"The Lethal Three Section Staff of Kungfu
By Gene Ching
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.
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.