A New Pole
I had been meaning to get a new “long pole” (or Luk Dim Boon Kwan) for a while. As the name implies, these are somewhat unwieldly training tools and (unless you own a truck) they do not travel well. In my experience most poles simply “live” in the training hall or at home. It is easier to keep a couple of them at the various locations in which one might train than to constantly haul them back and forth. As a result, I had been without a pole at home since moving to Ithaca almost a year ago.
That changed a few weeks ago when I returned to my place to find a very long package laid out awkwardly along the staircase. Upon maneuvering it into the house I was delighted to discover my new, absolutely beautiful, hickory pole.
My first realization as I picked it up was how heavy it was. Like all woods hickory exhibits a certain variation in densities and the stock for this staff seems to have been at the upper end of that range. Hickory is also one of the few commonly milled North American woods that easily stands up to the rigors of martial arts training. I like the grain, and the fact that one can be fairly certain that no tropical forests were cut for the making of hickory training weapons.
Nevertheless, this new pole still feels strange in my hands. The balance is clearly off. I do not say this out of any sense of emotional attachments to the weapons I have used before. Rather, my circumstances forced me to get a little experimental when I ordered this pole.
Physics dictates that long poles can be very dangerous weapons to train with. At close to nine feet in length, they are basically a real life workshop on the degree of force that can be generated through leverage and momentum. The few actual injuries I have suffered while practicing Wing Chun have all been the result of seemingly incidental contact in partner pole drills or light sparring.
As such it is easy to forget that long poles can also be surprisingly delicate. Their length makes them prone to warping. They must be stored either vertically or laid out flat on a perfectly smooth surface. They should never be hung in a horizontal position.
Also, the momentum generated while smashing a relatively long lever into the ground can be more than any wood (no matter how dense) can withstand. If you plan on engaging in this sort of training, or any drills that involve hard contact, it is often better to invest in a pole with a slightly thicker diameter at the front end.
All of which brings me back to my new pole. I delayed getting one in large part because the place that I currently live in, while nice, does not leave me with many options for pole storage. The ceilings are too low to store a pole vertically, and because of the way that various rooms are laid out, it is even difficult to lay one down against a wall without it getting in the way of a door or heating vent.
It was clear that compromise would be necessary. After some thought (and measurement) I decided that the longest pole I could house would be between 7.5 and 8 feet. Nor did I want to spend a lot of money on a nicely carved pole from Hong Kong, only to be forced to cut a couple of feet off the end of it.
Eventually I found an armory that produced wooden and synthetic weapons for HEMA practitioners and ordered an 8 foot hickory pole from them. With a sigh of relief I noted that it just barely fits into its appointed place. And compared to specialty Wing Chun poles, this one was really cheap.
Of course it was also inexpensive as European pole and staff weapons do not have any taper to them. Most of the Southern Chinese fighting poles that I have worked with have a diameter of about 1.5 inches at the base, narrowing to just over 1 inch at the tip. My new pole is a consistent 1.25 inches throughout.
The extra thickness at the tip gives me a bit more confidence in the strength of the pole. Yet the point of balance and handling characteristics for these two different types of poles are surprisingly different. Ironically my new pole seems to require greater strength in my hands, wrists and forearms to manipulate, even though it is actually shorter than other weapons that I have trained with.
The Materiality of the Long Pole
Acclimating to this new pole has given me plenty of time to think a bit about the history of these weapons in the TCMA. Much of what we know about the development of the martial arts in China (especially prior to the Ming dynasty) is closely tied to the rising and declining popularity of different sorts of weapons. Weapons, like written texts, are never simply the product of a single maker.
Rather they reflect both the utilitarian goals and the cultural values of the communities that created and passed them on. They are the product of social discourses. Properly understood weapons can be read, interpreted and deconstructed, just like any other sort of text. The seeming lack of interest in material culture within the field of Martial Arts Studies has always struck me as somewhat puzzling.
What exactly do we know about the evolution and use of the long pole? What do they reveal about the history of Wing Chun, the Southern Chinese martial arts, or Chinese martial culture in general? What can they tell us about the types of people who passed on these technical and material traditions?
Let us begin by considering the physical description of these weapons. A variety of staff-type weapons have been used within the Chinese martial arts over the centuries. Yet the Long Pole stands out as a uniquely recognizable, and oddly stable, point of reference.
