"The Lethal Three Section Staff of Kungfu
By Gene Ching
The 1st Emperor of the Song Dynasty, formally known as Song Taizu (969-976)
In the wake of Bruce Lee, the next event to change the way we looked at the Kungfu genre was from the 1978 classic Master Killer. Originally titled The 36 Chambers of Shaolin (Shaolin Sanshiliu Fang), the theme of this film was transformation. All martial artists seek transformation, so Master Killer touched our hearts and earned a cherished place as one of the greatest martial arts epics ever. Gordon Liu played Liu Yu Te, who would be transformed through the course of the picture into the legendary Shaolin Temple monk, San Te. In the movie, Liu advances through trials and training of mythic proportions until ultimately a rival monk, a master of butterfly swords, challenges him to a duel. After two humiliating defeats, San Te makes a discovery during his kungfu practice that transforms the arsenal of Shaolin, as well as the course of the Temple, forever. He invents the three section staff. Armed with this new weapon, he deftly defeats his enemy, granting him permission to teach Shaolin Kungfu outside the Temple to Manchu rebels.
Beyond those memorable training scenes, San Te's creation of the three section staff would be ingrained from the mythology of the martial arts movies into the legends of kungfu. This special weapon is unique to the Chinese arts. Few weapons encapsulate the complex character of Chinese weapons as well. Just as movie fans cherish Master Killer, kungfu aficionados treasure the three section staff.
First Section - First Emperor
Fut Gar Master Harlan Lee demonstrates deft skill with the 3 section staff. For more on this weapon see Kungfumagazine.com's 100 Weapons listing #67.
Despite the movie myths, kungfu scholars attribute the actual creation of the three section staff to the first emperor of the Song Dynasty, formally known as Song Taizu (960-976). There are two legends. The first is that Song Taizu's favorite staff was split into two during a battle, so he linked the broken ends together and created the first two section staff. This weapon consisted of a handle section that was twice as long as the flail-end section. Later, when the handle was split in two, he linked it together again and created the first three section staff.
The second legend is similar, however it details that the emperor's staff was split into equal thirds at the first break, so the invention of the two section staff is not attributed to him. However, it is worth noting that in this legend, the invention of the three section staff and its subsequent mastery all occurred in the heat of the battlefield. To redeem his shattered staff by transforming the weapon to meet the life-or-death urgency of combat must have been quite the inspired moment.
Beyond the three section staff (and the two section too) Song Taizu is also attributed with founding several kungfu styles: Taizuquan, Changquan and Hongquan. Taizuquan was a fighting style of the emperor's court for several following dynasties. It consisted of 32 hand forms and the four basic weapons: staff, broadsword, spear and straight sword. Today, it is rare, at least in the West.
Changquan or "long fist" should be familiar to all contemporary kungfu practitioners. Originally, it was a style that emphasized speed and long distance fighting, using yang to defeat yin, so to speak. Following the renovations of modern China, Changquan has become a modern wushu competitive form, combining the best elements of the five dominant northern styles: Cha, Hua, Hua (different character in Chinese but spelled the same in English) Pao and Shaolin.
Hongquan or "red fist" is distinct from the popular southern style Hung Gar (Hong Jia in Mandarin.) Hongquan's curriculum consists of several hand forms including one called taizuhongquan. It was another style that was absorbed and influenced by the Shaolin Temple. Today, xiaohongquan (small red fist) and dahongquan (big red fist) are standard forms of the Songshan Shaolin kungfu and are receiving widespread popularity due to Shaolin Temple's recent meteoric rise. Just as in any creation myth, the validity of Song Taizu's claim as the originator of so many kungfu transformations is questionable. Here, it is important to consider Chinese culture and the esteem bestowed upon their great emperors. The first emperor of any dynasty is by nature always a martial emperor. This is because the only method for a dynastic transformation is war. Accordingly, many first emperors adopt the title "Wudi" (martial emperor). Song Taizu arose to leadership out of one of China's darkest periods, known as the Five Dynasties (907-960.) Following the woeful collapse of the mighty Tang Dynasty, China had plunged into this half century of war, treachery and chaos. The longest reigning of the Five Dynasties lasted only sixteen years, the shortest only four. Zhao Kuangyin was born in 927, the eldest son of General Zhao Hongyin of the Later Zhou, the fifth of the Five Dynasties. He was forced to ascend the throne at midnight by mutinous officers and adopted another popular first emperor title, "Taizu" (supreme progenitor).
