An Interview with Wai Lun Choi
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I was born in Toi Shan Country in Guang dong Province in China on March 29,1939, in the midst of World War II. My father was a medical doctor and died during the war. I began my martial arts training in 1955 at the age of 16, after my family moved to Hong Kong. I learned Lama style first, under Chen Jung Wu (Chan Keun Ng). After that came Northern Shaolin and Mi Zong Lo Han ( My Cheong Law Horn), as well as herbal medicine and bone setting from Pan Mao Rong ( Poon Mao Yung), who was trained at the Shanghai Ching Mo Association and was also outstanding at Northern Praying Mantis. Liu Ho Ba Fa and the other internal styles I learned later from Chen Yi Ren (Chan Yik Yan), who was the lineage successor to Wu Yi Fan ( Wu Yik Fai). I was chosen as the successor to the Liu Ho Ba Fa system after I won the Southeast Asian Hand to hand Martial Arts competition in Singapore in 1971. A couple of years later I came to Chicago where I opened my first martial arts school in Chinatown.
You first learned Tibetan Lama Northern Shaolin and Mi Zong Lo Han. You later studied Xing Yi, Ba Gua, Taiji, and Liu Ho Ba Fa with Chen Yi Ren (Chan Yik Yan). Can you tell us something about your transition from the Shaolin to the internal?
The reason I found myself exploring several styles in my earlier years (Thai boxing and Judo, too) was that, despite being a proficient fighter using the external methods. I was always acutely aware of the disjunct, the gape, between what my mind was telling me to do and what my body was in fact doing. The thought and the actual physical movement were somehow not conjoined. This, compounded with the fatigue that would come after a rapid series of exchanges and movements, resulted in a shortness of breath and inevitably a lessening of power. This was in spite of being in top physical shape. Trying to find a way around that is what eventually brought me to the internal arts.
I would like to illustrate at this point the difference between the external and the internal approaches. These differences do not arise from the specific techniques employed by the various styles, but stem from the way the movements are produced. External styles emphasize speed and power, but this is true of the internal arts too. What really differentiates them are the training methods used to develop this speed and power. Internal styles require a precise unity of breathing, weight distribution, joint alignment, leverage, etc. any time a movement is executed.
Can you share some information about Chen Yi Ren (Chan Yik Yan)?
My teacher was born in Southern China but became a wealthy industrialist in Shanghai, the most cosmopolitan city in the country. His social and economic standing quite naturally brought him into contact with members of the political and military elite, and it was a friendship with General Chang Chih-Chiang that gained him his introduction to Wu Yi Fan (Wu Yik Fai). As a wealthy member of the elite, he was in a position to study with whatever teacher he wished. Before coming to Liu Ho Pa Fa, he learned Xing Yi, Ba Gua and Taiji very thoroughly from Jiang Rong Qiao (Chiang Jung Chiao) and Chu Gui Ting (Chu Kuei Ting). He also learned I Quan from his close friend, Han Xing Qiao (Han Hsing Ch'iao), one of the top students of the creator of the style, Wang Xiang Zhai.
Wu, it is worth noting has the distinction of having been cited by Wang Xiang Zhai as one of "only three people in all China who truly know martial arts"
Because of my teacher's social and economic position he was able to accompany Wu Yi Fan in his travels throughout the country. He was with Wu in Nanjing during his tenure at the national Kuo Shu Academy. During those years in Shanghai and Nanjing. Chan was able to meet and observe the leading exponents of every conceivable style. After the Communist takeover, though, Chan relocated to Hong Kong.
What was your training with Chen Yi Ren (Chan Yik Yan) like?
My training with Chan was a very traditional one. In fact, it took over a year of courting and entertaining him before I was accepted as a student. As his student I was allowed to attend class for three days a week, two hours each session. A movement would be demonstrated only three times, after which you were expected to perfect it without further instruction. Only when Chan saw that you performed it correctly did he explain its application. After the various techniques were explained, extensive shadow boxing was practiced in order for the mental and physical aspects of the movements to become coordinated. In this way the student developed a sense of how the techniques should be executed, but without the tension of confronting a sparring partner. That came later. The reason behind this training progression is simply that, under the stress of a fighting situation, you will protect yourself. You will tense up, causing your breathing to become shallow, and hindering your ability to react quickly. So it was not until Chan recognized that you were capable that you began with the actual sparring.
Which of the four systems (Xing Yi, Ba Gua, Taiji, Liu Ho Ba Fa) did you learn first?
I learned Liu Ho Ba Fa followed by Xing Yi, Ba Gua and then Taiji. I as taught in this order because it was the most expeditious. Liu Ho Ba Fa has elements in common with each of the internal styles. Consequently, after you have understood it. It was mush easier to see the differences between the other styles. It enabled you to see more clearly how and why these styles proceeded as they did.
