Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
- For the military operation, see Operation Eagle Claw
The traditional Chinese martial art known as Eagle Claw (Ying Jow Pai) is one of the oldest and most complex of the surviving Northern Shaolin kung fu systems. Along with the long strikes and kicks that typify Northern systems, the Eagle Claw system is distinguished by its powerful gripping techniques and intricate system of locks, takedowns, and pressure point strikes, which represent one of the oldest forms of the Chinese grappling known as Chin Na.
The story of Eagle Claw is a classic tale of the development of a traditional martial art. While the details of the history alter according to the teller, with names and places shifting as they tend to do in any oral history, in essence the story of Eagle Claw began in the Shaolin temple and in Chinese military training, became a family tradition passed on from parent to child for generations, and eventually shed its air of secrecy with the advent of public martial arts schools.
Ngok Fei and Lai Chin
Eagle Claw is said to have had its origins in 1130, at a time of warfare between the Southern Song Dynasty and the Jurchen in the north, who were the ancestors of the Manchus and founders of the Jin Dynasty. The man said to be the most famous and brilliant general of the Southern Song dynasty was named Ngok Fei (Yue Fei in Mandarin).
According to most histories, during his training, Ngok Fei had learned and developed a system of hand techniques from a Shaolin monk named Jow Tong. Known as the 108 Fighting Techniques, they were based on a much older system known as Elephant, and focused on seizing, locking, and pressure point strikes.
General Ngok Fei called his adapted techniques Ying Kuen (eagle fist) or Ying Sao (eagle hand) and taught them to his soldiers. Long after his death, which some histories describe as a political execution, his techniques survived through military practice. Then during the Ming Dynasty, a monk named Lai Chin encountered soldiers practicing the hand techniques of Eagle Fist (although some histories name Lai Chin as the monk who taught Ngok Fei). Lai Chin was already master of his own Northern kung fu system, known as Fann Tzi, which emphasized high kicks and intricate footwork. Realizing that his system could be strengthened by adding the hand techniques of Eagle Fist, he decided to blend the two, creating the core of the system now known as Northern Eagle Claw or Ying Jow Pai. With a few additions from the traditional Northern Shaolin systems of kung fu, including weapons techniques, it is the system studied and practiced today.
The Ching Mo Association
The system remained restricted to monks until the 1800s, when knowledge of the Eagle Claw system passed from the monks to a lay student of the Lau family. The Lau family then maintained the knowledge of the system within the family for generations. It was not until the 1910s that the Eagle Claw system reached a wider audience, through Eagle Claw's most famous master, Chan Tzi Ching.
At the time, Chan Tzi Ching was known as a formidable fighter. The stories surrounding him claimed that he never used more than three techniques to defeat an opponent, and that he could get full power from a three-inch punch. He was instrumental in spreading knowledge of Eagle Claw and other martial arts among the public, most of all by his role in founding, along with kung fu master Fawk Yung Gop, the Ching Mo Association in Shanghai.
The Association was an athletic society, originating in Shanghai and later expanding to Hong Kong. Teachers of varied styles, including Eagle Claw, Northern Praying Mantis Kung Fu, and Tai Chi Chuan, gathered at its gymnasiums to train students and spread knowledge of martial arts. But although the government of Chiang Kai-shek encouraged the learning and dissemination of traditional Chinese martial arts, a few decades later, the communist government banned their practice. As part of China’s Cultural Revolution, the government killed or expelled its martial arts masters.
Although the martial arts all but disappeared within China, to be replaced by a more performance-oriented wushu, training in traditional fighting arts such as Eagle Claw continued in Taiwan and Hong Kong, where the masters had fled. From Hong Kong, Eagle Claw masters went on to open schools to disseminate knowledge of the art in other countries, including the United States, where several masters in Eagle Claw currently teach the system in various forms.
Controversy over lineage, authority, and authenticity are par for the course in modern martial arts, and Eagle Claw is no exception. What is clear is that there are two main branches of Eagle Claw in the United States that trace their lineage directly to the Ching Mo Association. One branch stems from Chan Tzi Ching’s student Ng Wai Nung, while the other stems from Chan Tzi Ching’s training brother Lau Kai Man, who taught Lau Fat Man.
The Ng Wai Nung branch is represented in the United States by his godson, Leung Shum, who founded the first Eagle Claw school in New York City in 1974, now headquarters of the Ying Jow Pai Association. Some of his more famous students are the forms champion Benson Lee, now teaching in California, and martial arts film star Cynthia Rothrock. Leung Shum’s Eagle Claw schools also teach the Wu Style Tai Chi Chuan that Ng Wai Nung learned at the Ching Mo Association.
The Lau Kai Man branch is represented by the Lau sisters, Gini and Lily Lau, who learned the system from their father, the famous master Lau Fat Man. The Lau sisters enjoyed brief careers in the Peking Opera and martial arts films before turning their attention to teaching, opening schools on the West Coast of the U.S. and forming their own organizations.
Another claim to Eagle Claw lineage comes from the Bak Shaolin Eagle Claw system, headed by Leung Fu. Born in Malaysia, he became a British subject, trained in Hong Kong, and opened schools in the UK. His organization now includes schools in several countries and is known for its success in sport competition fighting.
