The Water Styles

The class is warming up, you can hear the uniforms snapping, the floor jumping; but you are in the office with a potential student. He called your studio, set up an appointment. Now he sits across from you hoping you will answer his burning question: which style should he start with? I sit back, think a bit, then give my answer: one of the water styles. I let him stare a moment, then launch into the description.

Screen-Shot-2015-07-25-at-8.50.13-PMCertain branches of martial arts, I say,  answer to the name of “water” styles. This is not because they flow  nicely like spring streams after winter’s chill. No, think of it more like this” A happens to like tea. B likes coffee. C over there prefers hot chocolate. You can make any of these beverages with water. But once you do so, you cannot un-make them.

I mean, if you start with a water style, you can go in just about any direction. Some styles, if  they don’t work out, require walking backward a bit.  I am fully aware that this may take some of the zest out of joining your neighborhood garage club teaching “Nine Heavenly Knees” Kung Fu. It all sounds so cool. Screen-Shot-2015-07-25-at-8.48.58-PMBut this is not always the case. I knew someone  who joined a Monkey Boxing school because it was the only thing nearby.  As a beginner he soon learned that his six-foot five height coupled with his monkey style brought his face down to a range that  just about everyone in the school could punch. He, on the other hand, felt like he was fighting his way out of a trash bag. Exotic does not necessarily mean good.

Some of this stuff looks so great on YouTube. Fancy and even weird styles can be enticing, particularly when all the magic crawls across three square inches. Look at the splits in Stone Eagle, the flexibility of the Locust style, the seeming freedom of Iron Disciple Boxing, the elegance of Forest Deer Fist and, don’t forget, Nothingness Style, even if you could. But for your own sake, don’t choose your first five years of practice from a Tube.

Screen-Shot-2015-07-25-at-8.46.30-PMWe should all remember that everything lasting commences with digging. You want to sink your  skyscraper foundation as deeply as you can in the firmest possible soil. You may make all sorts of changes later; re-paint, plant ground cover, light up the façade with neon. In martial arts—before memorizing weird vocabulary or becoming deeply versed in Masonic hand shakes—you need to grasp what is near and forget the distant.  A good plain, water style shows you the kind of basics everyone pretty much endorses. Shaolin Quan or Zha Quan are firmly implanted, universally recognized. Their shapes are true and as easy to read as block print.

Good training in a water style prepares you for just about any version of Chinese martial arts. On the other hand, if you discover that your rare form of Wu Dang Chicken style Wing Chun is ultimately not for you, it is guaranteed that you will be doing some unlearning because the style was so specialized: definitely NOT a water style.  So, at first, no exotic Daoist Dragon and Serpent, no Duck Boxing, no… you get the idea. As the Chinese say, let’s start out with “bai de” that is plain and white, a little like saying “vanilla.”

waterimages5How do you know what a “water” style is. One way is to ask around, get some info on how many schools teach this or that. Do a little research and find out which are the cornerstone styles, the ones everyone builds on. Don’t go in for the strange and often falsified concoctions like Tibetan White Crane Tai Chi. It’s true, someone from Tibet might have leaned Tai Chi and added it to the indigenous Tibetan style but actually it woud be more accurate to call this ‘practice in the Tai Chi manner’ not Tai Chi, which has a historical and cultural origin in central China. If you wish, you can order the Swiss noodle dish but, in the main, stick with the Italian pasta.

It makes no sense to start with the harder stuff, unless you are just looking for stories to tell over drinks. If you stick for a long time you will be exposed to many styles and methods to choose from. Without a doubt there are top-quality styles out there in relative obscurity. For this we use the old Kung Fu adage, “It takes a year to find a teacher. It takes a year to find a student.” From my experience, this is even a little generous. I do know that the real cream is worth the weight, but you should not immerse yourself too soon.

Screen-Shot-2015-07-25-at-8.31.04-PMA style can really restrict you, and it can also be a miracle. The whole thing rests on the arc of your studies. If you are just beginning, it is better to have lots of friends, many participants, open instruction and convenient studios. Later, it will be worth that long drive to train with a class of three or four and develop yourself along lines that are increasingly unique to you. Frankly, there are secrets out there but, if they were more avaialble, they are the last thing you want until you at least know how to stand without toppling.

Notes: I heard this idea of explaining the difference in styles originally from Adam Hsu. Any clunky snags in this exposition of it are mine alone.

