This kung fu style is Tibetan in origin. The legend of its beginnings is with an old man who would contemplate daily near a pond. One day he was observing a beautiful white stork, when out of the forest came a gorilla. He feared that the ape would destroy the bird, but was amazed by the bird’s elusiveness and ability to peck vital parts of the gorilla’s anatomy. He thereafter meditated daily upon the bird’s actions. One day, two armed robbers attacked him, and without thinking, he defeated them both. When he meditated on his actions, he realized that he had mimicked the movements of the crane. He then set about to study and preserve this knowledge, which today is called the White Crane Kung Fu system.
Major characteristics of this White Crane Kung Fu system include wide-armed, wing-like movements, high kicking, and the crane’s beak, a hand weapon made by joining the fingertips firmly.
While in its traditional form the White Crane kung fu system is rather impractical for modern use, it has undergone various modifications throughout the centuries, and it is today one of the major, revered schools.
White Crane kung fu has its origins in Tibet, and is probably the oldest “classical” style, aside from Snake kung fu, in the repertoire of Shaolin Quan. There are three basic schools extant–Hop Gar, Mot Gar, and Pak Hok–the similarities far more numerous than the differences. Unlike the widespread Praying Mantis kung fu schools with a diphyletic origin , White Crane kung fu follows a direct linear path from Lamaistic origins, dispersal through Bodhidharma and finally through the Shaolin temples.
White Crane Kung Fu is generally regarded as an internal system, though initial training is extremely demanding. Although difficult to learn because of these physical demands, it is in fact a highly effective combat system, once the method employed by the Emperor of China’s bodyguards. There are only six original forms, though modern schools have devised numerous variations.
The white crane is one of several birds related to storks found throughout southern Asia, the most common being the saurus crane (Grus antigone). All are tall, long-necked, long-legged birds that are quite frail in appearance. The beak is long, pointed and strong and is used as a defensive weapon. However, the morphology of these birds is not such that a stand-and-fight strategy would be successful against most potential predators, so an evasiveness developed to remove the body out of the line of direct assault. Wings actually parry incoming force, or act as weapons when opened quickly, while the long talons also are effective for defense.
The White Crane Kung Fu practitioner following this school uses two basic hand techniques, the crane’s beak, formed by contacting the thumb with all four fingers to make pinpoint strikes, and the crane’s wing, a finger rake. The sun fist is also employed, by beginners more often than by masters. As the defender physically evades an assault, the torso turns with force that accelerates the force of a strike, making even minor contacts painful to the antagonist. Furthermore, evasive footwork forces the opponent to work harder to target in on the White Crane Kung Fu practitioner, who in turn has the opportunity to tire his opponent before launching a definitive counterattack.
The crane’s wing parries use the whole arm in graceful upward or downward sweeps to move not only an arm or leg strike, but the body of the opponent as well. Properly executed, these parries shift the opponent off balance, forcing him to open a vulnerable target. Frequently, they are executed with enough centripetal force to double as palm or backhand strikes while simultaneously parrying.
From an interception with the arms may come locks-and-throws (Ch’in Na), pushing or warding back (which uproot the opponent and hurl him forcefully backwards) or a direct counterstrike. Chin Na used by a white crane stylist is often designed to procure a living “shield” during multiple assaults, or of throwing one or more people into other assailants. Even here, though, the crane stylist is constantly hopping around, never taking a solid stance or restricting his own maneuverability.
Footwork in White Crane Kung Fu is legendary, targets being anything from head to groin. Bottom of the foot kicks are effective, as are crushing stomps, generated at close range and with great speed. Other kicks are designed to dislocate or unbalance opponents. Part of White Crane philosophy teaches control over an adversary, and to maim only as a last resort. Even in footwork, evasion is the primary goal, to allow the opponent(s) to tire, perhaps withdraw, or at worst, open up for a minimal, decisive counter.
White Crane kung fu originated and spread through largely inhospitable regions of Tibet and China. Preparatory training, though rigorous, was not as difficult to one accustomed to harsh conditions; rather they served to limber and tone muscles to provide greater mobility in the heavy clothing of the region. However, like the namesake bird, the practitioner was vulnerable to attack in a greater manner, perhaps, than other Asians. A severe cut could cause hypothermia and attendant shock, so being rendered “merely” unconscious could also cause freezing, making even a minor engagement a serious affair.
