Some Traditional Hakka Gongfu Attitudes and Ideas
by Shifu Adrian Chan-Wyles PhD
My Mainland Chinese friends (and there are many), often approach our ‘Chan’ (陳) family (Hakka) martial arts with a mixture of awe (because it is old), and curiosity (because it has its technical roots in a bygone age). This is an interesting reaction, as our family style contains many generic Longfist movements readily observable in China, dispersed throughout numerous styles, schools and systems, etc. Even more unusual to many Westerners, is my discovering of equally old and still functioning gongfu schools on the Chinese Mainland, generally preserved within Hakka farming communities. The Hakka martial arts are designed for inter-communal combat. This is to say that combat between two individuals, although not unheard of and a fairly common activity, is not the main purpose of Hakka martial training – it is a side effect, or interesting distraction. This is because Hakka martial arts are designed to produce village soldiers of either gender, specially trained to fight defensively around a village or a town. This training includes body conditioning to strengthen the bones, ligaments, tendons, muscle fibre, cardiovascular system and inner organs, as well as focusing, calming and expanding the mind. This is augmented by loosening exercises targeting the joints through stretching and relaxing, as well as diet to build nutrition and robust health. All traditional Hakka fighting styles have an element of medical knowledge attached to them. This will include herbal medicine to treat common ailments, knowledge of bone-setting, stitching wounds, relieving bruising, and an iron (or ‘great heat’) fighting wine (to rub on hands, fore-arms, feet, ankles and shins) after impact training. This practical knowledge often exists side by side with keeping a shrine to a powerful Daoist deity (such as Wong Tai Sin in our case), or Buddha, etc. Quite often shrines can be quite elaborate containing many spiritual beings (with Guanyin being very popular). This tends to cater to the psychological health of the community, although the Hakka people know full well that superstition cannot set a bone or stop a cut from bleeding. Hakka military technique involves the ‘external’ technique of hard and smashing power, as well as the ‘internal’ technique of evasion and power produced with no effort (through correctly positioned bodyweight and leverage). Both ways of making power – the brute force and the subtle – are thoroughly learned. The techniques of kicking and punching are designed to penetrate and smash through bone and destroy inner organs. As such, the power must penetrate hardened muscle, clothing and any kind of rudimentary armour. This ability to pierce the opponent is coupled with the necessity to ‘evade’, ‘parry’ and ‘deflect’ any incoming blows. All this happens whilst the Hakka fighter remains firmly rooted to the ground whilst freely moving across that ground. An opponent must have their root broken so that their balance is permanently disrupted, and they are unable to psychologically or physically settle. As our bodies are so toughened through years of training, we may absorb a number of blows with no damage done, whilst closing the distance with the opponent (trying to prevent any direct blows landing to our own heads). Once we are in striking range, a punch, kick, elbow or knee will be delivered to the opponent’s centre-line. This may include joint-locking and tripping, etc. One common hold is around the neck, so as to render the opponent unconscious. When not seeking to break ribs, noses, eye sockets or to kick or punch the groin, the opponent’s fingers are sought so as to break (or dislocate) the joints and bones with simple relocation techniques. The hands may be open or closed for fighting, and the step may be light or heavy depending on circumstance and changing conditions. For students of Hakka martial arts, I would suggest working on an ever greater production of striking power, achieved through deeper levels of awareness and relaxation. This is only possible if your body-conditioning is consistent and suitably tough and resilient. These are just some of the ways an old Hakka martial arts style is made relevant for the modern age.