Hong De Kung Fu

The Legend of Cai-Li-Fo (Choy Li Fut)

Jiulianshan Shaolin Temple, in Putian County, Quanzhou, Fujian Province, was founded as a branch of the legendary Songshan Shaolin Temple, which is located in Henan Province. Because both temples were home to many monks who were masters of wugong, the two temples were viewed with equal respect, and in time, Jiulianshan Shaolin Temple came to be known simply as South Shaolin.

After the fall of the Ming Dynasty, many royal clans and loyalists fled to South China. Some of them made their way to the Jiulianshan Shaolin Temple and stayed there, practicing wushu in the hopes of one day revolting against the Qing Dynasty and restoring Ming power. Wan Yunlong was one of these loyalists. He settled down at the temple, cut his hair, and became a monk, taking the name Dazong. Later he was elected chief of the temple. Dazong was succeeded by a Buddhist monk named Xingyin, who traveled throughout the country to recruit disciples and talented practitioners of wushu. His favorite disciple was a man named Zhishan, who also made it his mission to find and bring talented disciples to the temple. A group of disciples comprised of Zhishan, Cai Dezong (who took the monastic name Qingcao), Li Shikai (who became the monk Qingsheng Hu Dedi, or Qingru), Fang Dahong (who became the monk Qingfang) and Ma Chaoxing (who became the monk Qingse), were widely renowned for their skills at wushu, and became known as the Five Fathers of South Boxing. Zishan’s other students included a monk named Sande and Ma Ninger, a common disciple. In the Qianlong Age of the Qing Dynasty, Ma Ninger betrayed Shaolin, guiding Qing troops to attack the temple. The Qing troops burned the temple, but the Five Fathers of South Boxing managed to escape and lead their disciples to safety.

After the burning of the Jiulianshan Shaolin Temple, many of the great practitioners of wushu gathered in Guangdong, in south-eastern China, bringing Guangdong Wushu into a thriving and prosperous period. The most famous styles that evolved from this time and place include Cai and Li boxing, named for Cai Yafu and Li Youshan. Born in Gaoyao, Guangdong, Cai Liyi studied gongfu under the instruction of Yi Guan, a Shaolin monk, and eventually created the style known as Cai Boxing. Cai Yafu and Cai Zhanguang continued the style’s development. Li Boxing was created by Li Sikai, Li Yangkai, and Li Shikai, three Shaolin monks. Li Youshan, of Qibao Village, Daze Town, Xinghui, completed its evolution.

Chen Xiang (1805-1875) is widely credited as the originator of the Cai-Li-Fo system. He was brought up in Mei Village, Xinhui County, Guangdong, and from the time when he was very young, he showed a genius for wushu. As a child, he was taught by his uncle Chen Yuanhu, a common disciple of Shaolin. Later, he sought out Li Youshan and Cai Yafu, whose boxing systems he greatly admired, and asked them to take him on as a pupil. Under their instruction, he became a master of both styles. No one who challenged him could defeat him.

At that time, hordes of pirates prowled the shores of Guangdong, attacking and raiding coastal villages. In order to defend themselves, many villages invited master martial artists to train their young men, which resulted in the widespread practice of wushu. Chen Xiang served as an instructor in Chen Village, Shunde. Because of his youth and skill, he was envied by the other instructors nearby, many of whom didn’t believe he deserved his reputation and challenged him to fight. Chen Xiang defeated every challenger. His fame spread.

Chen Xiang had an old friend by the name of Zhang Kun, and so Chen Xiang was introduced to Zhang Kun’s twelve-year-old son, Zhang Yan. Zhang Yan had a natural talent for wushu, but because in Chen Village there was a rule that an instructor could not recruit a disciple who did not share his family name, Chen Xiang could only take on Zhang Yan as a servant in his exercising hall. Day after day, Zhang Yan did his work while secretly watching the disciples at practice, memorizing every step. Eventually, Chen Xiang discovered this, and was moved by Zhang Kun’s sincerity and ambition. He began to train Zhang Kun in secret, late at night. Within five years, Zhang Kun had mastered all that Chen Xiang had taught him, although no one else knew about his achievement.

One day, when Chen Xiang was away and his disciples were practicing in the exercise hall, they spotted Zhang Yan hard at work nearby and decided to put him to shame. They taunted him and challenged him to compete with them. Zhang Yan refused. But the disciples would not relent. They insulted him and called him a coward until finally Zhang Yan had had enough. In the fight that ensued, several of the disciples were wounded, and the rest fled from the exercise hall in fear. Zhang Yan’s training was no longer a secret. When Chen Xiang returned to the village, he was reprimanded for teaching gongfu to a student who did not share the family name. In order to appease his accusers, Chen Xiang arranged for Zhang Yan to travel to Zhajian Temple in Bapaishan to stay with the monk Qingcao.

So it was that in 1831, seventeen-year-old Zhang Yan left his home and traveled west to Guangxi. The monk Qingcao took him in, and after reading the letter from Chen Xiang that explained the situation, asked Zhang Yan to demonstrate what he had learned. Zhang Yan obeyed. Qingcao was impressed by Zhang Yan’s strength and talent, and believed he showed great promise in the field of wushu. He adopted Zhang Yan as a formal disciple, teaching him Buddhism Palm and boxing, as well as medical knowledge and political lessons, that Zhang Yan might one day help to overturn the Qing dynasty and restore Ming power to the throne.

Time passed quickly. In 1839, when Zhang Yan was twenty-five years old, he had mastered everything Qingcao could teach him. Qingcao gave him the name Hongsheng, and told him to leave the temple, seek out Ming patriots, and inspire them to fight for Ming recovery.

After departing from Zhajian Temple, Zhang Hongsheng traveled to Foshan, where he established an exercise hall named Hongsheng Hall, near Yabang Street. With this hall as his base, he devoted himself to the recovery of the Ming Dynasty.

When Chen Xiang heard of Zhang Hongsheng’s achievements, he traveled to Foshan and greeted him as a peer and a friend. For his part, Zhang Hongsheng attributed his triumph to Chen’s instruction, and always showed his former teacher the greatest respect. In return for Chen Xiang’s training, Zhang Hongsheng now taught Chen what he had learned from Qingcao. Together, they practiced both new and old skills, combining these styles into something of their own.

Because their system had its roots in Shaolin and was based on the boxing styles of Cai Yafu, Li Youshan, and the monk Qingcao, they named it Cai-Li-Fo, and Zhang Hongsheng came to be known as the father of Cai-Li-Fo. Thus Cai-Li-Fo was formally founded and became a vital part of South China’s gongfu style, spreading throughout the southern area.

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