My quest for the martial “holy grail”

It was as a youngster in the mid-70s that I first considered the feasibility of the “holy grail” of the martial arts: a synthetic form that would combine all the best elements of the disparate styles into one cohesive, all-encompassing and succinct system: in other words the ultimate martial art.

I pored over the various books listing various styles. I pondered the encyclopaedic, sophisticated variations of jujutsu locks and holds, the smooth flow of the myriad Shaolin styles, the brutal efficiency and directness of karate, the effortless efficiency of the internal arts. I wondered about the exotic arts I’d never seen such as pencak silat and bando or legendary arts such as Mongolian “go ti”. Then there were the popular and impressive schools of taekwondo, the no-nonsense effectiveness of Muay Thai, the ubiquitous shadow of the late Bruce Lee and his Jeet Kune Do, the bewildering Filipino arts of kali/escrima/arnis, the elegance and philosophical beauty of aikido, the “sweet science” of Western boxing, the genteel brutality of French savate, the historical weight and impetus of Greco-Roman wrestling...

How much experience would/should one have to attempt the creation of a “synthetic” art that combined the best points of each? Bruce Lee appeared to have attempted such a feat at a fairly young age: However even as a child I had my suspicions that his Jeet Kune Do was less a synthesis of techniques than a loose, highly personal philosophy. The “holy grail” of a coherent and comprehensive synthetic martial art seemed unreachable. I failed to see how one man could combine the disparate arts into a cohesive whole, especially when each art seemed to demand a lifetime’s worth of study.

Fast forward to the mid ’80s and I, as a young black belt, was fortunate to see the television series “The Way of the Warrior” at my instructor’s house in Durban, South Africa. For those that haven’t seen it, this was a brilliant BBC production that explored various traditional martial arts from around the globe in much the same way as “The Human Weapon” has done more recently.

Morio Higaonna in "The Way of the Warrior"

There was an episode on the great Morio Higaonna (then in his prime) demonstrating his devastating Okinawan goju-ryu karate (a school from which my own karate lineage is descended).

I was buoyed by the episode on Filipino arnis/escrima/kali, an art we already did within our syllabus (in those early days, limited to the Rene Latosa system). In fact I got to train with Cacoy Canete (who featured in that series) only a year or 2 later. My instructor subsequently made numerous visits to the Philippines for further study with a variety of Filipino masters (in particular with Remy Presas).

The episode on aikido was relevant to my study since we had frequently cross-trained with senior aikidoka Ken Cottier. In Australia I’d also had the privilege of training with the late, great Shihan Jan de Jong, master of jujutsu, aikido and pencak silat.

Similarly the Shaolin episode had some resonance since my instructor was a friend and student of Wing Chun/Escrima master Bill Newman. So it occurred to me that I had a working knowledge (or at least some exposure) to many of the arts featured in that series.

Of the remaining arts, Shorinji Kempo, while fascinating, seemed somewhat inaccessible due to low profile in the West and its heavy emphasis on religion. I did however study very closely Doshin So’s authoritative text (published by Kodansha press but now out of print) and was impressed by their “embu” methodology – a concept we have since embraced, particularly after witnessing Shorinji Kempo demonstrations first hand.

Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto-ryu (featured in the “Way of the Samurai” episode) seemed a tad too esoteric to me, although my instructor has since specialised in that martial art, directly under Shihan Risuke Otake, the head of that school (we also studied some of the Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto-ryu material before we decided to go our own way in 1996).

The only other art that stood out from “The Way of the Warrior” as warranting serious attention was the taijiquan episode featuring the late, great Hong Yi Xiang, master of the internal arts and one of the most formidable fighters of his age. I have to say that of all the episodes it was this one that intrigued me the most. Little did I know that prior to the series even coming on air my instructor had already been in negotiations with Hong to study with him in Taipei – something he achieved soon after that fateful video night.

In my opinion, Hong’s great contribution to the martial arts was that he managed to create a “holy grail synthesis”, at least of his own native Chinese arts. He did it by combining them – not into one “composite” art as I had originally envisaged, but rather into a sequential system of teaching. He called this system “Tang Shao Dao”, pronounced “karatedo” in Japanese when using the Chinese character “Tang” (“kara” – a reference to China – hence “Chinese hand way”). [The character for “kara” was later replaced in Okinawa and Japan for political reasons with a homonym meaning “empty”.]

