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The White-eyebrow Shaolin system is also known as Bai-mei, Bok-mei, Bak-mei, and Pak-mei. White-eyebrow is the common referent of the other names; they are synonyms. They are spelled differently depending on which dialects of the Chinese language are adopted. For example, Bai-mei is spelled in accordance with the pinyin system of Mandarin, the national language of China; while others, in accordance with the different dialects of south China.

The White-Eyebrow Shaolin System

by Wong Yeu-Quang, Ph.D.

Chang Lai-chuen (1889-1964) was the modern founder of the White-eyebrow system. Both his disciple Ng Nam-king and his youngest son Chang Beng-fat had taught me until they died, and I have practiced the White-eyebrow system of Chinese martial arts for almost 40 years. Ng Nam-king authorized me to teach in 1972 while I was teaching at the University of Singapore; Chang Beng-fat permitted me to propagate this system to the United States students in 1977. For years Ng was elected head of the White-eyebrow system in Hong Kong while Chang Beng-fat and his older brother, Beng-lum held the Permanent Supervisor Positions. In 1973, I was appointed to be the system's official representative to Singapore. In short, I have been part of the mainstream of White-eyebrow system for some forty years.

In recent years I have seen many oversimplifications, misrepresentations and confusions concerning White-eyebrow's origin, value framework, methods of training, and applications. As an attempt to correct some major misrepresentations of our system, and to present a simple understanding of what we do, I will give a broad outline of White-eyebrow as a modern Shaolin system.

History

White-eyebrow developed from Chan Buddhism some 300 years ago. According to legend, the senior of the Five Shaolin Elders was Bai-mei. He was so called on account of his silver eyebrows. He taught Chan monk Kwong-wei. Kwong-wei taught Chan monk Jok Fah-yuen who in turn taught monk Lien-sang and Chang Lai-chuen.

The word Jok, as in Jok Fah-yuen, has been most misunderstood. It has been used as one of the two family names of Buddhists in China. It refers to the ancient name of India: Tien-chu and Chuen-tu. Jok is the shortened form of Tien-chu and Chuen-tu on account of Chu and Tu as used in the Chinese language of the Han and Tang periods (202BC-907AD). It reminded all Buddhists that Buddha came from India. Another common surname for the Buddhists is Sak. It is the shortened version of Sakyamuni, the name of Buddha, founder of Buddhism. For example, the Shaolin monks have Sak as their generic family name; in their given names, the second word indicates their generation in the genealogical chart, and the third word is the given name (for instance, Sak Su-i).

Shaolin as used in martial arts circles refers to its origin at the Buddhist spiritual site in one of the highest mountains of China, called Song, in the province of Henan. It was first built in 495 AD. In 527 AD, an Indian monk named Boddhidarma came to settle down in this monastery, preaching Chan [Zen in Japanese] Buddhism. He was given credit for two developments: the beginnings of Chinese Chan Buddhism and Shaolin martial arts. As the fountainhead, the Shaolin Temple is one of the most important places on earth. The residents and elders are Chan monks who produce disciples in Chan Buddhism. There are also Taoist temples on Song mountain who produce Taoist priests. The monks do not produce priests and vice-versa because these are different faiths with separate doctrines. In Chinese, there are three different characters referring to three different spiritual sites: Chih refers to the temple for Buddhist monks and nuns, kuan to the Taoist temple, and mu to the temple for cultural hero like Confucius, Lord Kuan, and for other deities such as gods of household or kitchen. The principal icons or objects or worship in the Buddhist temples are Buddha in his various forms, and his disciples. The Taoist temples present Lao Tzu and his two other transformed spiritual bodies. Their costumes are different: the laymen of religions should find the monks and nuns baldheaded with burned marks on their head; the Taoists keep their hair. Their spiritual goals are different: the nirvana [total void] is the ultimate destination for the Buddhists' spiritual path. The ideal spiritual world for the religious Taoists resembles a similar hierarchy for all the spiritual beings who are ruled over by one Supreme Lord after they have purified their human elements and ascended to the spiritual pure land.

In the area of martial arts, I emphasize the training differences at the elementary level between the Shaolin and Taoist approaches. The Shaolin approaches are marked by four concepts: escape, strike, hopping, and control. In the Taoist approaches it is the conquest of softness over stiffness, and stillness over excessive actions. Having presented the visible important differences between the Buddhists and the Taoists, I hope the readers find it difficult to accept our system founder of White-eyebrow as a Taoist priest.

As a footnote to the history of White-eyebrow Shaolin, I would like to mention one interesting point. Before Chang's family moved to Kowloon, Hong Kong, in 1959, Chang taught this system as a form of Emei Shaolin because his teacher, monk Fah-yuen, came from Sichen province of China where Emei mountain was the center of Buddhism and Shaolin kung-fu. He named his 18 schools as sites of Li-chuan Kuo Shu. This name means sites of national martial arts for the commendable effort in preserving life. The name sounds close to his given name (Lai-chuen). In this way, he identified himself with his school and revealed the starting point of Chinese Shaolin training in the strong sense of survival, which is shared by all members of the animal kingdom. Ignorant of this chapter of modern White-eyebrow history, some writers present White-eyebrow (Emei Shaolin before 1959) as one Taoist element of their system. After reading the relevant facts here, I hope they will be more accurate in future accounts of our system.

