History and Lineage of Choy Li Fut (Cai Li Fo)

Although known as a Southern system, Choy Li Fut 蔡李佛 kung fu has its origins in both Northern and Southern China. The system's founder, Chan Heung 陳享, had three teachers, two from the South and one from the North. Choy Li Fut is one of the few kung fu styles that is strongly influenced by both Northern and Southern Chinese kung-fu, combining the long arm techniques of the South with the quick agile footwork that characterizes Northern China's martial arts.

Choy Li Fut 蔡李佛 was founded in 1836 by Chan Heung 陳享, a well-known and highly-skilled martial artist of that period. Also known as Din Ying 典英 and Daht Ting 逹庭, Chan Heung was born on August 23, 1806 (7 moon 10th day of 1806 of the lunar calendar), in King Mui 京梅 (Jing Mei), a village in the San Woi 新會 (Xin Hui) district of Guangdong 廣東 province. His martial arts career began at age seven, when he went to live with his uncle, Chan Yuen-Woo 陳遠護. Yuen-Woo was a famous boxer from the legendary Shaolin temple in Fujian 褔建, China. From Chan Yuen-Woo, Chan Heung learned the art of Southern Shaolin kung-fu, and became so proficient at it that by age fifteen he could defeat any challenger from nearby villages. By the time he reached his seventeenth year, Chan Heung was ready to assimilate more martial skills. So Chan Yuen-Woo took him to Li Yau-San 李友山, Yuen Woo's senior classmate from the Southern Shaolin temple. Chan Heung spent the next four years perfecting his kung-fu under Li Yau-San's careful eye.

It was apparent to Li Yau-San 李友山 that after only four years of training, Chan Heung was again ready to move on to higher levels. In ten years, he had already reached a level in kung-fu that had taken Chan Yuen-Woo and Li Yau-San twenty years to attain. Li Yau-San suggested a Shaolin monk who lived as a recluse on Lau Fu 羅浮山 mountain as the best teacher for Chan Heung. The only problem was that the monk, Choy Fook 蔡褔, no longer wished to teach martial arts. He wanted only to be left alone to cultivate Buddhism. Realizing that reaching his highest potential in kung fu meant finding the monk and becoming his disciple, Chan Heung set out on the long trek to Lau Fu mountain.

Choy Fook was a Buddhist monk whose head had been seriously burned when he took his Buddhist vows and had healed with ugly scars. This gave him the nickname "Monk with the Wounded Head 爛頭和尙 ." Armed with that knowledge, Chan Heung sought out anyone on Lau Fu mountain who could help him find Choy Fook 蔡褔. Finally, he located the monk, and handed him a letter of recommendation from Li Yau-San 李友山. After waiting patiently to be accepted as Choy Fook's disciple, he was stunned when Choy Fook turned him down. After much begging from Chan Heung, Choy Fook agreed to take the young man as a student—but only to study Buddhism. So, Chan Heung studied Buddhism for many hours a day with the monk of the scarred head, and practiced his martial arts by himself, far into the night.

Early one morning, Chan Heung 陳享 was practicing his kung fu, sweeping both legs across heavy bamboo bush and kicking up stones, then smashing them to pieces before they hit the ground. Suddenly, the monk appeared and asked him if that were the best he could do. Chan Heung was shocked when Choy Fook 蔡褔 pointed to a large rock weighing more than thirty kilograms and told him to kick it twelve feet. Bracing himself, Chan Heung exerted all of his strength as his foot crashed against the rock, sending it barely twelve feet away. Instead of giving the expected compliment, Choy Fook placed his own foot under the heavy rock and effortlessly propelled it through the air. Chan Heung was awestruck by this demonstration of "superpower." Again he begged Choy Fook to take him as a martial arts disciple. This time the monk agreed, and for eight years Choy Fook taught Chan Heung both the way of Buddhism and the way of martial arts.

When he was twenty-nine, Chan Heung 陳享 left the monk and went back to King Mui village, where he spent the next two years revising and refining all that he had learned from Choy Fook. Chan Heung had now developed a new system of kung fu. In 1836 he formally established the Choy Li Fut system, naming it in honor of two of his teachers, Choy Fook 蔡褔 and Li Yau-San 李友山, and used the word Fut 佛, which means "Buddha" in Chinese, to pay homage to his uncle, Chan Yuen Woo 陳遠護, and to the Shaolin roots of the new system. Chan Heung set up a martial arts school in the local family temple of his village to teach the new system. As his reputation spread, hundreds of people from nearby villages came to learn Choy Li Fut. Shortly after Chang Heung established his new school, the Opium Wars broke out in China. Like many other loyal Chinese, Chan Heung joined the army in Canton to fight against the British invaders. Following China's defeat in 1842, he returned home to his family.

