This is the History of Choy Lee Fut as toldby Master Chen Yong Fa, the direct descendant of Chan Hueng the founder of the Choy Lee Fut system of Chinese Kung Fu.
This article was previously published in ‘Inside Kung Fu Magazine
This is the first time a direct descendant of Chan Heung, the founder of Choy Lee Fut has written publicly on the origin of the art based on documents kept within the family. It is important that the correct historical information be recorded and kept for a major system of martial arts such as Choy Lee Fut, especially when the tradition is still alive and well within the reach of its followers. Although Choy Lee Fut is a relatively modern style by Chinese standards (most of its practitioners would be only sixth or seventh generation students), its roots can be traced back to the Shaolin temple and as such, the knowledge it contains can give a vital insight into the teachings of the original Shaolin martial arts.
Now that a member of the Chan family is in a position to speak out and offer his family knowledge to the world, it is hoped that others in the Choy Lee Fut fraternity worldwide will rally to his call and help to strengthen and to spread this system of authentic Shaolin martial arts.
Chen Yong Fa
My name is Chen Yong Fa, and I am a fifth generation direct descendant of Chan Heung – the founder of Choy Lee Fut. I was born in Kwangchow (Canton), China. At the age of four, my grandfather, Chan Yiu Chi, and my father,
Chan Wan Hon, taught me the art of Choy Lee Fut. By recalling conversations with elders of the family, and by reference to the writings of my ancestors, I hope to write briefly in this article the origins of Choy Lee Fut so that others may have a better understanding of our system of martial arts.
Chan Heung’s First Two Teachers My great-great-grandfather, Chan Heung was from the village Ging Mui2 in the district of Ngi Sai, the county of Sun Wui, in the Kwuntung province. From the age of seven, Chan Heung was taught martial arts by his uncle/village elder3, Chan Yuen Wu.
Although only a boy, Chan Heung was strong and quick to learn. He had a natural ability and quickly succeeded in gaining the affection of his uncle, who spared no effort in teaching him all that he knew. Within a few years Chan Heung’s kung fu had made such remarkable progress that he was invited to set up his own school for his uncle in the town of Sun Wui.
As time passed, and his reputation began to soar, he gained many students. One day he discovered that another instructor by the name of Lee Yau Shan had been invited to teach in the neighbourhood. Lee was a disciple of the Shaolin monk Jin Sin, and his skill was said to be formidable. Chan Heung, being strong willed and a lover of a good fight, decided to test his skills. He ambushed Lee as he was leaving a restaurant and tried to throw him to the ground by putting both his arms around Lee’s waist. However, Lee took the attack calmly, bent his knees slightly, and lowered his chi and centre of gravity in such a way that no matter how hard Chan
Heung tried, he could not make Lee budge. Lee then spun around, lifted his foot to trip and kick at the same time, and threw him yards away. Lee was rather curious about his assailant upon seeing that Chan Heung was able to leap up uninjured after his fall. Lee complimented Chan Heung, then demanded to know what school he belonged to, and the reason for attacking him in such a sneaky fashion rather than challenging him properly to a fight. Chan Heung felt ashamed, and replied that the attack was his own idea in an attempt to test the inadequacy of his own skill, and that he did not want to implicate his teacher for his own defeat. Lee, amused at this reply, left Chan Heung in his bewilderment.
Days later, Chan Heung learned that Lee had remarked that someone as young and strong as Chan Heung, with such intelligence and ability, was wasting his life and talent because vanity prevented him from improving his skill. Chan Heung then realised the truth, that there was no limit to the art of kung fu, and he immediately resigned from his post as Chief Instructor, enrolling in Lee’s school instead. Chan Heung was Lee’s disciple for five years, and took his skill to a new height.
The Monk Choy Fook
One day, Lee Yau Shan and Chan Heung heard of a recluse monk by the name of Choy Fook, who was living in a temple on Mount Law Fou. This monk was renown for his skill in Chinese medicine. Lee told Chan Heung that if the monk was so skilful in dit da (treatment of muscular and skeletal injuries), he must also be skilful in martial arts. Bitten by the bug of curiosity, Lee and Chan decided to visit this monk immediately. On reaching the temple gate, they encountered a man, old in years, yet tall and muscular with a penetrating gaze. He claimed that he was a disciple of monk Choy Fook and invited the two visitors to enter the temple and take some tea with him while waiting for his teacher’s return from his daily rounds.
Lee Yau Shan got up and walked to the side of the old man’s stone rice grinder … and kicked the rice grinder clean off the ground. The old man watched with amusement. He then walked up to the rice grinder and chopped off a corner of the top slab, pulverising it with his bare hands and throwing the powder in front of Lee.
