Photographs by Debbie Shayne
Mei flower is a delicate thing. The slightest breeze stirs its
petals. Against the hardness of bark its softness shines like
spots of moonlight. Its delicacy is a dab of beauty in the world.
Fist: The willow hand and the hook hand must be kept stretched
out in opposite directions to teach the student bi-directional
sometimes delicacy hides strength, beauty blends with tenacity.
The Mei flower, the Flower of Winter, blossoms in the first
month of the lunar year, bursting through while the snow is
still on the ground. It symbolizes the reemergence of hardy
life. This is one reason it is the national flower of the Republic
of China. It also demonstrates the much esteemed ability the
Chinese term "chr ku", eating bitter, yet thriving.
Mei flower is also a famous Chinese kung fu system, about which
very little has been written in English.
of its "ability to withstand bitter" was first exhibited by
Feng Keshan, during the first quarter of the 19th century. Feng,
a rebel plotting to overthrown China's Manchu masters, recruited
citizens to join the insurgent group, the Ba Gua Jiao (Ba Gua
Sect), under the pretext of teaching martial arts. Eventually
the sect grew strong enough to participate in an anti-Manchu
uprising. However, things went badly, and in 1814, Feng was
among the captured rebels. In punishment, and to set an example,
Feng was dismembered and killed. So went the fate of a famous
Mei Hua practitioner.
Fist specializes in twisting and turning movements that
offer angles of attack and defense uncommon in some other
for the actual creator of Mei Hua, it is not always possible
or even advisable to assume we can trace the creation of the
style to one individual. This is sometimes made ever more difficult
by factors which are, in themselves, fascinating. In Mei Hua,
for instance, there are few, if any, people alive who can authentically
trace their lineage back more than a few generations. But the
reasons for this are as interesting as any normal lineage could
Hua, Hung (Northern), and many other famous Long Fists have
for centuries been practiced in the Shandong area and surrounding
regions. These areas are poor today, and during the Ch'ing Dynasty
they were both poor and oppressed. Rebels grew like wildflowers.
Underground organizations abounded which were later known collectively
as the "boxers." They thrived in this air of secrecy, oppression
and poverty. Like an invisible net, the influece of Pro-Han
groups was everywhere in a region fertile with rebellion. To
make martial historians' work more difficult, many of the sects
called themselves by common Chinese terms which had little to
do with the styles practiced. There were, for example, the Hung
Ch'iang Hui (Red Spear Sect), the Ba Gua Chuan (8 Trigrams Fists,
no relation to Ba Gua Palm style) and others. There was also
the Mei Hua Hui (Plum Blossom Lodge). Indeed, member may have
practiced the Plum Blossom Fist or any other of their village
arts. But correlation would be coincidental, not mandatory.
The Hook Hand of Mei Hua.
of training add another aspect. Many of the people in this region
practiced in communities, as village Chinese still do today.
One method was called Dui Lian (Facing Practice) where large
groups worked on the same form together. From the standpoint
of underground organizations, this could be quite useful. The
people were taught the same type of close order drilling that
soldiers might perfect. Martial artists would practice in lines,
in box shapes, in all sorts of formations including the five-petaled
Mei Hua, a troop formation from antiquity.
though that weren't enough, there was also the famous practice
of Mei Hua Zhan. Poles were set in the ground in Plum Blossom
formation. Practitioners would fight and balance atop these
poles to gain greater kung fu skill. Though the Mei Hua poles
have nothing to do with a particular style - any style might
use this method of training - it was definitely practiced by
students of Mei Hua Fist. This dangerous and difficult practice
added greatly to leg strength, balance, courage and tactical
skills, not to mention to the confusion of styles and the circuitous
history of Chinese WuShu.
the flower it takes its name from, Mei Hua Fist derives
it power from opening and closing actions.
do know that Mei Hua is a Long Fist known for beautiful forms
and complex actions. Some of tits best known forms are The Ambush
Fist, The Cross Fist and Tai Tzu.
also know that Mei Fist is a very large style practiced throughout
the Shandong, Hebei, Henan and Kangsu regions. A huge family
with many branches it has intermixed with many other styles
of Northern Long Fist. It is interesting to note that it is
so common that some people in American and China actually practice
Mei Hua without knowing it, calling it Long Fist or even Shaolin.
