Everyday Tools, Extraordinary Weapons

An Article Featuring Grandmaster Doc-Fai Wong
Jan 2002 Issue
by Jane Hallander

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traditional Chinese martial arts weapons, such as swords and spears, were almost always the property of professional fighters or armed robbers in ancient China. Monks, farmers and other workers had to rely solely on their everyday tools for self-defense. Buddhist monks used their spades and canes as powerful weapons against armed robbers, while farmers turned to their hoes, rakes, staffs and horse benches for personal protection.

Choy li fut, one of the largest martial arts in Southern China, contains as many, if not more, different weapons than any other Chinese style. Among choy li fut's weapons' arsenal is the horse bench and farmer's hoe. Choy li fut grandmaster, Doc Fai Wong , views all weapons as indispensable, including the horse bench and hoe. Wong, whose Doc Fai Wong Martial Arts Center is headquartered in San Francisco, Calif., teaches those once-humble farmers' weapons to his most promising students.

"The horse bench and hoe are just as effective as the professional martial artists sword and spear."

"Although considered lowly farmers' weapons, the horse bench and hoe are just as effective as the professional martial artists' sword and spear," explains Wong.

Horse Bench

Often considered no more than a resting place for the tired, the Chinese horse bench, or cheong kiu dang, is actually a powerful weapon that even has applications in today's sometimes dangerous society.

The horse bench was shaped like the common sawhorse. It had a flat board on top where it was used as a seat. The bench was approximately two feet tall and four-to-five feet in length - longer than today's sawhorse. The flat top board was between six-to-eight inches wide.

Horse benches were used in every day restaurants and homes, in place of more expensive chairs. Of course, when fights broke out at eating and drinking establishments, horse benches were among the first items used as weapons.

Although not as long as a staff or spear, the horse bench is still classified as a long weapon in Chinese martial arts, because the heavy bench is usually held with both hands. Also, most of the techniques are double-ended staff movements, caused by twisting the waist and generating striking power alternately with both ends of the bench.

There are also overhead strikes that use the bench as a downward striking or pressing weapon. Featured are low sweeping actions that instantly take the opponent off balance and down to the ground, where he falls prey to the horse bench's downward hammer-like blow.

Working the Bench

Common bench techniques are left and right jabs made with either end. Again, the weapon is held with both hands while making these attacks to steady its weight and somewhat spread-out construction. Sometimes the leg portion of one end can be used either to trap other weapons or as an uppercut blow to an opponent.

Some horse bench techniques feature the weapon being held in only one hand. In one instance, the choy li fut practitioner holds the upper part of one of the bench's legs and either swings the bench above his head to block other attacking weapons, or sweeps the bench low to attack an opponent's legs in a sweeping motion.

As a defensive weapon, the horse bench could be used for overhead blocks, lower blocks and side-to-side blocking actions. There are even horse bench techniques that mimic human kicks, where the stylist holds one leg of the weapon in one hand and strikes forward with an underhand blow to the opponent's midsection.

In today's world, an altercation in a restaurant or bar might lead someone to defend himself with a chair using horse bench techniques. However, the horse bench's real value is as a training weapon. Since it is a heavy weapon (15-to-20 pounds), it is often used in Wong's schools to build strength and stamina through weight training as students practice the horse bench form. At the same time its use improves the practitioner's balance and coordination.

Wong maintains that before attempting serious horse bench practice, you should strengthen your wrists and fingers. If they are not strong enough you can easily sprain or strain them. Lifting exercises, where you lift weights or even jars filled with sand or dirt, are excellent ways to condition your wrists and hands.

The Hoe

One of the most practical weapons among Southern China's farmers was the hoe, a weapon that could be used double-ended, like the staff, for blocking and striking, or as a bladed weapon for chopping and slicing. And, of course, it was easily available, since every farmer had a hoe and was well-versed in its use.

The choy li fut hoe form contains more than just fighting applications. It also has drama.

"In the old days, Southern Chinese martial arts weapons' forms displayed many flowery movements that appeared unlike practical actions," Doc Fai Wong explains. "This was designed to draw the public's interest to the martial art, a common method of recruiting students. Martial arts schools performed during village festivals and celebrations, often celebrating harvests and seasonal plantings in farming villages.

"Since many of the weapons taught in the old days were originally farm implements, to liven demonstrations kung-fu practitioners added some acting to the form," he adds. "For instance, traditional hoe forms begin with the martial artist rolling up his sleeves and mimicking hoeing the field. He stops to wipe the sweat from his brow and looks at the sun's position to check the time of day. The martial artist rubs his aching back and slings the hoe over his shoulder, as if trudging home after a long day's work. Then the fighting action begins."

Staff and Blade

Most traditional Chinese martial art hoe forms have a beginning similar to what Wong describes. This makes the form more interesting to watch and explains the weapon's background.

The Chinese hoe is similar to the variety you find in today's garden centers. The blade was a little longer (approximately ten inches} and about six inches wide. The hoe was a relatively heavy weapon, weighing about six-to-eight pounds. A sturdy tool and weapon, the handle was constructed from Chinese hardwood. As with the horse bench, the hoe form is taught today as a means of weight training to strengthen and condition a student's forearms and wrists, as well as improve balance and power.

The farmer's hoe was both a long staff-like weapon and a bladed weapon, using many techniques similar to the staff and long-bladed weapons, such as the kwan do. It is always held with the right hand forward, placed approximately two-thirds down the length of the handle. The hoe practitioner's left hand grips the center of the weapon. This allows the stylist to move quickly in any direction. He can also use the center portion of the handle for blocking an attacker's weapon. At the same time, he can quickly pull the hoe back to thrust forward or scoop upward with the bladed end.

The bladed end is used to either chop downward or thrust forward at an opponent. It is heavy and sharp, requiring little force to make an effective strike. When thrust forward, the flat side of the blade makes contact in a poking motion. The horse bench and hoe are excellent representatives of the creativity and resourcefulness of Chinese martial artists, who developed effective fighting techniques using common tools and household implements.

Jane Hallander was a former Inside Kung-Fu "Writer of the Year"