Under Song rule, China was once again unified, and the arts and culture flourished. Confucian ethics governed the new emperor's philosophy. Music, poetry, painting and calligraphy replaced the martial arts and combat sports made popular in the Tang. Troops were banned from plundering the people, civil servants were forbidden to practice swordsmanship and past generals were persuaded into early retirement. Among the contributions of this glorious dynasty were the first printing of paper money, the first movable-type printing press, the first formula for gunpowder, an Imperial library of 80,000 books, instigation of civil examinations, construction of an astronomical clock tower, and the recording of a supernova. So in the big picture, Song Taizu's contributions to the martial arts are fairly minor, vastly overshadowed by his contributions to the world. Nevertheless, the question of Song Taizu's invention of the three section staff will always remain a romantic yet insignificant mystery of history.
Second Section - Second Nature
A variety of 3 section staffs as well as comprehensive instructional videos are available at MartialArtsMart.com
The three section staff possesses a unique nature distinguishing it among the other common weapons of kungfu. It is typically classified as a long weapon of the staff family, but it is also a flexible weapon with properties of a double short weapon. Generally, each section is equal in length, measuring about two feet or more for an overall length of six feet plus. The three staff sections are usually composed of woods such as rattan, white waxwood or various hardwoods like oak or mahogany. In days of old, this wood would be treated with special oils to maintain its natural hardness and resiliency. Today, much of the knowledge of personal weapon care is lost so wood oiling is usually neglected. Legend tells of weapons made of iron or steel, which must have carried a tremendous weight. A few three section staffs are still made of metal; however now they are hollow and in no way unwieldy. The sections are linked by cord or chain. Chain is more popular, since the links can also be used for striking, and that chunk of chain packs a brutal wallop. Occasionally, the tips of the flails are capped with metal too, which adds more vicious sting to an already ruthless blow.
For the most part, the sections remain smooth for easy grip transitions, though some practitioners modify their weapons by filing small grooves near the links and at the ends. These grooves add texture for a more secure grip purchase. However, they also make it more difficult for smooth flowing grip transitions, so this small addition has its plusses and minuses. Grooves also create a rougher striking surface on the flail ends. Like the serrations of a knife or a saw, it increases the chance that the blunt end will cut open an opponent. Some fantastic three section staffs depicted in modern comic books and video games have gone so far to as to add cartoonish spikes on the flail ends. This modification is imaginative yet impractical. Many of the long distance techniques require the user to grip the flail ends, a handhold that is significantly impeded by the placement of such spikes.
Versatility is the forte of the three section staff. When fully extended, it has the length of a long pole. This is applicable for large sweeping attacks that quickly clear a wide area. Moreover, such attacks are difficult to block since the chain will wrap over or slide under most defenses. When collapsed, it is like two short batons. Here, the two end flail sections can alternate between offense and defense. Most commonly, the lead flail is used to parry and trap while the rear flail delivers its wicked riposte. When the center section is held, both flails can swing freely to strike like nunchaku.
Conventionally, these flail ends are the strikers, but in the hands of an adept user, both the chain links and the center section have striking capability too. When the chain links are used for attack, the flail ends transform inside out to become the handles. Tricky techniques tangle an opponent's weapon, creating an opening for the blow of the staff's links tipped with metal chain. Also, both ends can be grabbed and the center section can be swung around for blocking and striking. The most thrilling and challenging techniques of this weapon are its wide variety of spins. There is a yin-yang-like aphorism in kungfu that says a flexible weapon should be made straight. This is achieved through the constant centrifugal force generated by complex spins only kungfu could invent. Given the weapon's versatility, each spin has its own unique characteristics and applications. A practitioner who understands three section staff can flow seamlessly from one spin to the next, creating a dazzling and lethal web of wood and steel.
