In the vast panoply of Chinese martial arts styles and history, there has been seemingly every conceivable type of style and training methods developed imaginable. From animal styles such as tiger, snake and praying mantis; to elemental styles and methods like lightning, earth, heaven, water, “iron fist” and the “cotton palm.” Even mythical, mystical, and spiritual styles have been developed, such as the awesome dragon, the mythical roc and the spiritual (and deadly) Buddha’s Palm and “Supreme Ultimate,” Taiji Quan, and so much more.
Chinese martial arts are the most sophisticated and deepest styles out there, as well as the oldest- at least as in continuous, unbroken lineage, history, and development goes. Additionally, due to Chinese cultures massive importance and influence on world culture and history since ancient times- including martial arts culture, history, and styles/ training methods (everywhere the Chinese went they brought their arts and culture, including martial arts) means that the variety of known and unknown styles that are of Chinese origin and influence is in the realm of Lao Tzu’s, “10,000 things.”
In this article, I am very happy to introduce a style which is virtually unknown, as it has never been taught publicly until very recently- the rare Shaolin Butterfly style, a High, Internal Shaolin style. While many styles out there feature butterfly concepts and techniques, actual Butterfly Styles are quite rare. My teacher, who began training in 1961 and traveled the world for 40+ years learning from some of the most famous and legendary (and not so famous and legendary) teachers out there, told me that in all his time and travels he only met two teachers that actually preserved and taught complete Butterfly Styles.
This was confirmed to me in discussions with other teachers of Chinese martial arts, such as Sifu Lloyd Day, who teaches Bagua and Xing- yi which he learned from a well- known teacher in NYC Chinatown in the 1970s and 1980s. Sifu Lloyd was intrigued when he heard me talking about this style, and gave me a call to discuss it. In his system of Bagua and Xing-yi he shared with me that the butterfly was their highest and most sophisticated style, but in his system it was taught as concepts which were applied to all the other styles.
They didn’t actually have a butterfly style as in unique basics, techniques, forms, applications and the like. However, the concepts he shared with me were exactly the same as the concepts of the Shaolin Butterfly style which my teacher shared with us (we will get to them in a bit). Similarly, the famous living legend Grandmaster, Dr. Maung Gyi when I mentioned this Butterfly Style to him, stopped dead in his tracks and asked me to demonstrate it for him! This was in the parking lot of a martial arts school I was bringing him to that he was leading a seminar at. During the seminar he had me get up and demonstrate some of it for the people gathered and told them all to learn from me- which of course did not go over well with the school owner. At any rate, Dr. Gyi had great esteem for this style and understood its rarity and value, and recounted for me how he remembered my teacher way back when would be practicing it constantly even while they had discussions, in order to master its essence and technique.
Now, I understand that the common understanding is that “Wudang” styles are the “internal” styles and that “Shaolin” styles are the “external” styles. The thing is, however, like most generalities this is not quite true- there are many exceptions to this commonly accepted belief. In fact, no less an authority than Grandmaster Wong Kiew Kit, who has pre-Revolution lineage in both Shaolin arts and Wudang/ Taiji arts and is a Zen Teacher, has declared in his many books on the subject that Shaolin contains many more internal styles and training methods than the Wudang / Taiji lineage arts. I am not looking to start a fight, but I mention this as food for thought, and Grandmaster Wong’s knowledge and back round are impeccable.
“There are many styles of Chinese martial arts. After the Sui (589-618 AD) and Tang (618-907) dynasties, they were divided into two schools: Shaolin and Wutang. Within these two there are further divisions. We speak of Shaolin as external style and Wutang as internal style. Others say Shaolin is hardstyle (Waigong), and Wutang is soft style (neigong). In any case, because they are arts of combat, Chinese martial arts must contain both soft and hard techniques so that they can encompass both defense and offense. The only difference between Shaolin and Wutang is the method of training the students. Shaolin starts with hard strokes, but Wutang begins with soft ones. Shaolin goes from hard to soft, and Wutang is the opposite. It goes from soft to hard. The final goal for both styles is the same: to train people to use a combination of soft and hard strokes to fight.” –Chen Pan Ling, Chen Pan Ling’s Original Tai Ci Textbook (Blitz Design), 4-5.
Chen Pan Ling was one of the leaders of the Guoshu Movement in China, pre-revolution, as in the famous Central Guoshu Institute in Nanjing. In fact, he wrote the textbooks for the styles taught there and had trained with and received lineage in Shaolin, Hsing-I, Bagua, and Taiji from the top teachers and families of the time. He was also a highly educated mechanical engineer with a mechanical engineers mind, which made writing textbooks on the arts a specialty of his due to his training and insights. Sadly, his tai chi textbook is the only one which survived. Later the guoshu/ kuoshu arts and lineages were revived on Taiwan as many of the surviving teachers and leaders of the movement were aligned with the Nationalist government, so they moved there with them to escape and establish themselves (the Nationalists were the losers in the revolution by the Communists). But this is a story for a different article and time.
So, the Shaolin Butterfly style is indeed a Chinese internal style due to its training methods and progression, as well as its concepts and applications. As you can see from the above diagram, it is central to my teachers Five Form Fist Shaolin system, and in fact is known as the, “Inner Connector” style. The five main animal “Forms/ Xing” are the famous Shaolin Five Animals, along with in our system the others listed. Why this is so we shall discuss in a bit. In addition to these animal styles, it contains five main areas of technique study (“Five Forms/ Xing”), these are Northern Shaolin, Southern Shaolin, Taiji/ Internal Styles, Chinese Weapons, and Quan Fa. Chin-na/ grappling methods are a sixth major area of study and practice in their own right, as well as interspersed in all of these systems/ styles.