Mei Hua has many of the characteristics of all Northern Long
Fist arts. Its movements combine long and short range actions,
kicks and punches mix with grappling techniques, the body twists
this way and that seeking for unusual angles of attack, and
variations proliferate in high and low motions.
work includes the Four Grandparents (saber, sword, spear and
staff) along with a host of more advanced instruments like the
double hook swords.
to really savor the flavor of the Mei Flower, one should examine
a form and dissect some of the movements found within. Graceful
postures can often - in Chinese martial arts especially - disguise
Cross Form: The student yells while completing movements.
The special expulsion of breath while saying "Hen" or
"Ha" accompanies particular types of strikes and blocks.
The Ambush Fist combines many ideas at once. Punches are straight
line and drive to a single spot following one another along
a very precise line of fire. After they are thrown, the they
may change suddenly into grappling moves, blocks or other hand
are from Kung's basic arsenal: heel, toe, side. But they often
originate from beautiful and unusual positions. The legs cross
before a side kick, or join with simultaneous punches, or explode
from a back stance (60/40 posture).
is also easy to see how the name Ambush Fist came from the extremely
flexible use of the spine. One moment it turns this way, forcing
the performer to look over his back, then it unwinds, spinning
the body 180¼ in the opposite direction. At some points, force
(jings) moves vertically up the backbone, resembling a wave
of energy rolling toward the crown of the head.
often changes in the Ambush Fist. Of particular interest is
its Xin Bu step, a treading walk where the feet hug the ground
as though trying to advance on a wet surface but very rapidly,
almost in a half-run. From this action the practitioner has
to make a sudden change-up, telling his feet to perform a bump
step while his hands thrust a hand spear simultaneously. While
Xin Bu is common to the Long Fist family, Ambush Fist introduces
it early and uses it extensively.
the feet retreat while the performer is striking forward. Other
times there are rapid changes of direction spinning the body
to the opposite angle while performing strikes or flowing wide
some forms in the kung fu systems, there are very few "repeat
sections." Moves change continually so that even a sectional;
repeated pattern is varied somehow to keep the practitioner's
mind active and alert.
the practitioner acquires skill, she can not only execute
unusual angles of attack but simultaneously keep alive
the idea of twin directions.
LEVELS OF EXPERTISE
Kung fu forms in general should show certain levels of expertise.
At the first level there is technical skill. The punches and
kicks should be accurate and consistent. The stance should be
clearly executed and firm. When taking a crane stance, the practitioner
should not waver on one leg. When executing a horse stance,
he should look like someone dropped a mountain onto the practice
the second level the practitioner will begin to distinguish
yin and yang. Movements should change their tempo. Fast and
slow should come unexpectedly, as though the martial artists
were riding a river and the current were twisting, turning and
dipping. In essence the actual weight of the body should appear
to change: now heavy, now light.
third level reveals our mind. At this level the whole form should
almost look made up on the spot. The mind of the practitioner
should never waver, so that the audience is sure that each movement
is an act of will power. When practitioners strike out, at this
level, they look as though they are shooting arrows off into
the distance. The "presence" of the performer should fill the
room so the people in the stands almost feel the breeze of the
is on this third level that Mei Flower's Ambush Fist has some
interesting attributes. There are, for example, many postures
where the Crane Hook hand is held behind the back while striking
forward with the other hand. On a practical level this represents
the action of hooking and capturing the opponent's kicking leg
while striking out to his face or body. But on a more profound
level this hook hand represents the performer's mind, which
is constantly asked to think about two directions at one time.
Form emphasizes powerful movements strong stances and
idea of projecting in two directions at one time is of vital
importance in the practice of kung Fu. Even as the performer
stands on one leg, then steps forward into a Xin Bu walk with
the front hand outstretched, through all of this, the mind must
never forget the back hand hook. It must retain its form, never
T'ai Chi Classics state: "To go forward you must think of backward,
to push upward you must remember downward,." The kung fu practitioner
should never lose sight of this concept. True kung fu requires
the mind to perform opposing tasks simultaneously. One hand
blocks a kick while the other attacks. Both hands execute an
upward push, but the hips must drop downward. Hands perform
a Chin Nah wrist lock, but elbow distracts. It's never just
a case of doing two things with one energy. You can perform
an upward block and a punch at the same time with just one energy
issuing from your body. But this means that there is only one
precious and precarious moment when the two actions converge.
This is not kung fu. The art of WuShu requires two different
actions to be performed, with the mind giving different instructions
throughout the process, but the moves converging at just the
Cross Form the student is asked to stretch her body, use
the waist for whipping power, yell, and seek unusual angles
As if there weren't enough challenges to Ambush Fist, the practitioners
then move to Mei Flower's Cross Fist (Shih Tzu Tan). Usually
forms in a system make smooth transitions in concepts and complexity.