It is impossible to say exactly when this exact configuration came into use. Yet we do know that some of the earliest surviving written martial arts training manuals, produced during the Ming dynasty, make reference to this weapon.
We also know that late imperial armies adopted the long pole as a type of basic training regime. It was thought that expertise in the pole would facilitate later training in other double handed weapons, such as the spear or halberd. Martial artists, on the other hand, often saw the pole as an ends unto itself.
Cheng Zongyou, a civilian expert on military training, published an account titled Exposition of the Original Shaolin Staff Method sometime around 1610. This work was the end product of more than a decade of study at both Shaolin Temple in Henan, and with its monks in the field. Martial Arts historians consider it to be an extremely important document. It is both the oldest surviving manual of a Shaolin Martial Art, and it provides fascinating insights into the nature of life and instruction at this venerable institution during the late Ming.
It also provides a detailed discussion of at least one of the long pole fighting methods taught at Shaolin. Cheng prefaces this manual with a description of the weapon in question. He notes that a fighting staff can be made of either wood or iron. Iron poles (which, to the best of my knowledge, have totally fallen out of use) were said to be 7.7 feet long, and weighed close to 20 pounds.
By way of comparison, the M1 Garand, America’s main battle rifle during WWII and Korea, weighed less than half of that at 9.5 pounds. Most soldiers complained that even that was too heavy and cumbersome on extended marches. Still, if one had the strength to wield a 20 pound iron pole in the field, it would make for a fearsome weapon.
17th century wood poles, in comparison, were virtually identical to the weapons still used throughout the Southern Chinese martial arts today. Their weight was a relatively light 3-4 pounds, and they ranged in length from 8 to 9 feet. This range in dimensions is probably a reflection of wood’s natural plasticity.
Cheng noted that practically any hard yet pliant wood could be used to produce a pole. As such, poles carved in the north or south of the country would have been made from woods of different types and weights. Further, Cheng recommended using harvested pole lumber for the production of fighting staffs. Cutting a small tree at the base ensured a uniform taper with minimal additional shaping.
Unfortunately Cheng did not specify what the preferred diameters at the tip and base of his poles were. Still, we might be able to make some educated guesses on this point. Most of the traditional poles advertised at Everything Wing Chun vary in weight from 4 pounds (shorter oak examples) to 6 pounds (heavier, exotic hardwoods). It seems likely that Shaolin’s 17th century staffs might have been made of hardwoods that more closely matched the density of something like oak, and had an average diameter slightly narrower than what martial artists favor today. Still, when reading Cheng’s description the overwhelming impression that one gets is of how much has remained the same.
How did Shaolin (a Buddhist temple) become a nationally recognized center for pole fighting? And why were its fighting staffs tapered, rather than straight like their European cousins of the same time period? It turns out that the answers to these questions are closely related.
While we do not the space to review all of the relevant history in this post, Meir Shahar has demonstrated that by the Ming Dynasty the Shaolin Temple in Henan had become a recognized center of martial training with close ties to critical figures in the Chinese military. A number of temples (both in China and Japan) found it necessary to house teams of “martial monks” to protect the institution’s estates and land holdings. Modern students sometimes forget that in addition to being religious institutions, large temples were also some of the most economically powerful actors in their environments. Like other landlords they found it necessary to provide their own security in turbulent times.
Obviously wooden staffs could be made cheaply and easily replaced. While these weapons could be quite deadly, they were also in keeping with a monk’s prescribed public appearance. Yet once the Temple became more closely associated with the Ming military, pole training gained an additional layer of importance.
The Chinese military had long used poles as a form of basic training. One of the most important weapons on the 17th century battle field was the spear. It is not hard to imagine how the thrusting movements so commonly seen in the Six and a Half Point Pole form might function if a blade were to be affixed to the martial artist’s shaft.
In a recent article Peter Dekker discussed the regulation military spears of the Ming and Qing dynasties. Luckily we know quite a bit about the earlier period as the later Qing seem to have simply adopted much of the older Ming regulation and equipment as the standard for the “Green Standard Army.”
In reviewing the various spears used by military, one thing quickly becomes evident. None of them seem to be a close match for the long pole. Some of the most commonly issued spears were much longer than poles with total lengths of between 12 and 15 feet. As the adage goes, “an inch longer is an inch stronger.”
Various sorts of hooked spears tended to be closer in size to the long pole. They could easily have been 7.5 to 9 feet long. Yet we must also consider their taper.
