Young Forest, Traditional Skill

Hello everyone! While we have been quiet here on the blog-front, we have not been idle. Our newest book is now out! We bring you Grandmaster Wing Lam’s book on Northern Shaolin Kung Fu:

Shaolin Volume 1 Cover

As with our previous books, this tome is filled with the knowledge and insights that Sifu Lam has gained from historical texts and his decades of practice and teaching. Presented in clear and concise language, this manual is the first of a two volume series and begins with the core teachings and aspects of the art as well as fundamentals and training advice that is applicable to all martial arts styles. This is the complete Northern Shaolin book that you have been waiting for!

The book is now available to order here:

As a teaser, here is a look at the contents:

  • Preface
  • Lore and History
  • Concepts
  • Fundamentals
  • Training
  • Forms Training
  • Introductory Hand Forms
  • Core Weapons
  • Final Thoughts
  • Glossary of Terms

We hope you enjoy the book and that our enthusiasm and dedication to the art comes through in its pages.

The Salute: A Gesture of Respect -by Grandmaster Wing Lam

Martial artists commonly salute with a bow when they greet each other. This salute is a custom that is an intrinsic part of traditional Chinese Kung Fu. It is a mutual show of respect for each other’s skills and abilities.

The salute also had a practical application. Martial artists were always very cautious in the old days, and a hand shake was considered either too threatening or an invitation for attack. Warriors would try to avoid contact with unscrupulous people, leery of surprise attacks. Many Chin Na (joint splitting) techniques begin from a handshake.

The Hung Gar salute is a signature movement of the style. It takes two steps forward and two steps back, with the open hand forming a Tiger Claw. According to legend, the Hung Gar style arose from the monk Gee Sim Sum See, who fled the destruction of the Fukien Sil Lum (Shaolin) temple by the Manchus. The Hung Gar school developed out of a network of underground rebels who sought to overthrow the Ching Dynasty. Their motto was “Restore the Ming, Destroy the Ching”. The Ching Dynasty was considered by these rebels as non-Chinese. These rulers were tyrannical foreign invaders. This rebel spirit is evident throughout the Hung Gar practice. For example, the famous Kiu Sau technique is known as “Strong Finger Controls China”, symbolic of their rebellion.

In 1986, the People’s Republic of China standardized the salute for Wushu. This standard salute is basically the same as the salute used by Northern Shaolin. The right hand is clenched in a fist. The left hand thumb is bent, and the four fingers are stacked and straight. The palm of the left hand is placed over the fist. Both fist and palm are about 20 to 30 cm from the chest, with both elbows bent and the arms forming a circle. The hands are held at chest height. The feet are together with the knees straight. The posture is erect and the eyes are focused on the person who is being saluted.

The most common explanation of the symbolism of the salute is that the fist shows martial ability and the hand covers the fist to show civility. The modern PRC definition states that the right fist demonstrates that you are pledged to the cultivation of the martial arts, and are using martial arts to make friends. The left hand thumb is bent out of humility. Chinese people will point to themselves with their thumb instead of their index finger, as westerners do. A straightened thumb, like the western thumb’s up gesture means “I’m number one!” to a Chinese. Therefore, the bent thumb means that that you are not number one. Even if you are, proper martial etiquette would demand that you be too humble to admit it. The four fingers symbolize uniting Wushu across the four seas (or directions).

Salute when you greet and take leave of your Sifu. This shows your respect for his (or her) teachings. Salute your instructors for the same reason. Salute when you enter and exit the Kwoon, to show respect for the school’s ancestral tablets, which represent the sacrifices that your grandteachers made for the discipline. Salute your fellow classmates, to show that you will work together to hone each other’s skills. You should salute your teacher before he salutes you. Once your have developed the habit of saluting, it is a gesture that must come automatically whenever appropriate, without being requested.

