Liu Ho Fa Fa: Last of China's Closed-door Arts

by Karl Knoble

At one time or another, every martial arts style was a "closed-door" art, meaning it was not shown or taught to people who had not yet proved themselves worthy of learning and keeping the style's deadly secrets. So dedicated were the masters and their students that tests and rituals had to be passed before one could be accepted into this closed-door society. The rules may have been stringent, but the masters had their reasons. We must first realize martial arts was not a hobby, but rather the next priority to life itself. When warlords were pitted against higher officials, few had the time to hear a woman yelling rape, a farmer being robbed or to notice villagers being squeezed for money to prevent their town from being burned. You could only depend on yourself to understand your family situation and protect your land and wealth. So, martial arts grew because people needed a better way of defending themselves and protecting their families.

The spread and growth of martial arts also took a turn toward secrecy, as one style battled another for total supremacy. The master would not publicly demonstrate or talk about his style for fear of another instructor borrowing the most deadly techniques and calling them his own. In those days, there was only one way to test a kung-fu style or technique - fighting. And that resulted in close-to-death or knock-out situations depending on the skills of the combatants.

As times changed, martial artists evolved. Masters opened up and shared their styles. An entire village would hire a master to teach the villagers how to defend themselves. Armed with the new knowledge, one of the villagers would leave his town and share his techniques with others. This precipitated the burning of the Shaolin Temple. It was said the Shaolin style spread to the masses and Choy Li Fut style kung-fu evolved to fight the Ching government. Hung Gar survived through instruction on boats.

Soon, many instructors began opening schools. The Ching Wu school maintained a staff of teachers skilled in various northern styles of kung-fu. They shared their knowledge with instructors adept in eagle claw, northern praying mantis, northern Shaolin and my jong law horn. As the need for self-defense lessened with improvements in the judicial system, many of the once closed-door arts were made available to the public. Some of the last arts to emerge were Wing Chun, Southern Praying Mantis, Pa Kua, Tai Chi and Hsing I, remained relatively secret, but overall the kung-fu styles evolved quickly in an age of learning.

Tai Chi, (great ultimate) is composed of many family branches - Chen, Wu, Yang and Sun, to name a few - and is noted for its water principle in using power. Pa Kua, (eight diagrams) is based on the I-Ching Book of Changes. The art combines evasive footwork with strong palm attacks and throws. One victim once described the effects of the art as first being caught in a tornado and then slammed against a brick wall. Hsing-I, (mind-intent boxing), is the most abrupt of the internal styles. The body acts like a bomb by crossing, pounding, crushing and exploding through an opponent. The footwork cuts back and forth as the martial artist searches for a weakness in his opponent's power and defenses.

These internal styles shared the most obscurity because they sought the development and use of chi, (the internal power that some use to absorb the heaviest blows). Someone who has mastered chi also is said to be able to strike an opponent in such a way to cause only internal damage. The development of chi, then, has been a practice long coveted by martial artists. But the question remains: Of these internal styles, which is best? As with any endeavor, he who practices the most will develop the greatest skill, so personal preference usually swayed the student. However, only when the master saw a student's total loyalty would he begin teaching the internal secrets.

As times and attitudes changed, the masters of internal styles began sharing their systems. Eventually, the masters of pa Kua could demonstrate tai chi, thereby proving that for one to know the differences, one also had to know the similarities. Masters and students began to practice more than one style. All internal arts have their strong points, and each master of a respective style has shown great chi development. The trick is to combine the knowledge of chi with self-defense and power training to produce a superior martial art. Since many arts claim to offer a complete training package, it can be difficult to decide where to begin.

The answer may very well lie in the study of Liu Ho Ba Fa, the last of China's closed-door arts. Liu Ho Ba Fa means the six coordinations (Liu Ho) achieved through eight methods (ba fa).

The six coordinations include: body and intuition;intuition and will; will and energy; energy and spirit; spirit and movement; and movement and surrounding environment.

The eight methods are: breath, bone, shape, follow, life, return, reserve and conceal.

