Exorcising the Mad Demon Staff of Shaolin

By Gene Ching with Gigi Oh

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The Shaolin monks are renowned for their staff fighting methods. It is a longstanding legend, one that has been perpetuated in movies, books, comics and video games. Even today, anyone who practices Shaolin Kung Fu has got to know staff. It is commonly believed that the Shaolin monks, being Buddhist pacifists, specialized in staff for their simplicity and non-confrontational utility. After all, unlike a sword, a staff isn’t intrinsically a weapon. It’s a shortsighted explanation because this does not account for the vast arsenal of other weapons practiced at Shaolin. At Shaolin Temple today, almost every single weapon in the Chinese martial arts is practiced alongside the staff. So much for pacifism. Sometimes our Kung Fu mythmakers overlook the obvious.

Nevertheless there’s a very real connection between Shaolin and staff fighting. The roots of this legendary pairing of cudgels with monastics can be traced and dated within Kung Fu literature. From a scholarly point of view, it all starts with the Mad Demon Staff, or Fengmo gun (瘋魔棍). Mad Demon Staff is propounded in one of the most pivotal Kung Fu treatises, Shaolin Gunfa Chanzong ("Shaolin Staff Method Elucidation" 少林棍法阐宗) by Cheng Zongyou (1561–1636 程宗猷). This is one of the earliest texts about individual Chinese martial arts practice akin to how we know it today. While Kung Fu claims thousands of years of history, only few written records of the actual practice methods have survived from the late Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), and not much prior to that. There are earlier military strategy works, like Sunzi’s Art of War (孫子兵法), but those are about how generals move troops, not individual self-defense, not like Kung Fu in modern times. Shaolin Gunfa Chanzong is also one of the earliest known documentations of Shaolin staff technique, specifically Mad Demon Staff. Even now, within the hallowed chambers of Shaolin Temple, Mad Demon Staff remains a major component of the Kung Fu curriculum and is still actively practiced by Shaolin practitioners worldwide.

Master Ma Wenguo (马文国) has a different take on Mad Demon Staff, one that is potentially more authentic to what Cheng Zongyou documented centuries ago and different from what Shaolin followers practice now. His method is very unique for Chinese martial arts. It’s not form-based, but more combat-oriented. Ma claims that his version closer to the Cheng's original text, specifically the 55 Illustrations chapter (wushiwu tu 五十五图). He has painstakingly researched those 55 illustrations, cross-referencing them with contiguous martial treatises and comparing them to modern methods of staff fighting. Ma's authority on the subject is so respected that the Shaolin monks sought him out to relearn their own signature staff method. In 2017, a delegation of monks from the Southern Shaolin Temple in Quanzhou, Fujian, journeyed north to study under Master Ma and deepen their understanding of Mad Demon Staff.

The Staff Master from Shaanxi

Beyond being a Kung Fu master, Ma is also a respected professor, a doctor of Chinese medicine, a calligrapher and has even appeared in movies and television. Born in 1970 in Qianxian County of the northwestern province of Shaanxi, Ma is the Director of the Martial Arts Department of the Xi'an Institute of Physical Education. He also holds a seat on the Standing Committee for the China Wushu Association, and is the Vice-Chairman of both the Shaanxi Wushu Association and the Shaanxi Boxing Association.

Ma began his martial journey from childhood, first studying under Gao Xi'an (高西安), the Head Coach of the Shaanxi Wushu Team (This Master Gao is not to be mistaken for the Gao Xian that was the January+February 2002 cover master and played the hapless bodyguard Bo from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). That’s a different Gao Xian.) Later, Ma discipled under noted Master Zhang Kejian (张克俭), an exponent of Fanziquan (rotating fist 翻子拳), Piguaquan (hanging chop fist 劈掛拳), Choujiao (poking feet 戳腳) and Bajiquan (eight extremes fist 八極拳), among others. In 2004, Master Zhang recommended Ma to study from another noted master named Zhang, Master Zhang Qunyan (张群炎) from Tianjin. Zhang Qunyan is one of the top disciples of Grandmaster Guo Changsheng (1896–1967 郭长生) who espoused Pigua as well, along with Yiquan (intention fist 意拳), Tongbiquan (through the arm fist 通臂拳), including some specialized transmissions like Duliu Tongbiquan (solitary flow through the arm fist 独流通臂拳), and Liangyi Tongbiquan (two winged through the arm fist 两翼通臂拳), along with weapons like Six Harmony Spear, Miao Dao (a two-handed saber 苗刀) and, of course, Mad Demon Staff.  Zhang's Mad Demon Staff originally came from Grandmaster Guo.