Through practice, wielding the three section staff becomes second nature and the weapon becomes an extension of the body and the qi. A skilled three section staff fighter can access all of these various methods of attack and defense by transforming the weapon to meet the life-or-death urgency of combat.
Third Section - Third Dimension
This article originally appeared in the June 2000 issue Kungfu-Qigong Magazine; back issues are still available.
The role of ancient weapons has transformed in modern times. Gone are the days when a three section staff might actually be used for real combat. Unlike Bruce Lee's nunchaku, which he could conveniently whip out of his trousers whenever necessary, a three section staff is far too big to carry casually on the street. Furthermore, bringing any weapon intentionally to a fight demonstrates a premeditated act in the eyes of the law. So why spend so much effort training ancient weapons that you can never use? While the foundation of any martial art must be firmly grounded in martial skills, there are other much deeper dimensions. Martial arts serve not only as a means of self-defense, but also as a method of self-cultivation and health promotion. The practice of kungfu develops the body's attributes such as speed, flexibility, agility, strength and power, not just for fighting, but also for everyday life. It also sharpens the mind, increasing alertness and reaction time. But its deepest level is the spiritual dimension. In essence, the act of kungfu is a process of active meditation, which redefines kungfu as a vehicle for spiritual transformation.
In Zen monasteries, practitioners are struck with a flat stick called a kyosaku to dispel fatigue and bring awareness during long periods of meditation. This kyosaku is symbolic of the Buddhist sword of wisdom that cuts through all delusion, wielded by the bodhisattva Manjushri. Accordingly, being struck by the kyosaku is not a punishment for falling asleep during sessions. When struck at just the right moment, a kyosaku can bring enlightenment. The practice of the three section staff mirrors the kyosaku. Anyone who has studied this weapon can relate stories of hitting themselves by accident. Since the weapon is inanimate, blame falls right back on the practitioner. Three section staff accidents are caused by moments of fatigue and unawareness. To be hit by your own weapon is instant karma. With the three section staff, such hits keep your practice honest. A mere moment of inattention brings the immediate kyosaku-like blow from your own deluded action. Perhaps through this process, you too can progress towards enlightenment. The truth of three section staff lies not in the movies, nor in the legends of emperors, nor even in the experience of real live combat, just as the heart of martial arts lies not in the style nor the techniques nor the weapon.
The truth lies within practice. Success of your practice depends on solely upon your own sincerity. In kungfu, you reap exactly what you sow, so invoking the spirits of Bruce Lee, San Te, Song Taizu and Manjushri into three section staff only elevates your practice. It expands the notion of self-defense into spiritual transformation. You may never be able to actually strike an enemy with a three section staff, and despite the allure of action movies, you should not have the desire to do so. However, in the realm of kungfu, you may always strike at the true enemy. That enemy is within you.
Jackie Chan & the 3 Section Staff
The three section staff played another subtle role within the world of kungfu films, one that involved our two foremost cinematic dragons. A young Jackie Chan was being groomed as the next "little dragon" after Bruce Lee died, and so was cast in New Fist of Fury (Xin Jingwu Men.) Distinct from the onslaught of Lee-xploitation flicks in Lee's wake, this production was a true sequel, directed by Lo Wei (who directed Lee in the original Fist of Fury) and starring many members of the original cast. It was a respectable film, but frequently overlooked since it preceded the development of the "Jackie Chan" style. Instead of his characteristic blend of choreography and humor, Chan was more in the shadow of Lee than ever. Despite Lee's undeniable impact on spread of kungfu worldwide, he was a controversial figure among "old-school" kungfu masters. The fact that his trademark nunchuku (debuting in Fist of Fury) was Okinawan, not Chinese, never escaped the criticism of kungfu loyalists, especially in a movie about cultural tension between China and Japan. When Chan adopted the lead role of New Fist of Fury, he took it up a notch, or to be more precise, a section. In the climactic final fight, Jackie deftly defeats his enemy with a three section staff."