge led to the development of Alchemy, which works with the various transformations that minerals and chemicals undergo, and to the development of various Qi and Nei Gungs, which work with the various transformations that body energy undergoes. Later, Indian Buddhism was imported into China and it too was found to be concerned with Qi and Nei Gungs. Finally, a new religion was developed in China, that of Religious Taoism, which combined all these ideas together into a more formal system.
Unfortunately, the next time period, the Eastern Dynasty (about 25 to 220 AD) was also a time of great turmoil. Militarists revived the study of "Sun's and Wu's Arts of War" in response. But, some Taoists combined these military arts with the scientific principles of alchemy to form a very esoteric and mysterious school of Taoism that is often associated with Black Magic. These Taoist followers disassociated themselves from the original, orthodox (and peaceful, noninterfering) nature of Taoism. They instead worked on researching matters that were similar to sorcery and witchcraft, centered around both killing and life saving. Their practices were condemned as heresy by the orthodox Taoists because they involved such things as assassination, ambush, spying, and poisoning.
The Orthodox branch seperated from the heretics and was called the "Refining and Cultivating Sect" and the "Sect of the Alchemists". This branch pushed the doctrine of refining one's nature so as to be able to achieve immortality. Chi and Nei Gung, Meditation, Quietude, and Alchemy were emphasized into its religious system of philosophy, science, health, and martial arts. The chief school of this more positive branch was called the "Chuan Chun" or "Perfectly True" Denomination.
The Heretical branch came under the "Amulet Sect" (which had three denominations: Lung Hu/Dragon Tiger Style, the He Fu Style, and the Mou Shan Style). Despite the public disdain, loyal practitioners silently passed on its skills throughout history. (In fact, during the 6th Century, followers of one of these sects traveled east to Japan and help develop the infamous Ninjutsu, who learned the skills of manipulating fires, medicines, and poisons, as well as mind reading, disappearing, and other mysterious pursuits). As generations passed on the heretical knowledge, specialized areas of the Black Arts developed, such as being expert in burglary, killing, casting spells, witchcraft, and simple magic tricks. Such practitioners became sought out for their abilities and people paid handsomely for them when they needed such things. Thus, some became alchemists to kill or to heal. Soon, people wished to earn a living with such occult skills and traveled to wherever their services were needed. Often these people masqueraded behind simple magic tricks and physical feats as they traveled the countryside with bands of roving entertainers and beggars.
As the various Chinese dynasties came and went throughout the ages, the secrecy of this branch caused its various sects to become scattered and lost, and they took on many different names (the most infamous being the Mou Shan Shu sect, who practiced evil Taoist witchcraft to cure, bewitch, exorcise, and work with spirits and the dead). Such sects also are part of the roots of the Beggar's Style of martial arts and compose the social circles that it operates in and through. The Beggar's Style is inseparable from its dark arts influences.
Centuries later, the time of the Yuan Dynasty (1227 to 1368 AD) saw the Han Chinese people overcome by the Mongolians. Many revolutionary groups arose throughout China to try to overpower the invading government, often in competition with one another. A Han national named Lee was forced to work in the palace and become a eunuch. He picked up a set of black arts techniques and when rebellions broke out all over China, he escaped the palace and set up a secret revolutionary group. But, Chu Yuan Chang's revolutionary force was first to be successful in overcoming the Mongolian rulers and he became the Emperor of the Ming Dynasty.
Eunuch Lee and all the other rebel groups in China had to disband their forces and soon these various people roamed the countryside, essentially being rebels without a cause. As many of these people were from the extreme poverty of the lower social classes, they used their occult practices to be burglars, street magicians, exorcists, or sell medicine as they wandered. But, many of the members of these groups maintained contact as they traveled, using secret codes, gestures, and messages to identify themselves and communicate. Eventually, these peoples formed a loose network that became known as the Beggar's or Vagabond's School. They grew to be a strong power along the coastal areas of North and South Eastern China.
Formation of the Vagabond's School
When the Manchurians invaded China and established the Qing Dynasty (1644 to 1911), the various rebel groups were again given a cause to follow. Many revolutionaries were recruited from the various traveling Beggars and were known as the Vagabond's School, hiding out amongst the traveling Beggar troupes. The practice of martial arts became very important to one's survival and was also useful to assassinate the Manchurian guards and spies. Many areas of southern China was successfully able to be free of Manchurian rule for decades.
Once the Manchurians were finally defeated and the China Republic was formed, these revolutionary activities were again no longer needed and the Vagabonds went back to their old ways and methods. But, this time they remained together via roving groups. They were most concentrated in such places as Shantung, Kiangsi, and Hunan provinces. Originally, they operated in the northern Chinese provinces, but since the winters are too harsh there for homeless travelers, they collectively migrated to the warm south and to the basin area of the Pearl River. By February or March of the next year, they moved back again. This has been done for many generations.
Originally, the purposes of the Vagabond School and Beggar's Societies were to resist foreign aggression, stand against tyrannies, act with a sense of justice, and fight the strong to help the weak. But, being that the members these roving groups came from all walks of life, both criminal and not, good and bad was intermingled in them. As ever, both the Orthodox and Demoniac (heretical) skills were a strong part of the traveling Vagabond School.