Some help with this might be in order. Here are some generally agreed upon candidates for the title:

In Tai Chi, either Yang or Wu styles

In Long Fist, Shaolin or Cha Quan.

In Southern Long Fist, Hung Gar or Choy Lai Fut

In Praying Mantis, this goes to Seven Star Mantis.

In Southern Short Arm, this is difficult. The technical aspects of Short Arm make Wing Chun and Pak Mei look similar (to outsiders) but argmentatively technical to those in the know. I would suggest something like Yao Gong Men.

11 Responses to “The Water Styles”

  1. Stan Meador says:

    Neat article! Practical advice. I like it!

    This is the first time I have heard of Yao Gong Men. So, I searched for it to see what came up. What came up? Plumpub of course.

    I like what is shown in this video clip from Kung Fu Theater. Do you have anything else on this style?

    Thanks! You always keep it interesting for us!

  2. Plum Staff says:

    Dear Stan,
    After we received a lot of inquiries on YKM we went up to Foster City and interviewed Instructor Louie. Here is the link to the article we did.

  3. Stan Meador says:

    Ah yes! I remember reading that when you posted it. I did not connect the name variations. Very intriguing. Did you happen to talk with Instructor Louie about making some DVDs for posterity’s sake?

  4. Brant Maggard says:

    If I may ask, when you say Wu style, are you referring to Wu or Wu-Hao? If the former, though my knowledge is limited, wouldn’t the distinct lean build habits that in many other styles are antithetical to their own way of rooting and expressing force?

  5. J.K.S says:

    I think “water styles” is a tremendously useful concept. I think it would be cool if some other, more experienced, practitioners would chime in and post their own lists of “water styles”.

  6. Plum Staff says:

    Yes, this could be a game-breaker. On the other hand the basic principles of alignment with the spine (though tilted) more emphasizes a direction for Fa Jin training and reeling silk checking; almost more of a training method than a core principle. Other thoughts on good style not only to learn but also to “jump off?”

  7. Jeff says:

    If there isn’t anything where you live, except perhaps a bit of YMCA Tai Chi class held at 10 AM on Tuesdays while you are at work, there’s not much you can do. Sometimes I envy you folks in California, where the sifus grow on trees.

  8. Ted Mancuso says:

    Interesting choices. As far as Wing Chun, I was considering it as a structure only for southern short-arm styles as opposed to southern long-arm such as Choy Lai Fut. I noticed that some of the comments are about how good a style is—or isn't—but my point was simply the idea of a general choice. As far as functionality, the very structure of these styles runs the danger of being "watered down." (no pun)

  9. Interesting article.

    First off, I am happy to see that you are telling the truth here of that 'Tibetan Tai Chi' fallacy. Some of teachers from the 'Tibetan Crane' lineage of Lama Pai began this rather recently. They have a soft form that's practiced somewhat similarly to Taiji Quan, which they call 'Tai Chi'. That is rather annoying, and they use that to lure more students.

    Secondly, I would suggest that the following styles would also serve quite well as 'base arts', which here were referred to as 'Water Styles':

    Pigua Zhang and Tongbei Quan (depends on lineage)

    Tan Tui and Fanzi Quan – which are widely used as such styles in Nothern China

    Concerning Wing Chun, I have to disagree – its structure and focal points make it too specialized.

  10. Peter O'Day says:

    Please explain why Chen is left out of the Tai Chi category. Having studied each I would recommend any of the three depending on the teacher. I also think shuai chiao would fit.

  11. Ted Mancuso says:

    The idea of the article was to find, not the best, but the easiest styles to "enter" Kung Fu training. I think Shuai Jiao is, of course, the most generic and organized grappling style in CMA but not much good for most other styles; as a FOUNDATION that is. I feel the same, only more so, for Chen Tai Chi, which is a great style but not as universal, I believe, as Yang or others. I remember a good friend wanting to start everyone at her school off with Chen. No one stayed more than a month of two. When I was on a trip to visit Chen Village I was checked in at the Taiji Hotel (really) and watched a demonstration of hundreds of kids doing Lao Jia (its mandatory in their high school athletics). Its something to watch that many bad versions of a good art all at the same time. Yang and Wu are easier, plainer and actually more standardized.
    Ultimately this is just a list based on advising a friend, for instance. I see there are a number of different opinions. Good.

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