Political corruption from within the Manchurian-controlled Ching dynasty 清朝 had contributed to China's defeat. Between 1847 and 1850 many Chinese leaders formed secret societies to combat the evil forces of the Ching. Under the leadership of Hong Xiu-Quan 洪秀全, the triad Rebellion broke out against the Imperial forces in Guangxi 廣西. Hong's rebels defeated the government troops in 1850 and for the next two decades the Tai Ping Tian Guo 太平天國 kingdom ruled China. During the rebellion, Chan Heung's followers urged him to join in the revolt. However, he was a devout Buddhist and shunned the path of violence. Nevertheless, he continued to train his followers in case the need arose to do battle against the corrupt Ching rulers.

When the Imperial army sought to recruit men from his area to fight against the rebel forces, Chan Heung 陳享 left his home in King Mui with his wife and two children. Finally forced by the needless fighting and destruction to participate actively, he set up many Choy Li Fut 蔡李佛 schools in Southern China to spread revolutionary ideas against the Manchurians. He gave his followers a special signal for future battlefield reunions: Whoever belonged to the Choy Li Fut system would cry out "Wak" when thrusting with a tiger claw hand, "Dik" when kicking, "Yak'' when striking with his fist or palm, "Ha" when striking with tsop chui and tsang jeung, and "Hok" for the crane beak strikes. These are the original five sounds of Choy Li Fut.

When the Tai Ping Tian Guo 太平天國 succumbed in 1864, Chan Heung 陳享 left China. At age fifty-nine he became the martial arts teacher for the Chan Family Association overseas. He stayed abroad four years, and then returned home to King Mui, where he was able to see his own kung fu system gain tremendous popularity throughout Southern China. On the lunar calendar 8th moon 20, 1875, at the age of sixty-nine, Chan Heung died. He was buried in his beloved village of King Mui. But his memory lives on, perpetuated in the kung-fu system that he established.

After Chan Heung's death, his Choy Li Fut 蔡李佛 legacy passed on to his two sons, Chan On-Pak 陳安伯 and Chan Koon-Pak 陳官伯. Chan On-Pak, born in 1845 and the older of the two brothers, looked like and had the gentle nature of a scholar. His specialty was the spear. Chan On-Pak's control of the spear was so advanced that he gained the nickname yet "Cheung Ng Mui Fa" 一槍五梅花 or "Five Blossoms with One Lance." In 1894, two of Chan On-Pak's students, Cheng Si-Leung 鄭士良 and Chan Siu-Bak 陳少白, helped the revolutionary forces of Dr. Sun Yat-Sin 孫逸仙 fight against the Ching dynasty and lay the foundation of the Republic of China.

The younger son, Chan Koon Pak, left King Mui to become a merchant in Kong Moon 江門市(Jiangmen) City, where his fame as a martial artist spread quickly. He soon had no time to spend as a merchant and devoted all of his efforts teaching Choy Li Fut. Chan Koon Pak later established a large Choy Li Fut training center in Guangzhou 廣州.

Chan Heung had eighteen original Choy Li Fut 蔡李佛 disciples, known as the eighteen Lohan 十八羅漢. In 1848, the original eighteen started branching out to teach Choy Li Fut throughout Southern China. The first disciple to teach Choy Li Fut outside of King Mui was Lung Ji-Choi 龍子才, who opened a kung fu school in the town of Xunzhou 潯州 in Guangxi 廣西 province. Soon after, Chan Din-Foon 陳典桓 initiated the first Hung Sing Choy Li Fut school in Fut San 佛山 (Foshan). Other of the original eighteen disciples who promoted the new kung fu system were: Chan Din-Yao 陳典尤 in Nan Hai 南海; Chan Dai-Yup 陳大揖 in Guangzhou 廣州; Chan Din-Sing 陳典承 in Zhongshan 中山; Chan Mau-Jong 陳謀莊 in Panyu 番禺; Chan Din-Bong 陳典邦 in Dong Guan 東莞; Chan Din-Wai 陳典惠 in Kaiping 開平; Chan Din-Jen 陳典珍 in Taishan 台山; Chan Sun-Dong 陳孫棟 in Enping 恩平; Chan Din-Dak 陳典德 at Heshan 鶴山; Chan Dai-Wai 陳大威 in Zhaoqing 肇慶; Chan Sing-Hin 陳承顯 in Xinhuicheng 新會城; Chan Yin-Yu 陳燕瑜at Jiangmen 江門. And admirable tasks were performed by Chan Dai-Sing 陳大成, Chan Din-Seng 陳典勝, Chan Mau-Wing 陳謀榮 , and Chan Din-Gung 陳典拱, who taught Choy Li Fut in twenty-six villages in the King Mui 京梅 area.

In 1867, Chan Heung 陳享 sent one of his next batch of student, Jeong Yim 張炎 to Fut San 佛山 (Foshan) to take over the school originally established by Chan Din-Foon 陳典桓 in 1848. Eventually, Jeong Yim became known as the "father of the Hung Sing School of Choy Li Fut" in Fut San.