Hong’s system involved a relativistic syllabus that moved students from a “hard” or external, Shaolin-based, martial art, through to various “bridging forms” (forms he had himself devised using his father’s white crane partly as a base), then to the “soft” or internal arts of xingyiquan (the “hardest” of the internal arts), baguazhang and finally taijiquan (a unique “combat” version called “Chen Pan-Ling”). The latter was, I recall, spoken of in whispers and taught only to those who had mastered all the arts that had gone before.1

What was particularly appealing about Hong’s system was that it manifested itself so pragmatically. Not only was Hong unbeaten in over 100 street fights, his students were regular champions of the Taiwanese “no rules” fighting competition. These include legendary fighters such as Luo De Xiu and Su Dong Chen. The Way of the Warrior episode certainly left one in no doubt as to the practical application of his fighting system.

My own instructor adopted Hong’s “sequential, relativistic” methodology in his “Wu-Shin Chi-Dao” system (note – like Hong’s Tang Shou Dao this is not an art, but rather a system of teaching various arts in a particular progression). We in turn have kept this methodology in our own school, using the name “Wu-Wei Dao” to describe our own variant on the theme.

Fast forward to the mid-90s and disaster had struck with the death of Hong Yi Xiang. When I went looking in the late 90s I could not find any remnant of Hong’s school (although little did I know that it continued – and persists to the present day, albeit in a different form and with a different emphasis).

Luo De Xiu, a student of the late Hong Yi Xiang

Fast forward to 2005 when I decided to try my hand at searching one more time for an “heir” to Hong’s system. Once again my searches produced nothing (of course I later came across Lui De Xiu and Su Dong Chen, among others, but in 2005 their profiles on the web were considerably smaller). So my mind wandered back to the name “Chen Pan-Ling”. What was this mysterious art? My own teacher had not taught me this form of taiji (and assuming he knew it, he probably would not have taught it to me anyway until I had mastered xingyi and bagua, in line with Hong’s strict sequential teaching programme). Rather, the taiji system he taught to me from early 1990 was a Yang style he’d picked up from a different source in Taiwan and was clearly a primarily “health-based” style.

Imagine my surprise when one of the first entries in my internet search produced an advertisement that Chen Yun-Ching, the son and heir to Chen Pan-Ling’s martial legacy, would be visiting Australia on what was only his second overseas trip. I immediately booked a ticket to Melbourne and went to James Sumarac’s wonderful Wu-Lin retreat where the course was being hosted. On that (and subsequent visits) I was privileged to train not only with Master Chen Yun-Ching, but also his elder brother Lao Shi Chen Yun-Chow. From then on I have made regular trips to train with Master Chen, studying not only his father’s famed taijiquan, but also the family xingyiquan and baguazhang system (and later weapons forms and his father’s synthetic “mountain boxing” forms).

What I discovered in Master Chen (as well as his elder brother) was a remarkably dignified, incredibly knowledgeable and inexhaustibly generous teacher who was prepared to patiently correct my form all day – even during the breaks and after the evening meal, often till after 11 pm.

On each of my visits I have not taken for granted Master Chen’s generosity in teaching me whatever I wanted to learn. I have generally trained for 10-11 hours per day, often reviewing the days training in my own room until 2.00 am.

So what is it that particularly appeals to me about the Chen Pan-Ling system? Who was this man, and why is his name (and his system) still so revered today? Why would famous “strongmen” such as Hong Yi Xiang (and the better known Wang Shujin) choose to study with a man who was, by all accounts, a scholarly, elderly man of slender build (totally opposite to the much younger, rotund fighters he attracted as students)?

Well via a circuitous route, we come back to my original dream: the holy grail of a comprehensive synthetic system. It was Chen Pan-Ling who achieved just that in respect of the myriad styles of taijquan, (and to a lesser extent in respect of baguazhang and xingyiquan).

In 1941 the Chinese Nationalist government based in Chunking was faced with many crises, one of which was the rapid extinction of Chinese culture in the wake of the Japanese advance into their country. Accordingly the Departments of Education and Military formed a committee to record and preserve the most functional elements of China’s myriad martial arts. Chen Pan-Ling was the leading civil engineer in pre-war China, distinguishing himself as one of the most respected experts in hydraulics in that country. The fact that he was held in such high regard as a scientist and that he also had an impeccable pedigree in terms of his own martial background meant that he was the logical choice to be the Chairman of this committee.