Beggar's Style Martial Arts
The main types of skills emphasized by the Orthodox branch include medical healing skills (herbs, etc.), osteopathy, hunting skills, acrobatics, Qi Gungs, and martial arts. The Vagabonds or Beggars made good use of these skills to earn a living. Martial arts are essential to them because as they traveled amongst the more baser elements of society, they needed martial arts training to survive. Thus, they developed the Beggar's or Vagabond Style. This style was so effective and deadly that Fan Shiu Wai, a Beggar Stylist, when traveling overseas, entered a no-holds barred martial art contest. Wearing no protection, he won the contest by killing his opponent, a Thai Boxer champion, in a few moves.
Beggar's Style martial arts when witnessed are seen to be a mixture of the strong points of both the Northern and the Southern schools of China. As the Beggars roamed the land, they picked up and integrated more of the most efficient and effective of techniques, including those of the Dim Mak (one finger "poison" strikes to vital acupuncture point areas),and added these to the core techniques they already practiced.
Generally, the Beggar's Style is noted for its complete independence from gentlemanly rules generally followed in Chinese martial arts. That is, they do not perform pretty movements, instead they act according to circumstances and do not pay attention to politeness. Also, fighters of Beggar's Style use neither "distance" fighting (long range) nor "hand-to-hand" (short range) fighting. Its movements are very quick, hurtful, and fierce. Attacks are made immediately to the vital parts. Often techniques are employed that cause death as soon as they are made. This is due to the fact that Beggars were often caught in extreme circumstances and fast action was needed. Thus, there is great secrecy often associated with the teaching of this style.
There is not a large number of techniques in the sets or forms (kata) practiced by the Beggar's Style. The main forms used are Shaolin Tiger Boxing form, a Lo Han Boxing form, Mo Tang Chiang form, general Ten-Postured Boxing (Shih Xing Quan), Blind Man Wiping the Wall form, and others. The weapons used are the silvery needles, iron rulers, meteor hammers, staff, sai, spear, harrow, rattan shield and single broad sword (used together), Chai Yang Halberd, double short knives, butterfly knives, flying pendulum, and even the towel, among others.
The hand techniques of the style have a close relationship to those used by the Southern Hakka (a type of Southern Mantis), Fukien (White Crane, Tiger, and other Southern Shaolin), and Min-Nam martial arts styles. The boxing forms are simple and short, hands are placed in front of the chest mostly in defense, narrow stances, and many movements are applied with one hand to grab and the other hand to punch. The leg techniques show some of the distinctive kicks that are typically part of the Northern Chinese styles.
Even though the Beggar's Style exhibits many of the same core techniques found in all traditional Chinese martial arts styles that can be traced back to the Sun and Wu Arts of War, these same moves are given vulgar or inelegant names. Most of these movements have an evasive, deceitful, "dirty tricks", and cruel nature that makes their application seem similar to street fighting. Often, concealed weapons are used, such as metal fingernails, dirt to the eyes, etc. Remember, Beggars use their martial arts to survive very tough situations, as they travel among some of the worse elements and places in society, living their out of doors, transient lifestyle.
The purpose of the Beggar's Style is not to produce elegant boxers, but to train the practitioners to efficiently and effectively defeat the opponents, immediately. The deadly military tactics of the Art of War are ingeniously applied in this style. Often they are used by people are do not consider themselves martial arts experts but simply people with a need to survive their dangerous encounters.
Common Fighting Techniques/Postures
There are a few techniques that are fully representative of the Beggar's Style and by which the style is most easily recognized by. Some of the techniques are from the South and some from the North. Following is their description:
"Beggar Asking for Rice" - is the prefighting or "ready" posture of the style. Both hands are positioned in front of the chest, the right hand being placed out front, and the left hand placed behind it and lower, left fingertips near the right elbow. The right palm is turned to face up (left faces down). The legs are placed in a "half hanging meridian stance" or "cat stance", right leg directly in front of the left, forming a 90 degree angle (heels lined up). The right hand is used to intercept the opponent's incoming attacks from the middle upper direction, while the left hand does the same for incoming attacks from the middle lower direction. For defense, the right hand usually responds to "block" (redirect) and grapple the attacker's hand and leaves the left hand free to counter-attack the opponent. This similar to hand movements in the Wing Chun style (chi sao).
This prefighting stance is very similar to Southern Mantis' pre-fighting stance, which is also called the "Beggar's Stance", the only difference being the legs. The Southern Mantis uses a back leaning stance, with the front foot turned perpendicular to the back foot. The hand movements are about the same, except Southern mantis has refined them to a greater degree.
"Blind Man Wiping The Wall" - this technique most exemplifies the characteristics that are unique to the style. It is a simple, unflowery movement in which one hand grabs and the other counterattacks (i.e., punch, joint lock, dim mak, etc.). Both hands are raised in front of the chest and drop forward to the right in a counterclockwise manner and then are raised upward to the left to complete a circle. Immediately then, the hands are pushed forward together, while the left leg suddenly steps forward, making maximum impact. The technique is also done in a clockwise manner, with right leg stepping forward.
