In the beginning, there was no Wing Chun dragon pole.
In the history of Wing Chun as told by Sift Gary Lam, the luk dim boon gwun, or "six and one half point pole", came to Wing Chun through a sort of kung fu cultural exchange. As Sifu Lam tells the tale, masters from many different boxing styles united to create a fighting form that could be used to defeat the seasoned veterans of the invading Ching army.
Many writers have speculated on specifically who these men and women may have been. Each different lineage of our tradition has its own version of the legends. Some of them were probably monks from (or even the abbots of) the legendary monasteries of the shaolinsi, which were burned to the ground by Ching troops. Surely the few surviving monks and nuns must have split up, going their separate ways so as to avoid being captured en masse. It seems certain that they were not able to regroup overnight.
Wing Chun went through its most intense period of development aboard the red junk opera boats. These boats were manned by opera performers, as well as the cooks and boatmen who supported the efforts of the entertainers. It is believed that at some point these red boats became the nexus for an organized effort to overthrow the invading Ching. The resistance fighters needed a fighting form that could be used to defeat highly trained soldiers. This fighting style needed to be streamlined, efficient and able to be absorbed quickly by students. With the financial backing of wealthy Ming supporters, the red boats were set up as a sort of underground railroad for the resistance.
As word of an organized and well-funded resistance effort spread those disaffected by the rule of the Ching (namely the monks from the burned monasteries) began to make their identities known. Many legends exist telling of how these men revealed themselves in the nick of time to save the day for the Ming resistance afterwards adding their knowledge and expertise to the effort to overthrow the Ching.
The gun dominates warfare in our day and age, and more often than not martial arts are portrayed in a competitive boxing-ring like setting. It is important to remember that in the era during which Wing Chun was developed, ones skills with hand-to-hand combat weapons determined whether or not one would survive in battle. Most of the martial arts that we know and love originated as weapons technology. Wing Chun is the product of an escalation in weapons technology.
It is a very common thing for hand-to-hand combat weapons to have their beginnings as common household or farm tools. Nunchaku, for example, were originally used to thresh wheat. The Okinowan kama were practical farm tools used to harvest grain crops. The dragon pole itself has its humble beginnings in Wing Chun history as a boat pole. Used to guide the boat in the desired direction as well as to avoid rocks and other riverine hazards, the pole was of necessity both very long and very sturdy. It is sure that with daily use the poler, himself, became strong and sturdy as well. Sifu Lam also tells us that the inhabitants of the red boats had early on developed a sort of play fighting with the poles.
How the actual luk dim boon gwun form came to the red boats is debatable. There are at least two legends about whom the contributor may have been. He may have been the legendary shaolin abbot, Jee Shim who hid himself among the red junk opera company disguised as a cook. He may have been a wandering kung-fu master who legend has it made a dramatic entrance into the Ming resistance by mystifying the red junk boatmen with incredible feats of strength. Whoever he was Sifu Lam ensures us that he was a master of the Hung Kuen (or Hung Gar) system of kung fu. This is why the pole training, with its low horse stance and big wide movements look so different from the rest of Wing Chun.
When this Hung Kuen master finally did make the pole form available to the guerrilla fighters, he found plenty of raw material to work with -- the boatmen of the red junks. The pole form taught by this person provided a fast and sure means for developing internal power, which greatly augmented the Wing Chun training regimen. Ultimately the pole training was simplified to suit the character and needs of Wing Chun. Sifu Lam tells us that although the pole training originally had many techniques it was eventually reduced to the short training form that we know today.
"Yut chun chang; yut chun kang" or "one inch longer, one inch stronger" this saying sums up the rationale behind dragon pole fighting tactics. When considering its proportions, it is easy to understand why some may doubt the luk dim boon quan's relevancy to modern martial arts training. The dragon pole measures 9.5 feet to 10 feet in length and weighs 10 to 15 pounds (poles made of purple heart wood can weigh over 20 pounds). Why all this length and weight? The primary purpose of dragon pole training is not in its use as a weapon. The main points of dragon pole training are to develop internal power, confidence and what Sifu Lam calls "fighting mind." To develop it is to develop the ability to finish your opponent before he finishes you, or as the Wing Chun axiom goes to "be quick to end the fight." Dragon pole training especially concerns the development of this type of single-mindedness; training results in heightened confidence
It is said in the traditional Wing Chun training songs that "the dragon pole makes only one sound." This is because at higher levels of training we do not stop our opponent's pole with multiple blocking actions while waiting for a gap. Drawing out your opponent's reaction creates the gap. By forcing your opponent into action he or she will create a gap for you.
Sifu Lam states that although the training is simple and will result in greater power, it takes a long time to develop simple and powerful actions -- the goal of Wing Chun training. Proper training with the dragon pole eventually results in refinement of one's power.
