Among the first commandments for stifling COVID-19 is ‘do not touch your face’. This was extremely difficult for me. Spring is allergy season. It makes me cough and sneeze, and the last thing I want to be right now is a coughing sneezing Asian. What’s more, my nose is always itchy. To keep from scratching, I need one of those pet cones. The official term for those is ‘Elizabethan collars’ but I’ve called them ‘cones of shame’ in the wake of the movie Up (2009). The Chinese actually have such a thing. It’s called a cangue, a word derived from the old Portuguese canga meaning ‘yoke.’ It’s called jia (枷) in Mandarin. Used for prisoners, a cangue is a wide heavy wooden collar about a yard square like a flat Elizabethan collar for humans. If you are imprisoned in one, you cannot feed yourself or touch your face. It’s a torture. Just imagine the agony if you weren’t free to pick… I mean ‘scratch’… your nose because your neck was cuffed by a cangue-of-shame.
A legendary Kung Fu hero fought in a cangue – Wu Song (武松), a fictional character from the 14th century classic Outlaws of the Marsh. This epic has 108 heroes very loosely based on historical figures alongside fantasy ones, akin to British tales of King Arthur or Robin Hood. Among those 108, Wu Song stands out as one of the most beloved, in part because he was a drunken master and readers love irreverent boisterous drunks. He’s famous for killing a tiger after drinking 18 bowls of wine (the limit was 3 because it was especially strong, but no one had the courage to refuse Wu Song another round). If you see a Chinese painting of a bearded warrior pummeling a tiger, that’s Wu Song. There was also famous incident where Wu Song had to escape his captors who planned to murder him while he was restrained in a cangue.
You’d need some serious Kung Fu skills to fight in a cangue. As a parable, Wu Song’s cangue tale represents overcoming extreme adversity and never giving
up, inspirations we can all use right now. In his honor, the martial world celebrates him with a form called Wu Song Breaks Manacles (Wu Song tuo kao 武松脱铐). It’s a method where the practitioner fights as if handcuffed. Like many forms, there are many interpretations. Most are solo forms, but there are multiple-person versions where the Wu Song reenactor fends off several opponents in pre-choreographed fights. I’ve seen video of one where Wu Song fought off four others with wrists chained. However, I’ve yet to see one where Wu Song is bound by a cangue. I imagine that exists somewhere, perhaps within Chinese Opera. Being one of the Four Classics of Chinese literature, Outlaws of the Marsh is depicted in traditional opera (there are significant connections between Kung Fu and opera, but that’s another topic entirely). In all fairness to the Kung Fu forms, they are consistently titled ‘tuo kao’ which literally means ‘takes off manacles’. Nevertheless, a Wu Song Breaks Cangue (would that be Wu Song tuo jia 武松脱枷?) would be truly awesome.
Are cangue fighting skills practical? While I imagine that training while cangue-ed might be some sort of extreme weight vest training, studying it for self-defense is absurd. How often has anyone restrained by a cangue nowadays? Anything is possible but it’s a mighty stretch of the imagination. No civilized nation uses cangues anymore. It’s all about wrist restraints now. So, from a martial standpoint, practicing fighting while in handcuffs is far more practical.
For some, self-defense is the only motivation for training. It’s a free country so we can practice for any reason, however this attitude short changes Kung Fu by excluding a colorful arsenal of diverse weapons, cangue notwithstanding. I love weapons. Weapons have been at the heart of my martial quest for my entire life. The main reason I study Kung Fu is because I was drawn to the Chinese arsenal, the most exotic collection of weapons in the world. And it’s those rare and bizarre weapons that I love the most. They have stories. While a cangue would be totally impractical, it is so culturally deep, so fertile with embedded wisdom and underlying core values. It has intrinsic philosophical lessons. Sure, it’s important to know how to fight, but weird weapons tap into why we fight. And even though they are impractical for the streets, they are important to preserve.
Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die: for I have not found thy works perfect before God. Revelation 3:3
By now, all serious practitioners have developed personal “quaranroutines” to stay healthy. We’re certainly not bound by cangues so there’s plenty of potential for a varied and engaging workout. But for me personally, it’s just not the same as training at the Academy of Martial and Internal Arts. Among the things I miss most is practicing weapons – big weapons, different weapons, and weird weapons.
My Shelter-in-place training space is my narrow living room. It has a low ceiling and is surrounded by furniture, including my wife’s piano, so there’s not enough room to swing a sword, much less a spear or Guandao. And while I could go outside, I have a lot of weapons. It’s a workout just transporting them to and fro. I really miss having access to the wide array of weapons at my fingertips, like what is available at the Academy.
In my career, I’ve been privileged to visit countless martial arts schools all across the nation. I love how the personality of the school’s headmaster and style are reflected in their schools, seeing old photos on the walls and reading the dates on trophies and medals. But most of all, I love seeing a nice rack. I know that sounds bad and phrasing it so may be an indicator of my stir craziness but in my defense, Jackie Chan said it too. In his 2002 film, The Tuxedo, Jackie’s character Jimmy must contact Del, played by Jennifer Love Hewitt, by saying ‘Nice rack’ to which she must reply ‘I forgot my bra.’ It’s a running puerile joke, even James Brown gets in on it during an odd cameo, and Hewitt’s eyerolls are clearly genuine. Jackie later defended himself saying that he didn’t understand the line at all due to his poor English. The Tuxedo is arguably one of Jackie’s worst films, but he’s made over a hundred now, so we can forgive some bad ones. I’ve written thousands of articles so hopefully my sophomoric ‘Nice rack’ can be forgiven too. Obviously, I mean a nice ‘weapons’ rack.
