Lone Sword Against the Cold Cold Sky

Between the ages 20 and 22 while I was studying Northern Shaolin with Bing Gong, I had the habit of practicing each new movement of the forms on both the left and the right sides. So that by the time I had finished a form, I could do the mirror form just as well. I had the appetite of a lion.

So Bing decided that I should study with someone who could give me more. I scouted around a bit over a month and we had several talks. He decided that he would give me a formal introduction to either Adam Hsu or George Xu. Although Bing was a senior student of Kuo Lien-ying, he had studied with Adam Hsu long enough to learn a very beautiful Heaven & Earth Sword-Tiandijian, and thus I was already familiar with some of Adam Hsu's basics. But because I said I really wanted to test and prove my real fighting abilities, he ended up introducing me to George Xu.

So this past week as I was reading Adam Hsu's 2006 book, Lone Sword Against the Cold Cold Sky, Principles and Practice of Traditional Kung Fu, it was with the idea that I almost had the fate to be his student.

The book is an enjoyable collection of essays, and many others have reviewed it in the two years since it has been out. Adam Hsu and George Xu were/are friends so some of his students came to visit our class and occasionally someone would switch teachers. Adam Hsu himself would sometimes stop by and the Shifu's would practice tongue fu. Adam Hsu's movement was like his voice, soft, lively and clear. His voice as I remember it comes through in his writing. I also had regular opportunities to watch him teach and watch his dedicated students practice because for years his outdoor weekend class was about a block from the tiny room I rented during that phase of my life.

Adam Hsu's love of Chang Chuan or Long Fist is a love I share. What he calls Long Fist, I tend to call Northern Shaolin, but I do that because that's what my first teacher called it-- but Long Fist is a better name for it. He makes the case, and I agree with him, that there are many layers and levels of Chang Chuan practice. Over the years its logic, depth and stored-up power reveals itself in unexpected ways. At one point he criticizes the "opera style" high kicking of the first style of Chang Chuan I learned (from Bing), saying they serve no purpose outside of performance, they have no application. He would have a point, if that was all I had learned, but I would counter that those "opera style" kicks hide not only some unseen training advantages (not applications) but also the true origins of gongfu, nay of Chang Chuan itself-- in a religious milieu in which performance was a central function of the art.

He also asserts that Taijiquan is a form of Chang Chuan, and I find myself agreeing with him. The Taijiquan Classics do use the term "chang chuan" at one point to describe taiji. The opening of Chen style also has the same exorcism feel as the opening of a Chang Chan set. A modified Big Dipper step no doubt.

His sections on Baguazhang are also fun to read. First off he suggests that Bagua Zhang has an alternate origin in a system called Ba Pan Zhang. The name means Eight Plates Palm. He explains that the term "pan" actually means "round" or "turning," the steering wheel of a car is called the steering "pan." But I was struck by the obvious performance implications of this name.

Both Baguazhang and Indian Classical dance use a particular type of movement quite frequently which is also used in the circus. The movement involves moving one's palms over and under the arm while keeping the palm facing skyward. If done with actual plates of food, it is possible to spin the plates around without spilling the food. The first time I saw this I was about 9 years old at the Pickle Family Circus. A waiter was trying to get two full plates of spaghetti to a waiting customer while being chased around by a gorilla!

In another essay he explains that the purpose of the Baguazhang Linking Form is to transmit the uses of each of the eight palm changes in conjunction with eight stationary posts. He says post training is very important. I wish I had a place to plant eight posts in the ground, I would try it out. I usually just practice with a single metal post on the playground, and even that not so often. I see why he thinks it is important, but I think perhaps there are other ways to get comparable training.

Probably my favorite part of the book was when he writes that the purpose of Baguazhang forms is to teach us to improvise. That's what the forms inventor's were doing! (They mainly come from the second and third generation after Dong Haiquan.) Adam Hsu gives us a challenge:  He says that when we really know all the palm changes we should improvise our own form! I've been improvising for years but it never occurred to me that I should be making my own form. I think I will. My thanks to Adam Hsu for that idea and for the book!

(Tomorrow's Blog: The philosophical differences between Adam Hsu and George Xu.)