In his article “Chen Pan-Ling T’ai Chi Ch’uan”, Brian Bruning writes:

“Chen Pan-ling, born in 1891, was trained by his father, in the Shaolin arts, when he was young. Later some of the best martial artists of the day trained him in T’ai Chi Ch’uan, Pakua, and Hsing-i. His T’ai Chi Ch’uan teachers were Yang Shao-hou, Wu Chien-chuan, Hsu Yu-sheng, and Chi Tzu-hsiu. He also traveled to the Chen family village to study the Chen style in 1927- 28. He was vice-president (founder of Henan Province school) of the famous Central Martial Arts Academy of Nanking, and later Chung King. Master Chen was also one of the main coaches of the Chinese demonstration team at the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin.”

In fact, the respect for Chen Pan-Ling was such that he was granted access to many of the hitherto secretive systems of taijiquan, permitting him to make a thorough analysis of the 5 major systems of that art, namely Yang, Chen, the 2 Wu systems and Hao. Rather than preserve each of these systems separately , Chen Pan-Ling used his scientific and martial knowledge in tandem to deconstruct each form, extract the common and essential elements, reconcile the differences and reconstitute them into a synthetic form which the author Robert W Smith describes in his foreword to the 1998 English version of Chen Pan-ling’s T’ai Chi Ch’uan Textbook as “eclectic [but] grounded in the traditional forms and brimming with the ancient spirit.”

I will let you read Mr Bruning’s article for a description of the style and it’s essential features, including its preservation of the more “combat-oriented” pre-WW2 methodology of taijiquan. For the time being it will suffice for me to say that, from my practical experience of self-defence arts, Chen Pan-Ling’s contribution is nothing short of astounding. As I discussed with James Sumarac, I generally approach eclectic arts with a degree of suspicion and scepticism. However if I were to choose someone whom I feel I could trust to create an effective, logical and comprehensive synthesis, it would have to be Chen Pan-Ling.

So the inevitable question arises: have I found the “holy grail” I was searching for all those years ago? The answer is most assuredly no. I can see that this ideal remains firmly out of reach. What I have found is a methodology that suits my own development; a relativistic syllabus that changes as a student progresses (and ages!). Our system of progressing from an external art (albeit one with “softer" elements) of goju-ryu, through to Hong’s bridging forms, through to the internal arts (as taught in the Chen Pan-Ling system) satisfies me as the closest I can get to this ideal. And in terms of at least a synthesis of the various taijiquan styles, I am highly satisfied that Chen Pan-Ling's is as good as it gets.

As martial arts is a journey it is self-evident that no particular part of that journey is better than another. My karate (with its added elements) is in no sense “inferior” to the internal arts, for example. All feature strikes, blocks, kicks, evasion, grappling etc. in a balance that suits my physique and personality. But each is more useful at a different stage of my life. Most importantly I feel I continue to improve; the arts build on each other, creating greater skill and less reliance on physical strength (an important feature as I age and succumb to auto-immune disease). In this regard it remains a journey – not a stagnation, where one keeps picking at the same bones, long stripped of their meat, looking for bits one might have missed.

Another important feature of my exploration of Chen Pan-Ling’s arts has been the “rub-off” effect on my karate; I have come away with a far greater understanding of my initial art, finding a greater understanding of its common elements and functions. Where before I knew from experience why certain techniques worked (eg. blocks/deflections and evasion) now I can understand and explain how they work (eg. my articles on dominating the melee and karate as “countering” art).

This knowledge has had another unexpected benefit: I have seen many martial artists of my vintage “dropping out” or otherwise becoming disillusioned and “stale”. I have, by contrast, been invigorated at a time when my physical abilities are most compromised by the previously mentioned auto-immune disease (Crohn’s and a related form of arthritis).

This in turn has had a compound effect on my progress. I was heartened when Master Chen recently gave me the compliment that I’d learned in 4 days what it generally took students one year to learn. High praise indeed!

However the biggest compliment I could be paid only arrived in the middle of last year: I received a letter from Master Chen inviting me to be his “inner door” student or bai shi - one of the greatest honours that a master can bestow on his student. It is an honour I have gratefully accepted and I will travel to Taiwan for the ceremony (and some intensive training) in 10 days time!

1. Abi Moriya, a student of Hong Yi Xiang from the '80s until the latter's death in the mid '90s has told me that the system of Tang Shou Dao wasn't as strict as I thought it had been; rather, Hong would teach whatever he felt best suited a student, given the student's age, mental maturity, physical condition, etc. Nonetheless, it seems that a young student entering the Tang Shou Dao school could, all things being equal, expect to learn according to the relativistic structure.

Copyright © 2009 Dejan Djurdjevic