Family Resemblance

I’ve been asked to judge at the annual Tiger Claw tournament this coming weekend. One of the things unique at this event is that it will feature, in its traditional column, not one, but TWO, Shaolin divisions.

This is particularly significant because, for the first time, these two competitions will offer double examples of true traditional Shaolin. This may resolve the question of just what, exactly, is Shaolin, by offering two separate but similar visions of the style.

These two divisions are distinguished by geography. First, we have the SongShan mountain and Temple, along with local students numbering in the thousands. In contrast, is Bak Sil Lum (Bei Shaolin, in Mandarin), a style that, though it migrated from the North, did not earn full recognition until it reached the South; thus, NORTHERN Shaolin. Much of this transportation was due to the efforts of iron palm master, Ku Yu-Cheung.

A comparison of these two branches holds up well under our gaze. The SongShan look has a rough, almost magical, shape and movement. The key sets are performed with a raw power. In contrast, Bak Sil Lum looks like it has been sanded down, smoothed, sharp edges removed.

But the kicks, the timing, the power, the poses…all show a family resemblance that deepens in the way quirks and similarities show themselves as you chat with your newly discovered cousin. Lineage can mean a lot more than a vase given to you by a wacky aunt, which you keep buried in a closet for 1500 years.

History is a told tale. It is not a fact. That’s why it is so important. This family reunion is an important step and suggests turning the focus to similarities rather than trivial differences. Having studied and taught Bak Sil Lum for a number of years, I can say that Shaolin has it own presence, in any of its manifestations.


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