Training While Not Training: The Bak Sil Lum Verse

Having just finished a brief overview of the character of Bak Sil Lum (BSL) a couple of weeks ago, this post briefly continues on the topic of BSL to explore an oft-cited adage found in various materials on Northern Shaolin kung fu.  Translated, it says “Sleep Like a Bow, Walk Like the Wind, Sit Like a Bell, Stand Like a Pine”.  This adage came up while I was speaking with Sifu Lam for the blog and he expounded on what it means.

Sleep Like a Bow

This refers to the sleeping position that puts the body in a natural shape with correct spine curvature (reference to a bow refers to this curvature).  One should sleep on their right side, with knees bent and arms in comfortable position.  Basically, one should sleep in the fetal position on their right side.  There are two main reasons why it is important that one sleeps on their right side as opposed to their left:  First, the heart is located slightly to the left of center.  Because of this, it is believed that sleeping on the left side places more pressure on the heart, while sleeping on your back or stomach disrupts the natural curvature of the spine.  Sleeping on the right side places the spine in correct alignment while putting less pressure on the heart than the left side.  The second reason is the shape of the stomach.  The stomach has a slight curve from left to right, so sleeping on the right side is believed to be more conducive to the stomach’s shape and allows for gravity to aid in any digestive processes.

This sleeping position also preserves the “jing”, or essence, and keeps the mind more alert and aware of the surroundings.  In sleep, jing is sometimes lost through “wet dreams”.  On your side with your legs curled it is not possible to lose jing this way, as bending the legs reduces tension and sensitivity in the groin area and sleeping on your side prevents contact with the area.

Walk Like the Wind

This if a fairly straightforward idea.  “Walk like the wind” refers to one keeping their stepping light and controlled, while maintaining “floating” energy.  This means that one does not “set” their foot down while stepping and sink their weight onto it; instead, one maintains light and swift stepping that allows one to quickly react and move in any direction at any time.  Maintaining this posture serves not only to provide for the physical ability to react and move quickly, but is conducive to the mental state of alert awareness.

Sit Like a Bell

Another rather simple one, this saying has to do with one’s posture while sitting.  One should sit erect with the top of the head gently pressing up and the shoulders relaxed.  “Sit Like a Bell” is a reference to maintaining the natural curves of the spine, similar to the curves of a bell.  Maintaining the correct posture keeps one’s energy up and circulating, keeping one alert, aware, and able to react quickly to outside stimuli.  Another reason for keeping this posture is the promotion of healthy organs.  When you sit slouched or hunched over, it compresses your organs and causes them to sit stacked on top of each other.  By keeping your body straight with the natural curve of the spine, the organs maintain their optimal alignments and the qi is allowed to flow freely throughout the body.

Stand Like a Pine

At first glance, this adage seems a bit more obvious than it is.  “Stand Like a Pine” just means stand like a tree, right?  Stand straight and erect with good posture.  This is a fair point and certainly good advice, but there’s a reason why the saying goes “Stand Like a Pine” and not “Stand Like a Tree”.  Pine trees don’t have leaves, they have needles.  These needles grow in dense bunches and jut out in every direction.  Just as a Pine’s needles grow outward in every direction, one should stand with the intent of projecting their energy much the same way.  By standing with this intent of pushing their energy out in all directions, one keeps their energy readily available, allowing them to physically react quickly to stimuli from any direction.  Also, this intent (once again) keeps one mentally alert and aware.

Common Thread

You may have noticed quite a bit of repetition in the descriptions and reasons for each phrase.  All four of the concepts that are mentioned have to do with maintaining a ready supply of live energy, as well as keeping a certain level of alertness.  The idea is to be training even when you are not actually training; to maintain a state of readiness and correct structure at all times, keeping your energy fresh and preventing it from going stale.  This carries both martial benefits and health benefits, further reflecting Shaolin’s combined history in martial arts, medicine, and philosophy.

Character of Bak Sil Lum Part 2

Last week, I began discussing Sifu Lam’s take on Bak Sil Lum and its major characteristic traits.  This was a follow-up of sorts to a similar post we put together on Hung Gar Kuen.  In part 1 of “Character of Bak Sil Lum” we talked about how BSL utilizes momentum.  In part 2, we’ll take a brief look at the character of its kicking and footwork, as well as address a few rather poetic descriptions of Northern Shaolin.