The art of Liu Ho Ba Fa contains the principles of the other three internal arts, plus the ability to change according to the situation. The origin of the art dates to A.D. 960, or the period known as the Sung Dynasty. Its founder, Chen Hsi I, also known as Hay Yee Chen or Chen Po, was a Taoist hermit in the Hwa Yu mountains. Thus, the style is sometimes called Hwa Yu Tai Chi. Chen Hsi I was quite different from other founders of internal arts because his lineage could be traced.

Although considered a scholar in his time, he managed to fail the Imperial Examinations and subsequently lost all interest in classical studies. Instead, he spent most of his time wandering through China's vast mountain ranges until he eventually secluded himself in a cave on Mount Hwa Yu. Trying to achieve immortality through breath control, he abstained from all food. His efforts were spent studying Taoist ways and writing books on the mastery of his skills. The books included: Book of Taoist Finger; Discourse on Internal/External Kung-Fu; Twenty-four Exercises for Seasons; Commentary on Chang Shan Feng; Liu Ho Ba Fa; and Nurturing Chi for Longevity.

His first disciple, Lee Tung Feng, was searching for the great man when he saw a light emanating from a cave. Upon entering, he discovered the coffin and works of Chen Hsi I. Lee Tung Feng began following the ways of his master, and spent most of the time perfecting the man's skills. Rather than seek personal gratification, he chose to teach the art only to a small group of Taoists. Consequently, the art's family tree was easily traced. Lee Tung Feng was not a hermit, but he kept his location closed guarded. Those who learned the art of Liu Ho Ba Fa were few and far between. In fact, only Yuen Tung Sung, Lee Tung Feng's first disciple, learned all of the great master's skills.

The modern-day branch of the Liu Ho Ba Fa family tree can be traced to Wu Yik Fan, who began sharing the closed-door art by demonstrating its methods to the martial arts community of Shanghai in mainland China. Soon after his performance, Wu I Huey (Wu Yik Fan) was befriended by the leading masters of other styles. His subsequent instruction in Liu Ho Ba Fa, as well as fan ku koo and yen kuo hsing, not only pushed his art to a new level, but raised his overall martial art skill.

While in Peking, Chan Yik Yan became a follower and assumed the position of master upon Wu's death. When Chan settled in Hong Kong, many sought his instruction after hearing of his prowess in Liu Ho Ba Fa. During that time, he taught under the Hwa Yu Hsing I, Liu Ho Ba Fa Physical Cultural Association logo. Among those who received instruction from Chan was Wai Lun Choi, who had an extensive background in northern Shaolin kung-fu, My Jeon Law Horn and Tibetan Lama styles. Wai showed extreme progress in his studies, and in 1971 was selected along with several others to represent the style and Hong Kong in the Southeast Asian tournament held in Singapore. It was considered one of the most prestigious tournaments in the east. Wai Lun Choi's skills not only won his division, but also earned him the nickname Pai Choi or Big Gun, which signified the sound his opponents made as they hit the floor. Chan Yik Yan was so impressed he presented Wai with a scroll making him his successor upon his death.

Choi, however, had already made plans to move to the United States. Coming to Chicago in 1971, he operated a kung-fu school in Chinatown for five years. Choi continues to teach the art on the city's north side. Today, America is just beginning to learn the once-secret art of Liu Ho Ba Fa. Easily, one can see the art contains the principles of the other internal systems. The difference, however, is that all three styles flow in one motion or reaction. But with Liu Ho Ba Fa, the stylist is not locked into a particular action; he is able to change according to the situation. This concept is the true meaning of "flowing" in kung-fu. The secret is a constant change and flow with your opponent, while using the least amount of energy. One of the goals of Liu Ho, control through balance, power and intuition, is accomplished by angling and attacking the weak side of your opponent. You limit his power by upsetting his balance and foundation. Meanwhile, your balance remains in a position of power. Liu Ho Ba Fa is relatively new to this country, but its amazing attributes should make it a popular art for centuries to come. The once closed-door art is finally open and ready to accept those who are willing to experience this bold new style.