Choy Lee Fut is famous for its large variety of forms and training methods. Chan Heung, the founder, spent over 20 years gathering and refining his skills before synthesizing them into a coherent system. According to records kept in the Chen family archive, there are 138 recorded forms (including 48 fist forms) divided into three levels – primary, secondary and tertiary levels, from the most basic “ng lun ma” to the complicated wooden dummy techniques such as the “da hai mun jong”.
It is virtually impossible for anyone to learn and remember all these forms, nor is it desirable to do so. The idea is to specialize after one has mastered the basics and then choose the forms that are most suitable for a person’s temperament and body type for further study.
To prevent this traditional knowledge from disappearing from one generation to the next, Chan Heung and his descendants have recorded each of the 138 forms in a “kuen po” (manual of fist work), a kind of kung-fu recipe that gives each movement its name (and number), orientation, hand technique, body movement and footwork, and sometimes applications. In the past, when a disciple receives permission to teach outside of his own school, kuen pos in the master’s own handwriting were given as a kind of certification and a record of what had been passed down.
Four basic forms However, not all the 138 forms were taught outside the Chen family. For example, there are four internal forms that were never passed down outside the immediate family circle of the descendants of the Chan Heung. These are the “Buddhidarma lohan 18 hands” (”lohan kung” for short), the “siu lohan”, the “da lohan” and the “wu chi”. Together these four form a complete system of internal kung-fu to cover the whole range of choy lee fut qigong skills. We have grouped these four forms under the generic name of “lohan qigong”, literally “the art of the breath of the enlightened ones”.
In its original form lohan qigong is an internal set of exercises for cultivating the “three treasures” of qi (vital energy), jing (essence), and shen (spirit). Done regularly it activates the flow of the intrinsic life energy along the meridians, strengthens the internal organs, increases longevity through maintenance of health and vigor of body and mind, exercises the joints and muscles, promotes relaxation and stress management, prevents occupational physical stress diseases, promotes postural awareness and correct posture, and provides the essence and base for many internal and external martial arts.
Enter Damo During the 6th century an Indian Buddhist monk, Bodidharma or Damo, the 36th Patriarch of Mahayana Buddhism, brought the tripitaka, the Three Sutras or scriptures to China and traveling throughout the country finally settled at the Shaolin Temple in Henan province. He was the founder of Chan Buddhism, later known as Zen in Japan.
Legend has it that Bodhidharma spent nine years in meditation in a cave. During these years of meditation he discovered that the lack of movements of his body and limbs over a long period of time, plus the bitter cold and wind around his mountain retreat, caused fatigue and body aches and pains. His disciples also suffered the same problems and often dozed off during meditation. To combat those hazards Bodidharma devised a set of exercises, based on Indian Yoga exercises, Chinese health and longevity exercise and his observations of the natural movements of wild animals. This set is known s the “18 lohan hands” and is considered to be the source of Shaolin qigong and Shoalin martial arts.
It seems to be a contradiction that a group of Buddhist monks living a contemplative life are also renowned for their expertise in the fighting arts. The reason lies in ancient times when imperial power was weak and corrupt, bands of bandits would terrorize the population, and people became the victims of oppression and injustice. It fell on the shoulders of the monks to be champions of justice and protectors of the people. Often people who fell foul of corrupt officials would seek sanctuary at the temple and become monks. Some of them were expert martial artists. In this way the range and skill of the Shaolin monks increased.
Two hundred years ago the Ching Emperor felt so threatened by the power of the Shaolin Temple that he ordered it destroyed. Choy Fook, one of the few surviving monks, fled to the Kwangtung province in the south of China. When Chan Heung sought out monk Choy Fook in his mountain retreat at Law Fo Shan to be his disciple, Choy Fook taught Chan Heung the entire system of Shaolin kung-fu as well as the rare set of four internal qigong forms mentioned earlier. Each form has its own characteristics. All use breath control and the mind to manipulate the flow of qi along the meridians. Three are moving exercises and one uses stationary postures.
First form The first form of the set, the “lohan kung”, uses movement to generate the qi. It emphasizes the extreme of yin and yang in the movements, and the full extension and contraction of the circulation of qi. However, even with the full expression of yang, the body is still soft and supple without any stiffness.
Second form. The second form, the “siu lohan”, is more rounded in movement and softer. In contrast to the “lohan kung”, the “siu lohan” uses more of the breath (rather than body movement) to generate the qi circulation. It incorporates stationary postures at different points of the form. Out of stillness movement is born, and out of the flowing movement stillness is cultivated.