Get Your Kicks

Besides its fairly large, circular movements, another observable trait of Bak Sil Lum is its variety of kicking techniques and footwork.  In contrast to Hung Gar, which is characterized by the heaviness of its strong stances and its general lack of variety in kicking technique and level, BSL remains rather light-footed.  While Hung Gar seeks to sink its weight in order to provide a strong foundation for its (generally) linear issuance of power, BSL opts for more mobility, allowing for the both the generation of momentum as well as greater variation in footwork.  BSL also has a vast arsenal of kicking and sweeping techniques.  One oft-cited sparring concept of BSL is “30% hands, 70% leg”.  This is an exaggeration, of course, but one that emphasizes the importance that BSL places on kicking and footwork.  For this reason, much more importance is placed on flexibility in BSL than in most Southern systems.  The legs are already strong limbs, even without extra conditioning.  Any healthy person, with or without training, can support their body weight on one leg.  Thus, flexibility is stressed over localized leg-strength conditioning.  Essentially, BSL prefers to remove resistance to existing kicking power rather than spend time incrementally increasing the power that is available.

This makes sense in regards to high kicks (waist-level and above); no matter how much power your legs have, they will be met with resistance by inflexible tissue when kicking above waist-level, causing the kick to lose power as it struggles to reach the desired level through stiff muscles and awkward structure.  This is not to say that BSL does nothing to strengthen the legs.  As with most traditional systems, it has its regimen of stance training.  In addition to this, the various jump kicks found throughout BSL sets serve two purposes, one for application and one for training.  For application, jump kicks add the practitioner’s body weight and momentum to the power of the kick; in regards to training, the repetitive jumping, kicking, and landing correctly (allowing for smooth transition to the next movement in a set) serves to build more leg strength and control.  BSL traditionally also conditions its striking surfaces; just as a Hung Gar player toughens up their forearms, a BSL player would typically condition their shins and ankles to allow for strong kicks and sweeps with low risk of injury.

Soft as Cotton, Light as a Swallow, Hard as Steel

This is the translation of a commonly repeated concept in Northern Shaolin literature.  It’s interpretation is fairly straightforward:  Soft and hard refer to the universal martial concept of being able to yield, follow and flow, while also being able to strike powerfully and execute strong posture.  “Light as a swallow” refers to the characteristics of footwork we talked about in the last section: mobility, versatility, and speed.  Northern Shaolin has more variation in it’s footwork patterns than most Southern styles to allow for its varying and mobile approach to combat.  Though these are very simple ideas on the surface, it’s important to understand how these things translate to physical movement, not only as individual concepts, but as harmonious components of the whole.  One should seek to internalize the intellectual concepts of Bak Sil Lum, such as the Six Harmonies concept, and marry them to the physical technique of the system through diligent practice, exploration, and experimentation.

Character of Bak Sil Lum Part 1

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a blog resulting from a discussion I had with Sifu Lam regarding what he considers to be characteristics essential to Hung Gar’s practice and its general approach to combat.  Seeing as that’s the second blog I’ve written concerning Hung Gar, I thought it would be prudent to visit Bak Sil Lum, a style of Northern Shaolin kung fu and the other major “external” style that Sifu Lam has taught.  In my last post regarding Hung Gar, I had referred to terms and phrases commonly associated with the style (such as strong stances, strong focus on hand technique, etc.) that are used universally in various sources of Hung Gar material, and we explored a little bit of the meaning and reasoning behind them.  Bak Sil Lum (BSL from here on in), as well as Northern styles in general, has its own commonly used terms and written concepts that are frequently associated with it.  Some examples are the full extension of the arms (the reason for the various Northern styles labeled “Longfist”), large circular movements, high kicking techniques and the necessary flexibility to execute them, and a large variety of kicks and sweeps.  As we did with Hung Gar, Sifu Lam and I discussed the reasons for these physical characteristics and their role in BSL’s general approach to combat.  Remember, there are exceptions to every rule and only so much can be covered in a blog…this is a rather broad viewpoint of the system.  I will put it in two parts (one this week, one next week) to make it more digestible.


