CHOP! CHOP! - Kung fu's Deadly Fighting Axes
by Jason William McNeil, with photos © Daaave Summers - www.Da3ve.com
In Stephen Chow's hit film, KUNG FU HUSTLE, audiences thrilled to the action/comic exploits of the villainous "Axe Gang" - indeed, the film's choreographed dance sequence, wherein the tuxedoed bad guys shimmy, shake and swing their signature choppers, may go down in history as one of the most memorable moments in Hong Kong cinema. For all its delightful excesses of wire-work, cartoon-fu and moments of wuxia brilliance, KUNG FU HUSTLE didn't stray far from the truth when it came to choosing killing tools to put in the hands of its gangster baddies. Harkening back to battlefield legends and heroic literature of the highest order, kung fu fighters and, by extension, Chinese street fighters have often made the short-handled axe, used singly or in pairs, their "go to" weapon when brutally efficient self-defense (or offense) is needed.
Literary Legacy and Historical Records
Most kung fu systems that teach short-handled axe skills pay homage to the semi-mythological character Li Kwei. One of the most popular characters in the Robin Hood-esque Chinese literary classic, OUTLAWS OF THE MARSH, Li Kwei is depicted as a massively muscled, powerful fighter who battles the forces of oppression bare-chested with a short-handled, wide-bladed axe in each hand. Always tradition-minded, many Chinese martial arts styles include some version of a "Li Kwei Double Axe" form, named for the legendary knight-errant and practiced with paired axes in the hope of replicating that hero's powerful physique and ferocious fighting skills. One of the most popular characters in OUTLAWS OF THE MARSH, the double axe-wielding Li Kwei was a ferocious fighter known for his great strength, fiery temper, bravery in battle and love of strong drink. Like Adam Sandler's WATERBOY, though, he loved his mamma most of all. He is cited as an archetype of both warrior spirit and filial piety, and his battles with the Outlaws against the Liao Tartars and southern rebels are recounted just as often as the time he battled his way home to Liangshan, carrying his blind mother on his back the entire way (Aww….) Depicted as quick-tempered and possessed of Herculean strength, he bore the dual nicknames of "The Black Whirlwind" and "The Iron Ox." Over the course of his career, he killed rebels, officials, enemies, four tigers and, eventually, himself, drinking poison in a bizarre suicide pact with another character, Song Jiang. Though often ridiculed by his cohorts and played for comic effect in the story, Li Kwei has been said to represent both the light and dark sides of the Outlaws, and remains a reader favorite. Bioware's videogame, JADE EMPIRE, features a character named "The Black Whirlwind" who is based on Li Kwei, right down his choice of weapons.
Historical evidence of axe use in China, both as tools and as weapons, dates back nearly 5,000 years (examples have been dated to 2737 BCE.) This isn't unusual - most early cultures developed wood choppers in some form, and the logical leap from splitting logs to splitting limbs is a short one for even the least civilized axe-man.
Whether the story of Li Kwei reflected reality, or axe-wielding warriors consciously imitated the exploits of their legendary hero (the truth probably lies somewhere betwixt the two), battlefield axe men historically favored fighting with twin choppers - one in each hand (shuang fu = "double axes"). While traditional Chinese battle axes can prove devastating weapons in the hands of a skilled fighter, they offered both advantages and disadvantages on the battlefield. Its weight and the power with which it was swung makes the Li Kwei axe extraordinarily difficult to block. Designed to chop through wood, a heavy battleaxe can chop a spear shaft in half, split through a shield and even shatter a sword blade - not to mention the damage done to the opponent in its path.
Used in pairs, one axe can block while the other attacks. Alternately, the lead axe can be used for an aggressive parry, clearing the line of attack for a devastating follow-through with the second weapon. The traditional, wide-bladed design of the Li Kwei axes even allows the warrior to use the flat side of his blade as a make-shift shield, hiding behind the steel to absorb an attack while simultaneously cutting his opponent down with the other axe.
On the other hand, despite their many advantages on the battlefield, double axes were not for every soldier, and not for every battle. Only the strongest of warriors could successfully wield the Li Kwei axes. They're heavy and require both strength and endurance to get their owner to the end of the battle. Facing the prospect of a long day (or week or month) of warfare, many Chinese soldiers drew inspiration and courage from the oft-told tales of Li Kwei's heroic struggles, but opted for the more familiar (and lighter) spear and saber combo to take into their own battles.
It should be noted that while short handled axes (fu in Mandarin Chinese) that closely reflected their woodpile origins quickly found their way into the hands of peasants defending their homes and conscripted soldiers, there is some evidence of long-handled battle axes (da fu = "big axe") being used for horseback-to-horseback fighting. Interestingly, long-handled axe forms are still preserved in the curriculums of several kung fu styles, but these days the da fu is almost never practiced on horseback.