Dragon pole training is taught in four phases. Correct understanding of each phase is important as they are built one upon another. Incorrect development of phase one will produce poor results in each successive phase.
Arrow punching comprises all of phase one. With arrow punching the student is introduced to the proper stance, footwork and upper body coordination necessary to correct usage. Without proper execution of these basics the student's poor technique and unsound body structure will fall apart and will not be able to withstand two-person training.
The stance used for arrow punching is a low, wide horse stance called jat ma or "sitting horse." The pelvis should be sunk low and the sacrum should be tilted forward. Sifu Lam makes it clear that at this point in the training it is important that the student learn to sink his or her chi. That is to say that one should sink one's center of energy so that striking derives its power from the ground and not the shoulders. It is very important that all components of arrow punching be performed with smooth coordination. As Sift Lam points out this simple exercise contains the five most important elements that make up fighting (among other things). These five elements are: speed, distance, timing, changing and power or, according to the Five Element Theory, fire, earth, wood, water and metal, respectively.
The second phase of dragon pole training is made up of single person training. The two primary exercises that are taught are an exercise called "number sevens" and the first of the six and one half points. "Number sevens" are performed by grasping the fattest end of the pole, hands shoulder width apart, and executing a type of biceps curl. The difference between "number sevens" and a curl is that at the completion of the curl the pole is thrust forward at arms length. This creates the shape of the numeral seven. To make the first of the six and one half points the student will use everything he\she has learned in arrow punching. This first "point" is a forward thrust with the pole and is performed with the same stance and footwork as arrow punching. These exercises are designed to condition the muscles, tendons and ligaments of the student's arms, shoulders and back. They also introduce the student to the control and stability needed to progress to the next phases of training.
In the third phase of training the student will learn the pole form itself as well as two-person training drills and technique training performed on various apparatus. The dragon pole form contains all six and one half points. "Six and one half points" refers to how many times the practitioner strikes with the pole while executing the form. These strikes are performed after executing each individual technique of the form. These techniques are tan, rolling water, cover water, lan, huen and tap. The "half-point' is performed as an oblique angle strike to the opponent's knee joint. Not only do these techniques have the same names as Wing Chun hand techniques they have a direct correlation to power development in the hands they are named for. Tan develops the empty-hands application of tan-sau and so on. The pole form poses quite a physical challenge to the student and provides a great workout. Repeated practice of the pole form will greatly increase the student's ability to exert power in the application of technique, especially in chi-sau.
Partner training for Wing Chun dragon pole is called gwun-sao or "sticking-pole." Some new techniques that are not covered in the pole form are introduced in this segment of training. These techniques are tiu (raising), bong and gan. All of these techniques when trained together in partner exercises will enhance the power and precision of their empty-hand namesakes.
Apparatus training is done primarily with the pole "dummies." These dummies are built with large, commercial sized woks that have wooden posts or lumber cemented into them. The pole-dummies provide a solid, unpredictable target, which is used to train release of power and timing. Other types of apparatus training include targets made of tennis balls suspended from strings, and nuts thrown on the ground for practicing the "tap" technique.
The fourth phase of training is exclusively concerned with two-person exercises. At this point the student is learning how to think one and two steps ahead of his opponent so as to draw him out and create a gap to strike at. These exercises are built upon the basic gwun-sao techniques, which the student has already learned. It is also at this stage that free-style pole sparring is introduced. This type of training is usually arranged so that one person attacks, one person defends. This is because a complete free-for-all typically results in too many injuries. In free sparring with the poles caution is necessary as carelessness can result in smashed fingers, big bruises or worse.
The dragon pole form taught by Sifu Gary Lam comes to us from Yip Man through Wong Shun Leung. There are many variations on this basic form that are taught in the Wing Chun community. Sifu Lam tells us that the original form has been partially or in some cases entirely lost due to a couple of important factors. Not everyone was taught the form either because many did not complete their training or they were not interested. Many gained their knowledge of dragon pole from watching others and were never formally trained. Another main contributing factor is that space considerations in Hong Kong prohibited the full training from being conducted. I don't understand. Where do you see it duplicated?
The fighting applications of the dragon pole do stand alone as good combat technique. The method for usage is simple, powerful and can be learned and utilized quickly. But it is important to remember why the founders of our tradition found the luk dim boon gwun training valuable in the first place. Dragon pole training is most valuable as a method for developing physical power. Sifu Lam tells us that dragon pole training is essential to the explosive short-range power and structural stability necessary for the execution of strong Wing Chun techniques. The idea is to take the large, wide, explosive movements used in dragon pole training and condense them down to energize the small, simple and powerful techniques that characterize Wing Chun.
So, here in the states, we've got the space. Got power?