One of the most immediately noticeable characteristics of most BSL sets is the large, circular movements of the arms, body, and even the legs.  Though this may provide a certain ascetic (hence the popularity of their adaptation in contemporary wushu), that is certainly not the reason for their development.  BSL heavily utilizes the momentum it generates through those circular movements to provide the power and continuity of its techniques.  BSL movements aim to block and attack at the same time; that is, in a given technique there is both a deflection and an offensive movement.  In many cases, whatever movement a single limb is performing can be adapted to either defensive or offensive use as the situation dictates.  The momentum generated by BSL’s circular techniques provides a constant source of extra power to apply to a given movement as required.

Contrary to what many may think, these large movements are not limited to combat at long-range (i.e. just outside arms-length, where kicking would actually be preferred)…they may be “pulled in” or shortened to adapt to various ranges.  The longer the range, the larger the movement and more open the circle; the shorter the range, the smaller the movement and tighter the circle.  Though more momentum, and thus more power, is gained through the larger movements, all ranges benefit from the added power that the circular motions provide.  It’s important to remember (especially in terms of generating power) that this concept of circular movement is not limited to the arms and legs, but the body or torso as well.  Adequate power is not generated simply by swinging the arms in circles, but requires the concerted effort of what is referred to as the Six Harmonies.  The Six Harmonies is a concept often spoken of in BSL literature and refers to the hands and feet, elbows and knees, and hips and shoulders all unified, linked, and coordinated together correctly; in other words, acting in harmony.

Momentum also comes into play with how BSL puts on its offensive pressure.  As we covered in my last post, the rhythm and pacing of a fight is dictated by the one who is eliciting responses from their opponent (refer the “Character of Hung Gar in Combat” for more on that).  Besides putting themselves in position as the one setting the rhythm, a fighter also wants to prevent their opponent from reversing the dynamic and gaining control.  BSL does this by what Sifu Lam playfully refers to as a “machine gun” approach.  A BSL player maintains offensive pressure by utilizing their momentum and issuing constant attack.  Attacks are continuously delivered to different targets at different angles and levels (high, medium, and low), keeping the opponent on the defensive (what you could call “suppressive fire”).  Linear power generation is not enough to adequately support such constant variation in range, level, and angle; momentum is required to be effective.  To sum up in a very simplified manner:  Whole body momentum (achieved through the Six Harmonies concept) translates to a consistent source of power that allows for continuous attacks to be delivered at constantly varying levels and angles, while also allowing for any individual technique to be quickly adapted to offensive or defensive use as the situation dictates.

Continued in Part 2!

Martial Responsibility -by Jason Cvitkovich

When I look at today’s martial arts, or at least the martial arts that are highly visible, most of what I see is an emphasis on brutal efficiency.  The question on the minds of the martial artists that dominate the spotlight seems to be “Who can distill the most damaging techniques?”  Of course, it is these spotlighted figures who have the means to reach the masses, effectively presenting an image of the martial arts as a violent contest to see who can leave behind the bloodiest and most broken heap of a formerly whole human.  I guess that this can be expected by a sub-culture that created the Octagon but, expected or not, I can’t help but find it unsettling.  Is this need to inflict injury necessary?  To be sure, we should concern ourselves with effective and efficient ways to defend ourselves and those we care for, but do we need to inflict lasting (and sometimes permanent) injuries on those who have aggressed us?  Is it possible that we as martial artists – as humans trained in hand-to-hand and melee combat – have a responsibility to be compassionate even to those who have threatened us?  For many, this is a very counter-intuitive idea, but I hope I can at least get you thinking.

I believe that any practitioner of the martial arts who trains with even moderate diligence, spirit, and focus has given themselves a tremendous advantage in the sphere of hand-to-hand combat.  Of course, there will always be exceptions, but it would follow that the practice of martial arts would impart upon the student some amount of physical power over a person they may be confronting.

