A brief survey of the origns of the advancement of Shaolin and Wudang (Wu-Tang) technique in modern cinema

Tang Lang 螳螂拳 (Northern Mantis) - Bow Sim Mark circa 1980

Yu Hai is one of my favorite internal masters and his Northern Mantis is world famous. everyone has seen it.. Far fewer have seen Mark's Mantis, which integrates Fu-style waist. If you've ever wondered where the bad boy of kungfu got his speed and sustained power to take on the role of Bruce Lee's teacher Ip Man, his mom's Mantis provides some clues. One can also see why these two Mantis masters had such a warm and cordial relationship. One of the great benefits of Tang Lang is that is can be practiced both internally and externally, and thus practical for practitioners at all levels. DY is not even strictly internal, and look what he can do! Tang Lang is today widely practiced, but high-level internal Mantis will always be rare.

Yu Chenghui (Wudang Sword) vs Yu Hai (Shaolin Staff) - Shaolin Temple, 1982

I couldn't resist. Yu Hai is one of maybe two true internal masters to ever appear in movies. Yu Chenghui, one of the masters in my personal internal top five, is still the only real Wudang sword master to do so. Yu Hai's Shaolin staff, usually practiced externally, here is heavily internal. Their fame is deserved.

Shaolin is itself famous for staff, and Like Yu Hai, Bow Sim Mark preferred that style, even refusing to teach internal staff. Because the way she taught Shaolin staff was all waist. And staff is exceedingly gentle, making it a favored weapon of Chan Buddhists. Sword and Spear are considered the ultimate cold weapons because they can dispatch from range with a single thrust. And while Shaolin has prohibitions are against killing and cutting with implements designed solely for taking life, Hulk is allowed to smash, and there are few styles as good at smashing as Northern staff. Still not as efficient as a sword or spear, and nowhere near as dangerous, but if you wield Shaolin staff with your waist, and have the requisite footwork, you can stand against any cold weapon that has ever existed, regardless of relative size and strength. It's all about quickness and leverage.

In the Yu vs. Yu video you also get to see Jet Li doing Mantis and Bagua. Jet is perhaps the top classical Longfist stylist, certainly the richest and most famous, well versed in all northern styles. But neither his Mantis nor Bagua in the film is internal, because he's barely 18. No one can really do internal until their body starts breaking down, somewhere in early middle age. Yen certainly couldn't do Mantis internally at that age, and he's part of a famous wudang lineage. It's just that you just want to start young if you can because even basic mastery requires ~36,000 hours. Fast forward 30 years and we get:

Yen Chi-tan - Ip Man chain punching, 2008 to 2019

Chain punching so astounding that it got the attention of the martial community globally, and the top prize fighters are fans. This what we mean by "good kung fu", specifically "skill achieved through hard work over time." And believe me that Donnie "ate bitter", just like his mom and everyone else who achieves it.

Here is one of the great all-time Kung Fu sword fights, possibly top ten. The stars are real martial artists who trained with real masters. The film was directed and choreographed by Lau Kar-Wing, a direct 4th disciple of Wong Fei-hung.

Sword Fight - Dirty Kung Fu, 1978 (Choreographer: Lau Kar-Wing)

The difference in the body mechanics is obvious, especially the waist technique. Other differences include sinking of the joints and relaxation, fundamental to internal boxing. By comparing to Yu Chenghui, we can begin to see the meaning of "Wudang technique" and "waist".

Note that the Dirty Kung Fu sequence is great and contains real swordplay, such as the sequence at 1:43. In the Chinese art we pride ourselves on letting the partner's weapon get as close to our body as possible, and you'll notice extended fencing sequences with very few camera cuts. But as Sifu would have said, it's "all arms."

The style in the sequence exemplifies the classic Shaw Brother's style, which is now being categorized under the shorthand "opera", as compared to the modern, post-Crouching Tiger/SPL action direction. Despite advances in the technology post-Matrix, no camera techniques or editing can convincingly cheat real internal technique. (Chow Yun-fat played Li Mu Bai because he was the best actor, the most critical element for that particular role. It didn't hurt that they had three generations of kung fu divas to showcase the Wudang art, headed by the legendary Cheng Pei-pei;) It was only through interaction with Bow Sim Mark and her children over previous decades that the Yuen Woo-ping came to understand real Wudang fencing which resulted in the choreography for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Wudang Longsword — Yu Chenghui

This is what we mean by "white eyebrow master", and why Wudang is famous for sword. Yu comes from the secular tradition, and is one of the exeplars at explicating the traditional roots.

Yu reconstructed his wudang longsword in the 1970's based on medieval manuals and his knowledge of extant Wudang art. As with most modern Chinese martial artists, he was well versed with all major weapons. He was already a notable master and validated his research via traditional sparring, no protective gear, and testing his blade on ox carcasses. They say that his stature was so great that people paid more for the meat.