The Rise of the Urban Axe Fighter
Much as the art of swordsmanship began in Europe when the sword lost its importance as a battlefield weapon and moved into the cities (serving the needs of the civilian population for self-defense and dueling), the kung fu fighting axe found its most devoted adherents not among soldiers, but among shopkeepers, street fighters and criminals in the back alleys and byways of China's steadily swelling urban centers. In various forms, the small axe or hatchet is a common tool, close at hand wherever there's wood that needs splitting. Shorter and sharper versions may be found stuck in butcher blocks and in kitchens everywhere. When something light, sharp and deadly is close at hand, it's sure to be grabbed when situations turn nasty, and from Shanghai to Taipei to Hong Kong and in Chinatowns around the world, traditional Chinese fighting axe skills have been passed down, adapted, taught from generation to generation and utilized to deadly effect. While shopkeeps and wok jockeys found the hatchet and cleaver handy tools to keep the bad elements at bay, those same bad elements were just as quick to recognize the nasty nature of the fighting axe, and embraced it so wholeheartedly that its image has been forever intertwined with Chinese gangs and blood in the Chinatown streets.
Perhaps unfortunately, the earliest English language accounts of the (then secretive) Chinese martial arts stem from kung fu fighting spilling over into the streets, to the horror of Western onlookers (and, it must be said, the delight of the publishers of lurid newspapers): China's "Boxer Rebellion" of 1900 and adjective-heavy reports of "Tong Wars" that broke out between rival gangs in various American Chinatowns during the 19th and 20th centuries. Readers thrilled to lurid stories of battling gangsters and blood clotting in Mott Street's gutters and, inescapably, when Tongs cut loose, it was fighting axes that did much of the cutting.
According to historian Shelley Klein, "The preferred weapon of the Tong gangs at this time  was a six inch long hatchet - a relic from their ancestral past, but one which also earned the Tongs a great deal of notoriety in America."
In 1933, writer Herbert Asbury echoed this assertion with his description of typical 19th century Tong "warrior" along San Francisco's Barbary Coast: "… their queues [long, braided pigtails] wrapped around their heads, black slouch caps drawn down over their eyes, and their blouses bulged with hatchets, knives and clubs."
According to Klein, many white journalists of the time "liked nothing better" than reporting the lurid details of Tong warfare to an eager readership, for the simple reason that Tong wars meant hatchets, "hatchets meant blood, and blood ensured a large readership."
While popular films and some sifus' too-short memories have painted the history of kung fu practice in glowing sepia tones, citing the noble monks of the Shaolin Temple and heroic Yim Wing Chun (forced to fight just to marry the man she loved), the truth is that the Triad Halls and Tong gang rivalries have done as much (or more) to preserve and pass on the traditional Chinese fighting arts as any saffron-robed priest or love-struck bride-to-be. As recently as the 1970s, kung fu instruction was a closed-door affair, available only to Chinese and, of those, often only to members of the Tong that supported the training hall.
Is it any wonder, then, that the fighting axe - the signature weapon of Chinese gangsters and street fighters - is found in the arsenals of so many "old school" training halls, and that axe forms contain some of the nastiest fighting techniques in all of kung fu?
Enter the Axes
As practiced by members of San Francisco's Hop Sing Tong, the Hung Sing Choy Lay Fut kung fu fighting axe form teaches brutal and effective techniques for axe fighting, both one-on-one and - typical of choy lay fut - against multiple attackers. Practiced with heavy axes for training and strength development, then with smaller axes, hatchets and even meat cleavers for combat and self defense (or possibly more nefarious purposes, depending on the student), the Hung Sing axe set perfectly complements the wide, sweeping punches that characterize Chan Heung's famous fighting art. With axe in hand, most choy lay fut strikes are performed virtually unchanged from their empty-handed version - they're just more deadly with a fist full of sharpened steel. When watching or - better yet - practicing the Hung Sing axe form, it becomes readily apparent that, while empty-handed choy lay fut fighters pride themselves on being able to fight two, three or more attackers simultaneously, that same fighter armed with a pair of sturdy, sharp kung fu fighting axes could quite handily cut his way through a roomful of people. Scary stuff, but useful when one's life is on the line.
It's Not Just for Fighting Anymore
While most modern kung fu students won't find themselves battling with blades in Chinatown back alleys (though it happens now and again), there are still many benefits to be gained from axe training. It's been reported that Muhammad Ali, "the Greatest" heavyweight boxer of all time, eschewed much weight training in favor of marathon wood chopping to get in shape for fights and augment his loose and powerful punching skills. The lumberjack isn't an archetype of rugged, manly strength for nothing.
Especially when performed with the oversized, blade-heavy axes patterned after battlefield-ready forebears, regular practice of kung fu axe forms will develop tremendous strength in the arms, shoulders, chest and back. When used in pairs, Li Kwei axe practice also develops abdominal "core" strength and ambidextrous coordination. On top of all these benefits, the sort of vigorous leaping, spinning, jumping and, of course, chopping, slicing and dicing with heavy tools demanded by routines like the aforementioned Hung Sing Choy Lay Fut double axe form give the student a tremendous aerobic workout.
A Cut Above
Few kung fu forms can boast such a potent combination of aerobic workout, strength and coordination-building and, not incidentally, quick and easy development of some truly nasty fighting skills, as Li Kwei's beloved double axes. Is it any wonder that they remain a favorite with martial artists, movie stars and - yes - even with the criminal classes? If you've never had a go at kung fu's fighting axes, do yourself a favor and give ‘em a try.
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About Jason William McNeil, with photos © Daaave Summers - www.Da3ve.com :
Jason William McNeil is a Los Angeles based writer, actor and martial artist.