In Greece, an Eagle Claw teacher by the name of Guo Xian He also traces lineage from Chan Tzi Ching, through his student Guo Chen Yao.
According to Grandmaster Leung Shum, when China began in the 1980s to reintroduce the practice of its traditional martial arts, it invited masters from around the world to return and teach. During his trip to China, along with other masters, he attempted to find whether any Eagle Claw practitioners still existed in China. According to Leung Shum, the only Eagle Claw practitioner the group managed to find had not practiced in over 30 years. While there is a modern wushu Eagle form, it bears no resemblance to the techniques of the traditional Eagle Claw system.
The English terms "master" and "grandmaster" are often misapplied to formal Chinese titles in the traditional martial arts. While there are rigorous requirements in such schools for an instructor to earn the right to be called Lao Shih or Sifu, sometimes translated as master; a grandmaster is usually a master's teacher, as a grandfather is a father's father. Some prefer to use the English title grandmaster to designate the ultimate founder of a particular style. Since the introduction of martial arts movies to the West and the popularity of such dramatic fictions among aficionados of hip-hop culture, many would-be martial artists without the benefit of a formal teaching structure will call themselves grandmasters even if they just like the sound of the term.
The Eagle Claw system is taught differently by different teachers and different branches. Because Eagle Claw was primarily taught through the Ching Mo Association, training generally includes a number of standard northern kung fu forms and techniques taught to all practitioners at the Association, alongside the elements specific to the Eagle Claw system.
The system includes fist forms, weapon forms, partner sets, and the 108 locking hand techniques. The range of traditional Chinese weapons are covered, including the long staff, spear, double pointed spear, kwan do (or halberd), saber, sword, hooked swords, three-section staff, daggers, fan, short stick, and chain or whip.
Ranking and class structure
As in most traditional Chinese martial arts, because Eagle Claw was passed among monks and within one family, there was originally no need for structured classes and rankings. Teachers simply taught students the part of the system that seemed right for that student at that time, and students warmed up and practiced on their own. The system was taught very slowly, in comparison to today’s quick pace. Rigorous training generally began with drilling the fundamentals. A student could spend months practicing a single stance.
Today, students learn a set curriculum of fundamentals, techniques, and forms at a much faster pace. In a nod to modern practice, students now also test for colored sashes representing their rank. The specific spectrum of sashes and the requirements vary by teacher, since the practice of testing and ranking is relatively new to the system.
Perhaps in emulation of the renowned traditional way of earning respect and rank by demonstrating skill in fighting, students must show skill in sparring with students of higher rank to earn their sashes.
Training begins with exercises to build strength and flexibility as well as the Eagle Claw foundation:
- proper punching and blocking
- basic kicking and footwork
- clawing techniques
- controlling the breath
Structured classes begin with group stretching and exercises, then move to forms practice. Eagle Claw practitioners also need basic practice in gymnastics to be able to perform the rolls, flips, and jumping kicks of the system. Sparring is also an essential part of both the training and the testing process.
Because the dramatic acrobatics and precise footwork of Eagle Claw depend highly upon the flexibility of the student, it is said that the ideal age to begin training is in childhood or adolescence. Starting early also gives the student a greater chance of learning the system in its entirety, since the range of techniques it encompasses is vast.
Many people today study martial arts primarily as sport or exercise, for fun or health. Even so, Eagle Claw’s main historical emphasis has been on fighting. In particular, its seizing and locking techniques have genuine value for self-defense in close encounters. However, the antiquated weaponry of ancient China has little to no value for modern military practice and is unlikely to come in handy in a self-defense situation. Instead, weapons training has become more performance-oriented and a way to build strength and coordination. That said, techniques for handling certain weapons, such as the staff and short stick, do translate easily to ordinary objects that might be used in self-defense.
While many Eagle Claw practitioners do participate in martial arts competitions, the range of techniques they can use in actual sport sparring are limited. Most of the techniques that characterize Eagle Claw, such as grabs for the throat and joints, are banned in sport sparring. Forms practice, however, is one place where Eagle Claw practitioners can excel, since its acrobatic flips and jumping kicks give the performer plenty of opportunity to display his or her skill.
Below is a far from complete list of films that feature Eagle Claw (or some form of martial art presented as Eagle Claw that may or may not resemble Eagle Claw). Perhaps because filmmakers perceive the claw techniques as particularly dangerous looking, Eagle Claw masters are most frequently represented as villains. Additions or corrections are encouraged:
- Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004)
- Iron Monkey
- Snake in the Eagle's Shadow
- Eagle's Claw (1978)
- Eagle's Claw and Butterfly Palm (1981)
- Talons of the Eagle
- 18 Fatal Strikes
- Death Duel of Mantis (1978)
- Master of the Flying Guillotine
- Avenging Eagle
- Shaolin Assassin
- Shaolin Martial Arts
- The Secrets of Eagle Claw Kung Fu, Leung Shum
- Personal interviews and training with Leung Shum and masters who trained under Leung Shum
- Ying Jow Pai (Leung Shum): http://www.yingjowpai.com
- Rothrocks Kung Fu & Tai Chi Studio (Ernest Rothrocks): http://www.rothrockskungfu.com
- Lau Fat Mang World Eagle Claw Association (Gini Lau): http://www.tigerclaws.com
- Lily Lau Eagle Claw Kung Fu Federation, International:
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