Doesn’t it seem natural that the person with the most power in a given interaction should also bear the lion’s share of the responsibility for the outcome of that interaction?  If not, I ask you to consider the police officer who feels no sense of responsibility for the petty thief and who feels righteous in shooting a young man who stole a new stereo.  Or perhaps the businessman who feels no sense of responsibility to his employees and promotes his under-qualified friend, rather than the qualified worker, into the new management position is another good example.  Clearly, both of these scenarios illustrate an abuse of power by an individual, but I would then ask you to consider one more scenario.

Consider the martial artist who is attacked by an unarmed man.  This scene could take place in a parking lot, a bar, an empty street, a college party or any number of other locales.  The martial student can immediately tell something is about to happen and the adrenaline flows uninhibited.  The attacker punches with a sloppily arching right (most contemporary American martial artist’s dream) and, before there is time for thought, body memory kicks in.  Whatever technique dominates the student’s body memory immediately manifests itself and the aggressor is soon doubled over or lying on the floor.  Isn’t this, too, an abuse of power?  As in the two former examples with the policeman and the businessman, one person holds more power and has used that power to hurt another person with less of that commodity.  Why the violent reaction?

It seems like there are three mian culprits on the desire to hurt an opponent:  fear, ego, and righteous wrath.  Any of these, or any combination of them, can cause and/or justify a violent response to an attack.  Fear, for instance, carries with it the need to end a threat quickly.  Despite bravado, most of us still hold some amount of fear as to the result of an encounter due to the numerous unknown elements.  Sure, the martial artist has an advantage over the average person, but is this person who you now confront the average person?  Does the aggressor have a weapon that they might use against you?  What random circumstances may interfere?  All of these concepts are valid, but is fear the force that you wish to have govern your life?  Are these possibilities reason enough to inflict massive amounts of pain or lasting injury on another person?

Our ego is something that is particularly insidious.  What image do we want or need to have of ourselves?  What image do we want or need others to have of us?  This concern about our image to ourselves and others is of particular importance for the martial artist.  After all, we are studying an art that confers upon us power over other beings.  This is an internal aspect that both martial artists and non-martial artists need to reflect upon, but it becomes of immediate importance for those of us who are training in methods of combat.  This is a major point of concern for martial artists for it is martial artists who have the immediate capacity to cause serious wounds on others if our ego is not kept in check.

There also exists the danger of the righteous wrath.  This can best be summed up in the all too familiar phrase, “He deserves what he got.”  One can only ask if the opponent really deserved what he got.  Does a person who throws a punch at you deserve a broken arm?  To be honest, this idea seems a bit savage.  We need to remember that as trained combatants, it is we who carry the potential for inflicting real and lasting harm.

My point here is not to imply that martial artists should not defend themselves or that they should not train in combat techniques, but rather to say that we should temper our martial abilities with compassion.  It is my hope that practitioners of all styles will migrate away from the ‘ultimate fighting’ mentality and begin to this about their own role and responsibility as the likely holders of power within combative interaction.  I’m not even saying that there is never a good reason to inflict serious injury.  On the contrary, I do believe that there are appropriate times for unchecked reaction.  It is the responsibility of the martial artist to look at the underlying reasons for causing serious injury to another and to question if that reason is valid.  That is, spending your time just practicing techniques that program your body memory to leave your opponent broken and bleeding is irresponsible and an abuse of power.  I am asking for all martial artists to put serious consideration into the following question:  Is it possible that martial artists, those trained in hand-to-hand and melee combat, have a responsibility even to those who threaten us?

Character of Hung Gar in Combat

Sorry we missed last week’s blog, folks!  I ended up having a short week. For this week, I had a question that I wanted to ask Sifu Lam regarding his experience and opinions on the differences and similarities between the two major “external” styles that Sifu has extensive background in:  Hung Gar Kuen and Bak Sil Lum.  We ended up having an interesting conversation on the character of Hung Gar in combat, so I decided to write about that with the intention of going over Bak Sil Lum’s combative characteristics in another blog.  For now, we’ll go over what Sifu Lam feels is an essential characteristic that correctly practiced Hung Gar Kuen should embody.


