How Legends Grow

kung fu weaponsAfter 5000 years, an ocean of rumor and a mountain range of myth still proscribe the land of Kung Fu. And the stories that most attach themselves are often related to the origins of weapons.

Not every weapon has a backstory and a legend. But the folk stories that accompany weapons—believable or not—range from the commonplace to the downright suspicious, like that unreliable character in “The Usual Suspects.” They fall, generally, into the myth-building activity of explaining how the triple staff works, or why the Tiger Hooks must be played in a certain way.

Standard backgrounds on all but the most uncommon weapons exist, but here I’ll tell a few of the old, lesser-known tales.

For instance, there is a knotty inheritance to the entire category of flails (sticks with linked sections). Most martial artists are familiar with the nunchaku, a pair of short dowels of equal length, linked together at one end. This weapon is said to have been used as a threshing tool, although its origins are tangled and I’ll return to that in a bit.

The more functional flail—known as the Yin Yang staff or the Big Sweeper—and the older brother of the nunchaku, has the same two-stick-and-rope construction, but its legs are uneven, one at least twice the length of the other. In mundane use it is, indeed, a thresher, but as a weapon that is as tall (or taller) as its wielder, it gives extra reach to its shorter half, allowing it to strike at a distance from the body.

Following its flail lineage, recent evidence shows that the short Nunchaku was part of the arsenal of a large organization known as Fukian Provinces Beggar’s Guild (an organization reminiscent of Mark Twain’s Beggar’s Guild presented in his book “The Prince and the Pauper”). In this case, the supplicant might have hidden the weapon somewhere on his own body. Like many weapons utilized by this group, the short double stick is portable and mean.

And the nunchaku is not the only weapon we use that comes from this less-than-legal organization. For most of my career I was told that the trusty Tonfa was a well handle for bringing up buckets of water using a simple winch system.  Evidence now points to the somewhat more believable story that the tonfa came from the beggar’s crutch. More importantly, we now have records of beggars performing their art not only with obvious skill, but also displaying some nasty movements, all indications of their weapons’ martial characteristics.

Getting back to the nunchaku, another, lesser-known explanation is said by some (a very small sum) to be a training device used on larger animals such as horses. The rope length between the two sticks is brought up under the animal’s neck. Squeezing pressure from both can reduce the opening of the carotid artery. Trainers would apply pressure to calm down the animals, if necessary, by temporarily cutting off the blood supply. I didn’t make this up.

Among wooden weapons, is the Three Sectional Staff, or Triple Irons. This is the martial artist’s version of a Rubic cube. The legend that goes with it tells of a famous general, and emperor, (Song TaiTzu) brought his staff to the battle scene only to have it hacked to pieces. Not wanting to relinquish a beloved weapon, he has the three pieces linked together. And then, what do you know? A weapon of almost endless shapes and actions is created. Some so unusual that it looks like the defender has caught himself in Cat’s Cradle. This general even had the faith to bring the tri-sectional into more battles, finding then particularly capable of wrapping around the enemy’s uplifted shield and actually strike him from behind.

Every weapon carries (at least) two meanings: its ‘meta’ purpose and its secondary function. Think of a hammer—it is a heavy metal head attached to a short staff. We might describe its ‘meta’ meaning as hitting or pounding. But it can also be used as a doorstop or a weight to hold down a tarp in a wind. The Tiger Hooks, for instance, are said to have been developed for naval combat, being a combination of grappling hooks and other qualities, namely:

Tiger Hooks Faces

  1. Hook shape of a cane.
  2. Long blade of a straight sword
  3. Rear butt is a dagger
  4. Moon grip from the Elk Horn
  5. The curved head swipes like a saber

These paired hooks each show five features which, when doubled with a second hook, are said to constitute a total of ten different weapons all rolled into two.

