A story by Jenifer Joy based on the lesson by Master Iain Armstrong
Once upon a time…..there was a prince in southern India named. He was kept inside the royal kingdom through the beginning years of his life until one day he wandered outside of the protective walls of the palace. For the first time, he discovered the civilization that surrounded him. The young prince was saddened by what he saw. Moved by this awakening experience, he decided to renounce his royal heritage and devote himself to be a monk, walking the long and dusty roads. As a devout Buddhist he traveled widely to spread the teachings of Buddhism. He then took the name Bodhidharma – which the Chinese usually shorten to Tat Moh.
Bodhidharma traveled to China where the Buddhist teachings were eagerly received by the common people. In the year 520 A.D. after many moons passed and many steps of traveling through India and China, Bodhidharma was appointed Abbot of the newly built monastery called ‘Shaolin’ meaning “little forest”. Here at the Shaolin temple he found the monks to be very weak and unable to withstand the Buddhist lifestyle which included long fasts from eating, sitting meditation and frugal living.
Bodhidharma knew it was important to find a way to support the Buddhist monks and so he retired to a cave to meditate upon the problem and find a solution. After nine years he emerged with a devised set of exercises for the monks intended to regulate and strengthen the monks chi, called Chi Kung. (*As a side note chi equals energy or life force or the vitality within.) Bodhidharma’s Chi Kung exercises were so successful that they are still practiced to this day and form the basis of the Shaolin martial arts.
The Shaolin temple was in the Fukien province of China. At the time, China was a dangerous place as bandits and villains attacked the temples and the monks who traveled teaching the ways of Buddhism. Buddhist monks are very gentle and good-natured. But to protect themselves, the monks developed a system of fighting based on Bodhidharma’s exercises. The fighting system was developed only to defend themselves against harm. It was named ‘Lohon Kung Fu’ – a Lohon being an enlightened monk – and included low stances and a strong body posture.
Over the years the Shaolin monks practiced diligently and strived to improve their art. One day a man came to the gates of the temple. This man was a Chinese Emperor who had also decided to relinquished his royal position to adopt the ways of Buddhism. He settled at the Shaolin temple and deeply studied martial arts, developing Tai Chor which is sometimes known as “ The Grand Emperor’s Style” but most popularly known as “Tiger Style”.
Tai Chor (or Tiger) uses a strong and mobile stance (in kung fu we call that a “walking stance”), along with strong twisting punches which is the “hallmark” of Shaolin Kung Fu. The Tai Chor style develops great power and thus defeated the Lohon style.
“No style is unbeatable and every move has a counter”
Next came Monkey style.. Monkey is fast and deceptive, this style closes in on an opponent, then striking and retreating in one rapid sequence. Powerful Tiger was unable to hit the tricky and constantly moving Monkey opponent. If monkey missed a strike, he still moved away from the opponent so as to not allow Tiger a chance to counter. Monkey strikes are more accurate than powerful and are delivered with the fingers or an open palm. Monkey crouches and attacks the lower body (favoring the groin). Grabbing is also a favorite technique, known as the “monkey plucks the cherries!”. Monkey style is great for short people because it consists of lots of crouching and rolling. This style of kung fu is most entertaining to watch!
What is one of the last Kung Fu styles the Chinese let go to Westerners? But of course it would be the famous White Crane, the last and most technically advanced style developed in the Fukien Shaolin temple.
Crane style is regarded with great respect and was shrouded in secrecy by it’s Masters for a longtime. What is the devastating secret of the white crane? The crane sticks! As soon as the crane is attacked, it establishes touch contact. When the opponents attacks, the crane deflects. When the opponents withdraws, the crane follows, never releasing touch until it finds an opportunity to strike with no mercy. Crane style is the pinnacle of Shaolin martial arts.
There was a time in China where the monks fled from the temples that were being invaded and destroyed. Only five masters escaped the Shaolin temple. The most famous is Hung Ee Kan, Master of Tiger style and renowned for his strength of stance and the power of his punch. He fought many challenges and was never beaten.
After the burning of the temple, Hung Ee Kan sought refuge with a Chinese opera troop. They traveled around China in a red painted barge performing their operas. They were known as the Red Barge and Hung Ee Kan found them to be an excellent cover. He posed as a member of the Opera and every time they stopped in a new town he would gather together those whom were opposed the destructive Manchurian’s who were rampaging around China. He formed new branches of secret societies and taught them the secrets of Kung Fu so they could win against the Manchus. Hung Ee Kan traveled to many places in China and his teachings became widespread. Kung Fu thusly continued to be practiced and taught by increasingly more people.
