Wing Tzun's Devastating Long Pole
May 25, 2008 at 9:36 PM
The Wing Tzun long pole technique, known in Cantonese as luk dim boon gwun (six-and-a-half point pole), is one of the least understood elements of Wing Tzun kung fu. Few experts around the world have mastered its form or fighting techniques, let alone its underlying concept, as it is an advanced program of training in Wing Tzun.
Today there are a multitude of books and videos for sale by different teachers, each claiming to show the original long pole form that was passed down by the late Grandmaster Yip Man. Oddly enough, no two versions look the same! This leaves the observer to wonder which one is the true form taught by the late Grandmaster Yip Man, and which ones were made up by the person selling the book or video. Indeed, how can one discern the authentic from the imitation, and the true expert from the charlatan?
The answer is to look to the Wing Tzun concepts and compare them with what is being shown. For example, many so-called experts claim that the Wing Tzun pole requires wide-open spaces for practice, owing to the length of the weapon. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Surprisingly, the Wing Tzun pole was actually developed for devastating use in narrow corridors - a detail clearly reflected in the long pole theories and concepts.
That doesn't make sense, you say? Then read on. In this article we will outline the true history, training methods and theories behind the authentic Wing Tzun long pole techniques.
Today, many are aware that the late Grandmaster Yip Man made a film of his techniques 10 days before his death. Very few, however, knew that an earlier film was made several years prior to that. This earlier film is of much higher quality and shows Grandmaster Yip Man while he was still in good health. In the film, he demonstrates the most advanced programs in Wing Tzun, including his authentic long pole form.
The History of Pole Techniques in Chinese Martial Arts
The long pole techniques in Chinese martial arts date back to the Sung Dynasty, about 1000 A.D. During that period there lived a famous General named Yeung (Yang in Mandarin) who had 10 sons - all of them experienced warriors. Of his sons, the 5th was particularly skilled in spear fighting techniques and was known as one of the best fighters of his time.
As the story goes, all 10 sons were sent off to war to repel invading barbarians. During one of the bloodiest battles of the war, all of the sons were slaughtered - with the exception of the 5th son and 9th sons. Since only the 9th son returned home after the war, it was thought he was the only one of Yeung's sons to survive. In fact, the 5th son also survived by virtue of his devastating spear skills.
But, at one point in the battle, the tip of his lance broke off, leaving him with only the bare pole to use as a weapon. When the war was over, this 5th son went off to the monastery on Mount Ng Toi to become a monk. Arriving at the monastery with only his broken lance, he proceeded to found the pole techniques. These skills later became the 6 and a half point pole in the Hung Gar kung fu style.
Enter the Pole Man
Centuries later lived a man named Leung Yee Tai. He was a pole man on a Chinese junk. The job of the pole man was to use a very long pole to free the flat-bottomed boats (junks) when they became stuck on a sandbar. As this was a very difficult task, pole men were naturally very strong. A pole man typically used very powerful stances to brace himself against the deck while using the long pole to steer the junks through shallow waters. Leung Yee Tai, in addition to being a pole man on the junk, was an expert in the six-and-a-half-point long pole technique of the Hung Gar system, a skill he reportedly learned from the Shaolin monk Gee Shin.
One day Leung Yee Tai met a Wing Tzun expert named Wong Wah Bo, and the two soon became good friends. As both Leung and Wong were kung fu experts, it didn't take long for them to begin exchanging their knowledge. Wong instructed Leung in the Wing Tzun system, and Leung taught Wong his long pole techniques.
When the two began exchanging knowledge, they discovered that many aspects of the Wing Tzun system could be used to improve the six-and-a-half-point long pole techniques. In this fashion, the long pole techniques were not only adopted into the Wing Tzun system, they underwent a process of change, resulting in a pole system much different than the original Hung Gar six-and-a-half-point long pole techniques. Among the changes, the most notable was the adoption of the chi-sau (arm-clinging) concepts and theories, which gave rise to chi-gwun, the "pole-clinging" training method. Whereas an empty-hand Wing Tzun practitioner uses hand or leg contact to detect the intentions of his opponent, a practitioner of the Wing Tzun long pole develops a sense of touch with the weapon itself. Upon making weapon-to-weapon contact, the long pole practitioner can feel the weakness in his opponent's defenses and slip through to defeat him. Additionally, the "portal width of the hands" (meaning the width of the grip) was quite wide in the Hung Gar long pole. In Wing Tzun , the portal width was shortened, putting a safer distance between the practitioner's grip and the weapons of the enemy.
The six-and-a-half-point long pole techniques then joined the bart cham do (eight cutting broadswords techniques) as the only two weapons sets in the Wing Tzun system. It is important to note that, while there are only two weapons sets in Wing Tzun, they cover a broad spectrum of possible uses once the underlying concepts are understood. The pole represents a single weapon and the swords a double weapon. The pole is blunt, but the swords are edged. Pole training teaches the use of an extremely long weapon, and the swords very short ones. Applying the Wing Tzun weapons concepts, a skilled practitioner can use any weapon, tool, or implement to defend himself, be it long or short, blunt or edged, single or double.