The shafts of regulation Chinese military spears always had a straight taper, and they were usually lacquered red. The relatively heavy iron tip was counter-balanced with a weighted metal piece affixed to the end of the spear. This system maintained a certain balance and kept the spear from becoming excessively tip heavy and unwieldly.
Dekker notes that in contrast the (generally shorter) spears used by civilian militias and martial artists tended to be tapered, exactly like the long pole. Noting that the production of steel spearheads and metal counterweights was expensive, he speculates that having a thicker diameter base on the weapons shaft was simply a cheaper way of achieving a proper balance. Indeed, we have photographs of weapons confiscated from Red Spear Units in the 1930s that seem to show a similar geometry. The relatively roughhewn poles favored by the village militias tended to be noticeably tapered.
All of this would seem to reinforce the notion that the specific form of the long pole was shaped by the realities of spear combat. The military adopted pole training as an introduction to the spear, and many local militia members would have been expected to be conversant with both the pole and the spear.
Southern Militias and the Birth of Modern Kung Fu
This brings us back to Wing Chun and the history of the Six and a Half Point Pole. Far from being unique to just a single style, the Luk Dim Boon Kwan is a favored weapon throughout the world of Southern Chinese Kung Fu. Historical sources suggest that public displays of pole work were quite popular in the 19th and even the 20th century.
The current mythology of Wing Chun (and certain other regional styles) tends to emphasize the “compact” nature of the system as its adaptation to fighting in cramped spaces (either narrow alleyway or on crowded ships, depending on who one asks). Yet like almost all martial arts Wing Chun aspires to be a “complete style,” even if that is not the way that is often discussed by students today. To put it bluntly, from a tactical standpoint there is just no point in stating that one will focus only a single range or situation (e.g., short boxing) to the exclusion of all else.
When looking at the current crowded conditions in Hong Kong it might be hard to remember that the pole really is a central part of the Wing Chun system. Its presence reminds us that in the past this system operated in environments, and considered tactical problems, different from those faced by most students today. Indeed, it is the environmental nature of these issues that best explains why so many Southern styles practice some variant of the Six and a Half Point form, or one of its many cousins.
To understand the place of the long pole in these systems we must once again return the question of military training. As Jon Nielson and I discuss in our recent book, the Pearl River Delta region developed a very strong gentry led militia movement during the 19th century. These para-military forces emerged as a response to the external threats of the Opium Wars and continued to function during the later civil conflicts that wracked the region. The most notable of those was the Red Turban Revolt (sometimes called the Opera Rebellion).
During the volatile middle years of the 19th century tens of thousands of individuals were recruited into various sorts of militias and para-military groups. What were the most commonly issued weapons? A split bamboo helmet, a spear (usually about 8-9 feet long), and a pair of hudiedao (carried by most soldiers as a sidearm).
The Wing Chun system that was passed on by individuals like Leung Jan and Chan Wah Shun emerged out of the aftermath of these conflicts. It is no coincidence that the only two weapons taught in most lineages of this art happen to be the same ones used by the area’s many militia units. And other regional arts with much more extensive armories (Choy Li Fut, Hung Gar, etc…) also tend to introduce these same tools near the start of weapons training.
This suggests something important about the community, era and concerns that shaped the early history of all of these fighting styles. It also suggests that perhaps the region’s fighting poles were tapered so that they could easily be fitted with spear heads should the need arise.
If that is the case, then perhaps the relatively base heavy balance of these shafts which we have all become accustomed to is more a quirk of training safety protocols than anything else. The more tip heavy feel of my new hickory pole might more accurately reflect how the Six and a Half Point pole form was supposed to feel in battle (e.g., when the pole is mounted with a steel spearhead).
Or maybe not. As we look back on the Ming era literature I referenced earlier it is clear that there was an active debate in military circles as to how well pole training actually prepared soldiers for spear combat. Recall for instance that many of the spears issued to Ming and Qing era soldiers were much longer and heavier than Shaolin’s most substantial poles.
In his 1678 treatise, Spear Method from the dreaming of Partridge Hall, the military writer Wu Shu noted:
The Shaolin staff method has divine origins, and it has enjoyed fame from ancient times to the present. I myself have been quite involved in it. Indeed, it is high as the mountains and deep as the seas. It can truly be called a “supreme technique.”…Still as a weapon the spear is entirely different from the staff. The ancient proverb says: “The spear is the lord of all weapons, the staff is an attendant on its state.” Indeed, this is so…the Shaolin monks have never been aware this. They treat the spear and staff as if they were similar weapons.