Initial training in the Shaolin Butterfly style is essentially the same as in most Taiji styles- slow, soft, fluid and meditative. In this case, however, it is all unique Shaolin Butterfly techniques and qigong one is learning. The first seed technique, in fact, is essentially the same as the famous Taiji “lifting the wrists” exercise- except in the Butterfly Style the wrists are joined! This is one of the features of the style- crossed wrist and joined palm, fist, and arm methods. Of course, the wrists/hands/ arms can’t always be joined, they must separate in actual martial application to be effective; but this is the key training method, which leads to some outstanding results if one practices well (they are joined, separate and re-join in myriad ways in training and applications utilizing the unique Shaolin Butterfly methods).
I learned this style initially in closed-door sessions for Sifu’s/ Disciples of my teacher, and in fact, we were directed to not only NOT publicly demonstrate it, we told to not even talk about it, including with lower-level instructors. In my teachers lineage this art was preserved as a “secret” style, though again various people knew about it, friends and peers of my teacher and his teacher (such as Dr. Gyi); and opponents of their students who used these methods in countless full contact bouts worldwide (such as Sigung Clarence Cooper). The beginning training was conducted in silence and very focused, slow and meditative- we were shown the first seed technique, the crossed wrist rising/ falling method, and stepped into the san chan (san chin/ sam chien/ “hourglass” stance, or as my teacher calls it, the “dan tien ma”) and practiced it for hours and hours. After practicing with the right wrist on top, we would shift and place the left wrist on top and continue. This exercise was coordinated with natural breathing to and from the Dantian, and there is also an inner neigong method which goes with it, which helps to further the connection of left and right, Dantian, mind, and technique which the crossed wrist position facilitates.
Next, we were taught the crucial seed technique I call the Butterfly Palm Change, which is an ingenious method of changing which wrist is on top in one fluid motion and further develops the concepts of change and transformation which are the hallmarks of the style. From we learned to step forward and backward performing these techniques, and then on to a myriad of Butterfly methods which all fit into this initial matrix of rise, fall, change. Of course, all this was applied with partners to learn the applications of these methods, and in sparring sessions. Like many internal styles, the practice of the Butterfly Style itself is its own form of qigong, but there are also unique methods of Butterfly qigong and Neigong, including standing postures training.
It wasn’t till years later that our teacher taught us a form, a short-form version of the first form which is called the “Butterfly Energy (jin) Form.” Which again for all intents and purposes is very much like an exotic version of Taiji, albeit all Butterfly technique rather than featuring the Taiji Ba Men. This was in public workshops on the art which he offered, which opened the door for the book which I wrote on the subject, “The Shaolin Butterfly Style- Art of Transformation.” The book goes into great depth and detail about every facet of this rare but excellent style: History, Lineage, Concepts and Principles, Basic Training and Foundations, Applications, and much more.
The foundation symbol of the Butterfly Style- beyond the Butterfly, which is the “outer symbol”- is the well- known “infinity symbol,” or figure 8. The infinity symbol encapsulates the Butterfly styles key essence- change, transformation, and infinity- and of course, unity. The two main intents and results of training in this style are #1, training in the Butterfly Style leads to a doubling of speed and efficiency of all known techniques; and #2, training in the Butterfly Style facilitates and enhances the ability to change and transform from one technique and style to another. In other words, from fire to water, dragon to tiger, strike to take down, and the like. This is why this style was not taught publicly, as back in the day the masters of the arts tended to keep their most effective methods to themselves and their very close disciples/ family members. But this is really an outmoded custom of the past, in my opinion anyway, as men landed on the moon in 1969, and we have gone way past gong fu as self-defense now- ever hear of an M-16, the .45 or even pepper spray and tasers? Of course, martial arts are still as vital relevant as ever, perhaps more so- just for differing reasons. Though for certain professionals developing the fighting skills is still important.
Now, the skills the Butterfly Style bestows if one is taught well and trains hard is not mere hype. It is well known that training in various styles develops differing skills. For instance, Baguazhang and Filipino kali both specialize in movement and footwork skills, each in their own ways. Judo, Shuijiao and the like in grappling and throwing skills, and Northern Shaolin and taekwondo in kicking skills. I can personally attest to this as I have trained in the Shaolin Butterfly style for over 25 years now, and more than one partner/ opponent has remarked that it seems like I have 4 hands. My teacher, who is way past me in skill level, seems like he has 8 hands!
Finally, as a “High” style the Shaolin Butterfly style is part of what is known as the “Three Treasures of Shaolin”- Shaolin Gong Fu, Shaolin Qigong, and the pinnacle of the Shaolin arts, Shaolin Chan (Zen). These areas totally interpenetrate each other and in fact, when properly taught, are involved in all aspects of training. Thus, Shaolin Gong Fu is Shaolin Qigong is Shaolin Chan. It is all in the proper training, understanding, and living of these arts, which luckily for us our teacher preserved and passed on (in a modern, inter-faith way).
There is much more I could say about the Shaolin Butterfly Style, but this gives the reader a good view of it. For more information please contact me and see my book, “The Shaolin Butterfly Style- Art of Transformation.”