Choy Li Fut 蔡李佛 is a martial arts system founded in 1836 by Chan Heung 陳享, one of the greatest martial artists of his time. Today it is one of the most widely practiced Kung Fu styles, both for its effectiveness and for its great technical variety. Although we know quite a lot about the life of its founder and the origin of the style, there are different versions of the story, which is, on the other hand, mixed with legend. In this article we offer different versions without being able, today and with the information we have, to prefer a specific one. Some of these versions are simply tales that our master told us, which have been transmitted orally and that, despite not being able to have them as hundred percent reliable, we want to share them, because they enrich the vision that we have today about the origins of Choy Li Fut.
Portrait of Chan Heung
In China, for millennia, a large number of diverse martial styles have flourished. For more than a thousand years, the temple of Shàolín 少林寺 has been the cradle of many of them, and the place where many others have been developed, perfected and transmitted. It is said that, apart from the main temple in Hénán 河南, there were also other temples belonging to the order of Shàolín at Éméi Shān 峨眉山 and at the Fújiàn 福建 Province, although their existence has been discussed.
Although there is no evidence of the existence of the Shàolín monastery of Fújiàn, nor of its destruction by the forces of the Qīng 清 dynasty, the truth is that popular legend has associated the lineage of many martial artists with it.
One of these martial artists was Chan Yuen-Woo 陳遠護, a distant uncle of Chan Heung, from King Mui 京梅 village in the San Woi 新會 district of Gong Moon (Jiāngmén) 江門, in Canton. It is said that Chan Yuen-Woo had been a disciple of a southern Shàolín monk named Duk Jeong.
Chan Heung's first masters
Chan Heung was born on August 23, 1806 in King Mui, and at the age of seven he went to live with his uncle, under whose tutelage he began his instruction in Chinese martial arts.
It is unclear what style of Kung Fu Yuen-Wu taught Chan Heung. There has been speculation about whether it could be Hung Kyun 洪拳 but, according to our oral tradition, Yuen-Wu's way of handling the spear probably relates him to some northern style.
Chan Heung demonstrated an exceptional skill in Kung Fu, and at the age of fourteen he had managed to master all the knowledge his uncle could convey to him, being able to beat in combat any competitor in neighboring villages. His uncle wanted the young man to continue learning, so he decided to take him to a former colleague of his, Li Yau-San 李友山, who had also learned from a Southern Shàolín monk called Ji Sin. Some sources claim he was a monk himself.
Li Yau-San had an herbal shop in the district of San Woi, and there went Chan Yuen-Woo with his apprentice to ask his former friend to accept him as a disciple. That's how Chan Heung met his second master.
Another version of the encounter between Chan Heung and Li Yau-San
There is another version of the story according to which Chan Heung and Li Yau-San had already met before:
Li Yau-San's fame as a fighter was well known throughout the region. Once, when he was resting at a tea house in the area, Chan Heung, having heard of him, decided to test his skills attacking him by surprise. When Li Yau-San was leaving the tea house, he grabbed him from behind to try to knock him down, but Li used the Seipingma 四平馬 or square horse stance to secure himself to the ground, and his opponent could not move him. After the initial surprise, Li Yau-San counterattacked, exchanging several blows with Chan Heung, and again he was surprised by his ability with the Buddha's Palm technique.
Li Yau-San rebuked Chan Heung for his attitude, and the young man asked for forgiveness assuring that he had simply wanted to test his skill, but never cause harm to him. However, the master of Southern Shàolín was impressed by the qualities of the young man.
Li Yau-San was a great master who had created his own style, the Li Ga 李家 or Li Family boxing. Under his supervision, Chan Heung spent the next four years training the Li-style Kung Fu. In that brief period, Chan Heung had once again reached the level that his teachers took a lifetime to reach, and was ready to continue his journey.
Li Yau-San, after considering the matter in depth, wrote a letter of recommendation and decided to send his disciple to Mount Luó Fú 罗浮山 in search of whom would turn to be his third master: the legendary monk Choy Fook 蔡褔.
In search of monk Choy Fook
Choy Fook was a former Northern Shàolín monk who had abandoned monastic life to live as a hermit at Mount Luó Fu. He was known as the "Burnt Head Monk", due to the ugly scars in his head, after burning himself with incense when taking the Buddhist vows.
Chan Heung went to Luó Fu Shān, asking everyone who was on his way for the whereabouts of Choy Fook. Upon arriving at a small temple at the top of the mountain, he found an old man with a hat, whom he asked again about the monk. The man told Chan Heung that Choy Fook was not there at the time and that he did not know when he was coming back. Chan Heung decided to wait there until the monk returned, and it was such his insistence on staying, that finally the man recognized to be himself the person whom he sought. When his hat was removed, ugly scars were exposed in his head.
Chan Heung then held out the letter from Li Yau-San and asked the hermit to accept him as a disciple but, to his disappointment, he refused. Chan Heung insisted on his plea, but Choy Fook had no desire to teach martial arts and only accepted Chan Heung as a pupil to pass on the Buddhist teachings.