Nowadays Taiji is riding a crest of popularity. Ba Gua and Xing Yi are also gaining in exposure. However, Liu Ho Ba Fa remains fairly obscure. Can you please give us some information about it history, principles and characteristics?
The founder, Chen Hsi I, was a famous scholar/hermit who lived in early Song Dynasty (about the 11th century). He was a noted mathematician and Daoist. During his youth he demonstrated exceptional intellectual ability, reciting Chinese classics from memory and offering extensive interpretations of the Yi Jing, the Book of Changes. Still, he was unsuccessful when he took the imperial examination, the route to employment in the Confucian bureaucracy. This was not an examination that rewarded original thinking and after his failure, he decided to become a recluse and devote himself to the study of Taoism. Nonetheless, he was still courted by several Sung emperors, who sought his help in administrating the government. Chen was resolved, however, to continue living the life of a hermit. It was during his many years on Mount Hwa in central China that he developed the Qigong postures still used today. He also developed Liu Ho Ba Fa, which originally was called Water Boxing because of its smooth, flowing, continuous character.
Several generations later, Tung Fun Lee discovered Chen's manuscripts in the cave where he died. Intrigued by the precision, with which the Daoist sage had laid out his system, Tung studied until he mastered it, passing the style on in turn as shown in the lineage tree. The lineage is very clear in this style.
The core of Chen Hsi I's art, its principles, are the six harmonies and eight methods.
1. Body and heart together. "Heart" as used here does not refer to the physical heart, but to the feeling of confidence you have within. To bring the body and heart together, you start by using something as an example, as a model. It can be anything. In Liu Ho Pa Fa Twelve Animal Forms are used to develop this. Every animal moves differently, has a different manner and attitude. It is this attitude that we are trying to copy, not its physical attributes. When an animal fights, its body instinctively, automatically works together. It simply reacts without thinking. You must practice until you are completely used to it, then when you move you will have confidence.
2. Mind and Heart Together. Once the body is ready, there is no longer a need to copy. But something more is required; the body has to obey the mind. What the mind tells it, it must do. When this occurs, you will have confidence that you are able to do what you want to do.
3. Mind and Chi Together. Chi means energy, which comes from breathing. Once you practice enough to get confidence, then you can move without hesitation. The body and the breathing, in other words, the energy, will move naturally and will automatically be together.
4. Spirit and Movement Together. “Spirit” does not have any religious meaning here. It refers to a high level of alertness. When you are relaxed you have energy. Once you have reached a state of relaxed alertness, the energy will always be ready in the body and will automatically go with you.
5. Spirit and Movement In martial arts the spirit uses the senses: mostly sight, hearing and touch. If you have achieved the previous four harmonies, when you are with an opponent and you see or hear or feel anything, your body will automatically react. An example might be when you are driving your car and a child dashes in front of you. Instantly you jam on the breaks.
6. Movement and Emptiness. When you have the benefit of the first five harmonies, you will not need to think about anything. You must empty your mind and follow the opponent; never focus, just react. The techniques you have practiced are at this level second nature. You are like a flag in the air. The flag has no mind at all; it follows the wind to move.
Six Harmonies (Outside)
1. Torso Joints Together. “Together” means in harmony, connected, not separate in their movement. The three joints of the torso are the lower spine, the back and the neck. To say the torso and joints must be together, means that movement is from the lower spine to the back and then to the neck.
2. Arm Joints Together. The three joints involved here are the shoulder, the elbow and the wrist. The shoulder is the root. Movement of the arm must progress from the shoulder to the elbow to the wrist, which then finally moves the hand.
3. Leg Joints Together. The three joints involved in moving the leg are the hip, the knee, and the ankle. Here the hip is the root. Movement is from the hip to the knee to the ankle, which finally moves the foot.
4. Hand and Foot Together. The hand and the foot must be coordinated and move as a unit, balancing each other. It is like the natural balancing rhythm of walking.
5. Elbow and Knee Together. Again, the comparable joints of the arm and leg must work together.
6. Shoulder and Hip Together. The two root joints must also be used together.
1. Check Traditionally this is number seven, but it is so fundamental that it probably should come first. The idea is that the body must be in check, in other words relaxed and ready. At the same time the mind is calm and clear. You must concentrate on emptying your mind and making your breathing smooth and deep. When you control your breathing you can remain calm. When you are calm the body can stay relaxed. And when your body is relaxed, then movement is easy. The movement referred to here, though, is the circulation of chi through the body. When the chi is able to move smoothly, continuously and without interruption, it means that you can breathe deeply and give your body more oxygen. Oxygen means energy, which gives you the power to do what you want.
