Sifu Staff

The saying goes that the spear is the king of the weapons and the straight sword is the queen. Then what is the staff? It is known as the “Sifu” of the weapons because it has so much to teach about basics. Like somebody’s very first sifu (which, as far as weapons are concerned, it is) people often feel a lot of affection for this instrument, a general appreciation that spans decades of a martial career.

Baji Staff click

Of course we all remember the first feeling of a special power and style associated with one’s first staff form. In my case I began with the Kenpo staff, a form that was almost entirely symmetrical so this staff would fit into the general category of Southern Kung Fu weapons. Whatever the set though, the elemental movements are the same. That’s why I thought I would do something different and talk about things you learn from the staff that rarely appear in books or on DVDs, sort of the other basics.

HOW LONG?
Staff is a subdivision of Stick. And stick means any wooden instrument from just a little longer than your forearm to 12+ feet. It’s generally agreed that the easiest length to start with is somewhere between the length from the floor to your armpit up to the floor to your eyebrow. The eyebrow is highly practical because is it very close to the length from palm to palm of your outstretched arms. This allows you to thread the staff from one hand to the other without any major grip change.


Coiling Dragon Staff click

1, 2 or O
The staff comes with a single tapered tip or double tapered ends or no tapering whatever. The double tapered and no tapered staves are considered in the same family and only differ as far as the level of skill involved in their manipulation. The single taper is more akin to a spear. First, I should tell you that if possible you should learn to do your set with any of these regardless of the form even if the form is not designed for such a shape. All that can do is to increase your skill level. Mastery of the staff comes with variation and the staff is an amazingly variable weapon. The general rule is that if the set is mostly symmetrical (as in the case of many Southern staff sets) then double or zero tapered is the way to go. If the set has a prejudice to one end, like many Northern Kung Fu sets, then single end serves best.

HOW TO TOUCH A STAFF
This is rarely mentioned but it is crucial to understand the levels of manual manipulation with the staff. Let’s start at the top. In authentic Kung Fu we want the staff to move like quicksilver. The stick should flow from one hand to the other as easy as water in a cup. That sounds good of course but you will note that many, many forms use the staff like a crowbar, with a firm grip and very little hand work. There are two reasons for this. The first is that in some cases the staff is really an iron bar and, even if you only start with wood, it is meant for strength training purposes more than combat. Such sets don’t put much emphasis on fluidity and actually they can’t for safety reasons. In other cases the movements may seem stilted and fixed but if you look closely you will note that the transition and hand changes are practiced with fluidity and speed. The advanced level of training is hidden in the basics but it is still there. That’s the direction to aspire.

OTHER GIFTS FROM THE STAFF

Many people never understand stance until they play the staff. You shoot that wide arching move out there with it coming to a complete stop an inch above the concrete and you realize that you accomplished this by driving your leg back into a bow stance at the same precise moment creating a counter balance to the strike. Suddenly stance becomes alive and opens your eyes up a treasure chest of possibilities.

Did I mention the staff creating a new sense of presence? Now you have to think beyond your reach, and you have to envision the opponent who is at least twice the distance of a staff length. The gun has changed the meaning of this but think what it meant in a world of non-explosive weapons. The staff introduces reach and all its advantages. It creates a wooden sphere for you to inhabit. And, while you are doing that, you will increase your control of the eight orbits that a staff travels, an invaluable skill for all later weapons study.

The staff is like a pencil, the first humble tool you use for drawing. But do matter your artistic level of skill, there is nothing better than a pencil as a pencil or a staff as a staff. When you see a real artist rendering something in pencil you can only be impressed with what he can coax out of such a simple tool. The staff is the same. Seeing it in the hands of someone with true expertise the movements of the weapon and the one who wields it are seamless, spontaneous and sound.

Resources:

The Lost Track (Yan Qing) Staff

Shaolin Mountain Guarding Staff

Western Staff Style

Choy Lai Fut Staff