The physical characteristics of Hung Gar are things we’ve all heard many times before.  If you’ve even glanced at Hung Gar material, you know the drill:  strong stances, waist power, few kicks, emphasis on hand techniques and powerful arms that lock the fist and forearm together, essentially making a club for strikes.  Another physical trait that doesn’t get as much attention, and one that opened up an entire discussion with Sifu Lam on Hung Gar’s approach to combat, is the extension of the arms.  For the sake of simplicity, I’ll make this general statement:  movements that are based in practical application are never fully extended (as opposed to those in Bak Sil Lum); movements that are utilized for training purposes (e.g., dynamic tension) are extended further.

Training movements (for example, the Bridge Hands Three Times in Kung Gee Fook Fu) require the further extension to provide a stretch that counter-balances the tension built up while performing the movements.  But why are the applicable techniques never extended?  In a word, timing.  Hung Gar is a close-range style that wants to keep offensive pressure on the opponent without giving them a gap to counter through.  Let’s take a quick look at the general dynamics of a stand-up fight to put this in perspective:

  • Attacker throws a punch at Defender.
  • Defender now has to react in some way to that punch. This automatically puts Defender one movement behind of Attacker. In other words, Attacker has set the pace and is controlling the timing of the fight; Defender can only react.
  • Now, Defender may launch a counter to change that, such as a parry/counterattack or catching/locking a limb, which would effectively reverse their positions.
  • In this case, the Attacker now has to react to the counter or the lock and is now behind in timing.

Obviously, this all happens very quickly in an actual confrontation, but the bottom line is that the person who is eliciting reaction is the person who is setting the rhythm and controlling the fight.  Hung Gar Kuen seeks to eliminate the possibility of being the one having to react by remaining “in your face”.  Techniques are not fully extended because the Hung Gar player does not want to create that space.  More space means more time for a defender to react, and more time to react means greater opportunity for them to change the dynamic and gain control.  A Hung Gar player does not “test”, does not launch a quick jab and then wait.  An attack is launched, the distance is closed, the follow up is immediate and constant.  Once a Hung Gar player has made their move, they occupy the opponent’s space and maintain offensive pressure until the fight is done, with no gaps in spacing or timing for their opponent to take advantage of.  This explains Hung Gar’s general lack of high kicks and emphasis on low kicking/sweeping techniques.  There is simply not enough space in Hung Gar’s preferred range for high kicking and any attempts to do so creates too much of a gap in space and timing for the opponent to take advantage of.

This concept also sheds light on the importance of the strong stances and waist power.  For a short strike to have any power, it must be generated from the waist.  To occupy the opponent’s space and keep offensive pressure at close range, the attacker must be immoveable and irresistible; they can not allow for any “give” in their structure for their opponent to utilize.  This unrelenting structure must start at the feet, just as a building is based on its foundation.  This strong foundation also coincides with waist power, which requires a strong foundation to work from.  The Earth provides foundation for the legs, the legs provide the foundation for the waist and body, which in turn provides the foundation for the arms.  Everything must be unified and working together as a single unit…of course, this concept is universal in martial arts.  The only thing that varies is the approach in achieving it.

I suppose this really comes down to something that has been said in previous blog entries, but can not be overstated enough.  As I mentioned before, we’ve all heard the terms that are repeated verbatim in various sources of Hung Gar material.  Strong stances, waist power, yada yada yada.  Knowledge of this terminology provides nothing.  The practitioner needs to ask WHY and explore possible answers through physical practice and experimentation, as well as exchanges with fellow martial artists.  It doesn’t matter how many books you have on your shelf.  Reading is a relaxing way to pass the time that can be done in a comfortable chair.  Kung Fu is not.  Kung Fu is hard work and, at the risk of sounding melodramatic, it demands sacrifice…sacrifice of your time, your comfort, and your ego.  Whether you practice Hung Gar, Bak Sil Lum, or ANY style of martial arts whatsoever, nothing is going to be given to you.  You have to earn it.


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