Chan Heung decided to stay. He spent his time studying Buddhism with Choy Fook and practicing meditation during the day, and training his Kung Fu alone during the night. Only after a long period through which the monk was testing his apprentice, he was fully convinced that was worthy of receiving the teachings and secrets of the arts of Northern Shàolín.
Putting Chan Heung to the test
Legend has it that one early morning, Chan Heung was training kicking stones up and hitting before they fell again. Seeing this, Choy Fook came up and asked him if this was all he was capable of. Pointing a large rock of about thirty kilos, asked him to throw it twelve feet away with a kick. Chan Heung managed to meet the challenge very tightly, and was amazed when the monk lifted the rock with a kick, apparently without effort.
Chan Heung again begged Choy Fook to teach him, and this time his request was finally accepted.
Chan Heung spent eight years with monk Choy Fok, learning the Choy Ga 蔡家 style of North Shàolín and being instructed in the practice of Buddhism. He also learned the secrets of herbal medicine and to reposition bones and joints.
A new path
When Chan Heung was twenty-nine years old, his master decided that he was ready to embark on a new course, and entrusted him to return home to dedicate himself to the transmission of Shàolín Kung Fu.
The Dragon and the Tiger met as the wind and the cloud
My disciple, you must take good care of the future
To revive the arts of Shaolin
Don't let future generations forget this teaching
Words of monk Choy Fook when seeing off Chan Heung
In 1836 *, after bidding farewell to his master and returning to King Mui, Chan Heung systematized all his martial knowledge in a new style of Kung Fu, which he baptized, honouring his teachers, as Choy Li Fut. The first word, Choy, refers to monk Choy Fook; the second, to Li Yau-San. With the third word, Fut, which means Buddha in Cantonese, Chan Heung honored the Buddha-palm style he had learned from his uncle and the Shàolín Buddhist roots of his new system**.
In King Mui, Chan Heung established a school to teach the new system, which he named Hung Sing Kwoon 洪聖館, in honour of a local deity called Hung Sing 洪聖 (Great Sage). His fame spread quickly and he received students from different places.
In the years that followed, Chan Heung fought against the British in the Opium Wars. Later, during the Tài Píng 太平天國 revolt, which fought the corrupt Manchu government of the Qīng dynasty, Chan Heung, following his Buddhist principles, refused to fight, although he did train fighters in case it arose later the necessity to fight. Chan Heung and the teachers who followed him trained the civilian population, farmers and peasants, so that they could defend themselves from the Government troops with the weapons that they had at hand: sticks, hoes, benches... Still today, in those regions of southern China, Choy Li Fut is very dear and appreciated by the people.
With the revolution getting worse in China, Chan Heung established the battle cries of Choy Li Fut: wat when executing tiger's claw, tek when kicking, yik when hitting with palms and fists, etc. In this way, even in the middle of a battle, the practitioners of Choy Li Fut could recognize each other, collaborate and protect themselves.
In 1864, the Tài Píng Rebellion was crushed and Chan Heung had to flee from China, taking refuge in Hong Kong 香港, which at that time belonged to the British. He stayed there for four years until the situation calmed down and he was able to return to San Woi. It is said that on his return, Chan Heung made the trip back to Mount Luó Fú to visit Choy Fook, but his master had already passed away at the age of 112 years.
Chan Heung died in the year 1875, at 69 years of age, and was buried in his hometown of King Mui.
Chan Heung in America?
After the failure of the Tài Píng Rebellion, Chan Heung had to escape from China. Although it is known, as we have explained in the text, that he spent four years teaching in Hong Kong, it seems that, before going there, he was in unknown whereabouts for some years. Some place Chan Heung at that time in nearby countries such as Singapore or Malaysia, but there is also a rumour that he may have traveled to America. However, there is no evidence of such a journey, and so that story will always be as it is, a rumour.
* The date of 1836 as the founding year of the Choy Li Fut style is not universally accepted. The Fut-San 佛山 branch considers that the style was founded in 1850, for reasons that we will see in another article.
** Regarding the name of the style, there are also disagreements. We'll see it later.
The techniques from Chan Heung's masters
Among the techniques that Choy Li Fut possesses, we owe Chan Yuen-Woo the palm blows like Gong-Jeung 抗掌, Tsang-Jeung 撑掌, etc. We use the famous fist of Li Yau-San in blows like Kap-Chui 級捶, Pek-Chui 披搥, Chin-Zi 千字 or Biu-Zong 標撞. And finally, the wonderful footwork that the style possesses comes from the techniques of Northern Shàolín, that Chan Heung learned from monk Choy Fook, from whom also come some fists like Zin-Chui 箭搥 or iron arrow fist; Shàolín Qìgōng 氣功 techniques, such as the Eighteen Luóhàn Hands; the knowledge of dit-da-jow 跌打酒 herbal medicine and finally its Buddhist inheritance. Thus, among the practitioners of Choy Li Fut it is often said that we possess "legs from the North; fists from the South." We must therefore value and take care of this great inheritance that has been transmitted to us since very old, thanks to Chan Heung and to all our masters ancestors of the lineage, and to practice daily so that this knowledge is not lost, and can continue to serve to improve people's health and lives.