While the two visitors were seated, the old man proceeded to chop the wood to boil the water, doing so with his bare hands4. Lee’s curiosity was aroused. He commented to Chan Heung that this old mans kung fu was quite good, and that if he was showing off for their benefit it meant they must reply with some of their own tricks. Lee got up and walked to the side of a stone rice grinder5 that was lying next to the temple steps. He first loosened the soil around the stone slabs, then stood back and kicked the rice grinder clean off the ground. The old man watched with amusement. He then walked up to the rice grinder and chopped off a corner of the top slab, pulverising it with his bare hands and throwing the powder in front of Lee, announcing that he was indeed Choy Fook and that the powder was a memento for intruders who did not behave in proper manner.
Lee, filled with respect for Choy Fook, thanked the old man and left immediately, leaving Chan Heung behind to deal with the situation. Being a guileless young man devoted to martial arts, Chan Heung realised that this was an opportunity to further his training under another teacher of superior skill. He immediately fell on his knees in front of the monk and begged Choy Fook to accept him as a disciple. Choy Fook surveyed Chan Heung in silence – taking in the young man’s mannerisms – and finally concluded that the request was a genuine one. He smiled and said to Chan Heung that if he wished to be a disciple he must obey the following three instructions or else he must leave immediately. These were the three instructions that Choy Fook ordered Chan Heung to obey:
1. Chan Heung must stay with him in the monastery for at least ten years until the end of his apprenticeship;
2. Chan Heung was forbidden to use his skills to kill of to maim, and must never be boastful of what he attained;
3. Chan Heung must kick the rice grinder back into its original resting place. 6
Much to Chan Heung’s delight the rice grinder fell back into its old hole easily, and he became Choy Fook’s disciple.
For the next ten years, Choy Fook taught Chan Heung kung fu with great discipline and precision. Each new technique took days to learn, and Chan Heung had to master each new movement with speed, accuracy, power and understanding before the next could be taught. Chan Heung found his kung fu improved remarkably, and was very different to what it had been. The knowledge passed down by Choy Fook, whether bare fist techniques, the staff or wooden dummy training aids etc., was endless and full of subtle changes, like nature itself. A combination of hard work, dedication, natural ability, and the karma of a good teacher, enabled Chan Heung to complete his training within the ten-year period.
Choy Fook Bids Chan Heung Farewell
One day Choy Fook hosted a banquet for Chan Heung and proceeded to bid him farewell. During the festivities Choy Fook told Chan Heung of his own origin. He was originally from Fukien Shaolin monastery, which had been destroyed by fire. While he was in Fukein, the Ching army invited 36 monks from his monastery to help quash the rebellion in Tibet, which had been going on for three years. It took three months to get Tibet under control again. Fearing the martial prowess of the Shaolin monks, the Ching government invited the monks to join the court as monk soldiers. When the monks refused, the Ching government, fearing future opposition, decided to eradicate the entire Shaolin monastic order by putting the torch to the whole temple complex on the 25th day of the 7th moon in the 11th year of the reign of Emperor Jung Jing7. All save six monks perished; Choy Fook was one of them and escaped with his head on fire. He was nicknamed ‘rotten head’ because of the burn scar on his head. Later on he made his way to Mount Law Fou in Kwangtung province where he went into hiding.
Choy Fook admonished Chan Heung that if one truly wanted to follow the way of the Shaolin, it was necessary to seek the way of the Buddha, as well as learning Chinese medicine and the ‘six magic spells’.
Choy Fook continued to say that Shaolin fighting arts had originated with the founder of the monastery, Monk Dart Mor (Bodhidhama) and later on had been improved by Monk Gok Yuen and others. Masters from outside the monastery had also been invited to contribute their skills. These included the famous Lee Sau and Bak Juk Fung. With time and constant experiment Shaolin fighting arts were further refined. Six years of Shaolin kung fu practice could be regarded as a small accomplishment; ten years could be regarded as a qualified accomplishment. Choy Fook said that he was not quite sure whether it was Chan Heung’s good fortune or his (meaning Shaolin martial arts) that Chan Heung had succeeded in learning all that he could teach, since he was quite resigned to the fact that he might die in this wilderness, taking his art with him to the grave. Although he was quite willing to send Chan Heung home, Choy Fook continued to say that to be a true follower of Shaolin, one must also seek the way of the Buddha as well as learning the ‘six magic spells’. Hearing that, Chan Heung decided to stay for an extra two years until he was ready to leave the monastery in the twelfth year.
At the time of his farewell, Chan Heung asked his teacher to spell out his future. Choy Fook told him that although he was not meant for the life of a court official (by sitting the martial examination), he and his offspring would be leaders of men as long as the Shaolin tradition was kept alive.