The purpose of other weapons seems, in a strange way, to be opposed to the idea of deadly force. But, as it works out, we might say some weapons are meant to preserve life. The Butterfly Knives of Southern Kung Fu are heavy, with a classic hook guard for spinning the blade in a different direction. These blades are kept dull to refrain from killing an opponent; instead, they might take the more merciful action of, say, breaking a bone to stop the fight. The weapon is adopted in pairs and finds itself in Wing Chun and Choy Lai Fut styles. A weapon like this validates the useful training of Southern weapons where two-handed activity largely negates the length of other weapons such as the spear.

Just as the hook swords might have been created—or at least adopted—for naval engagement, it is said that the swivel ring on the Ermei needles (or Judge’s needles) was particularly effective in aquatic combat. The needles themselves did not impede the swimming soldier’s stroke, and the the finger ring allowed the attackers to swim without consciously gripping the weapon. Beyond stabbing, this weapon can “dot” or “prick” an opponent from a wealth of angles. But why the name “Judge’s Needle?” Some say it resembles the writing brush of the Judge who delivers his ‘pointed’ and direct sentence to the guilty.

The stories, the stories, are the legends true? It is a little hard to confirm or deny at this late stage. Take the Trident/Tiger Fork, which was held with its butt firmly planted in the earth until the moment the tiger, its original intended opponent, leapt. Hence (Legend #1) the reason for that position: anchored at a steep angle, the trident was held steady by the practitioner (in his pu tuei stance) until the lethal moment. Impaling itself on the three forks, the tiger sailed past—scrambling in the air— its harrassers. This story may be true. But what about the different belief (Legend #2) that refers to the hollow shaft of the weapon? Why hollow? The stories tell us that a half dozen metal balls were loaded into the shaft and the practitioner moved his weapon continuously, creating a sound that could reek havoc with a tiger’s nervous system.

There will always be conjecture, the gossip of history. The peak of all weapon’s skills lies in the technique of the Great Spear, a weapon running up to twelve feet long. The interesting thing is that this weapon and its high-level skills are associated with women. The technique is difficult and, needless to say, cumbersome. It is pure body control where the length of the weapon helps to remind you, constantly, that just arms will not do, and that only integrated body action can really control this armament. But what about that challenging length? How are they wedded?

One conjecture is that these women-wielding weapons were employed from the parapets, late in the siege. Too many men had died, but the enemy still “climbed the walls,” only to meet a dislodging, powerful, life-or-death defense knocking down their ladders. Wielded downward, with the right body mechanics, this “King of Weapons” might very well have saved a city or two.

If any of you fine readers have different versions, we would like to know them and pass them along on Plum.

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One Response to “How Legends Grow”

  1. Jeff Crook says:

    In Okinawa, there is a theory that the nunchaku resembles the old horse bridle and bit and that it developed from there. I have seen demonstrations of the weapon in that form. The sticks have square or rectangular cross-sections and are curved. I’m not sure I buy that explanation. I think it far more likely to be a Chinese weapon, perhaps a beggar weapon as you say. A nunchaku made of softer material, like stiff leather, shaped into a tube and filled with sand, would make a fearsome blackjack for muggings.

    I was once told that the sai was a combined seed-drill/soil tiller – the theory being that the main shaft stabs into the soil and the side pieces are twisted to break up the soil around the hole where the seed will be placed. Again, it’s far more likely to be a Chinese import. There’s good evidence that it was in use by local law enforcement in Fujian province in the 1800s.

    I have heard the well-handle theory of the tonfa/tunkua. I have also heard that it was common in the blacksmith shop, where it somehow fit into or on a wall and provided a hook (the handle) to hang things.

    My theory is that the tonfa was a grindstaff for turning a small grindstone. I have seen similar colonial America devices that were used this way. I can easily see how an Okinawan might see a beggar’s crutch in use and devise a way to use his grindstaff as a weapon.

    Or maybe the first tonfa was the broken leg of a chair used in a bar fight.

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