Liu Ho Ba Fa
by Eugene Wildman
Most readers probably have a passing familiarity with the Chinese internal arts. They understand at least in a broad sense their prominent characteristics. Tai Chi overcomes the opponent through yielding, Hsing I through explosive linear attacks, Pa Kua through evasive circular footwork. Each has a philosophy at its core, an aspect of Chinese Ecosmology and metaphysics that forms its rationale: the alternation of yin and yang, the five element.
But while these have received the most exposure, there are in fact other internal styles. Less well known but surely as interesting is Liu Ho Pa Fa, the Six Harmonies and Eight Methods. One immediately striking feature is that it contains and integrates the footwork and techniques of Tai Chi, Hsing I and Pa Kua. Yet it is no mere amalgam of forms. Perhaps its most distinctive trait is the smooth, flowing character of the movements. Originally it was called Water Boxing, and this provides its central metaphor. The practitioner must be like a fish in the water, light, flexible, always responsive, the power must be like a wave, never stopping, never breaking. As may be apparent, the image of someone boxing in the water might well be a cause of confusion. It is very abstract. On that account, at some uncertain time in the past, the more literal name it goes by now was adopted.
The style is said to have been developed by Chen Hei I, a noted mathematician and Taoist who lived in Shansi province in the late 13th century. Chen is supposedly also the creator of the Tai Chi Ruler exercise set. The story goes that the first master, Lee Tung Feng, acquired the style when he discovered a cave in the Hua Shan mountains which contained a skeleton and several manuscripts done in Chen's hand.
The manuscripts of course detailed the art. Doubtless this may be apocryphal. The Chinese are fond of such origin tales. Whatever its true beginnings however, from Lee's time on the lineage is clear. On occasion one hears the name Hua Yu Tai Chi. This is in reference to the specific peak in the Hua Shan range where the style had its birth. It is also of course a commentary on the fluid, graceful quality of the actions. The full name of the style, in fact, is Hua Yu Hsing I Liu Ho Pa Fa Chuan, Yu Mountain Heart and Mind Six harmony and Eight Method Boxing. The "Hsing I" refers not to the martial art of that name but to the internal idea which underlies both. As a kind of sidebar, it is worth nothing that although Liu Ho Pa Fa incorporates the principles and techniques of Tai Chi Chuan, it predates by some 200 years the oldest documented appearance of that style, the Chen Tai Chi. What the implications of this may be is matter for scholars and historians to consider. One reason the style is little known is that it was never taught publicly. Unlike Tai Chi, say, which was allowed to be popularized, Liu Ho Pa Fa was a closed door teaching. Not until after World War II, in Shanghai, did Wu I Hui, the greatest modern master consent to show it openly. Among Wu's admirers was Wang Xiang Zhai, famous for his Hsing I and the creator of Tai Cheng Chuan.
In a work published in 1927, Wang declared that in all China only two and a-half people truly knew martial arts. The half was a White Crane adept who had engaged with him evenly. The two were a Hsing I master of the Shaolin school in Wuhan, and Wu. As a fight art Liu Ho Ba Fa has been compared to an encyclopedia, thanks to it store of over 700 techniques. Like the other internal styles, its training and methods involve cultivation of the body's internal energy, or ch'i. As the name alone implies, the style is extremely detailed. The traditional program is nothing less than an approach to learning designed to assure that the student will move by natural stages from one developmental level to the next.
The system is comprised of several training forms; the Twelve Animal set; the main form; the Tiger versus Dragon fighting form; the Swimming Dragon; the Mother and Sons Eight Linked Palms form; weapons. These re carefully sequenced flows of technique that pit you against an imaginary foe. If the opponent does this your smartest move is that, if you do that then his smartest is this, and so on. The assumption is you are up against the best.
The form is not just a string of techniques; it is a language expressing martial arts meaning. You are functioning in relation to an opponent and an always moving, changing circumstance. You must understand not only the how but the why of what you do; awareness and flexibility are key.
Each of these sets has a definite purpose. The animal forms make up the basics and are used to train the inside and outside... the mind and ch'i inside, the coiling outside. They can without doubt be used for fighting, but more importantly they train you to react, to be alert and forget yourself. The main form, which is in two sections, is far more complex in its combinations and variations. It continues the work with the mind and the ch'i, as it does with the coiling, and is used to develop smoothness, the harmony of inside and outside. No question it can be used for fighting. Starting with the Tiger versus Dragon set, the focus changes and is more express on fighting situation as such. Notwithstanding any martial utility, the first two forms had a paramount goals training of the body and the breathing. Otherwise, absent such development you would be left with only an external style Given it, once you have master the main form you are capable of moving to any advanced form. The first imperative is control of the opponent. Then the advantage shifts to you. Bear in mind this was for real; one mistakes and you well might die. A with all high level systems, an array of locks takedowns, throws are employed; pokes and palm strikes are aimed at the eyes, throat, groin, as well as the various dim mak points. Interestingly, where Liu Ho Pa Fa modifies any of the Tai Chi, Hsing I or Pa Kua techniques (and it does so in many places the changes are very subtle and always in the service of greater control). It cannot be emphasized to much that this is an extremely sophisticated system. The founder must have had a deep understanding of each of the other internal styles, to say nothing of extensive experience with the actualities of combat itself. No amount of armchair theorizing could have produced an art so finely tuned. Before the student can be judged ready, inwardly an outwardly the body must be properly connected rounded, balanced. During movement the joints of the body must act in concert. They must start together and stop together. The Six Harmonies and Eight Methods address this. Both have internal and external aspects and are indissoluble fused. The internal side will not be discussed here. That requires a fair bit of explanation, which considerations of space preclude. The Six Harmony external are: 1. Body and joints together I.e.move from the spine to the back to the neck. 2. Hands and joints together. I.e move from the shoulder to the elbow to the wrist. 3. Foot and joints together. I.e. move from the hip to the knee to the ankle. 4. Hand and foot together. I.e. hand and foot must be in line. 5. Elbow and knee together. I.e. they must be in a line. 6. Shoulder and hip together. I.e. they must coordinate their movement. The Eight Methods externals are: 1. Three straightening. I.e. head hands, tongue. 2. Three claws. I.e. shoulder, palms, fingers and toes. 3. Three circles. I.e. back, chest, hands (tiger mouth). 4. Three speeds. I.e. mind (like a cat) eyes (like an eagle), hands (like a tiger). 5. Three holdings. I.e. ch'i (in tan tien), confidence (in self), elbows (close to sides). 6. Three drops. I.e. ch'i (to tan tien), shoulders (to push elbows), front elbow (to make arm a circle). 7. Three bends. I.e. arms (more power), knee (give body more power), wrist (for more strength), 8. three springs. I.e. Neck (pushes ch'i to top of head), spine (power goes to four ends), knees (drives circulation through entire body). There is more to it of course. necessarily mush has been omitted. This is not the last word, only a beginning. There are at a minimum three forms, also a video, currently being offered as Liu Ho Pa Fa in the United States. At the moment there is only one practitioner in the United States, Wai Lun Choi of Chicago, who knows the entire system that was taught by Wu I Hui. Master Choi is an accomplished martial artist and learned the art from Chen I Jen, who learned it directly from Wu himself.