Note that Gordon Liu is also in his early 50's when he plays Pai Mei, decades after gaining immortal status fighting Pai Mei:

Gordon Liu - Lo Lieh - Fists of the White Lotus, 1980

Here we see Liu using classic Hung Gar. Liu is a direct 5th generation disciple of Wong Fei-Hung, and his kung fu comes from the Lau. He was also one of the nicest guys you'll ever meet, and loved to play guitar, which he got to do onscreen in an early Lau film My Young Auntie (1981). We shall not see his like again.

Here's a film clip of Lau Kar-Leung, one of Liu's, principle teachers, at age 60 beating Jackie Chan with a spear under a train. And the spear may be short, but it is not thin like wushu spears:

Lau Kar-Leung - Jackie Chan - Drunken Master II, 1994

It's expensive to set up a shoot like that, especially lighting, so there aren't a lot of breaks and you basically work straight until you have it in the can. Because the "daily" in "rate" for extras and crew in Hong Kong could mean 24 hours. At least everyone gets rice plates!

Lau choreographed, directed, and starred in that scene. (Note that the Marsellus Wallace/Tony Roccamora story is based Lay. He caught with his wife and threw him out a highrise window. The police deemed it suicide--suicide to give foot massage to Lau's wife. And Lau wasn't even considered the most dangerous of the pair. His wife was Triad. She had stunning hair and was known for straight razors. People you don't mess with:

Hung Gar is often described as a mix of internal and external, and we can see how that type of training has value at 16 and 60. My guess would be, based on experience, that Lau hit significantly harder at 60.

Going completely new-school, we can look at a crossover star like Scott Adkins, who set the martial world on fire as the chief boss in the Ip Man finale. No one can say what he'll look like at 60, but I bet he'll still move a lot better either Arnold or Sylvester, probably because of the integration of Eastern methods. The Ip Man star integrated Western fighting methods, coming up in Boston and working with martial artists like John Salvitti, a karateka, boxer and early student of BJJ from the mid 90's onward, just as Adkins, in addition to everything else, he also had a foundation in Wushu. In this Ip Man sequence with Scott, Donnie is nearly 60. There are more cuts than in the earlier work, but those two are still going at it full force, all day every day for days at a time. The only way to make it real is to really hit, kick and throw, and they have to stop production routinely for injuries. Adkins is 20 years younger and has significantly more mass, a differential similar to Kimura/Santana. We measure the greatness of fighters by the greatness of their opponents. This has been the way since Hector and Diomedes.

Having made a survey of some of the boys, we'll return to "The Girl from Guangzhou", the inspiration, along with her daughter for Crouching Tiger. She is generally acknowledged for populariziing the sport of Wushu in the West, prior to the next generation of coaches from mainland China in the 1980's and 90's. Her book, "Wushu Basic Training" is still considered something of a bible for the sport. Here we can get an idea of what balance, control and core strength combined with "full-time, whole life" martial training looks like:

Bow Sim Mark - Seven Star Sword circa 1980

Never mind if that particular form looks useful—wudang jian has thousands of techniques and she knew as many as any human. A large number of the applications in this form can only be discerned by advanced fencers. Instead consider the potential of a boxer or fencer with that type of physical control and precision. She didn't think her was particularly advanced at this time, and compared to her her 50's and 60's, I see her point. Hopefully videos of her double Wudang longsword will be released, and her Yang sword circa 2012.

This sword art may today be expressed chiefly as performance art, in that no form of simulated combat, aka sport, can be said to be the "real thing". But there are very few people in the world who can do it at this physical level, and even fewer who are real internal masters. Very few who excel in youth continue full-time training past their competition years. At the time of this video she might have had 15 years of serious jian trianing, roughly 50K hours training total, with the greatest portion devoted to straightsword. Ten years full-time is just the first gate.

Perhaps the most difficult thing, and what made the technique of Bow Sim Mark and Yu Chenghui stand out, is to maintain all the martial qualities and applications, and make it look not only effortless but elegant. Elegance without physical capability is common in internal arts, and with older martial artists of every style. Physical capability without elegance is common in martial arts in general. Only the very best of the best achieve both. It takes a lifetime of commitment, sacrifices and hard work.

We have a saying in the Chinese martial arts that "You get real Kung Fu the same way you get to Carnagie Hall--practice."

长寿 Longevity

Just from this small sample of videos we can discern the meaning of "real kung fu", both external and internal, see how they relate, how the arts are promoted and preserved through artistic means, how those artistic expressions require real training and martial capability. For the arts to stay relevant, they must advance in every generation.

Good kung fu is not enough. It must be cultivated, cherished, and passed on.