It is generally thought that there are two schools of Choy Li Fut: hung sing 洪勝 and bak sing 北勝, and that there are two representatives of the hung sing school. During the revolution of the mid-1800s, the Hung Moon 洪門 Party represented all revolutionary factions, including Choy Li Fut representatives. Choy Li Fut schools had a secret slogan during these times: "Hung 洪 Ying 英 Ji 至 Sing 聖 ; Ying英 Hung 雄 Wing 永 Sing 勝. " This translates as: "Heroes of the Hung Party are superior; Heroes always win." Chan Heung's followers adopted two words of the motto as their secret passwords “Hung Sing 洪勝” which meant "Hung Party wins." But, because that was too close to the outlawed Hung Moon Party name, they changed it to another slogan which sounds the same as Hung Sing 鴻勝, but means "goose winning."

Meanwhile, the Fut San Choy Li Fut School of Jeong Yim 張炎 bore the name "Hung Sing Kwoon 鴻勝舘" (using the "Hung" that means goose). Some of his students began referring to him as Jeong Hung Sing 張鴻勝. By the time his school had developed a third generation of students, the true meaning of "Hung Sing" had been lost, and his third generation students believed him to be the founder of a type of Choy Li Fut known as Hung Sing Choy Li Fut. To clarify the issue, Chan Heung's son, Koon-Pak 官伯, changed the name Hung 鴻 Sing to a different Hung 雄 meaning "strong." From that time on, Choy Li Fut schools in Koon Pak's King Mui area designated themselves with the slogan Hung Sing 雄勝, meaning "Strong Winning," while the Fut San schools kept their "goose winning" Hung Sing 鴻勝 motto. Hence, the belief that there are two Hung Sing Choy Li Fut schools.

The Bak Sing 北勝 branch of Choy Li Fut 蔡李佛 can be traced back to Jeong Yim 張炎 in Fut San. Jeong Yim had three principal students. One of them was Lui Chaun 雷粲, who had a student named Tam Sam 譚三. Tam Sam had a Choy Li Fut school in Guangzhou, in a district called Siu Bak 小北 (which translates as "little north"). His school bore the name Siu Bak Hung Sing Choy Li Fut Club. That name was too long to be spoken comfortably, so it was changed to Bak Sing Choy Li Fut to pay respects to their teacher, Tam Sam’s students referred to themselves as the Bak Sing branch of Choy Li Fut.

The most famous student and also the successor of Jeong Yim 張炎 was Chan Ngau-Sing 陳牛盛. Grandmaster Doc-Fai Wong 黄德輝’s second teacher, Dr. Hu Yuen Chou (Woo Van Cheuk) 胡雲綽 studied from him from the age of nine in Fut San Hung Sing School’s headquarters. Lau Bun 劉彬 was Grandmaster Wong’s first Choy Li Fut teacher; he learned his kung fu from Yuen Hai 阮系, one of the three principal students of Jeong Yim 張炎. The heritage of these two famous teachers of our Grandmaster who handed down the powerful fighting art to us is called the Fut San 佛山 lineage because it is from the Hung Sing School of Fut San city, Guangdong 廣東 province.

Dr. Hu Yuen-Chou’s second Choy Li Fut 蔡李佛 teacher was Chan Yiu-Chi 陳耀墀, the grandson of the founder. Dr. Hu spent 20 years of his training time with Chan Yiu-Chi and became one of the four major pillar instructors of the school who had gained the name the “Four Great Heavenly Kings 四大天王” of Choy Li Fut in Guangzhou. Grandmaster Doc-Fai Wong 黄德輝 is the successor of Dr. Hu Yuen Chou (Woo Van Cheuk) 胡雲綽. From this lineage we got the name King Mui 京梅, because the founder’s family came from the King Mui village.

Grandmaster Doc-Fai Wong’s third teacher in Choy Li Fut 蔡李佛 was Wong Gong 黄江. Wong Gong’s two teachers were Chan Cheong-Mo 陳長毛 and Chan Yan 陳恩; they were the students of Choy Li Fut founder’s elderly son, Chan On-Pak 陳安伯. From this lineage, we received most of the internal forms and animal forms that were handed down from Chan On-Pak. Great-grandmaster Wong Gong named his lineage Kong Chow 岡州 (Gangzhou) because in the old days, the district of Choy Li Fut’s hometown was called Kong Chow before the Republic of China. Now Jiangmen is the name of the city, therefore the lineage name has been changed to The Jiangmen branch or lineage.

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Click here for to view a comprehensive and updated listing of the Choy Li Fut lineage from the Shaolin monks who taught Chan Heung's teachers through the eighth generation of Choy Li Fut teachers.

Choy Li Fut (Cai Li Fo) Lineage Chart

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