Third form The third form, the “da lohan”, is done sitting cross-legged with the arms in different “murdas” or postures. The mind, coupled with the breath, is used to focus the qi at the different meridian points along the central axis of the body. Whereas the “lohan kung” and the “siu lohan” work mainly on the organ meridians, the “da lohan” utilizes the “jen-mai” or conception meridian and the “tu-mai” or governing meridian.
Fourth form The forth and final form, the “wu chi”, combine the skills of the last three with fighting intents. The movements are fluid and flowing, the body soft and supple. Stillness of mind is blended with movement of body, the fast flows into the slow. It is a reflection of the cosmic dance of creation where yin and yang, the universal opposites, interact to form the myriad phenomena and entities of the universe. It is a very effective fighting form, combining the hard physical fighting skills with the soft mental concentration and qi circulation. “Wu chi” is not unlike the Chen style taiji’s “pao chiu”. There are graceful movements inter-mixed with explosive strikes. It is considered to be one of the most advanced fist forms of Choy Lee Fut.
The key to the technique Lohan qigong can be practiced on its own for health and well-being. However, for the serious choy li fut stylist it holds the key to the secrets of the advanced techniques. In the primary level we tend to work mainly with the physical aspects of kung-fu, stances, footwork, punches and kicks. Power comes mainly from the muscles and bones. It is external and superficial. To progress onto the higher levels we must work with the body, the mind and the spirit as an integral whole, in other words, the “internal” aspects of kung-fu. We achieve this by working with the qi, our intrinsic life force, for this is where lohan qigong really shines. In terms of form, “lohan kung” is usually taught at the beginning of the secondary level, “siu lohan” at the end, and “da lohan” at the beginning of the advanced level. What about “wu chi?” Well, true to the translation of the name (literally “without ultimate”), it is an endless search for perfection.
There is an interesting story of how lohan qigong has played an important part in the continual survival of a traditional family style. After all, there are few styles nowadays that can trace its direct family descendants back to the original founder. Two of the more famous exceptions are master Chen Xiaowang of Chen style taiji, and master Chen Yong Fa, of Choy Lee Fut.
Master Chan Yong-Fa, the great, great grandson of Chen Heung, was born just after the Communist Chinese revolution. Because of the nutritional problems in the country at the time, Yong-Fa was born a sickly child. His grandfather, master Chan Yiu-Chi, worried about his chance of survival, started to teach Yong-Fa “lohan kung” when he was only four years old. His health improved, he became stronger, and has never suffered any major illness. Of all the children (three boys and one girl), he was physically the smallest, but through his early training in the lohan qigong and his diligent practice of the fighting arts, he surpassed his larger brothers to become the most skillful in choy li fut kung-fu. He is presently the accepted “keeper of the style”, jeurng mun yeng of choy li fut.
Master Chen Yong-Fa did not forget the benefit of lohan qigong when he left China to settle in Australia. He realized that the only way for choy li fut to survive is as a genuine traditional martial art was to open up its teaching to the outside world. Traditional knowledge should be used to serve and benefit humanity. In its selfless service, choy li fut will survive. Before Yong-Fa’s generation, lohan qigong was taught only to the members of the Chen family. It is historic that the secret is now made available to the world thanks to master Chen’s wish to share this life-saving health treasure with as many people as possible. (Editor’s note: The surnames “Chen” and “Chan” have the same character and meaning in Chinese. The former is a Mandarin translation and the latter is a Cantonese translation. Likewise, the names “choy li fut”, “choy fee fut”, “choi lay fat”, and “cai li fo” all refer to the same style of martial arts in different Chinese dialects and pronunciations.)
The Lineage of Lohan Qigong Da Mo (Bodhidharma ) the 36th Patriarch – Arrived in China from India in the early 6th century. Generations of Shaolin monks and disciples, the most famous being monk Gok Yeun, who enlarged the exercise to 72 movements, and Lee Sau and Bak Juk Fung, who further enlarged the 72 movements and transformed the original “lohan 18 hands” into an effective fighting system.
Monk Choy Fook (died in 1840) Chan Heung,founder of choy li fut, 1806-1875. Chan Koon Pak, son of Chan Heung, 1847-1920. Chan Yiu Chi, grandson, 1888-1965. Chan Wan Hon, great grandson, 1919-1979. Chen Yong Fa, great, great grandson, born in 1951. Fifth and present generation “keeper of Choy Lee Fut”.
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