They create a step ladder effect that allows the student to
slowly climb levels of difficulty. But Cross Fist is something
quite different, more of a jump to the next level.
a spectator familiar with kung fu, Cross Fist may seem similar
to a karate form. The practitioner shouts loudly and issues
tremendous power, accompanied by stomping actions. The shouts
are very specific. They utilize the twin sounds of "Hen" and
"Ha", long considered the main power yells of Chinese martial
arts. When performing Hen and Ha, the practitioner is expected
to distinguish between different centers from which the sounds
issue in his own body. These produce different types of energy.
Form maintains the Mei Hua idea of opening and closing.
Movements are not just close, they actually squeeze the
power into the body.
"Ha" sound is sometimes performed loudly and quickly, often
coupled with a stomping action. At other times it is expelled
slowly like the sound of a leaking tire. The "Hen" sound is
more muffled, pulling up energy from a deeper region of the
Fist also utilizes a wide range of fairly unusual striking techniques
. The "U Punch" or "Ox Horn" punch is repeated at times leaning
forward in a bow stance, other times sitting back in the 60/40
position. Stomping actions also accompany fists that drive down
with double power, sending the energy toward the earth and deep
into it. Cross Forms' movements are even more distinguished
on the third level of expertise than Ambush Fist. Its powerful
movements include wide swings and heavy fists. U-punches, horizontal
hammers, sky punches and ax strikes. The soft moves include,
palm strikes, parries, Xin Bu footwork, hopping and even skipping.
At times the practitioner projects consciousness in twin directions.
All moves emphasize Silk Reeling Energy and continual twisting.
And the double actions required of the body: moving back while
punching forward; striking high while sitting low; expanding
and contracting simultaneously, are even more pronounced than
in the Ambush Fist.
Flower style has an entire arsenal of movement captured in just
the first two fist forms. And just as important as the movements,
it has a wealth of transitions, angles and strategies.
movements of the Mei Hua system are ancient and associated
with any Long Fist style. So popular is Mei Hua that it
intermixes with many other styles normally termed "Shaolin."
A good form, a complete form, should not look like a re-shuffling
of the same moves as any other kung fu style. True, there are
only so many realistic ways to strike, block, kick and grapple.
There are also only so many primary colors, but a million ways
to paint. Each painter must have a distinctive style. And each
WuShu style must demonstrate distinctive characteristics.
can analyze a martial arts style by scrutinizing its forms only
if the forms actually possess the style's "flavor." A form is
meant to show something expressive and unique. It is more than
a scattering of powerful moves. Chinese kung fu forms should
be characteristic and immediately recognizable. When we watch
Pi Gua, Ba Ji, Shaolin or another style, we should see movements
done with distinctive tempo and tone.
it necessary to view a kung fu style in this manner? Of course
not, but that must be a teacher's position. Forms that are generic,
that are just techniques and kicks strung together for the benefit
of spectators and judges show little about the real tasks of
a kung fu performer. In competition there is a tendency for
certain body types to excel at certain styles, long-limbed Northern
kung fu stylists and muscular Southern practitioners. But as
difficult as some of these tasks are - multi-dimensional thinking,
issuing power, coordinated hand and footwork - anyone can refine
these skills. History records Northern Kung Fu masters, for
example, of every size and shape. The only criterion lay in
hard work and perseverance to master the movements.
instance, one important aspect to Mei Hua is that, like a flower,
it emphasizes opening and closing. The body will spread out
reaching not just to the end of the limbs but beyond. Then it
will fold into itself and contract. When this compression is
achieved it will start again to unfold. This opening and closing
is accompanied not with controlled, harsh breaths but with natural
respiration. Breath control of a very special type is introduced
in the Cross Fist, but the basic stretching and compressing
of the body must first be natural, unstrained and easy.
Hua forms are also particularly smooth. Often Long Fist forms
have a series of moves that flow together quite well but are
then interrupted by a "problem move" thrown in to be a little
difficult for the students, to make things a little more dodgy.
But Mei Hua forms generally have fluid transitions and softly
flowing actions that can give the impression of gentleness and
you practice a style, try to utilize the whole body and whole
consciousness. The Mei Flower Fist requires great practice so
that its light touch is easy to differentiate from its power
moves. This is the point of learning and perfecting a form;
to catch the style of one's style.