The application of the technique is to use the force of the circular movement of the two hands together to parry and redirect incoming attacks, open up the opponent, and then quickly counterattack by pushing the hands out into the opponent. The hands are used to blind, claw, strike, push, or topple of the opponent. The technique is very similar to the "Butterfly Hands" technique seen in such Southern Chinese styles as Five Animals, Fut Gar, and Hung Gar.
"Thrush Threading on the Open Rack" - in this technique, if the opponent is wide open, the forefingers reach out and grab the collarbone, pulling it done, while stepping forward and delivering a knee strike. This is often followed by "Open the Door to See the Moon", in which the defender's hands suddenly let go and separate while a massive head butt is delivered.
"Yellow Dog Scratching At the Sand" - is a technique where the defender suddenly drops to the ground. Here the defender crouches into a kneeling posture, scratches the ground (to pick up dirt and refuse) and then stretches to rise as both arms swing forward to throw material into the opponent's face. What follows next is usually a sudden kick to the groin and a straight blast punch. The technique is done mostly when the opponent has a weapon at hand.
"Cock Seizing the Eggs" - is a deadly technique done with metal fingernails put on the ends of the fingers. The hands cross in front, grabbing while the body is leaned forward, and then suddenly the body leans back as the hands separate widely, clawing the opponent severely.
"Thunder God Cleaving Rocks" - is another crouching technique, in this one, one arm redirects an incoming blow up and way (overhead) and as the defender suddenly kneels down in a cross legged position, a swift, strong punch is delivered straight down into the opponent's groin or abdomen.
"Two Snakes Splitting Up in Different Directions" - is a hand technique in which a double uppercut punch is delivered and then a step forward is taken while both fists open into palms and the fingertips suddenly stab into the opponent's abdomen, throat, and so on.
Various Hand Techniques - many hand techniques from Southern Shaolin are employed, all of them involve first redirecting an incoming blow and grabbing the opponent's arm, while the defender simultaneously counters, often with an elbow, overhead hammer strike, a backfist, or a claw to the face (known as "Hungry Tiger Catching the Lamb"). Sometimes if a grab is not made, the incoming blow is punched down or away with a forearm while counterattacking.
From Shaolin's Crane system, a technique known as "The Roc Stretching Its Wings" is used in which an incoming blow is intercepted by a crossed hands approach and then the arms are suddenly spread open like bird's wings and the force of the movement is continued to strike the opponent's neck with a palm edge strike. The style makes use of many of the hand movements of the Tiger system as well. There are many tiger claw techniques employed in much the same way as those done by Shaolin's Five Animals, Hung Gar, Choy Li Fut, and others. The upside down leopard punch is used in some Beggar's style forms. Even the famous Shaolin bridge hand (with characteristic index finger pointing up) is employed to intercept and redirect incoming attacks, which is most known by Southern martial arts styles.
The Beggar's style also employs long range hand techniques that come from such Northern styles as Lohan Shaolin. From it, such techniques as "Lohan Drying a Corpse in the Sun", "Lohan Coming Out of the Cave", and others are used that involve redirecting an incoming blow by intercepting it with a swinging motion of the arms while swiftly swinging the other fist out in a counterattack as an uppercut, hammer, straight punch, etc.
Leg Techniques - are not as numerous as in many Northern styles, but the few employed are effective. Knee strikes, sudden leg sweeps, front kicks, springing leg kicks, and jumping kicks are the main ones used.
"Left and Right Illusory Kicks" - is one of the main kicking techniques of the style, coming from Northern China. The left leg fakes an attack in order to distract the opponent (or block an incoming attack) and then the right leg suddenly delivers a violent kick when the opponent is preoccupied with the faked left kick or is unable to respond to his blocked attack. Often a straight punch is delivered at the end of the right kick for good measure.
"Tiger Tail Kick" - is a close range kick technique that is executed be suddenly squatting down, hands on the ground, and then while bent over delivering a tremendous side kick into the opponent. While the opponent is falling back from the blow, the defender can rush in, grab the opponent with the left hand, and deliver a smashing back fist to the face. Often the kick is done after a sweep and as soon as the opponent falls, the kick is made to the opponent's head.
The Beggar's style is a very rarely known one that is most secretive about its existence. All in all, the style is one practiced for the survival of a nomadic subculture that is often faced with dangerous living conditions. As such, it has no use for flowery movements, and all its techniques are meant to be very efficient and effective in their delivery. Though its stances and techniques may seem exotic and unusual, even cruel, they are second to none in self-defense application.
The style has survived centuries of being time tested in battle, and the movements of the Beggar's Style can be seen as a distillation of the very best self defense techniques that traditional Chinese martial arts has to offer. Also, it is a living testament to just how great the core techniques that were developed far back in China's history (back to the Sun and Wu's Arts of War) truly are, since they are essentially unchanged today and still used much the same centuries later by the Beggar's Style of Chinese Kung Fu.
(c) 1996-7 / 2007 BGT ENT / Sal Canzonieri