Many years have passed since the time of Leung Yee Tai, with the Wing Tzun system secretly handed down one generation to the next until it came to the late Grandmaster Yip Man.
Grandmaster Yip Man
Yip Kai Man, the son of a wealthy merchant in Fatshan, began learning Wing Tzun at the age of 13 from the master Chan Wah Shun, the successor of Grandmaster Doctor Leung Jan. A hard-training student of kung fu, Yip Man excelled in Wing Tzun and continued to train throughout his life. At one point while attending school in Hong Kong, the young master Yip Man had an experience which changed his life. A fellow classmate introduced him to an elderly kung fu expert who was purported to be quite skilled. Full of youthful indiscretion, the young Yip Man wasted no time in challenging the elderly kung fu expert -- who easily defeated him. Shortly after this, Yip learned that this man was in fact his kung fu uncle Leung Bik, the classmate of his own Si-Fu Chan Wah Shun. Pragmatic in his thinking, Yip Man asked this gentleman to teach him and help further his Wing Tzun skills. The elderly master accepted him and young Yip Man was able to hone and improve his Wing Tzun techniques to their fullest. Yip Man later returned to Fatshan, where he lived a quiet life until his mid-fifties. During the Communist takeover, the middle-aged Grandmaster Yip Man was forced to flee mainland China for Hong Kong. There, he began teaching wing chun to support himself. Within a short time he became quite well-known in the Hong Kong kung fu circles and developed a reputation as a top kung fu expert. Over the course of his teaching period in Hong Kong, he taught thousands of students. Some learned from him for only a day while others studied for many years. As Grandmaster Yip Man greatly valued his kung fu, he seldom taught or demonstrated its highest levels except on an individual basis. Nowhere was this more true than with the Wing Tzun weapons techniques.
Today many people claim to have learned the weapons techniques from Grandmaster Yip Man. However, he taught the double broadsword form to no more than 4 people and the pole form and applications to even fewer. While a number of his more senior students learned some individual exercises and movements, the late Grandmaster always held his weapons forms and concepts as an absolute top secret. One person who was privy to this training was Grandmaster Leung Ting, who has continued to train and refine the Wing Tzun weapons techniques for over 30 years. In this time, he has further enriched the weapons programs through decades of practical experience and by comparison with friends and colleagues - all of whom are high-level weapons experts from various styles.
The Wing Tzun Long Pole and Its Concepts
The Wing Tzun long pole is generally 8.5 to 9 feet long, which equals about 10 Chinese feet in length. It is nicknamed the "rat-tail pole" because one end, called the tail, is smaller in diameter than the thicker end, which is called the head. The pole is typically made of ironwood or teak and worked to have a smooth surface.
The luk dim boon gwun form is simple, precise, and elegant. Possessing only 7 key techniques, the sequence of the form is also rather compact - showing the efficient nature of Wing Tzun . Like the empty-hand Wing Tzun system, the long pole is based on a number of key theories which - once understood - enable the practitioner to correct and refine his own movements.
One of the most popular Wing Tzun theories - often misconstrued as relating to fist-fighting techniques - actually applies to pole-fighting. The so-called "four gates" or "four quadrants" theory comes from a long pole motto that states, "One centreline, two axes (axis), three levels, four quadrants".
Interpretation of this motto relies on a 3-dimensional geometry. The "one line" is the pole itself as seen from the bird's eye view. The "two axes" refers to a horizontal X-axis and Y-axis that describe the extremes of the pole's lateral range moving left or right, as seen from the bird's eye view. This is also called sin min gwun (fan surface pole), as the concept resembles an opened Chinese fan. The third motto is the "three levels" concept. This represents the Z-axis and is broken down into 3 key levels: high, middle, and low target areas as viewed horizontally by the person using the long pole.
Lastly, you have the four quadrants theory (often called four gates), which is the most important in terms of understanding the key usage of the long pole. There is an ancient Chinese saying which states, "One person guards the gate and 10,000 intruders cannot go in." In fact, this saying directly relates to the long pole's original usage. Much like a hermit crab that defends itself through the small opening of its shell, the pole man was commonly employed to guard a narrow gate, entrance, or doorway.
Basic Training for the Long Pole
The Wing Tzun empty-hand system uses stances and footwork optimized for weapon less fighting. The basic yee chi kim yeung mah (character two adduction stance), the sideling stance, and the advancing (or fighting stance) are all rather narrow and high.
However, the main pole stance, gwun mah, is much lower and wider to allow better leverage in manipulating the long weapon. This low stance, combined with the stepping from the empty-hand system, provides leverage, stability, and quick steps.
In the beginning, students are taught the gwun mah (quadrilateral pole stance), in addition to stepping and punching exercises. Once the student possesses a firm stance, he will learn simple strength training exercises in which the pole is raised and lowered. These exercises are required for the student to have the strength necessary to perform the long pole form and chi-gwun exercises. With time, a proficient Wing Tzun pole expert can manoeuvre the pole as easily as if it were a chopstick.
