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Chow Gar Uncovered: Peeling Back the Layers of a Martial Myth

Chow Gar uncovered

Chow Gar Uncovered

Chow Gar uncovered

Introduction to Chow Gar History

The history of the system is known in several different forms, and at the same time, there are theories about the development of Hakka styles based on historical data (1).

Without claiming to be exhaustive, relying on the experiences gained from our own practice, we would like to make a thought experiment here, to decipher what the origin story of Tung Kong Chow Gar kung-fu might mean.

The Founding Legend of Chow Ah Naam

Let’s look at the story briefly: The founder, Chow Ah Naam, entered the Fujian (Fukien) Shaolin Monastery after some complications. One of his fellow monks regularly beat him and humiliated him.

Chow once, while wandering in the forest, noticed a rickshaw, went there and saw a praying mantis fighting with a small bird and was surprised to see the insect kill the bird (picture). 

Chow Gar uncovered

Chow Gar uncovered: mantis & bird

Chow Gar uncovered

He was impressed by the combativeness of the praying mantis and the way it fought with the bird, he realized that this fighting style could be hidden from the mantis (2). He took the mantis with him to the monastery and secretly observed it in his room, provoking it so that he could study how it fights.

Practical Application and Recognition

He put into practice what he saw and practiced in secret. The next time he came into conflict with that particular monk again, he confronted him and defeated him this time.

The abbot of the monastery saw the scene and also noticed that Chow was trying something new (some versions of the story state that the abbot had been watching him for some time, as his humble demeanour and respectful behaviour had endeared him to him (3)).

After the incident, he accepted him as his direct disciple and taught him the secret Shaolin power-building method, which made Chow very strong. He became famous for how strong his arms were (4).

Critical Examination of the Legend

Only the main motifs of the story have been described here (you can read the more detailed version here). It could have happened that way, but there are some details that we say are questionable.

The fact that this is more of a topos than a precise origin story of a style is also supported by the fact that there are several styles with the same or similar history, only the names and locations differ.

The Realism of Martial Techniques

What is also thought-provoking in the story is that if someone tries to use the movements and “techniques” of an animal in a fight, that alone is not enough to succeed, especially if it is an experienced opponent.

It is possible to imagine a situation where someone performs such an impossibly unusual movement that the opponent freezes in shock, but this does not seem a very likely scenario and basing a style on this supposed reaction does not seem realistic either.

Questioning the Narrative’s Consistency

An even more interesting question is, if what Chow developed was so effective, why did the abbot teach him a strength training methodology (which then made him strong)? If he was weak, how could he win?

It also raises the question that if he was weak and still won, wasn’t the great thing about what he devised was that the weak should defeat the strong?

And then we can ask again: if this was the case, why did it have to be strengthened with a special training method (which would have made the style he developed redundant, wouldn’t it)…etc.

Reflecting on the Significance of Martial Parables

These stories probably contain details that actually existed during the development of a style, but they seem much more like fairy tales and parables based on similar motifs.

According to the stories, Chow Gar is an approx. 150-year-old style, but the strength training methodology, which was considered secret, was older than that (even according to the story).

Concluding Thoughts: Cover Stories and Metaphors

However, we think this is more of a cover story (5) and a metaphor. If Chow Ah Naam (or anyone else) learnt anything from the praying mantis, it wasn’t a technical repertoire (6) but his attitude to the fight, his combativeness and speed, the lightning-quick, explosive movements from rest that are also powerful.

The latter is very difficult to imitate, for this you need a training method that can be used to achieve this. This would also explain why, according to the story, the abbot taught him this power-building method.

Looking Ahead: The Truth Behind Chow Gar

Although the latter version seems more realistic, we would go even further and say that the literal interpretation of the story does not stand up even in this form (7).

In the next section, we will continue with why we think so.

Chow Gar uncovered

Chow Gar uncovered

Footnotes

1) The Hakkas came from the north to the south and if they brought their training methods and styles with them, which is very likely, then this (also) completely contradicts the northern-southern style division invented approx. a hundred years ago (we will write about this in another article).

2) The wording also suggests technical innovation, but it is more likely that he recognized fighting spirit, strength and speed as important elements of combat.

3) Such elements of the story also suggest that we are dealing with a tale. A desirable pattern of behaviour that is emphasized in our system also appears here.

4) We think this is the point. If the story is a tutorial, then we can also assume that the way this important moment is embedded in a long story, the essence is also hidden in our system.

5) In the historical approach, one version is that the Hakkas simply called their style the Southern Praying Mantis kung fu in order to hide their connection to the Ming Dynasty from the watchful eyes of the ruling regime.

6) The praying mantis (and we really like it) actually has one tactic and one technique, but it is fast and very strong for its size. If we accept that the story has something to say, then this is it.

7) Studying Buddhist practices, it is also possible to imagine a spiritual explanation of animal imitation (in the case of our system and in kung-fu in general as well), but we do not want to deal with this aspect in this series of articles.

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