By Adam Hsu
Long fist is known for its proud and courageous spirit which clearly can be seen in its forms: the postures are dramatic and expansive; the movements are complex and elegant. They are very beautiful to watch. When performed by a high-level practitioner, an additional depth and power shine through. Unfortunately, these positive attributes have also helped foster some wrong ideas about this art.
There is a tremendous amount of valuable training buried within long fist's many forms. Of course nowadays it's well known that the old masters deliberately withheld important training and disguised real usage. Most students were given a form to learn, then another, and another, with no clue as to what they were really supposed to be practicing. Only a select few received the full training in secrecy. Without this understanding, there was no way to digest the true content of the training. It's no wonder people came to the conclusion that the more forms you learned, the higher your kung fu would be. Chasing forms is one of the reasons the level of contemporary martial arts is so low. Unhappily, practicing this way alone will make the road to mastery extremely difficult for anyone, no matter how talented.
There are several other important misconceptions people have about long fist. Many think that with its wide-open movements, it may be a good exercise but it lacks the mental training that Chinese martial arts are known for. Or it's purely an external style, shallow and solely physical. Others consider it just a pretty dance, filled with fancy movements that are beautiful to watch but useless in combat—if your real interest is martial arts, you'd be better off studying something else.
Nothing could be further from the truth!
Certainly long fist itself must share the blame for these misconceptions because it's possible the old masters held back too much of the art. It's so easy to look back in history and pass judgment on them but in actuality, no one today can really say what the correct dosage should have been. What we can say is that because of this practice, some of the art has been lost.
People may wonder whether long fist's generalized focus ends up diluting its own power and diffusing the fighting ability of its practitioners. Is it less intense and effective than styles with a specific focus? Not at all! But it's quite true that talented students of specialized styles can reach a high level in a shorter amount of time, compared to their long fist counterparts. In general, it is easier to achieve success by focusing on one or a few techniques than by working to make every technique equally good.
For this reason, dedicated and capable long fist students have quite often been known to lose matches to other stylists with less training. Needless to say, this has demoralized many a promising student and also supported the misconception that long fist can't be used to fight. When long fist students receive incomplete training, then all the criticisms about this style are true. But it shouldn't end up like this. With full and correct training, delivered within a systematized, efficient, modern program, students can follow the system step by step to reach the highest levels. When the real chang quan can be fully performed, when the practitioner has matured in his art, the actual fighting level is very high and deserves the utmost respect.
Ability and character
To fully understand the training you have to know the usage. And let me mention again, for security reasons, usage was hidden. The long fist family had a different attitude and approach to its students: the emphasis was on improving the student as a whole person, not just teaching how to punch and kick others. Over years of training, the sifu put his students through many covert tests of ability and character. Only when he had complete confidence in you, would he reveal the real heart of the art, teach the missing links that previously had been withheld in your training, and show you the usage. After all, in ancient times he and his entire family would be executed if you went off to commit crimes against the state.
What does it really mean to say that the usage is hidden? How could you practice the cha quan form for years, know each movement so well you could perform it in your sleep, and not know its usage? Anyone can see that a punch is an attack. The circular sweep your other arm made before the punch is easily a block. This high strike you're about to deliver—your opponent better guard his nose! That forward kick—an attack to a target in front of you, and all of those circles your arms made as you were kicking, well they kind of protect your own face and besides, they look really beautiful. No big deal—you don't have to strain very hard to explain the usage.
But pay attention: very importantly, we all must understand that this interpretation is quite elementary. In long fist forms, usage that is obvious to the eye and easily interpreted is lower level. Long fist has very high usage; its movements contain much, much more.
When I was in high school, I myself began to study long fist. The training was often puzzling to me. Why did my teacher insist that my palms be held in a precise way when I was really practicing my kicks? And when I sparred with my classmates, the results were totally unpredictable and inconsistent. So I moved on to other styles that were more understandable and useful to me in winning my fights. It was only much later, as an adult with many years of hard training and martial arts exploration under my belt, that I realized long fist is not at all useless. Its techniques are very very high, and the strange demands made by its training suddenly made sense. Without them, it would be virtually impossible to attain the full potential of this art.
Fortunately, there is no longer any need to hold back information and techniques. What we know we can share with people comfortably, without guilt.
To this day, I still practice long fist. It is central to the training program in my schools. I continue to actively promote this style, sharing its true meaning and value with my fellow martial artists.
End PT 2