The Plum Flower Piles: Watch Your Step

If you kept every Kung Fu training device stored in your garage you wouldn’t be able to squeeze in to practice yourself. 3000 years of invention have spawned everything from  training equipment to a crowd of weird devices. Many of them are truly forgettable. And that’s not to mention all that Kung Fu equipment people think of as real but are really  inventions of novelists starting around 1600 when books about the Shaolin Temple were hotter than the Twilight series.

On the other hand many devices are pretty intriguing and can even be helpful for training. One famous method starts as simple wooden  poles sunk into the ground. Driven to about a third of their total length these poles are now qualified to be called “piles.” (just remember to drive an “I” into the “o.”)

Most martial artists are familiar with the Wing Chun wooden dummy. Some people are familiar with the Choy Lai Fut dummies, of which there are many. And even Baji uses a pile that is basically a thicker pole with a single very long arm projecting from it horizontally. Body projection being one of Baji’s main skills such a long arm necessitates projectile movement. Bagua also uses poles in groups, three or nine. And with that we get closer to our subject…

The Plum Blossom Piles
These piles look so much like a cross between a torture instrument and a playground ride that movies and Kung Fu magazines love them. Yet the Plum Blossom Piles are a real training device and— danger aside— offer benefits to the martial artist. Unlike the Bagua Poles, which you walk around, you walk on top of these.  In most cases that means you are elevated twelve or fifteen inches form the ground. In extreme (and dangerous) cases you are six feet in the air or more (I’m not even going to mention the short spears set between each pole).

“Plum Blossom” has become a generic name for pole arrangements even in styles that never called their arrangement “Plum Blossom.” The original Plum Blossom design is a shape with five points that form two crossed lines very much like an X/Y axis. The four outer points are roughly planted at North, South, East and West with the fifth pole in the middle. The nice thing about this shape is that every time you add three poles to any outside edge you expand the shape by one Plum Blossom. The distances between the poles doesn’t need to be consistent and the added petals can be attached to any side in any sequence.

Some shapes and arrangements have become standard…
Slanting Piles (Ke Zhuang) – each top cut at a slanted angle
Arched Piles (Shan Xing Ke Zhuang) – each top rounded like a small mound

Drunken Master Yuen Xiao Tian takes a break after a rough day of teaching Jackie Chan.

Knife Piles, as we mentioned above (Dao Ke Zhuang)

Then there are differences in the number of piles per design. Some are large enough to accommodate a lot of students. In each example there is actually one additional, “safe” pile to stand on in order to step into the pattern.

The Basic Piles Arrangement has 12 poles.
Next Comes the 36 pile spread.
The next, following Buddhist numerology, is a 72 piles arrangement.
Finally is what might be called the Luo Han or 108 Disciples set up.

Another reason the Mei Hua (Plum Blossom) pile arrangement is the most might come from the fact that they are actually part of a style name: Mei Hua Zhuang Quan or Plum Blossom Pole Boxing.

There are other styles with definite pile practices including White Crane (especially in their Mian Guo Zhen or “Needle in Cotton” training). This is also under the standard of the Hop Gar or LaMa style. Yim Wing Chun herself is said to have originally used stepping poles since, as the stories go, it was this light stepping ability that saved Wing Chun from a forced marriage with a drunken brute.

The piles have an intriguing relation to revolution and rebellion. During the huge Tai Ping Rebellion (or war as some might say) the unofficial but common style among the rebels was Mei Hua boxing and the pile training was common. During the long and arduous tug of war with the ruling Manchus (1644-1911) many secret societies cropped up and the only way into them was through a maze of acts testing one’s courage and determination. This was also true of secret societies on the ruling side such as the Blood Drop Sect. The poles were used as a test of skill and loyalty and the enrollment was personally overseen by the Yong Zheng emperor himself. In fact, at one point, when the emperor wanted to decide between two top candidates for Chief of the Imperial Guards he had them battle atop piles at two levels, supposedly six feet high and twelve feet high. After a very tight, slow and controlled match one managed to kick the other off balance sending him crashing to his death.

Which brings us to the last arrangement of the poles which we mentioned at the first. In most advanced version there are, again, “blossoms” of five poles in the Mei Hua  design but each one is placed at least six feet from the next.

Let’s face it the poles are dangerous. Still though, this fierce and frightening form of battle training should be recorded as one of the true feats of Kung Fu history.

Resources:

Plum Blossom Piles Kung Fu @ plumpub.com

English language version

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plum Blossom style Kung Fu @ plumpub.com

One of our Chinese books on Mei Hua Quan

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