Ma’s passion for martial arts took him beyond just China. In 2005, seeking to challenge himself, he expanded his studies to Western and Thai Boxing. He also learned some non-Chinese weapon methods like European Fencing, Japanese Kendo and Filipino Stick Fighting. Ma says his explorations were for comparative studies, as well as to preserve the effectiveness of inherited classical styles. He’s a major advocate of sparring other styles. “If you practice Fanziquan, first is forms, then you work with targets, and then you fight Western boxers,” says Ma in fluent English. He reiterates this with Miao Dao sparring with Kendo, as well as with biangan (short stick 鞭杆) versus Filipino Stick Fighting. “When you fight, then you know.”

Master Ma's expertise made him widely sought after as a teacher, both in China and abroad. In 2005, he taught the Shanghai Wushu Team, and from 2009 to 2011 he served as General Coach at the Xi'an Institute of Physical Education. However, his work wasn't only academic and sports coaching. Since 2013, Ma taught weapon strategies and combat to the Xi'an Special Police Unit (SPU) of the Chinese People’s Armed Police Force. And in 2014 he began dabbling in film and television, working as a martial arts director, choreographer and actor. In 2017, Ma returned to his roots, teaching classical routines to the Shanxi Wushu Team. His intention was to fuse traditional Chinese martial arts with competitive Wushu to improve the skill set overall. Master Ma's latest project is the Chang'an Tang Dao Centre (长安唐刀馆) in Xi'an. The centre is part school where Ma serves as General Instructor, and part museum dedicated to the inheritance and promotion of classical martial arts, particularly sword methods.

If Not a Mad Demon, then Not Alive

The name Fengmo gun has alternatively been translated as Crazy Devil Stick or Cudgel. Feng (疯) can mean crazy, insane or mentally ill. Likewise Mo (魔) can be translated as devil, evil spirit or magic power. Gun (棍) means staff, but it’s pronounced more like "goon" than like a gun you would shoot. Ma says the name relates to an ancient Chinese martial saying: "If not a mad demon, then not alive (bu fengmo bu cheng huo 不疯魔不成活).” So the name Mad Demon or Crazy Devil refers to the spirit of the staff, that quintessential emotional content.

Despite what anyone might claim, there is no way to truthfully validate which interpretation of any time-honored martial art is the most authentic. These methods have been passed down for generations, and each master might imbue the legacy with their own unique qualities as it passed through their hands. Mad Demon Staff is a little different because of Cheng's Shaolin Gunfa Chanzong. It’s rare to have a verifiable 16th century written record like this. Most students will rely solely upon what their teacher taught them. Ma went way beyond that. Using Shaolin Gunfa Chanzong as a source point, Ma researched Mad Demon Staff thoroughly, cross-referencing it with other similar works from the time. He integrated classical concepts, what he calls qiangdian (literally "spear points" but figuratively the essential characteristics of spear methods 枪点), into his own practice. He asserts that the Ming Dynasty staff techniques were 70% spear and 30% staff. Beyond Shaolin Gunfa Chanzong, Ma looked to other ancient treatises on spear including Chang Qiangfa Xuan (Long Spear Method 长枪法选) which was also by Cheng, Qiangfa Ershisi Shi (24 Spear Method 枪法二十四势) by Qi Jiguang (1528–1588 戚继光), and Shou Bi Lu (Hand Arm Record 手臂录) by Wu Hao (1610–1694 吴殳). Ma's in-depth research was in accordance to what his master, Zhang Qunyan propounded. Zhang also claimed ancient staff play was a collection of ancient spear methods.