2. Chi We must train the spirit to make the power. This is the Chi Kung method. Imagination is involved here. Think of an ocean storm, and the power of the water. You are making the energy run at a higher level, like the pounding of waves during the storm. It is like the feeling being in a fury, in a rage, but without any tension. It is a contained fury. Outside you are calm. Inside the energy runs all through you.
3. Bone Holding the power in the bone. The meaning is to make all the joints connected. There can be no empty or loose place. This method enables you to make the outside soft, the inside solid.
4. Image The idea here is change the face, copies the inside. Anything in the universe that moves you can copy. You see the image and take the spirit in order to radiate the meaning. When we see animals fighting we copy their meaning and spirit, but not by imitating their actual movements.
5. Follow There are two ideas here: circle and through. This involves the spirit and chi. The spirit must circle, go out in all directions, and the chi must circulate, in other words, go through. “follow”means you know the opponent and know yourself, you design and react. You must use the basic principle of yin and yang to develop chi and power, mind and power, with no breaking. The spirit is like radar, but the power must be straight. The joints bend, but the mind must be straight and unhesitating. You cannot focus, you just react. This is for developing sensitivity and the flexible instinctive power that enables you to react.
6. Lift This refers to the crown point of the head. The meaning is to wake up, be alert. It makes the chi and circulation faster. But, it is not focused on. It is comparable to running the orbit in the chi kung exercises.
7. Return This means practice yin and yang, in and out. In is a chi and mind exercise; out is a coiling exercise.
8. Conceal. Fake and Hide. This means you must have the idea in your mind without letting your opponent know what your intentions are. For example, you must signal to the east to hit to the west. Point to the south and hit to the north. Up is unreal and down is
As an aside, it might be noted that, unlike the other three internal arts which are based on a limited number of techniques that are strung along in different variations of the same basic movements. Liu Ho Ba Fa has in its main form over 700 different techniques.
In teaching your students Xing Yi, Taiji, Ba Gua and Liu Ho Ba Fa, do you follow your teacher's order of instruction or have you made some changes? And does the training in your school differ from what you yourself received?
In my class, because martial arts has become a business in this day and age. I allow my students to select what style they are interested in. I try to help them understand the principles behind each movement in order to facilitate their understanding. This is the exact opposite of what the old master in China would do. They would patiently wait to see if the student was sincere in his training before passing on the so-called secrets to him.
Do you feel that instruction of the internal systems in the United States focuses too much on the health benefits and too little on the practical fighting aspects of the arts?
The main reason that internal styles around the world (not only here) emphasize the health aspects is that the practitioners lack the ability to generate power and employ the sensitivity needed in a real fighting situation. They do not understand how body mechanics are utilized to achieve natural power. The principles of leverage and proper breathing must first be understood and trained. These ideas are applicable, not only in martial arts, but in all human activities. Take the sport of basketball. It matters when you inhale and when you exhale if you are shooting a basket. If you inhale or exhale at the wrong moment, you will instantly feel how unnatural and awkward it is. There is a natural order in which breathing either helps or hinders your action. The action itself dictates how the breath is used. It is my hope that I can convey to the public the importance of fully understanding the principles of these arts and to begin to move away from the mysticism and secrecy that have stood in the way for so long. It saddens me to see so many enthusiastic people who practice diligently for years and years and never improve their skills. In order to secure the future of the arts, the concepts and principles that made the arts what they were must be re-introduced as the only foundation on which to build a solid base. Not as some arbitrary set of rules, but proven as being logical and effective and based on sound scientific theory of physiology and physics.
It must be understood that without precise body movement and proper breathing, an extreme amount of energy is wasted as the body attempts to correct itself naturally. When the body moves in unison, you expend a single amount of energy. If movement become disjointed, however, (for example, the upper part moves before the legs), the two must then compensate for one another as the body struggles to come into balance. The more segmented the body components become, the more aggravated this process becomes.
This is what the classics are referring to when they say "one thing moves, everything moves; one thing stops, everything stops" It not only saves energy, but provides expansive speed and power.
What training advice can you offer the students of internal martial arts?
Students must first prove to themselves that these rules are correct; once they do, it will allow them to practice correctly. It is only with the proper training methods, coupled with diligent practice that anyone can achieve the benefits on the internal arts.
Unfortunately, this may not be the best course to take as far as business is concerned but it is the only way to preserve the internal arts and to educate this generation of martial artists. The principles and theories concerning training and the development were painstakingly discovered by the masters of the past. Most important for us to grasp are the principles. These must first be understood and then their validity proven To do so we must break down the ideas of the old masters, analyze them using scientific reasoning to make them clear and easily graspable.
On the part of the student it is a road that requires a great deal of patience and serious practice.