One day while wandering around a village, Hung Ee Kan came upon an old man teaching Kung Fu to his daughter. Hung Ee Kan did not recognize the style they were practicing which used soft and subtle movements. Fascinated, he sat in a tree to watch, not wishing to disturb the training session. However, the old man noticed Hung Ee Kan and beckoned him to climb down from the tree and join in. The old man set up a sparing session between Hung Ee Kan and his daughter. Hung was amazed that his ferocious punches and blocks (which had defeated all other challenges) was unable to overcome the seemingly fragile looking girl. Her style was very soft, evading and deflecting his punches rather than stopping them. This counter technique made the strength of his punches useless. She countered his attacks by waiting until there was a gap in his defense and then she would attack with a fast accurate strike to a sensitive point. The girl was named Tee Eng Choon and the style she practiced was, of course, White Crane style. Hung Ee Kan was entranced by this style, where hard force was of no meaning. He stayed with the Tee family to learn more and to train with them. Overtime, he fell in love with Tee Eng Choon.
Hung Ee Kan and Tee Eng Choon married and together produced a style which combined the best of what each had to offer; the power of the Tiger and the soft subtle technique of the Crane. This is how Tiger-Crane Kung Fu was formed.
The Tee family kept this style in their family and passed it down over many generations. The district of the Fukien province where the Tee family lived is now Eng Choon.
Down the Tee family line, there was a man called Tee Ley who brought the Tiger-Crane style to popularity in China. He was a master of the Iron Palm technique which could break thru bamboo, cement blocks and more with a simple accurate strike. Although he only used his right hand, whatever he gripped would then turn to dust.
It was the custom in China for Kung Fu masters to challenge each other to fights. These fights were held on raised platforms called Lei Tais. There were no rules, just an all out brawl. Tee Ley was famous for his fighting at the Lei Tais for he usually killed his opponent. Wherever a Lei Tais was held, Tee Ley would travel there. Eventually he defeated all his challengers and no-one remained who dared to confront him. He became the champion of Southern China!
As Tee Ley got older, he retired as a shoemaker. Many years after his retirement, a champion from the North of China challenged him to a fight. The champion wanted to find out which was better, the Northern way of fighting (using high kicks and long range hand techniques) or the Southern way of fighting (with a strong stance and close range hand techniques that emphasized blocking). Tee Ley refused the challenged as he was retired and happy as a shoe maker. Plus, he had stopped his rigorous daily training. The Northern champion would not relent and persisted in challenging Tee Ley to a Lei Tai. Eventually, Tee Ley knew he had to accept the challenge and thus traveled to the north.
Tee Ley was a smart forward thinking man, he knew if he beat the Northern Champion the Northern Chinese would want revenge. And so he made careful preparations for a quick escape by arranging a boat to be waiting at the dock, ready to take him back south after the fight.
Tee Ley sought out his opponent and took up the challenge on a Lei Tai. The two champions fought with Tee Ley using his Tiger-Crane style and deadly Iron Fist. The Northern champion was no match for him and soon lay dead at his feet. Tee Ley escaped quickly through the commotion and was lucky to make it back to the docks where he sailed back on his escape boat to the south of China for a hero’s welcome. News of what happened traveled through China and Tee Ley became very famous. This is how Tiger-Crane style became well known amongst the people of China.
Master Ang Lian Huat, founder of Nam Yang, began training Tiger-Crane style when he was 8 years old. His Master was Master Tee Hong Yew, member of the Tee family, known as “the secretive old man” due to his habit of coming and going without a word. Master Ang learned other styles of Kung Fu as well. His second master was Tan Kew Leong, a Chinese medicine peddler. Medicine peddlers were often very accomplished in martial arts. They were often challenged to fight in the villages and towns they visited and because of this, their Kung Fu had to be good. Tan Kew Leong specialized in Tiger style and was also a Master of the Shaolin weapons system. Master Ang’s 3rd Master was Miao Sian Meng, a monk in the Shaolin temple and taught him the Sun/Frost White Crane Kung Fu, a soft art with external Chinese medicine.
You may wonder how Master Ang managed to study with so many different Masters! Well, Ang’s family was very wealthy and so they were able to fund Ang’s all consuming interest in Kung Fu with the best teachers available Master Ang, like many Kung Fu Masters, fought in the nationalist army during the Chinese civil war. When the Communists defeated the Nationalists they executed many Kung Fu Masters since they had backed the Nationalist. So many of them fled China. Master Ang migrated to Singapore to join his uncle in the family business. However Ang quarreled so much with his uncle that he was excluded from the business.