Evasion is necessary to avoid stress created by slippery terrain (ice) and large adversaries. In thin air, an aggressor is likely to tire relatively quickly, and conflict avoided altogether. The low sweeps characteristic of this style may take an opponent to the ground where he will be unable to rise quickly (again, bulky clothing hampering movement and some winding having occurred).
Practice of forms stresses long, loose movements which maximize speed and chi flow as an end product. The total result is threefold; total evasions of any incoming force; control of opponent with little or no harm inflicted; and total control to the point of maiming or (rarely) killing.
The style encompasses only six forms, yet ranges from hard, external physical development, to soft, internal chi movements. Examination of the style shows it to be an excellent natural progression for a student of a single style.
Beginners to White Crane kung fu are started with the Fei Hok Sao Kuen, or Flying Crane Hand Form. It is almost purely a conditioning exercise, stressing long, deep horse stances and punches thrown from 90 degrees to the body. The form is fairly long, having 175 separate moves, each to be mastered slowly, and with great precision.
A new practitioner into White Crane Kung Fu may also begin with the Lou Sing Sao, or Shooting Stars Hand Form, which emphasizes balance on one leg and rapid manual coordination. The use of kicks is somewhat restricted here, compared to Flying Crane Hand, but the development of balance highly complements that exercise.
By the time a novice completes either of the above sets, he moves in rank from a black sash, which represents blindness, to a red sash, symbolizing sunrise. He now begins to develop the accurate use of long range kicks and evasive footwork. The Five Form set delineates the method of positioning the body to draw an attack, then shift the stance to allow a counter from an unexpected point. In essence, this sidestepping is preparing the student for multiple opponents and the beginning of ch’i development. At this point, he advances to a yellow sash, which represents brilliance.
The Cotton Needle Set, a soft form, is common to several styles sharing Crane ancestry, including Hung Gar Kung Fu and Shaolin Temple Kung Fu. It is designed to exercise all of the internal organs and enhance the flow of chi energy. So powerful and strenuous is this form that it is considered to be therapeutically superior to Tai Chi Chuan. For a student to master this level may take several years, and success grants the blue sash of firmament.
Lau Hon Sao, or Buddha Guardian Hand, is another external set, but one utilizing all the maneuvers of the style, and thus requiring an adept, conditioned practitioner. Parts of the form may be taught at the beginner level, but rarely is it mastered until this point. It is followed by Dow Raw Sau, the Knife Foot and Hand Form, the most evolved internal set. This form is learned in three stages, each taking considerable effort: the basic, combat-speed method; the slow, meditating method; and the super-speeded conditioning method. Upon completion, the stylist is truly a master and may wear the silver sash.
These forms remain essentially unchanged since conceived by Dorawkitan. Elements of some are seen in many other styles, and are perhaps enhanced by the more varied methods. Flying Crane Hand appears in part in the Shaolin Black Crane kung fu style, as well as in Chin Na and Eagle Kung Fu. Knife Foot and Hand is seen in Hong Tiger, Praying Mantis kung fu and Monkey kung fu, while Buddha Guardian is seen in Ba Gua Zhang and Lo Han Hart Chuan.
Traditional White Crane kung fu is highly dependent upon long range strikes. To develop the timing and technique required to achieve that end, the forms are sequences so that primary training develops the muscles, while coordinating hand and eye. Once that concept is established, the training can increase in complexity, thus teaching coordination of stance and foot attack. A student at this stage has usually completed one year of study, and can be considered as fairly capable in self-defense.
The next phase in White Crane Kung Fu develops the arsenal in terms of variety of weapons available and the choice of targets. It is here that a Crane stylist begins to decrease the striking targets to a few vital spots, as he is technically able to position himself for a thorough assault.
Finally, the highest level of White Crane Kung Fu comes in being able to completely avoid an opponent’s assault, and having the option of either evading the assailant until he is quite too exhausted to continue or deliver a fast, effective terminating strike.
That a White Crane Kung Fu stylist is effective is beyond question. Integrated with broader combat skills, the style should be actively employed in teaching any novice the basic discipline and coordination that can enhance any further martial study.