Martial Arts Master Iain Armstrong demonstrating the Sum Chien Face at Nam Yang’s Thailand Retreat.
Training the face during Sum Chien practice seems to have gone out of fashion a little. It is widely known that the old masters used to contort their face into a strange grimace when they practised but most of their surviving students are too embarrassed to do this so it has largely disappeared. Even in countries like China, Malaysia and Taiwan, it has stirred quite a lot of interest when I have pulled the old Sum Chien face whilst demonstrating my forms. The most amusing comment came from the daughter of a distinguished Ngo Chor master who said that when I pulled that face I really reminded her of her father – despite the fact that her father was most certainly Chinese!
Why pull the face? Well, there are a number of reasons, including opening up both the senses and the meridians and developing the tendon in the face and head. The most interesting, though, is the effect it has on our emotional state.
We all appreciate that as our emotions change, so does our facial expression. We associate different expressions with different emotions: happy, sad, angry etc. What most people completely miss, and I don’t know why, is that it works the other way as well. If you purposely make a happy face and hold it, you start to feel happier, if you purposely put on a sad face you start to feel sad and so on. This is strong hint as to how you can begin to take control over your emotions. If you want to see a real master in action, search the internet for pictures of the famous Shaolin monk Sek Koh Sam demonstrating the expressions of the 18 Lohons!
The ‘Sum Chien expression’ is difficult to describe. I have heard the eyes likened to those of a tiger or of the monk Tat Moh (Boddhidharma) who, according to legend, cut off his own eyelids to prevent him from falling asleep during his nine year meditation. The only thing to which I have heard the whole face compared is the visage of a demon. Not a perfect comparison but close. It carries with it a unique emotion, with all of the senses wide open, chi lifted and expanded, energy levels high and intention focussed to a needle sharp point. Quite certainly this is not a state which we should maintain for very long at all. It is, however, pretty useful in an emergency and between the face and the emotion, a lot of attackers are likely to be put off before even starting!
It is really important to understand that when we practise our Sum Chien we do not just go through the motions. We transform our emotional state, alter our senses and journey into a different world, just for a little while.