In the period of the Central National Museum of the Republic of China (1912–1949), Grandmaster Guo Changsheng and Grandmaster Ma Yingtu (1897–1955 马英图) jointly studied Mad Demon Staff to revitalize and improve upon it. Grandmaster Ma selected some simple and practical qiangdian from Six Harmony Great Spear (liuhe daqiang 六合大枪), Occult Spear (qi qiang 奇枪), Eight Diagram Spear (bagua qiang 八卦枪) and Zilong's Great Spear (Zilong daqiang 子龙大枪). Zilong is another name for General Zhao Yun (died 229 趙雲), a pivotal military figure called one of the Five Tiger Generals (wu hu jiang 五虎將) in the 14th century martial classic novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Together, Grandmasters Guo and Ma also incorporated the essential methods of Miao Dao and Yinshou Spear (阴手枪), as well as body methods and footwork from Piguaquan and Tongbeiquan. “The Mad Demon Staff is based on the Pigua and Tongbei because of the stimulating chain of the footwork,” writes Ma, “the twisting and the opening and closing of the body method, the folding and frustrating make it strong in the conversion of the staff method...In the madness, the uniqueness and individuality of the spear and staff are highlighted.” In Hebei Province, Mad Demon Staff is also called Blind Person's Staff (xiazi gun 瞎子棍). This resulted from a joke between Grandmasters Guo and Ma when they characterized the unique momentum of Mad Demon to that of a blind person waving their pole.

In 1967, Ma's master Zhang Qunyan moved to the Northwest and continued his studies under Grandmaster Ma Fengtu (1888–1973 马凤图), Ma Yingtu's elder brother. Ma Fengtu is the father of Ma Xianda (1932–2013 马贤达), who graced the November+December 2002 cover. Grandmaster Ma Xianda was the teacher of both the aforementioned Gao Xi'an and Zhao Changjun (November+December 2006 cover master 赵长军). He also coached Jet Li in Fanziquan.

The system of Fengmo gun that Master Ma Wenguo promulgates has a unique approach that is distinct from the bulk of Chinese martial arts weapon training. Firstly, he teaches it independent of any hand forms. "No weights, no calisthenics," says Ma in a rich baritone voice. In fact, there's no form at all. It's a special training method involving techniques and combinations, akin to the way fighters practice kickboxing and MMA. He could create a form by stringing together these combos, but that’s only how it might be demonstrated. It’s not how he trains. "Just cudgel," says Ma.

“The Mad Demon Staff is not an ordinary staff set,” elaborates Ma, “but a concept of martial arts, especially designed for weapons. It not only embodies the idea of Qi Jiguang's ‘collecting all boxing style methods and learn,’ but also reflects the Shaolin staff method of the Ming Dynasty ‘combined spear and staff’ which is the master of the Chinese classical spears. It is complete and systematic, rich and delicate, and is a treasure of classical martial arts.”

Shaolin Staffs and Japanese Swords

Many researchers believe that Cheng Zongyou derived some of his staff methods from Japanese sword techniques. Qi Jiguang’s Jixiao Xinshu (Record of Military Training 練兵實紀) predates Cheng’s treatise. Qi also mentions the connection of Shaolin style and staff use, but doesn’t go into the detail that Cheng does. Within his work, Qi also discusses Wo Dao (倭刀), which is a long single-edged curved sword similar to the Japanese long sword. Wo literally means "dwarf" but also means "Japanese." The term is the same as in Wokou (倭寇), or Japanese pirates, who terrorized the coasts of China and Korea from the 4th to 16th centuries. Ironically, by the 16th century, the majority of these pirates were actually Chinese. Qi defended China’s shores against the Wokou, along with another prominent grandmaster of the period, Yu Daoyu (1503–1579 俞大猷). Yu studied staff at Shaolin Temple and authored another seminal martial arts treatise, Zhengai Tang Ji (Proper Qi Compilation 正氣堂集). Another Shaolin staff method, Five Obstructing Tigers (wu hu lan 五虎攔) is attributed to Yu. Master Ma states that Cheng Zongyou, who he tends to refer to by his alternate name Cheng Chongdou (程冲斗), was heavily influenced by both Qi and Yu, so naturally this long sword technique became integrated within Mad Demon Staff.

