Kung Fu Training: Sum Chien – The Heart of Shaolin, Part 12: Breathing & Teaching

Kung fu training, Thailand

Martial Arts Master Tan Soh Tin, Present Master of the Nam Yang Pugilistic Association, at Nam Yang Shaolin Training Camp, Thailand.

Special Breathing Methods

The special breathing which characterises Sum Chien training is certainly a very powerful form of Chi Kung and is the subject of much interest and discussion.  It is important to note that, at least in the form of the Sum Chien that I have been taught, breath is held in whilst strength is thrown out.  Only after a forceful action has been completed is the breath released.  There are a number of reasons for this.  The simplest one is that Chi, which more or less equates to breath, fuels our actions.  When we take a deep breath we fill up with fresh, vibrant chi.  We retain this Chi in our bodies to fuel our action.  Only when the action is complete and the energy spent should we release the Chi.  Breath is often released in a powerful, explosive burst issuing right from the lower Tan Tien – centre of our body’s energy.  As it leaves our bodies it makes a sound like a lion’s roar or a cockerel’s crow.  The sound, though, is simply a by-product of the breathing technique.  

Some modern systems like to issue shouts or Chi Ai (Qi Ai) during their routines, rather like strength athletes as they lift weights or hurl shot puts.  From a traditional Chi Kung perspective, this may be OK for one single burst of strength but it drains the body of energy and robs it of strength after.  We never shout as we execute a technique.  We expel our breath only after we finish.

This is obviously a very superficial look at a very complex breathing method but to explain it properly would take a much longer article than this one.

Kung fu training, Thailand
Martial Arts Instructor Craig teaching a student the Technique “Holding the tree branches” of the Sum Chien Routine at Nam Yang Shaolin Training Camp, Thailand.

Teaching Methods

Questions sometimes arise as to how Sum Chien is taught in different schools and whether it is still taught now the same way as it was in ‘the old days’.

It is a well-known fact that no two teachers teach in quite the same way.  It is a much lesser known fact that good teachers never teach any two students the same way.  Every student is different.  Good teachers direct their teaching so as to best get through to each individual.  There is no standard way to teach Sum Chien.  There are, however, a few teaching strategies which are worth commenting on.

Order of Teaching

In the many kung fu systems which base their training around Sum Chien this form is usually learned first as it is considered to contain the most important basics.  In karate, it is often not taught until 4th or 5th dan level as it is considered such a valuable form.  Both approaches have their merits.

Pace of Teaching

The best method of teaching is almost universally agreed to be slowly.  As none of the techniques can be performed without a proper stance, training pretty much has to begin with stance work.  One of the older teachers at our club had to train his horse riding stance every evening for two years before he was even taught to take a step forwards, never mind perform any hand techniques!  Needless to say, with a foundation like this his kung fu is awesome.  

I do not know of anyone who still teaches this slowly.  The pace of life has changed beyond comprehension.  None the less, to build high you need strong foundations and that means repetitive drilling in the fundamentals such as stance, posture, relaxation, joint alignment, concentration etc.  Rome was not built in a day.  The need for repetition has not changed.  At some point in their training, a student has to put in the hard work.

Progression in Training

One of the weirdest things about Sum Chien training is that the better you get at it, the harder it becomes and the less you can do of it!  Western-style exercise is exactly the opposite: the more you practise, say, press ups the more you will be able to do.  With Sum Chien training, the better that you get at it, the deeper you work your body – right into the internal organs, right into every tendon, every piece of connective tissue,  nothing is left out.  For this reason it becomes progressively more exhausting.  Beginners are often told to repeat their Sum Chien 100 times a day.  This works fine at first but at some point, the student will come back to the teacher and say something like ‘Master, I am getting completely exhausted by this’.  The usual response is something like ‘OK, that means that you are making progress.  Cut it down to 50 times a day’.  This pattern continues with gradual reductions in the number of repetitions until, at very advanced stages of the training, three a day may suffice.

Kung fu training, Thailand
At the Kung Fu Retreat, Sum Chien practice is taken very seriously. It is part of every training day. Martial Arts Students practising their Sum Chien Routines at Nam Yang Thai Retreat.

Who Can Learn Sum Chien?

I suppose that the simple answer to this question is ‘anyone who can find a teacher willing to teach them and who has the physical and mental capacity to learn and perform’.  Having said this, only a tiny fraction of the people who attempt to learn Sum Chien really master it.  This is down to the fact that teachers who can teach to the highest level are extremely rare and also to the fact that only the most intelligent students will really understand and even then only after many years of very diligent practice.

With the advent of the internet, information is now much easier to come by which means that finding a teacher is becoming increasingly easy.  Ironically, finding the time to practice is becoming increasingly hard!

Is Sum Chien an Internal or External Form?

Master Tan often tells the story of the boy who is determined to be the first to climb the highest mountain that can be seen from the village.  He spends many days battling his way up the steep slopes, pushing through the bushes and sometimes having to drop to his hands and knees to negotiate the rocks.  As he finally approaches the summit he is dismayed to see that from many other directions other boys are approaching just as close.  There is more than one way to climb a mountain but whichever route you take you will still arrive at the same destination.  Whether you chose the internal route with your kung fu or the external, you will still end up doing the same thing!  

As to whether to describe this form as internal or external, if done properly it should work a person equally hard on the inside as on the outside and hence is a balance of internal and external, like balanced yin and yang.  This is the pinnacle of the Shaolin art.  Of course if not done properly it is likely to be entirely external as well as a complete waste of time.

Where Does Sum Chien Fit Into Shaolin?

As I said earlier, in more or less all of the different styles of Kung Fu from the Min Nam region, which I believe to be the closest in existence to the original Southern Shaolin, Sum Chien is the basic training routine and usually, the first one taught.  In my opinion it is the heart and soul of Southern Shaolin.  It does not appear in Northern Shaolin.

Conclusion

Master Tan often says that ‘to master Sum Chien is to master the art’.  As usual, he is somewhat understating the case.  If you can master Sum Chien you are one of a very small elite, a select few who can genuinely claim to be direct line descendants of Tat Moh, the Shaolin founder – I respect you greatly!