It was a nice rack that got me into Kung Fu. My cousin, who was a local Kung Fu practitioner, recommended Lam Kwoon, where both Sifu Ted Mancuso and I trained in Northern Shaolin. I remember first walking in as a young teenager and seeing those nice weapon racks. I knew then that Kung Fu was what I wanted to learn. You can tell a lot about a school by their weapons racks. Is their arsenal traditional or modern? Are they decorative or actual weapons? Are the weapons dusty or well used and properly maintained? There are even Feng Shui principles that guide weapon placement. Being familiar with Feng Shui, I’m sensitive to these traditional arrangement principles are properly observed. If I find a Feng Shui faux pas, I’ll keep it to myself unless asked, but that’s also another subject entirely.
What really catches my eye is the variety. Are there cool weapons or just a lot of commonplace sticks and nunchuks? As a weapons fanboy, I’ve seen hundreds of different kinds of nunchucku so a rack of chucks won’t to impress me at all. To pique my interest, there must be something cool like a Trident, a Snake-head spear, a Bandit Knife, or Judge’s Pens. Show me those impractical weird weapons. Show me something I haven’t seen. Show me a cangue.
Head Instructor Ted Mancuso has collected a fine arsenal at the Academy of Martial and Internal Arts over the decades. He has owned many of his weapons for years, since before the proliferation of lightweight modern Wushu apparatus. You just cannot find solid working-weight weapons like he has racked anymore. While I’ll often bring a piece of my own to practice – my sword, my Guandao, or something I’m focusing upon at that moment – having a full arsenal at my disposal is a cherished luxury offered by the Academy that I really miss while sequestered.
And the merchants of the earth shall weep and mourn over her; for no man buyeth their merchandise any more Revelation 18:11
This is an incredibly hard time and like many industries, the martial arts will suffer even more consequences. Schools are all small businesses, now closed as non-essential and scrambling for loans to make rent. There is collateral damage too. Martial arts suppliers aren’t selling because they too are non-essential. My magazine, Kung Fu Tai Chi, is on furlough, which is why I’m writing here. And don’t even get me started on the reactionary calls for China product boycotts. We’re all desperately struggling to wrap our heads around what is happening now and anxious about what happens next. Social media is inundated with postulations as people struggle to gain control of the situation, but no one really knows because this is pandemic is completely novel. With no predictable outcome and no concrete plan, there is a nagging fear. Maybe this is it. Maybe this is the apocalypse.
Here lies the greatest of all fears, the subconscious rabbit hole that we are all denying, the final downward spiral. And if this is indeed the apocalypse, from what perspective will you witness it? Will you be on the front lines as an essential medical responder or service provider? Will you just watch it on facebook? Will you be on your knees praying that the sum of your sins won’t exclude you from the Rapture? Or will you be sheltering in place, huddling with your loved ones?
In the face of the unknown, I take comfort in my practice. My training quaranroutine is a time when I can focus. It’s a meditation. I find my peace in practice. Beyond my basic workout, I’ve reclaimed one of the weird weapons, the Bodhidharma Cane. It’s a signature weapon of Shaolin, a walking cane with a tonfa-like handle. I’ve written about it extensively for KungFuMagazine.com because being a weird weapon, it has a unique story. What’s more, I designed the prototype for mass production through Tiger Claw. But because it’s such a weird weapon, it’s something that Sifu Ted doesn’t have on his Academy racks and I don’t carry it around very often. After injuring my wrist last year, I neglected it and forgot the form pattern, and have been putting off relearning it. This has been the perfect time to reconstruct it.
A Bodhidharma Cane is useless in combat. It has such a unique design that its methods can’t transfer to other objects. Bodhidharma Cane techniques really only work with a Bodhidharma Cane. I have several Bodhidharma Canes in my personal weapons racks but it’s unlikely that I’ll be standing next to those for the next time I’m attacked. It won’t help me in the zombie apocalypse, or even against those looters that the preppers keep hoarding against. However, it was passed down to me by several Shaolin monks and I am obligated to perpetuate it. It reminds me of the teachings of Bodhidharma just by inference, and I take refuge in that.
Maybe there was a cangue form. Maybe it was lost when the Qing Dynasty fell or during the Cultural Revolution. In times of conflict, these legacies are lost. The present pandemic will bring global shifts, a new norm, and many things will be left by the wayside. Maybe we’ll lose some more precious forms because of the impending impact on the martial arts economy after the world reopens. While this might seem trivial considering the big picture, it is reassuring for me to do my part to preserve an obscure Kung Fu heirloom and bear it to the other side of this crisis.
I’m optimistic that we’ll come through this alright. The world will change, but I hope is that the death count is contained, our families and friends survive and that the martial world will go on. The Martial Arts have survived so much already – dynastic upheavals, full-auto guns, racism, the communists and so much more. When the world reopens, we must remain vigilant. In our capitalist country, financial stimulus will be the key to revitalization. More so than ever, the Martial Arts economy will need our support. Support your Martial Arts school by paying your tuition. Support the Martial Arts suppliers by buying gear, books and videos because if those suppliers go bankrupt, that stuff will be hard to find. Support your art by carrying on the traditions passed down to you by your masters.
Be well. Stay strong and healthy.
Gene Ching is a student at the Academy of Martial and Internal Arts in Santa Cruz. He is also the publisher of Kung Fu Tai Chi and KungFuMagazine.com. Due to the Coronavirus crisis closing his publications as non-essential, he is contributing to ReelingSilk.com.