Accordingly, Master Ma is also adept with the long sword, although the term Wo Dao has been long abandoned. Nowadays, it is most commonly called Miao Dao (苗刀). This has caused some confusion because Miao refers to a Chinese ethnic minority that uses a similar sword. The same character also means "sprout" which allegedly describes the shape of the blade. Akin to this type of long sword play, Ma claims that the advantage of Mad Demon Staff comes from heavy reliance on thrusting attacks. “All the blocks and swings serve the thrust,” says Ma.

Ma’s Mad Demon Staff is structurally similar to a classic Eyebrow-height Staff (qimei gun 齐眉棍) or a staff that is the same height as the body (dengshen gun – literally "equal body staff" 等身棍). The weight and diameter are evenly distributed through the staff, which is different than a Rat Tail Staff (shuwei gun 鼠尾棍) which tapers more like a spear shaft. Today at Shaolin Temple, a Rat Tail Staff is the most commonly used, mostly because the most popular method of Shaolin Staff currently practiced there is not Mad Demon Staff. It is YInshou gun (yin hand staff 阴手棍).

The yin in Yinshou gun is the same character as the yin in yin yang (阴阳). In the simplified Chinese characters, yin uses the moon radical (yue月) for dark and yang uses the sun radical (ri 日) for light. Yin can also mean "shadow," and in this particular case it refers to the hand position. In Yinshou gun, both hands face the same direction, pronated, or palms facing downwards, meaning the palms are in shadow.

Master Ma draws some interesting distinctions between his version of Mad Demon Staff and the Shaolin Temple Mad Demon Staff and Yinshou gun. His version is tighter with a clear emphasis on powerful strikes. There are no "flowers" as in basic twirls that are so pervasive in weapons forms. While most Kung Fu practitioners will claim that spinning flowers are built-in drills to develop flexibility and fluidity, they don’t have direct combat applications so they are not part of Mad Demon Staff. Additionally, there are no extended crouching stances like pubu (literally "prone step" referring to the stance where one leg is completely bent while the other is fully extended 仆步). Mad Demon Staff does have low crouching stances, but more like squatting than pubu.

However, Ma doesn’t claim to have the only Mad Demon Staff. “The other versions are correct but different,” says Ma diplomatically. He cites modern professors combining different elements of practice and emphasizing practice for health over training for combat. “The Shaolin version is more open and more square. It’s not as twisted and compact.” What’s more, with Shaolin forms, there is an underlying emphasis on Chan (aka Zen 禪). Shaolin forms often pay tribute to Buddhist deities by honoring them with movements or gestures. At the beginning of Yinshou gun, the practitioner holds the staff straight upwards. Ma asserts that this is in deference to one of the Guardian deities of Chan, Weituo Pusa (韋馱菩薩). Weituo is the honored protector of the Dharma. He is an armed figure, usually bearing a sword or a hard whip, often holding it aloft like in the beginning of Yinshou gun. It’s an important gesture of devotion for devout Shaolin practitioners. But in contrast, Mad Demon Staff will begin with the staff pointed forward at the opponent, which is much more pragmatic where combat is concerned.

Elucidating the Shaolin Staff

In these days when everything from Kung Fu to news is being labelled as "fake," Master Ma's deep dive into martial research is refreshing and welcome.  The Chinese martial arts has a rich legacy, arguably the richest of any martial culture in the world.  There are ancient texts that bear witness, validated the time-honored practices passed down to us today.  However, to be so rich is to also be dense, so packed with information that it can easily overwhelm.  True Kung Fu is not for everyone.  It's chockful of history, legends, philosophies and tactics, so condensed that it can take a lifetime to unravel and master.

There’s that vast population of martial aficionados who just want to fight. Fortunately, there's something for them here too.  When the cultural baggage of Mad Demon Staff is unpacked, these methods can withstand challengers from other styles and still have practical applications for military and enforcement.  Mad Demon Staff is still very lethal when wielded in the right hands.  Ma’s dedication to martial arts demonstrates the effectiveness and viability of this centuries-old tradition. There is no greater affirmation of the power of classical Kung Fu.

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Kung Fu Tai Chi Magazine - Spring 2020
Feng Mo or YinShou gun??

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About Gene Ching with Gigi Oh :
The author gratefully acknowledges Shaolin Monk Shi Yanran for usage of his Shaolin Temple USA in Fremont, California, to shoot some of the photos included in this article.

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