Next, the student will combine the basic footwork and pole techniques to step and thrust, press down with the pole, raise the pole, and advance. Students at this stage will practice the biu lung cheong (thrusting dragon spear), an exercise where the student will aim, step, and apply a spearing thrust with the pole at a small target such as a suspended bell. By using progressively smaller targets and putting them in motion, the Wing Tzun practitioner can improve his marksmanship and speed.
Finally, when a student has developed sufficient strength and exhibits proficiency in the basic stances, footwork and pole movements, he is ready to learn the Luk Dim Boon Gwun Long Pole form.
Luk Dim Boon Gwun Long Pole Form
The authentic long pole form passed down by the late Grandmaster Yip Man is a rather short sequence containing the essentials for pole fighting. Unlike the many self-created versions, which consist of over 50 or even 70-plus movements, the true pole form is quite compact and focused on practicality. There are seven basic movements incorporated in the pole form which are identified by the following keywords:
A straight thrusting movement with the pole, usually targeting the throat or heart, making it a lethal attack.
This is often a circular movement that brings the attacker's pole down and sets him up for a follow-up strike.
A defensive movement, with the pole pointing upwards at a 45 degree angle.
A defensive movement applied in either a forward or backward motion, which resembles the motion a pole man would use to steer a boat (junk). In this movement the pole is usually at a 60 degree angle with the ground.
A sudden upward snapping movement with the tail of the pole, bringing it from downward-pointing to an upward-pointing position. This is used when the opponent's pole is above our own, and can be used to disarm them.
A sudden downward snapping motion with the tail of the pole. In contrast to the Jerk-Up motion where the opponent's pole is above our own, the Flip movement is applied when our opponent's pole is below ours. As with the Jerk-Up, it is used to disarm the opponent prior to delivering a fatal strike.
This is a defensive strike that relies on the strength of the arms and body. The name "Half-Fence" is derived from the mark left by the pole when striking a hanging piece of paper. Each of the 6 previous movements, when applied to strike a paper target, leave a round or oval hole, whereas the half-fence leaves a crescent or half-moon-shaped hole.
Because of the compact nature of the long pole form, it is not necessary to practice the form in such a large open area. There are no movements in the pole form which involve pointing the pole upwards at a 90 degree angle to the ground (which would require a high ceiling), swinging the pole 180 degrees (requiring a wide area), nor any movements using the head of the pole (i.e. the thicker end) for overhead windmill-like strikes. The deceptively short sequence of the pole form belies its extremely profound approach to weapons combat. There are no wasted movements, flashy twirls or fancy spinning movements. The Wing Tzun pole is simple, direct and deadly.
Chi-Gwun - The Pole Clinging Exercise
After learning the Wing Tzun pole form, a student is taught chi-gwun (pole clinging exercise). Here the practitioner learns to extend the tactile sensitivity and reflexes he has developed in the chi-sau training through an inanimate 8.5 to 9 foot long wooden weapon. This exercise simultaneously requires the practitioner to be strong enough to wield the long pole, yet light and sensitive enough to detect the direction and pressure of the opponent's weapon. Moreover, since the poles have a hard, smooth surface unlike human arms in chi-sau (arm clinging exercises), the task of "sticking" to the weapon is quite challenging.
In chi-gwun, each partner attempts to follow the same principles that apply to chi-sau. When the way is free, thrust forward; when the way is obstructed, stick (cling); if receiving greater force, yield or give way; and when the opponent withdraws, retreats or lowers his defense - go forward.
Lat Gwun - Free Fighting with the Long Pole
At the last stage of long pole training, the student will be taught to apply the pole movements for actual combat. This involves defending against a variety of weapons including swords, spears, staffs and other long poles.
Long pole fighting is governed by the phrase, "No two sounds in pole-fighting." In contrast to the kung fu movies where two opponents strike pole against pole repeatedly until one goes for the kill, Wing Tzun pole fighting aims to dispatch the opponent immediately after initial contact is made. There is no extended cacophony of pole hitting pole multiple times, only the initial sound made when weapons touch, followed by the kill shot.
One of the most dramatic demonstrations of this is long pole vs. long pole. During these lighting-fast matches, two Wing Tzun experts square off and have a go -- which is decided in a matter of seconds. Unlike empty-hand fighting where one can recover from empty-hand strikes and continue fighting, a single strike from a weapon is usually disabling, if not fatal. So to ensure safety in actual matches, the combatants wear protective gear.
Tying into this fact is an ancient Wing Tzun proverb: "Fear the younger, stronger opponent in fist-fighting, but fear the older, wiser opponent in pole-fighting." The Wing Tzun long pole expert, much like a gunslinger from the Old West, has the advantage of superior experience and wisdom in the dangerous arena of weapons fighting. The fight will not last long, and the winner is always the one with more seasoning and experience.
The authentic Wing Tzun long pole techniques taught today by Dai-Sifu Emin are simple, precise, and logical. The pole system uses practical movements, devoid of fancy spinning, swinging or twirling movements. Contrary to popular myth, the pole techniques were not designed for usage in wide-open spaces, but for narrow corridors and entry ways.