He took a job as a bouncer at a gambling den. Singapore was a rough and dangerous place at the time (much different than today!) Martial artists were favored as doormen and were often greatly feared. Ang was greatly respected throughout the Singapore martial arts community. He was known to be strong willed, quick tempered and an exceptionally good fighter. He disliked men who set themselves up as a Kung Fu Master without really knowing the art. He would challenge anyone he suspected as an imposter.
Master Ang had a great understanding of Kung Fu, he was a master of the “touch” system, stressing the use of a straight counter for a side attack, and a side counter for a straight attack. “Dash against wave, and wave against dash”. For every move there is a counter and for every counter, there is another counter. He emphasized the importance of concentration and awareness due to a lesson he learned personally at a young age when his opponent spat in his face and then hit him while he was distracted. Despite knowing so many styles and several hundred patterns, Master And stressed that this was not as important as the depth of one’s knowledge and the strength of one’s basics. The key to success is the mastery of the Sum Chien form.
It was in the year 1954 that Master Ang Lian Huat formed the Nam Yang Pugilistic Association. Nam Yang means ‘south seas’ meaning South East Asia, Pugilism is an English word meaning ‘fist fighting’ or ‘martial art’. So Nam Yang Pugilistic Association basically means “South East Asia Martial Arts Association”.
Master Ang presided over Nam Yang for the rest of his life, training many students in the martial art forms of Tiger-Crane Kung Fu, Shaolin Weapons systems, Hard and Soft Chi Kung, Lion and Dragon Dancing and the Shuang Yang Pei Ho, also known as the Sun/Frost White Crane soft internal art. He was still keen to teach even in the last few weeks of his life, trying to impart as much of his vast knowledge as he could. He died in 1984 at the young age of 60 after suffering from diabetes. Master Ang’s most senior disciple was Master Tan Soh Tin who took over the running of Nam Yang, and who trained my master, Master Iain Armstrong.
Master Iain is from England and began his fighting style as a boxer. He had not done any martial arts training until he was 14 years old. Because no-one had yet to beat him in a fight, he thought he did not need any training. In his 14th year he was indeed beaten in a fight by a boxer which resulted in his nose being broken so badly that the doctors could not stop the bleeding for a whole week! Even today his nose is bent to one side. He then figured he better learn how to be a better boxer! When he started at the University College London, he had the chance to do Kung Fu for the first time. He began training in both Kung Fu and Tae Kwon Do at the same time. Kung Fu captured his interest most and in 1981 began his formal studies in Shaolin Tiger Crane Kung Fu. Now, 38 years later he is recognized as a Master and continues to spread the teachings of Tiger Crane Kung Fu.
Master Iain’s favorite routines are the tiger fork (weapon), the beautiful Shuang Yang and the Comet Rushing to the Moon (a freehand routine). One of Master Iain’s most proud moment was shaking the hand of the Queen of England. Master Iain formed the Nam Yang Kung Fu Retreat in Pai, Thailand, a small town in Mae Hong Son, northwest of Chiang Mai, Thailand.
I came to Nam Yang in August of 2018 not having any background in any style of martial arts. I came here because I wanted to experience the life of Kung Fu and train with a true Master. I had experienced some difficult changes in my life at the age of 36 and wanted to go somewhere where I didn’t have to make choices, and I could trust in the schedule of a retreat while gaining new and important skills that would benefit my mind and body, giving me a much needed respite for a period of time. I trained for 26 days, 8 hours a day. During that time I learned 42 of the 66 moves of the Shuan Yang. I also learned the first Sum Chien freehand routine and the staff weapon routine. I made many friends, enjoyed the town of Pai, and explored waterfalls and hotsprings on my scooter with the gang.
I returned 9 months later to complete my final 2 weeks of training. Upon my return I met new friends and reunited with other friends whom stayed or returned to the retreat. I finished learning all 66 moves of the Shuan Yang, learned the second Sum Chien (Tet Bey), and learned pieces of the Tan Tow (sword) routine. I enjoyed returning to sweating, stretching, conditioning and gaining muscle, strength and agility. Fun Day Sunday is always a hit with the wonderful Kao Soi breakfast and weapon training.
This retreat is a gift to those who wish to train in Kung Fu, building physical and internal strength with a true Master and a well trained, caring team of instructors alongside other passionate and dedicated students. The retreat is beautiful, the food nutritious, and the opportunity is yours.
“As long as you look for a Buddha somewhere else, you’ll never see that your own mind is the Buddha” -Tat Moh / Bodhidharma