(Translation in Meir Shahar, 2008 p. 64).
This point bears consideration. While some of the techniques and tactics of the Wing Chun pole method could be adapted to the spear, others might be more counter-productive. Or perhaps what we see here is yet another example of the simplifying, almost theoretical, tendency to search for a single set of principles capable of solving the greatest number of tactical problems regardless of what weapon one happened to pick up.
That certainly sounds like the modern, conceptually focused, approach to Wing Chun. And it makes a lot of sense from an amateur’s point of view.
Yet it is quite different from the highly specialized world that most professional soldiers inhabited. When leaving the barracks as a member of the Green Standard Army there was exactly zero mystery as to what sort of spear you would be handed, or who you would be fighting besides. All of this helps to remind us that while the growth of the militia movement may have shaped these fighting systems, they remained fundamentally “civilian” in their worldview and concerns.
The Weapon, The Self
This essay began with the observation that even seemingly minor variations in a weapon are immediately sensed by the body of the trained martial artist. 17th century soldiers in both China and Europe trained and fought with 9 foot poles. To the untrained eye they may have appeared to be identical. Yet the hand would never mistake one for the other.
Students of martial arts history need to pay more attention to the material culture of these fighting systems for this precise reason. Each of these weapons carries fossilized within it layers of history and meaning. It may be impossible to reconstruct with perfect accuracy what a Ming era Shaolin pole form looked like, even if we are lucky enough to have a manual and some pictures describing it. Yet when we pick up the weapon that Cheng Zongyou described, we can experience something of its reality on an embodied level.
Indeed, bodies are the other half of this equation. My body may be very different from that possessed by a 19th century militiaman in Guangzhou. Yet our poles are identical, and they have a disciplining influence upon the body.
A certain amount of absolute strength must be developed to wield the weapon. New types of bodily awareness and dexterity will be necessary to do so well. While we may be starting from different points, the unyielding materiality of the weapon has a transformative effect on both of our bodies. As we train with the pole, and are shaped by it, we are forced to transcend the self and converge on a new state of being. It is the demands of the pole and its techniques that shape the student.
This last point might solve a minor mystery that I have wondered about for some years. While training with my Sifu in Salt Lake I noticed that lots of students seemed to quit the Wing Chun system about the time that they were introduced to the pole. (In our lineage it is introduced after all of the unarmed forms and the dummy have been taught). Students who had previously been enthusiastic and dedicated just seemed to lose interest.
On one level this might be easy to explain. Pole training is physically demanding, even painful at times. It is probably the only time in the Wing Chun system that the low horse stance is extensively trained and used. Its basic strength and conditioning exercises ensures that there will be sore muscles.
Yet I think there was something more going on. The pole did not seem to meet their expectations of what the system was about. Boxing and chi sao are very flexible expressions of martial skill. Many individuals simply find an approach that works with their body type and personality and seek to perfect that. That may not have been what Bruce Lee meant when he discussed Kung Fu as the art of “expressing the human body”, but I think that this is how many individuals interpret his adage. What works for them personally is the “proper” expression.
The pole is different. Its materiality demands a greater degree of transformation. Our bodies are physically altered (made stronger, more flexible) so that the pole’s logic can be expressed. This commitment to transcend (rather than to express) the self does not seem to easily mesh with the way that many modern students understand Wing Chun. I wonder if that, more than the pain, caused some to lose interest.
Still, this process of embodied transformation allows us to experience elements of the fossilized history of the martial arts that might not otherwise be accessible. Written historical accounts of professional soldiers and militia members wielding their spears might sound very similar. As we read about the 19th century “militarization of the countryside” these two figures might even begin to merge in our heads. Indeed, historians have noted with some frustration the ease with which categories like “militia member,” “bandit” and “soldier” seem to blend into one another, or to have appeared in a single individuals career.
Yet when you pick up their preferred weapons, your physical senses are immediately confronted with evidence of the different identities, techniques and goals that they possessed. The martial training that each group underwent imprinted these nuances of philosophy on flesh and bone.
All of which is to say, choose you pole carefully. The details matter.
If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: The Nautical Origins of the Wooden Dummy.