Amongst other advice given, Choy Fook gave Chan Heung a double couplet which time has proven to be authentic:
“The dragon and the tiger met in heaven, to revive our Shaolin ways”
“Teach you followers righteousness, let each generation uphold and enliven”
When Chan Heung bid his final farewell, he was accompanied by three of his brothers in learning all the way down the mountain slope. They were Jeung Tin Cheung (nicknamed Courageous Jeung), a monk from Mount Law Fou by the name of Tung Kwan, and a man from his own Sun Wui county called Chan Chung Nin.
Chan Heung Returns to the Sun Wui County
Chan Heung returned to his village and set up a clinic to treat the sick and help the poor. Later he was persuaded by the elders of the family to set up a school in the village ancestral hall. He called the place Hung Sing Gwoon and his clinic Wing Sing Tong. At the time he reasoned that all the major branches of Chinese martial arts originated from the Shaolin temple, such as famous styles under the family names of Hung, Lau, Choy, Lee, and Mok. Seeing that his brand of kung fu was also taught by the teachers with the surnames of Choy, Lee and Chan, he thought it would be right to synthesise their teachings and give it a name that would commemorate and honour their deeds, instead of selfishly calling it the Chan style. He chose the name Choy Lee Fut, giving the explanation: Choy in the honour of monk Choy Fook, who gave him much of his knowledge; Lee, in honour of Lee Yau San, and at the same time commemorate other pioneers such as Lee Sau, who came and expanded and improved the range of Shaolin martial arts; and Fut, meaning Buddha, to commemorate the Buddhist origins of the art, since all his three mentors could trace their linage back to the Shaolin temple.
Three years later, at the invitation of his uncle and the local overseas Chinese association, Chan Heung left his village for the Northern Ocean.8 There he taught the overseas Chinese for three years, followed by three years in Hong Kong to teach his local country compatriots. He then travelled to the Southern Ocean (Malaysia and Singapore) to teach in the Kwangtung Association for several years. Upon his return to Mount Law Fou to visit Choy Fook he discovered that the monk had died during his absence at the age of one hundred and twelve.9 Interpreting that fact that he had not been able see his teacher one more time before his death as a meaningful sign, he chose to do penance by undertaking the task of editing all his learning into one book in order that there would be a written record for posterity, and thus preventing the possibility of misinterpretation and ambiguity creeping into the art. He named the manuscript ‘The Manual of Choy Lee Fut Fighting Arts’. 10
My great-great-grandfather passed this art onto his sons, Koon Pak and Si Long (also known as On Pak). Si Long received only the medical knowledge and the magic formula. He died early without a male heir.
My great-grandfather, Koon Pak, passed the art on to his son Yiu Chi and he in turn passed it onto my father, Wan Hon. Yet it is mainly through the efforts of the first three generations that the art of Choy Lee Fut has spread far and wide throughout China, Hong Kong, Macau, south east Asia and the western world.
My father died in Canton in 1979, now it is my turn to carry on the family’s tradition of propagating the art of Choy Lee Fut.
Written by Chen Yong Fa
Translated by Howard Choy
Most of the material in this article comes from an unpublished manuscript written by Chan Yiu Chi, aptly entitled ‘The history of Choy Lee Fut’. It was partly historical and partly autobiographical. The original handwritten copy is still kept by the family. This manuscript was never meant for publication, as there were too many controversial recordings of historical events. It was written for private circulation within the family and to trusted disciples only.
No rigorous or scholarly attempt has been made in this article to translate Chinese names and places by any established method. It is strictly a private brand of transliteration in Cantonese.
A parental uncle and a family elder related through the bloodline in earlier generations.
Chan Heung was soon to discover that it was a daily training routine to chop wood with one’s bare hands.
A stone grinder consists of two circular slabs of granite approximately 24 inches in diameter and 9 inches deep joined together with a dowel piece in the centre. Rice is put between the two slabs of stone and ground to flour for cooking.
The third request was designed to test Chan Heung’s strength and at the same time sought a heavenly mandate for Chan Heung’s discipleship.
The year mentioned is approximately 1734
The Northern Ocean usually refers to the area around Shantung and Hopei provinces of Northern China. Further reading of the manuscript as mentioned in note 1 gave the impression the place referred to is in fact America.
When Chan Heung first met Choy Fook, his teacher was already ninety-six years old.
The manual is in fact a collection of ‘formula’ for the vast varieties of hand and weapon forms of Choy Lee Fut and each clearly notated in the following manner: i. the name or the sequence of the movement; ii. direction of the body in relation to the east, iii. a description of the movement of the upper body; iv. a description of the movement of the lower body; v. an explanation of its practical use.