The Cane of Shaolin

art_SLcane1In the kingdom of weapons live peasants and humble monks as well as kings and scholars. Of course the humblest is the simple stick. But the crooked cane may be humbler still because it calls to mind an elderly, infirm peasant hobbling along a rural path.

Were the Shaolin monks actually forbidden – as the legend goes – to use metal weapons, even in self defense? History indicates a certain ambivalence to the question. It is said that the Butterfly Knives were originally unsharpened and that their bone splitting power was reserved for monks to not use “bladed” weapons.

Some Shaolin instruments such as the burying spade had metal edges but were not considered weapons at all. If this seems like some form of Asian religious quibbling then we Westerners should remember a period in Church history, when all landed lords were automatically invested as Bishops and as church officials were encouraged to employ in battle the mace (a cudgel with a rounded metal head) because, as the Bible states, “Those who live by the sword die by the sword.” Indicating that crushing people’s skulls was somehow holier than a swift and fatal cut.

So yes, there probably was a time when monks were encouraged to use their humbled wooden instruments as a first and stolid line of defense. In the case of Shaolin there are many legends and much silliness about the Temple and its denizens. But one thing often admitted through the centuries is that the wooden weapon work of the Temple was at times of a very high caliber. It might have been the best in the world for its era. This is not unexpected. Quite often Wushu styles find a certain weapon that most perfectly characterizes their brand of skill. Pi Gua is famous for its saber work. Ba Ji for its spear. Praying Mantis loves the two-handed straight sword. Shaolin at one time boasted an astounding 200 stick sets. And that’s quite possibly true considering the amount of information coming into the Temple.

art_SLcane3These wooden weapons varied greatly. Some were eight feet or more up to 12 feet. Many were the famous “eyebrow” length. Then there were short sticks often called whips or cudgels. And, of course, there were canes.

Basically, the Da Mo Cane – the most famous cane set from the Temple – utilizes a square necked instrument. (There are actually a number of sets all claiming to be called after DaMo the Buddhist founder ) The other significant variation of the Shaolin Cane is its curve necked brother. There are many types: Dragon Cane, Iron Cane, but the curved and the straight are the major designations. The Shaolin Cane we present does not distinguish between the two but can easily use either version.

The decision to make our video (DVD version might be coming soon, we hope !) on “The Shaolin Cane” allowed us to use the cane as more than just an traditional Kung Fu form. We also could take this simplest weapon, break down some of the movements and discuss the real meaning in modern terms of weapons use. There are a few ideas here which might be new to most practitioners.

In tried and true Kung Fu fashion, we list some of the “actions” of the cane which include: PI (split), GUA (deflect), MO (rub), BENG (smash), KAN (slash), CE (thrust), GOU (hook) and BAO (wrap).

You may be surprised to find that this is not one of those anemic sets we so often see with the cane. This is a highly dramatic, dynamic form with twists, turns, spins and jumps. But very little fluff. The cane itself may be humble but in the hands of an artist even a simple pencil can be magical.

In making the Shaolin Cane, we begin our new series tentatively entitled “Unlocking the Form.” In this we take a form, teach it and give additional notes on some ideas that might be locked in the treasure box of that particular series. Our goal is simple, to revive the meaning of Kung Fu forms, to re-examine and preserve what is true in these living transmissions of the art.

The Shaolin Cane is fun, fast and very changeable. We would call it an intermediate set. It comes from the traditional aspect of Chinese martial arts which is very interesting and little understood. We are all familiar with the Brahmin (or, in this case, Mandarin) aspects of Chinese culture: the lordly erudition, the condescending acceptance of the peasant and the barbarian. In the west this tendency was the inspiration for the reflected fears envisioned in “cold hearted” characters like Fu Manchu.

art_SLcane4There is, as always there must be, a conterveiling tendency. A recognition of simplicity instead of ornament. Of honesty not subtlety. Many Kung Fu weapons derived from peasant implements such as the stick, spade, knife and hoe. The peasants were often responsible for their own village protection. They accomplished this by using instruments with which they were familiar in daily life.

This is mirrored in another interesting aspect of the culture which is the bent to use the same, simple, common words for specialized applications as for basic vocabulary. After all, Chinese is so ancient that it has no earlier language, like Latin, from which to derive technical jargon.

Take a word like “Feng” for instance. Basically it means “the wind.” To a doctor in China it is a technical term associated with disease. To a geomancer it suggests evil or beneficent influences. To a cook it can be part of a term for “flavor.” For a martial artist it is used to designate this or that particular style. This simple term is also used in technical senses which must be understood in context.

art_SLcane2The cane is as simple as the word “cat.” But its movements are also as variable and mischievious as that clever, agile, lazy, unpredictable, conceited, loving creature we so often take for granted.

It was a lot of fun to make “Shaolin Cane.” We hope you enjoy it and look forward to remarks. At the moment we are struggling with our new Final Cut Pro. But soon…


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