To summarize: White-eyebrow had its origin in the Shaolin Temple of Chan Buddhism. In its lineage up to Chang's death, it did not embrace any trace of Taoism. In its mainstream development since Chang, we have not been able to document any trace of Taoism.

Framework of Values

As adepts of Chan Buddhism, Shaolin monks have been concerned with building a healthy framework of values in their disciples. A few important elements of values are: calmness in the face of life and death, right direction of mind and conduct, avoidance of evil thought and conduct, compassion for all living creatures, courage, honesty, self-discipline, self-respect and honor in steering away from evil temptations or their inclinations. White-eyebrow Shaolin requires practitioners to guide their conduct in reference to Buddhist ethics without adhering to its religious rituals. In short, the selected disciples of White-eyebrow should stick to a simple moral life of compassion. They are advised to back off from an insignificant fight.[1]  However, for the reasonable survival of themselves and other human beings worthy of their effort, they are encouraged to commit themselves without reservation to apply their training.[2]  The rule for recruiting students is that they have a good moral character. If they cannot meet this requirement, they will not be taught. From this value requirement, the term forbidden art is derived.

It is in this framework of values that White-eyebrow practitioners develop their mental and physical fitness and ability for self-control and, by implication, their strong commitment to maintaining social justice.

Training

Selected students of White-eyebrow kung fu follow a prescribed training program. Chang Lai-chuen had embraced three different Shaolin programs, namely, Master Sek's Shaolin, Master Lee's Shaolin and Master Lum's Shaolin (the Dragon style) before he acquired White-eyebrow's training. According to Ng Nam-king, his teacher Chang Lai-chuen, in honor of his early roots selected one of the best sets or patterns from each of the three sources and made them part of the program he designed for his students of the fifth generation. This set of three patterns we identify as the external sets.

In contrast, the internal sets are ones he learned from monk Fah-yuen. The internal sets are also called White-eyebrow proper and include the following sequence: Straight Forward [Chik Bo Bui Tze Kuen], Nine Step Push [Gau Bo Tui Kuen], Mor-kiu [Sup Bart Mor Kiu Kuen], Tiger from the Woods [Mount Foo Chui Lum Kuen] and Five Elements.[3]  The last was the most guarded set. As far as I know, there are only two survivors of the fifth generation who actually received it from Chang Lai-chuen: his son Beng-lum and disciple Chen Dor of New York. Both are in their seventies. The external sets are: Cross [Sap Gee Kau Da Kuen], Sam Mun [Man] and Dragon [Ying Jow Nim Kuen]. Weapons are considered the extension of bare-hand/open-hand training.

After students have succeeded in mastering all the internal and external sets, they should exhibit a unified body supported by their inner structural tensions. In White-eyebrow terms, they show indication of their six powers[4] simultaneously at work. After reaching this stage of competence, they will be taught the guarded Shaolin meditations/internal breathing methods to enhance their mental readiness for the ultimate development of the power of tremor, a unique feature of high level White-eyebrow training. This type of energy has been neglected by the majority of our practitioners since Chang Lai-chuen's death. However, this kind of power still exists in our system.

For various reasons, few White-eyebrow students have completed Chang Lai-chuen's prescribed program. One of the factors was that the majority were given access only to Straight Forward and Nine Step Push of the internal set, but not much beyond. Only a very small number of his students learned up to the Mor-kiu and beyond. But they were given much greater access to the external sets. Therefore, after Chang's death, we have found many partial White-eyebrow programs available to the public. For instance, Nine Step Push is offered as the first of the advanced Bak-mei sets by a Wing-chun instructor. In fact, Straight Forward should be the first of its kind.

I hope with this basic information one can assess how closely a White-eyebrow school's training program comes to the authentic source, namely, the whole White-eyebrow Shaolin system handed down through Chang Lai-chuen, his three sons (Beng-lum, Beng-sum and Beng-fat) and a tiny number of disciples such as Ng Nam-king and Chen Dor.) I call the recipients of Chang Lai-chuen's complete prescribed program the mainstream practitioners. This is not to say that students of the partial program are not good fighters, but compared to mainstream practitioners, they lack certain refinements - like the sudden surge of the power of tremor, when needed. However, examples such as Yu-kung Man [School of Softness] have evolved from White-eyebrow and proved respectable in martial arts circles.


Footnotes

[1]  "At the edge of raising my striking hand, I back off and let the hostile person think he has won.  I do so not because I am not capable of winning, but so in abiding by my teacher's instruction in forgiveness."

[2]  The four important things for students' success are: first, find a good teacher; second, practice hard; third, readiness for a fight; fourth, full commitment/absence of kindness.

[3]  Ng's curriculum, as well as Chang Beng-fat's and Beng-sum's, offered the five-elements as the token of completion of their programs.  But Chang Beng-lum's does not list it.

[4]  They are: (1) the head, (2) the neck, (3) frontal part of body emphasizing the chest and abdomen, (4) the back and spine, (5) two hands, (6) two legs.  They are connected up with clenching the teeth.